“Abraham, Father of the Jewish Nation”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Although the birth of Abram (Abraham’s original name) is recorded at the end of parashat Noah (Genesis 11:26), it is in parashat Lech Lecha that Abraham’s dynamic personality emerges and is developed.

Abraham is the first of the truly great biblical personalities and one of the greatest heroes in human history. So dominant is the role that Abraham plays, that the Torah devotes more than 13 chapters to his story (Genesis 12:1-25:10), while the entire creation of the world, the birth of humanity from Adam until Abraham–20 generations–are recorded in just 11 chapters. In fact, these first 11 chapters are, in effect, an introduction to the story of Abraham. With Abraham, a new era of human history dawns.

We need to ask: Who was Abraham, and why does he merit this exalted status?

The Torah tells us (Genesis 11:28) that Abraham’s family lived in Ur Casdim, Ur of Chaldees, an important cultural center in southern Mesopotamia. While it was a key economic hub, it was also a thriving center of idolatry. In approximately the year 1800 B.C.E., Terach, Abraham’s father, departs with his family from Ur Casdim and travels north along the Euphrates to settle in Haran. It was during this period that much national relocation took place, with several ancient tribes moving to Syria, Canaan, some reaching as far as Egypt.

While the Torah does not inform us of the reason for Terach’s original journey to Haran, we are told (Genesis 12:1) that Abraham received a Divine command to depart from Haran and go to a new land. As a consequence of his profound faith, Abraham is separated from his original land, from his birthplace, from the house of his father–from his entire past–and begins the journey toward the land of Canaan.

But why did G-d choose Abraham? Prior to his selection by G-d the Torah remains silent about Abraham’s past. However, what the Torah tells us after G-d reveals Himself to Abraham provides several clues about Abraham’s prior history.

Abraham was born and raised in a thoroughly idolatrous environment. He alone, at that time, recognized the existence of a single G-d, the Creator and Manager of the world. Abraham’s special relationship with G-d is evident in everything he says and does. It is this special relationship with G-d that is the apparent reason for G-d’s selection of Abraham.

The Torah alludes to Abraham’s noble personal qualities that were evident to all, even before he was chosen by G-d. Abraham demonstrated extraordinary compassion to his orphaned nephew Lot, who joined Abraham as he set out to journey to the land of Canaan. The fact that Lot preferred to travel to an unknown land with his uncle, rather than remain with his grandfather in Haran, is already an indication of Abraham’s uncommon goodness and generosity.

The Midrash fills in some of the missing parts of Abraham’s past. It tells of Abraham’s youthful resistance to idolatry, leading to smashing his father’s idols. Everything that Abraham does from that time on, represents not only the personal life story of an individual, but also serves as a sign for future generations. Abraham emerges not only as a major leader, but a veritable paradigm for humanity throughout the ages.

There are many aspects of Abraham’s life that are exceptional. He is a religious trailblazer, and the national father of the Jewish people and the Jewish national homeland. He, of course, fathers extraordinary descendants, his son, Isaac, and grandson, Jacob.

But most of all, it is the ethical character of Abraham that sets him apart from others. Although Abraham performed great acts of loving-kindness by caring for his orphaned nephew and taking him along to Canaan, when there is a misunderstanding between the shepherds of Abraham and Lot’s shepherds, (Genesis 13:5-11), Abraham refuses to engage in the quarrel. He suggests that in order to avoid further conflict, Lot should have the first pick of property in the land of Canaan, even though Abraham, the uncle, has far more rights to the choice land.

When Lot is later captured by Chedorlaomer, king of Elam, (Genesis 14:11-16), despite the estrangement, Abraham sets out immediately to rescue his nephew. We see that, in this instance, Abraham does not shy away from confrontation. In fact, he is eager to engage in battle–in order to protect those in need. Abraham shows great prowess as a military leader and strategist, but returns the booty that he captured, even though, as victor, he was entitled to keep it all. Refusing to take even a shoelace from the king of Sodom (Genesis 14:17-24), all Abraham asks for is payment for the men who fought alongside of him.

In Genesis 18, we again encounter Abraham, this time serving as the paradigm of hospitality, running to greet the guests and offering them relief from the brutal heat. He promises little, but delivers much–a truly sumptuous meal. He can’t do enough for them. He personally runs to the flocks to choose the animals for slaughter, and quickly begins to prepare the repast. He hastens to ask his wife to make bread and cakes for the guests.

The exalted ethical qualities of Abraham are boldly displayed in his impassioned appeal to G-d to show mercy on the people of Sodom. He not only asks G-d to protect Lot and his family (Genesis 18:23-33), but all the people of Sodom. Despite the fact that Abraham recognizes that he is “but dust and ashes,” (Genesis 18:27), he brazenly demands, (Genesis 18:23), “Ha’ahf tis’peh tzaddik im rasha,” Shall You [G-d] annihilate the righteous with the wicked? Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice (Genesis 18:25)? Abraham is not satisfied with mere justice. He demands chessed–loving-kindness, and insists that G-d forgive all the people of Sodom in the merit of the few righteous people who live in the city.

In his behavior towards the Egyptians and the Philistines, Abraham is always patient, seeking peace and avoiding quarrel. As a result, Abraham attracts many friends and compatriots, who deeply honor and revere him. Abimelech, king of G’rar, concludes a covenant with Abraham, telling him that all of his land is open to Abraham (Genesis 23:6). The residents of Kiryat Arba say to him (Genesis 20:15): “N’see Eh’lo’kim a’tah b’toh’chay’noo,” You are a prince of G-d in our midst. Malchi Zedek, king of Salem, blesses him as well (Genesis 14:19).

It is primarily because of Abraham’s ethical excellence that he is chosen to serve as the father of the Jewish people. Yet it is interesting to note that Abraham’s ethical behavior in no way impedes Abraham’s other talents. Clearly, his talents are legion. It is not at all surprising that Abraham goes on to become a major religious and nationalistic leader, a man who takes hold of the land of Israel for the Jewish people and creates a family that eventually becomes the Nation of Israel.

May you be blessed.