Normally I like to ease into words of Torah with the classic rabbinic entry point of a story or a joke or something to wet your intellectual appetite, but with this week’s parsha, parshat lech lecha, there’s been a deep and fundamental question that has been on my mind for weeks, and I have to just start right in the meat of things.
The question is simple: why Abraham?
God could choose any human being to be the progenitor of the Jewish people. God could select any set of qualities and attributes to lay down as the fundamental building blocks of a people - by selecting a person with the exact right characteristics and values that would inspire the tribe of Israel. God, a theoretically all-powerful and all-knowing being, would know exactly what Abraham would do in the future - what his future acts would be, and why those acts would inform the next 3,000 years of Jews in how they ought to act in the world. So, why Abraham? What were the qualities that made him worthy to be the patriarch of the world’s oldest monotheistic religion?
The first and simplest answer was that he answered the call. God said ‘lech lecha - go, go yourself’, and Avraham went. He was willing to give up everything and start over on a whim; God said ‘I will make your name great’ and Abraham said ‘Ok. Sounds good.’ How many other people in a similar situation would have lacked the bravery, the faith, the sheer madness to simply say ‘yes’ to an adventure into the unknown at the urging of an unseen deity? Perhaps this is the embodiment of the phrase ‘Fortune favors the brave’, or maybe better the quote from Aaron Sorkin- ‘decisions are made by those that show up’. Abraham showed up, and that level of boldness and initiative is a characteristic that God desires in the creator and first CEO of Judaism.
So for one, a central characteristic of Abraham is that he is brave.
There are a couple of paradigmatic stories of Abraham’s life that give us some of his other key characteristics, and hint for us at the answer of ‘why Abraham?’
There’s the story of the Akeidah, which we all know well from its recitation on the second day of Rosh Hashanah - of Abraham bringing his only son, Isaac, up the mountain to be sacrificed. This story displays Abraham’s faithfulness in God, that he would sacrifice his only son because he believed so completely in God.
There’s the story of Abraham purchasing the tomb of the Machpelah, in which they offer to give him the land but he insists on paying for it, showing him to be both honest and shrewd, since he wants to be able to rightfully claim ownership to the tomb in perpetuity.
There’s the story of Sarah asking Abraham to expel Hagar, and Abraham asking God what to do, and God instructing Abraham to do it. This is a problematic story for another sermon. But I think here we can use it in one small respect to show that Abraham, although we might ultimately conclude he is flawed, is certainly obedient.
There’s Abraham circumcising himself as a sign of the covenant between him and God, showing that following Mitzvot - commandment - is another characteristic he has.
There’s the story of Abraham opening his tend to strangers and feeding them, demostrating his kindness and hospitality.
So we’ve got that Abraham is faithful; he is obedient; he is bold; he is brave; he is shrewd; he is obedient; he is kind.
But, here’s the thing - none of that is special. Noah was obedient - God told him to build an ark, and he did. Rebecca is kind * and * bold- she gives water to Abraham’s servant Eliezer and then waters Eliezer’s camels. Jacob is shrewd - he deceived both Esau and Laban and ended up with wealth and flocks. Leah is faithful - she suffered greatly and yet stay steadfast in her faith in God. Joseph has the power of prophecy. Isaac was a peacemaker that settled a dispute with Avimelech.
All of these people would make great first Jews - intrepid pioneers - paradigmatic individuals that broke the mold and in so doing become the mold by which we measure who we are as a people. None of them are the first Jew, and none of these characteristics, as I have described, are special enough to merit them being the first Jew.
There is a story that I left out, and it is a virtually unique story. It is the story of a man speaking truth to power.
In next week’s Torah portion we will read in parshat vaerah about Abraham at Sodom and Gomorrah. We will learn that God is anxious - a strange thing for an all power Divine being to feel, but perhaps if Jews are a nervous and anxious people it’s only because God Godself can sometimes be a bit of a nebbishy Woody Allen / Jerry Seinfeld style worry wort - but I digress. We learn that God is worried about revealing to Abraham that he is going to destroy the cities. That’s because of what Abraham ultimately does - he stops God. He stops God by asking the simple but critical question ‘Is this justice?’
Abraham has the brazenness and the temerity to question God’s actions - a moment that is nearly unprecidented in Torah. In fact the medival commentators note it when we look back several weeks to parshat Noach when they ask the question ‘why is Noach called ‘righteous in his generation’, and not simply righteous?’ Because when Noah was told of the destruction of others, he simply built a boat and saved himself. Abraham, on the otherhand, when told of the destruction of others at the hand of God, stopped and said, ‘really? Is this really how it’s going to be?’
