Why was Abram told to leave his home and family and go out into the wilderness? (Genesis 12:1) The Midrash, the vast collection of rabbinic reflections on the Torah, offers a number of answers. One rabbi, noting that Abram had already traveled from Ur Casdim, suggested that on the journey Abram had deduced something remarkable: Like a wanderer in a wilderness who, coming upon an illuminated city, concluded that someone must be in charge, so Abram on his way to Canaan looked at the world and concluded that there must be someone in charge, namely the One God. According to another rabbi, that conclusion forced Abram to leave his idolatrous homeland. Yet another rabbi saw Abram as a man who faced martyrdom for his new faith and, therefore, was compelled to leave his homeland. Still another rabbi compared Abram to a precious perfume whose aroma cannot be enjoyed until the stopper in the flask is removed; so Abram had to move from his homeland in order to have an effect on the world.
What can we learn from these various answers? First, that according to the rabbis, Abram/Abraham, the founder of Judaism, had reached his belief in God by rational means. Hence, from the very beginning, Judaism was and still is a religion committed to the use of the mind. The reason that Abraham could respond to God's command to go forth was because he was already convinced that there was a God. Second, unlike the gods of the pagans, the God of Abraham sought justice for all. That is why, in Genesis 18:25, Abraham could plead with God on behalf of all the people of Sodom and Gomorrah: Hashofet kol ha'aretz lo ya'aseh mishpat? "Shall not the Judge of all the world deal justly?" To champion a God of justice might well have put Abraham at risk and would certainly have put Abraham's descendants at risk. Even so, it was Abraham's task to go out into the world and tell people about God and what God demands of them.
To follow Abraham's lead, we, members of the people of and faith founded by Abraham, need to ask ourselves about our own commitment to the beliefs we say we embrace. Paganism in our time is not about worshipping little statues; today's pagans place things above people, and possessions above values. Sometimes, merely asking certain questions places us at risk; thinking of Abraham and those who followed, however, should convince us that some risks are worth taking. We Jews have an impact on society beyond our numbers; like perfume, it sometimes takes very little to make an impression and just a few committed people to make an impact.
At the time of this writing in 1997, Rabbi Leonard S. Kravitz was professor of Homiletics and Midrash at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, New York.
In Parashat Lech L'cha, Abram accepts God's challenge to go forth from his home and family on a journey with an unclear end and destination. Rabbi Kravitz cites several rabbinic interpretations that demonstrate just how Abram was able to take this step. Although Abram had faith in God, Rabbi Kravitz suggests that he reached this faith and justified his journey through rational means. This allowed Abram to take the risk to go forth, not being sure of the journey but trusting that his reasonable foundation for a belief in God would guide him along the way.
The midrash makes clear the rationality behind Abram's beliefs, for example, looking around at the world and upon seeing such a variety of things, figuring that Someone must be in charge. We all have moments in which we doubt our belief in God or are unsure of which paths to take in our lives. What beliefs allow us to journey through those times? The rabbis enable us to look at Abram as a model of someone starting such a journey with a strong foundation. Which other people in our tradition, or the world at large, help us glimpse a basis for a strong belief system that will help us take the risks that are worth taking?
A strong foundation or belief system is important for any of us as we make our way in life. As adults we know that much of our foundation is established in childhood. While our beliefs may change at different times, it is this childhood base that allows us to set forth in the world from our parents' home. Some children have an incredible sense of identity and self-worth, such as Abram when, according to the midrash, he challenged his father's belief in idols, but most children need our guidance and support. How can we create such a foundation for our children in our homes and as a community so that they have the ability and faith to set forth on their journeys with confidence and a clear sense of their Judaism?
Rabbi Kravitz refers to the midrash in which Rabbi Berekiah compares Abraham to a vial of myrrh that is tightly closed. As soon as it is opened, the fragrance is disseminated. For such a preciously short time, when children are growing up, in our homes and in our communities, we have the opportunity to nurture their identities and help them establish a foundation for their beliefs. They are like the myrrh in the vial. We can teach them, encourage them, and support them in a sheltered environment, but we hope that as soon as the vial is opened, when they go off into the world, this fragrance that has been so tenderly cultivated will help them on their journey and make it sweet. The midrash ends: Similarly, the Holy One, blessed be God, said to Abram, "Travel from place to place, and your name will become great in the world." Our greatest hope is that all our children, like Abram, will make great names for themselves and for the Jewish people as they go forth into the world.
Questions for Further Discussion
How do you think Abram's beliefs helped him on his journey?
What are some difficult paths that you have taken as an individual or as a family?
What beliefs have helped you on those journeys? What role has Judaism played in formulating those beliefs?
Abram was willing to take the risk and go forth. What risks would you be willing to take for the Jewish people?
At the time of this writing in 1997, Kathy Schwartz, RJE, was the educator at Congregation Har Hashem in Boulder, Colorado.
Lech L’cha, Genesis 12:1-17:27
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 91-117; Revised Edition, pp. 88-117;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 59-84