In chapter 12 of Genesis, when we meet Abram, who later in the portion becomes Abraham –God has tried three times to encourage human beings to create a just, caring, and compassionate society on earth. From the time of creation, such a community has been God’s highest goal. But the societies in Eden, after Eden until the flood, and after the flood all have failed.
Even though God is frustrated and disappointed, God does not give up. In a fourth attempt, the Eternal One chooses Abraham, Sarah, and their descendants to be God’s “special agents” in the ongoing quest to make the world a better place.
Early in my career as a rabbi, a Protestant minister said of Abraham. “He was like a random lottery winner. It was just a mysterious act of God’s grace that God chose him.
From a Jewish perspective, nothing could be further from the truth. True, the Bible says nothing about Abram until he is 75, at which point God tells him, “Go forth from your native land from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” I will make a covenant with you, God continues, and I expect you to “be a blessing” so that all the nations of the earth will find blessing through you and your descendants.
For Jewish tradition, the choice of Abraham is not random at all. The sages saw the Torah’s silence about Abraham years earlier as a golden opportunity to illustrate why God very intentionally chose Abraham as a covenantal partner in the quest to make the world a more just, caring and compassionate place.
Two classic midrashic stories illustrate the rabbinic outlook.
When Abraham was born, the ruler of the world was Nimrod, mentioned earlier in Genesis as a mighty hunter. Nimrod’s astrologers tell him of a baby born who will overthrow his kingdom, and so Nimrod orders all the babies killed. To protect his son, Abraham’s father, Terach, hides him in a cave.
At the age of three, he wandered out of the cave and being a most precocious child asked what could hardly be considered a typical question for a three-year-old: “Who created the heavens and the earth – and me?” He looked up at the sun and, imagining that it was the creative force, he worshipped it all day. That night when the moon came out, he thought it must be stronger than the sun. So he worshipped the moon all night. When in the morning the sun came out again, Abraham reasoned that there must be a God more powerful than both the sun and the moon who is responsible for creation. So, according to this story, Abraham – at a very young age – chose God, which helps explain why God chose him (Bet ha-Midrash, chapter 2).
Another story – one of the most famous of all midrashic themes – tells that when Abraham was a boy, Terach was the proprietor a shop selling idols that people worshipped as gods. One day, Terach went on a business trip and left Abraham in charge of the store. While he was cleaning up, Abraham accidentally broke one of the idols. Rather than try to hide it from his father, he placed a stick in the hands of the largest idol in the shop and left the broken idol on the floor.
“How did this happen?” asked Terach.
“Oh,” Abraham answered, “the broken idol was misbehaving and the bigger idol beat him with the stick.”
“Fool,” said his father, “Don’t you know that idols can’t do anything?”
“If so,” Abraham, responded, “why do you worship them?” (Bereshit Rabbah 38:13, retold with variations many times)
The story illustrates that Abraham rejected idolatry, and further explains why he was God’s choice as a covenantal partner.
Four thousand years later we who claim to be Abraham’s descendants should still be hard at work – each in our own way – to make a righteous and just society on earth. When the task seems overwhelming, we should remember Rabbi Tarphon, a second-century sage who famously taught: “It is not incumbent on you to complete the work, but you are not free to desist from it!” (Pirkei Avot 2:21)