Montreal Kollel 2000-2003
Around two weeks ago, an article appeared in Time magazine about Avraham. Part of the claim advanced in the piece was that Avraham was actually the first monotheist in the world and has not received the place he deserves on the stage of history. This is not the forum to debate this point, for we know that there were others before Avraham who believed in God, perhaps the clearest example of which being a personality in our parasha – Malki-Tzdek, who served as a “kohen to the supreme God” (“kohen le-Kel elyon”).
Avraham is not the first believer, and we may thus ask why he earned the privilege of establishing the “house of Israel.” We meet Avraham in the Chumash for the first time when he is seventy-five years of age, as the recipient of the famous command, “Lech-lecha.” The Torah accompanies him from that point on, telling us of his experiences. Two points emerge from the Torah´s stories about Avraham: 1. Total emuna, or faith, in God; 2. Chesed – kindness towards others.
Avraham Avinu accepts the divine command without objection. Even when he laughs upon hearing Hashem inform him that Sarah will bear him a child (see 17:15-21), he does not laugh out of a lack of faith. To the contrary, he laughs out of pure faith and joy; this is the laugh of a believer, who knows that Hashem´s word will be fulfilled.
The story is told of a Chassidic rebbe who as a child turned to his father, who was also a rebbe, and asked him why Hashem does not speak to him as He did to Avraham. The father replied that when someone is prepared to perform a berit mila at age ninety-nine – Hashem will speak to such a person. The faith and trust that Avraham has in Hashem granted him the stature he has earned on the stage of Jewish history. (See the similar comments of the Maharal, in his “Gevurat Hashem” chapter 7.)
What is chesed?
Many people, when seeing such a sentence, will immediately nod their heads and say, “Hesed is doing good things for people,” and indeed we find that Avraham and Sarah performed kindness for others.
True and not true. True, Avraham Avinu was a man of chesed, but the precise definition of chesed is something different. In Sefer Vayikra (20), we find the term “chesed” used as describing an act of sexual immorality. What, then, is chesed? The Ramban writes that chesed means going outside the norm, be it in the context of good deeds or with regard to wrongdoing, such as immorality. On this basis we can understand why Avraham Avinu has earned his place in history: he was not normal. He believed completely in Hashem. Once a person is prepared at age seventy-five to go to Eretz Yisrael and leave behind his father´s house and his homeland, he is not normal. Someone prepared to sacrifice his only son is not normal.
We now understand why Avraham is chosen as one of the patriarchs. The avot are the foundation and basis of Am Yisrael, it is they who symbolize us and implant within us the true path for us to follow. Avraham is the first of the patriarchs since we need that one “meshugena” to initiate a new path, to begin a new religion or faith in a pagan world.
We should feel proud to be the descendants of Avraham. True, it was not he who began the faith; many believers preceded him. But he was the first one prepared to go with his faith and inner truth to the end. This is how we, too, must see ourselves in the world, we, the descendants of Avraham. We are the nation who received the Torah, and we must go with it to the end. We must not be ashamed by our emuna, or worry about “what they will say.” Let us learn from Avraham Avinu what it means to have devotion towards our faith.