Parshas Lech Lecha (5769)
Ask anyone with a basic knowledge of the Bible who the first Jew was. The answer, they'll tell you, of course, is our Patriarch Abraham.
Now what do we know about this Abraham? We know from the Torah that when Abraham was 75 years old, G-d spoke to him for the first time and commanded him to sever all ties with his homeland, family and birthplace, and to sojourn to an unspecified place, for which he would be blessed and given all sorts of great rewards. We know that upon reaching that place (the Land of Canaan), he experienced a famine, and was forced to relocate temporarily to Egypt.
We know that his wife Sarah was exceedingly beautiful (the Talmud has her listed among the Top Four All-Time Prettiest Women Ever - the other three are Rachav, Abigail, and Esther or Vashti!) and that the Egyptian head-of-state found her irresistible and took her into his private chambers, which, when word leaked out, erupted into sort of a scandal. We know that Abraham fought and won a battle against the Five Kings in order to rescue his nephew Lot, who had been captured by the opposing army. We know that at the age of 99, G-d again appeared to Abraham and commanded him to circumcise himself (kids, don't try this at home!!) and his entire household.
But what it doesn’t tell you about the first Jew to walk the earth is what exactly it was that Abraham was doing during his first 74 years that made him worthy of being spoken to by G-d and being promised that a great nation would descend from him.
For the inside scoop on Abraham: The Early Years, we must resort to the Oral Tradition which fills in the gaps. Abraham's father, Terach, was an idol manufacturer. (He had a store - Idols“R”Us. People would ask him, "How's business?” to which he would respond, "Thank gods!") Abraham challenged the alleged divinity of these idols. He realized that there must be a Supreme Being who designed the world - and that none of the idols his generation was worshipping were worth anything more than the scrap you could sell them for.
So Abraham "went public" and started preaching monotheism to all who would listen. Well, this didn't sit well with the establishment, who had been worshipping all types of deities like these for ten generations, since the Great Flood. So the world leader at the time, a fellow by the name of Nimrod, did the then-civilized thing to do - he threw Abraham into a burning furnace to get rid of him once and for all. Miraculously, Abraham came out unscathed, and managed to escape to a different part of the country.
We can gain from the above a small glimpse of the greatness of Abraham. Abraham literally risked his life for what he believed to be the truth - that there is a First Cause who lovingly created this beautiful world, and that our existence has meaning and purpose because it was brought about by a Meaningful and Purposeful Being. Because of who Abraham was, he merited all those good things mentioned above for himself and his descendants.
It was through Abraham's reasoning that he came to believe in the one true G-d. The question is how is it possible that in the ten generations preceding Abraham there was not even one person with sufficient intellect to be capable of reasoning to the truth and to reject the patent fallacy of idolatry? What did Abraham have that the others didn't?
To answer this question, explains Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski in his book Living Each Day, we must first analyze the concept of idol worship as it was practiced in ancient times. Are we to believe that myriads of people were so utterly stupid as to believe that a piece of wood that they fashioned into an image with their own hands was a god that had power to grant their requests?
The concept of idolatry is not that simple. What happened was that people realized that humans needed to be guided by some code of conduct, but they were insistent that whatever authority they accept upon themselves should not encroach upon their personal desires. They therefore developed a system of religion that they could manipulate to accommodate their needs. A man-made god served this purpose very well, because if conditions were such that the prevailing religion interfered too much with their lives, it was a minor task to fashion a new idol through which they could establish more accommodating rules. They could have reasoned to the truth just as our ancestor Abraham did, but the realization of the truth would have made them subject to the sovereignty of the true G-d, and this would have impinged on their conduct. Ultimately, it was their self-centeredness and self-indulgence that blinded them to the truth.
Abraham, unlike others in his generation, was a totally selfless individual. With his wife, Sarah, at his side, he ran a full-service hospitality center. Chesed (acts of loving kindness) was not just something Abraham did as a hobby, or when he was in the mood - it was his life!