I’m not the only one who notices how exceptional and out of character this moment is in Torah.
Abraham’s unique characteristic in this instance is defiance; it is questioning; it is fearlessness - on behalf of others that he doesn’t even know - in fealty to a principle, and against his own best interest.
It is this notion that the great hasidic master Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Pshischa notes in his comment to this story in the Torah. He writes
For good or for ill, this characteristic resonates me on a deep level, because throughout my rabbinic career, it has come to define me.
It is why, in my first rabbinic interview at a synagogue in Dallas, I told the interview committee that I would perform gay and lesbian weddings even though I knew that was likely to be an unpopular position. It was a really good paying job. The senior rabbi didn’t like that I said that. I didn’t get that job.
It is why, when a wealthy parent at the day school leaned on me and my boss and his boss to get me to change her daughters grade in my class from a B+ to an A-, even though she didn’t deserve it, I said no.
It is why I took political positions in Denver on important moral issues regarding Israel that did not toe the party line or endear me to certain elements of the community - elements that eventually went on a full-blown organized campaign to get me fired, a campaign that ultimately succeeded if only because the head of the day school got tired of fielding complaints from members of the far-right who did not think I was suitably pro-Israel enough, because I had the temerity to express the moral opinion that perhaps the Palestinians deserve to be treated like human beings.
It is why, in 2016 in a sermon exploring the topic of the moral imperatives a Jew should carry into the voting booth, a certain multi-millionaire member of my congregation in Steamboat Springs gathered his family in a huff and walked out because he found the sermon too pointed and too political, although I merely recited some of the key imperatives of our religious doctrine - truth, morality, and the importance of caring for the stranger and the immigrant.
It is also why a few months ago I was extremely proud of our own Rabbi Adelson. In a follow up to another sermon, he noted that some members of the congregation were upset with him because he was, on occasion, too political. This specific occasion was in regard to immigrants and how they should or should not be treated when they enter the US seeking asylum. Rabbi Adelson expressed the position that Torah is a book of action and doing right by the other - it is a religion that commands us to get off the benches of the beit midrash and take to the streets to demand justice in the face of wickedness.
Let me say it another way. We are a sacred moral community. Our Torah is a book of actions, not a rallying point for mumbling in an ancient tongue while wearing the garb of our grandfathers and gathering for a shtickle of herring afterwards.
If a congregant does not believe in taking action against moral outrage, what they seek is not religion but a yacht club that serves herring.
I choose to be a part of a community of values and spiritual uplift.
A community that also serves herring.
And finally, all of that is why I was arrested three weeks ago at a protest downtown against the racist and bigoted rhetoric of our president. It was to counter the message we hear of blame and hate and scapegoating that has been spread for the past three years. I and my fellow protestors wanted to send a clear message to this president: until you denounce racists rather than call them very fine people; until you change your ways and stop stoking the flames of hate and division; you are not welcome in Pittsburgh. We are a city of bridges, not walls. This town lives by the values of Fred Rogers, not Steve Bannon.
We do not trade in the petty politics of fear and mistrust of our neighbors. Our president panders to the worst impulses of the human psyche - anger, and hate, and fear. He is the moral antithesis of all things Torah.
Rather, we love our neighbors.
His actions cannot be dismissed or ignored. It is why I was willing to go to jail - my first arrest - in order to send a message.
We as Jews choose to elevate, not denigrate our fellow human. To glorify and not belittle. And we desire at our very foundations to spread that love, trust, and positive energy to everyone while simultaneously counteracting all forces of negativity. We will stand up to the powerful, to God Godself, to make ourselves heard and stand for absolute justice, even if there might be great personal risk.
Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not Abraham. I’m just a guy that seeks to follow the path of Abraham, and has occasionally been bitten in the tuchus for it. Because I think that’s the only path; the path that our entire religion was created for.
To conclude, really, only two characters in the Torah have that story of being individuals that stood up to the most powerful - Abraham, and Moses. Moses, who saw a taskmaster beating a slave and would sooner commit murder than let injustice proceed. Moses, who stopped a genocide because a flaming bush told him to, and who went before the most powerful person on planet earth with nothing more than a promise from God and a nifty stick that could turn into a snake. Two humans that stood against injustice, and who become respectively the first Jew and the greatest prophet of our religion - by virtue of the example they set. Let’s walk in that path - the path of defiance, of questioning, of fearlessness. Shabbat Shalom.