"Who's there?" is the first thing we read in Shakespeare's Hamlet. It encapsulates the topic of the entire play. "Where are you?" is the first question asked by God in the Torah (Genesis 3:9). From a metaphysical point of view, it captures the topic of the entire Bible. Paying attention to questions is a clever way to get to the heart of any matter. As the physicist Isaac Rabi used to recall, when his mother greeted him at the end of the school day, she always asked, "Did you ask good questions?"
In his excellent business primer, Leadership Without Easy Answers,1 Ron Heifetz defines leadership as the ability to ask the right questions. This week's Torah portion, Lech L'cha, gives us the chance to ponder Abraham's leadership potential and why God chooses him to begin the enterprise that will lead to Judaism and the Jewish people.
I think I know why God chose Abraham: he asked the right question. What is that question? I will tell you, but first a digression.
When I was finishing rabbinical school and, along with my fellow students, looking for a job as an assistant rabbi, one senior rabbi impressed us by asking an interesting and unique question: What was our favorite midrash? (Midrash is the ancient rabbinical enterprise of inquiring into the hidden meaning of the Torah, often extracting a relevant nugget of wisdom.) I knew I would be writing a dissertation on such commentaries and sought the opinion of the most brilliant rabbinical student I knew. His answer became my answer (although not in the interview, naturally) because it is a perfect answer.
What was his favorite midrash? It is from an ancient collection of sermons on the Book of Genesis (B'reishit Rabbah 39:1). The midrash wants to address the question of why God chose Abraham. As was typical of the time, the author of the midrash, a Rabbi Isaac, uses a parable. A man is traveling to different towns and he comes across a building in flames. He asks if there is a manager of the building (and if so, why is the building in flames)? The owner of the building shouts down from an upper floor and declares, "I am the owner of the building." Rabbi Isaac continues: Abraham was like that traveling man: he saw the world on fire (with injustice) and asked if no God cared. God then says to Abraham: "I am the owner of the world." Presumably God is asking Abraham for help in correcting the injustices of humanity.
An important point in this midrash is the word for building. It is birah. What is a birah? There are those who would translate it as "palace" and render the "burning" as simply being ablaze with light. In other words, Abraham is a philosopher, seeing the enlightened design of the world and intuiting the existence of a benevolent creator.
I disagree with this interpretation. I favor the rendering of birah as something radically different than a palace. It was a common, large building in which urban dwellers lived in small, private apartments. It was neither grand nor beautiful but it was tall for its time, dangerously tall. The Romans called it an insula. We would label it a tenement.2
Abraham, then, is taking a serious look at a world in which poor people suffer injustice and sometimes even death because no one seems to care for them. So Abraham asks the big question, not so different than the beginning of Hamlet:
"Who is there?" And does anyone care?
Like Willy Wonka whose fears are alleviated when a repentant Charlie kindly returns the gift of a special candy ("So shines a good deed in a weary world"),3 God presumably is relieved that a human has finally asked the question that will make all the difference. "I care," says God, "and now it's time to get to work. But I am helpless to put out the flames myself. So I will depend on you."
The most important lesson from this powerful midrash is that the ancient Rabbis were struggling with their belief in God, and no wonder, when we consider the harsh reality they faced living under the rule of ancient Rome. For many other reasons, including the Holocaust, we, too, ponder the existence of God. I would argue that our task is not so much to attempt an answer to this impossible question. The right question is not "Is there a God?" but "Does God care?" The answer is to realize that even if we believe in a God who cares—and I do—we are the ones who must aid God. To paraphrase William Styron in his book, Sophie's Choice, "Where was God in Auschwitz?" is trumped by the question, "Where was humankind?"
"How odd of God to choose the Jews," goes the silly refrain. The best retort: "It wasn't odd; the Jews chose God." Maybe so, but I like to think that God did choose Abraham as the leader for this new enterprise based on his asking the right question. And hence the call of Abraham becomes the call to Abraham.
The world, sadly, is still burning. Does anyone care?
1. Leadership Without Easy Answers, Ronald A. Heifetz, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998, p. 1
2. See "The Call of Abraham: A Midrash Revisited," by Paul Mandel. Prooftexts, Vol 14, no. 3 September, 1994, pp. 267-284
3. Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Wolper Productions, 1971
Rabbi Edwin C. Goldberg is the Senior Rabbi of Temple Sholom of Chicago, IL. He is the coordinating editor of the new High Holiday prayer book, Mishkan HaNefesh (published by CCAR). He has a doctorate in Hebrew Letters from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and has published five books, most recently Love Tales from the Talmud (published by URJ Press) and Saying No and Letting Go: Jewish Wisdom on Making Room for What Matters Most (published by Jewish Lights).