VOLUME 53 NUMBER 2
October 16th, 2010
8 Cheshvan, 5771
By Rabbi Raphael Leban
Since Abraham is the father of the Jewish People (and of monotheism as we know it), and seeing that this week’s parsha is really the first one to speak about him at length, we shall take this opportunity to get to know him a little bit, and why he was so special.
The first significant thing that the Torah teaches us about him is that G-d spoke to him, and said, “Go from your land, your birthplace and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make you into a great nation and bless you and make your name great…” Before this conversation, the Torah tells us nothing about Abraham—who he is, why he merits to be spoken to by G-d, why G-d blesses him and gives him all this great stuff. Such an important person, given such an historic task, with no clear introduction or explanation given—it’s very strange. And so asks Nachmonides.
The Maharal offers a poetic answer based on our Sages’ discussion of love. It is written in the Ethics of Our Fathers that a love that is dependant on something will not last. Only a love that is dependant on nothing will last. Meaning to say, if two people love each other because they enjoy eating Cracker Jacks together, when their teeth rot and fall out, their love affair is over. If they loved each other just because they were husband and wife, their love will outlast dentures on its way to eternity.
Explains the Maharal, the reason the Torah teaches us nothing about Abraham’s life before G-d sent him forth to receive His blessings is to show us that G-d’s love for Abraham and his descendants is dependant upon nothing. He didn’t choose Abraham because of some noble or worthy thing he did. He just chose him, and bound Himself in a Divine covenant with him, an eternal pact for all of the generations of his children, that He would be our G-d and we would be His people.
But is there then nothing that makes Abraham special at all? Was he just your average Joe Ancient? What gives G d’s choice any importance?
The first thing we learn about Abraham, and indeed, much of what the Torah teaches us about him, is that he was tested. From leaving his homeland only to find his destination subsumed by famine, to the binding of his beloved son for sacrifice, Abraham was tested. Our Sages enumerate ten tests that Abraham was subjected to, and he triumphantly passed them all.
Personally, if ten gargantuan tests are what G-d’s love gets you, better him than me. Most people hate tests. The only test I like is the one my wife asks me to perform on a tray of brownies to see if they’re ready.
G-d chose Abraham and endowed him with extraordinary potential—strengths and abilities that could enable him to change history. But potential in and of itself is worthless. He then gave Abraham ten tests—opportunities to take that potential and actualize it. Through the test Abraham showed who he really was and what abilities G-d had bestowed upon him. That’s what a test really is, and that’s why the Hebrew word for test, nisayon, comes from the word nas, meaning a ‘show’ or display.
In Abraham’s excellence, he passed all ten tests, becoming in actuality the leader to whom G-d had given His great and holy mission—to be the father of the Jewish People, G-d’s Chosen and beloved children.
Once Upon A Star
By Rabbi Dovid Nussbaum
Avram had not been blessed with children and the future of the fledgling new religion was endangered. Would there be ‘Jewish continuity’ or would the flame be extinguished? Hashem guaranteed Avram that he would have children and that they would continue to promote the ideals that he had established and publicized.
He told Avram to step outside his tent and look towards the heavens. Elsewhere, too, Avram was told to gaze up at the stars and count them. The vast number of stars represents the vast number of children that he would have. Rashi cites the Midrash that explains that Hashem was telling him that although Avram had not yet built a family, Avraham would indeed establish a family and educate myriads of people about Hashem. The name change would entitle him to a new, rosy future that held only promises of success and achievement. In this interpretation, the stars express that our nation’s future would not be determined by the normal workings of the universe. Rather, we are under the dominion of Hashem Himself and it is through His grace and blessing that we continue to exist. Thus Hashem told Avraham that through the normal workings of the universe he would remain childless, through Hashem’s blessing he would have a child to carry on his legacy. This special blessing would occur along with his new identity, Avraham, a name which implies influence and leadership.
Malbim provides another insight into the stars as metaphor. We know that each star is actually a sun as large as or larger than our own. They are veritable power plants from which tremendous amounts of energy pour forth. However, from our perspective, millions of light years away from each star, they appear tiny and insignificant. This is the description that Hashem relayed to Avraham. Although we may appear small and insignificant, in point of fact each and every Jew has tremendous potential and a dynamic reservoir of talent and ability. Perhaps this idea is reflected in the statement that Hashem made to Avraham that he would be unable to count the stars in the heavens. Not only did Hashem mean quantitatively—Avraham would be incapable of measuring qualitatively the capability of each Jew.
Indeed, each person is actually much larger than he or she appears. This is the blessing that we are compared to the stars. Regarding Avraham, although physically he was unable to have children, his physical deficiency was nothing in the face of Hashem’s blessing. His legacy was to unfold and develop into the Jewish nation. A mere physical inadequacy was not going to obstruct the enormous potential that he contained. Similarly, we should realize that our blessing is that the tremendous capabilities that we have can be brought to bear if we extend ourselves.
Byte for Shabbos
In predicting the punishment that would eventually befall the Egyptians during the Exodus, G-d tells Avraham simply, “I shall judge [them]” – from which came the ten plagues. By comparison, volumes of prophecy have been written about the eventual arrival of Moshiach (the Messiah) – indicating that the accompanying miracles will be exceptionally numerous.
From RABBEINU SAADIA GAON