At the end of this week’s Torah portion, we are introduced to Avraham (Avram in the meantime). Unlike other prophets, not much is known about why he was chosen. Rashi and the Midrash fill in the blanks and tell us about the story of young Avram knocking down his father, Terach’s idols. Terach is so annoyed that he brings his son before the king Nimrod, who cast him into a pit of fire. Hashem saved Avram as a reward for his being willing to risk his life to worship the One G-d instead of idols, and thus the story of Avram the father of the Jewish people begins.
All of this story is only hinted at in the text from the place where Avram came from, Ur-Kasdim (fire of the Chaldees). So how did the Midrash invent such a detailed story from one word?!
In the book of Daniel (chapter 3), there is a similar story of Daniel’s three friends being sent into a pit of fire. There, the text is very detailed, and describes how King Nebuchadnezzar built a large idol and demanded that everyone bow down to it or die. The three friends refused to bow down to the idol, and therefore they are thrown into a pit of fire, where an angel saved them from all harm. This is a story of those who believed in the One G-d and were willing to sacrifice their lives rather than even have it appear as if they were worshiping an idol. The Midrash transposes the story from Daniel and attaches it to Avraham, since like Avraham, the three friends demonstrate a commitment to Hashem in a world that thinks differently, despite the punishment for doing so.
Perhaps the Midrash wishes to emphasize that life in exile under foreign kings always holds the same risks for those who worship Hashem!
Another reason that this background was chosen for Avraham is that throughout the next three Torah portions we continue to find Avraham interacting with other nations. He is constantly having conversations with kings, teaching them through his attitude what is important – the fear of G-d and relying only on Him. Whether it is through his wife or his nephew, Avraham points out to these kings that the culture in their lands is missing a crucial element. The Midrash adds another encounter with a powerful king to the list of nations where Avraham spread his message.
Throughout the book of Breishit there are many famous midrashim that have become common folklore until they in turn become part of the accepted traditions of our forefathers. By knowing what is text and what is an added midrash, we can discover the messages our sages wish to teach us. Adopting the story from Daniel to Avraham teaches us the message of the importance of being an “ohr l’goyim”, a light for the nations, teaching them the message of One G-d even at great personal risk.
May we merit to continue spreading this message all the world over and to continue to see miracles of Hashem’s protection of those who worship and put their trust in Him.