The extent of Abraham's selflessness is evident in an episode that is recorded in the beginning of next week's Torah portion. G-d had just commanded him to circumcise himself and he was in tremendous pain from the procedure. So G-d made it a very hot day in order that no passersby would bother Abraham, and he would be able to rest and recuperate from his circumcision. Well, as it turns out, Abraham was more pained by the fact that he had no guests to bring into his tent, than he was from the actual circumcision! So G-d was forced to send Abraham's way the three angels, dressed like Arabs, in order to afford him the opportunity to perform his acts of chesed.
Pretty amazing, eh? That would be the modern-day equivalent of a person checking his mailbox in the morning, only to find some bills and junk mail, but no solicitations from any worthy organizations. Whereas most of us would probably breathe a sigh of relief and not give it another thought, Abraham would be driving to the post office to see if maybe, just maybe, there was some hospital or community organization that had sent him some mail asking him for a donation, but somehow it had gotten lost in the shuffle!
There are some people who are so selfless and giving that they are never on "vacation" from chesed and philanthropy. For them, a day doesn't go by in which they don't at least try to do something for someone other than themselves. Abraham was that type of person. And because he was a person of chesed, when he recognized the truth of the One G-d, he had no problem accepting G-d as his sovereign and subjecting himself to His will.
"Very nice", you're probably saying as you read this, "but what relevance does this have to the modern Jew? We don't worship idols anymore (well, maybe we do ... American Idol, Canadian Idol ... !) and we are definitely not going to cry if a few days go by and we're not solicited for needy causes! So what does all this have to do with us?”
The answer is ... it has everything to do with us!! Today, more and more people are embracing religion. Billboards all over the place are advertising G-d and the benefits of worshipping Him. But the basic message of all the advertising and hype is one thing - Worship G-d because it feels good! G-d as a pain reliever -that sells! In a magazine article I read recently, it quoted statistics from various case studies that showed how religion and faith in G-d greatly reduce stress and the physical illnesses that it causes. I was quite impressed with what I was reading, until I read the next paragraph. It added that, in the view of many doctors, yoga and meditation could produce equal results to that of religion!
In other words, the merits of believing in G-d and being more religious were not because of the truth it represents, but, rather, due to its ability to give us a sense of calm and a way to handle our stress.
Religion of this sort is good so long as it serves our needs - it keeps our families together (you remember the famous slogan - "A Family That Prays Together, Stays Together!"), it keeps the cardiologist away, it makes us feel good, etc. etc.
But what happens when our faith in G-d is tested and when our religion stops serving our needs? G-d is great for us as long as our faith in Him can prevent us from having stress-related heart attacks. But as soon as, G-d forbid, we actually suffer a heart attack, then all of a sudden, G-d is out. We'll just have to fashion another idol - this one obviously is not doing a good job. He's not serving me as He should, so he's fired! Next!!
True faith in G-d, the kind that involves reasoning to the truth of His existence and His active involvement in our lives and not merely subscribing to Him because "it makes me feel good", motivates us to serve Him and subjugate ourselves to Him - not the other way around. And when things aren't going so well in our lives, our faith in Him keeps us going. And even if, at times, it's not so easy to do the "religious thing" - to fast on Yom Kippur, to volunteer our time at the synagogue, to spend the extra money for some religious education for our kids - we do it anyway, because that's what G-d wants us to do.
But we can only hope to be so "religiously sophisticated" if we can learn to focus on others beside ourselves, just like our patriarch Abraham did. Then we will be much more deeply rooted in our faith in G-d, as it will not have been based merely on our own selfish desires, but rather on the truth of His existence and that He knows best.
So the next time we are prepared to do something based on our religious feelings, and then something comes up which makes our initial undertaking more difficult, we have to ask ourselves - were we just doing this only for how it makes us feel inside, or do we sense that it's what we know to be right and true and therefore must be carried out. In other words, who is our "religion" really serving - G-d or ourselves?
Tough questions and tough decisions ... but this is stuff we can't afford not to think about!