Why God Chose Abraham

How well I remember the moment that ignited my lifelong passion for teaching how Jews read and understand Scripture!

During an interfaith discussion in 1974, A Christian Minister remarked: “Abraham was like a lottery winner chosen by an unexplained act of God’s Grace.” 

I realized at that moment that many non-Jewish clergy were ignorant of the Jewish interpretations of Scripture found in post-biblical Jewish writings. Replacing that lack of awareness with understanding became a major focus of my life from then on.

Two Midrashic stories illustrate why God’s choice of Abraham was anything but random.

When Abraham was born, the ruler of the world was Nimrod, mentioned earlier in Genesis as a mighty hunter (Genesis !0:8-12).  Nimrod’s astrologers tell him of a baby born that will overthrow his kingdom, and so Nimrod orders all the babies killed.  Abraham’s father hides him in a cave.

At the age of three he walks out of the cave and being a most precocious child asks: “Who created the heavens and the earth and me?”  He looked up at the sun and imagined that was the creative force.  So he worshipped it all day.  That night the moon came out. And he thought the moon 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.  (Bet ha-Midrash 2:118ff)

So, according to this story, Abraham at a very young age chose God, and that helps explain why God chose him. 

Another story tells that when Abraham was a boy his father Terach was a merchant who had a shop selling idols that people worshipped as gods.  One day, Terach had to go on a trip and left Abraham in charge of the store.  While he was cleaning up, he 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.

When his father came home, he demanded that Abraham tell him what happened.

Abraham answered that 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,” answered Abraham, “Then why do you worship them?” (found in several sources, notably, Bereshit Rabbah 38:13)

The story illustrates that Abraham rejected idolatry and further explains why God chose Abraham to begin the fourth society and present an entirely different idea of and approach to God.    

Psalm Comfort in a Time of Uncertainty

Two seemingly contradictory ideas anchor Jewish thought.

On one hand, beginning with Genesis’ story of Creation, is the notion that our lives matter. They have purpose and meaning, and God charges us with responsibility for what happens on this earth.

But there is also an acknowledgment that our lives are but a fleeting eyeblink.

Psalm 8 articulates the contrast:

“When I behold the heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars that You have established, what is humanity that You are mindful of them, and our progeny that you take notice of them.  But You have made us little lower than the angels and crowned us with honor and glory.” (Psalm 8:4-5)

Psalm 90 further enlightens us:

Of all the 150 Psalms, tradition attributes only Psalm 90 to (the unquestionably all-time most important Jew) Moses. There we read of God’s majestic sovereignty: “Before the mountains were brought forth or even before You formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting, You are God.” (Psalm 90: 2)

The Psalm eloquently reminds us that in God’s view, “A thousand years … are like yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night.” (Psalm 90)

In the grand scheme of things what we deem so crucial will pass by quickly, and our earthly journey will end. But the Psalm urges us to not only be aware of this reality but to confront it head on and, “to number our days that we may attain a heart of wisdom.”

During this time of frightful uncertainty, it is easy to feel overwhelmed by Covid-19, the upcoming presidential election and the fears it engenders and whatever individual concerns threaten our well-being.

In the face of all that uncertainty the Psalm concludes with the home that God’s graciousness will be clear to us and that our efforts to make this world a better place really do matter. (Psalm 90:17)

The leading (18th -19th centuries) Hasidic Sage Simcha Bunam taught:  Each of us should have two pockets. In one should be a note, “I am but dust and ashes.” In the other, “For my sake the world was created.”

When we feel puffed up with our sense of importance, we should look at the first note to remind ourselves that we are merely specks of dust.  When we are feeling helpless in the face of the realities that confront us, we should look at the second to reassure ourselves that we are here to make a positive difference in the world in whatever ways we can.

Our tradition urges each of us to find the balance between these polar assertions of Jewish thought. 

 But when life threatens to throw us into complete despair, let us join the urgent prayer of the Psalmist that God will help us. “establish the work of our hands,” (Psalm 90:17) and have faith that our efforts to make a better world really do matter.

The Stage is Set

The narrative in Genesis 2:4-11 represents three attempts by God to have human beings do what the Eternal One wants us most to do: Establish a just caring and compassionate society.  

First attempt: Garden of Eden.  

Eden was a world of no birth, no death, a place where one did not have to work very hard, and in my opinion, and no sexuality.  Sexual awareness is what the first couple discovered when they ate of the Tree of Knowledge.        

Second attempt: Post Eden-pre flood

God established a second society after Eden  with new ground rules.  We had sex, were born, died and had to work hard. This society did not work out either. Cain killed Abel, and things went downhill from there.  Finally, God decides to flood the earth and picks Noah, “a righteous man in his age” (GN 6:9) to survive the flood and rebuild the world afterwards.

Now we are all aware from studies of anthropology or ancient literature that many cultures had their stories of a deluge.  More noteworthy than the similarities between these stories and the flood story (of which there are many) are the vital differences. 

  • Only in the biblical flood story does God decide to destroy the earth because of its moral failure.  The Torah presents to us a good, caring, God wanting human beings to -as God’s raison d’etre – establish a kind, workable world.  The Torah reports that corruption and lawlessness (Hamas) were rampant in the land. Therefore, God regretted making the earth and decided to destroy it. (GN 6:5, 6 and 11).
  • Unlike the other ancient flood stories where the hero is chosen at the caprice of the gods, God chooses Noah because he alone in his age is righteous. (GN 6:9) 

Now the Talmud (B. Sanhedrin 108a) records an interesting argument between two sages.  Rabbi Yohanan who argued that Noah was righteous only in comparison with others of his age who were so bad.  On the other hand, Resh Lakish contends Noah’s righteousness even in an age when the culture was so evil makes him all the more praiseworthy than if he lived in an era where there were other examples of righteous behavior that he could have followed.  

After the flood God tried a third time to have humanity establish an acceptable world with three very significant new ground rules: 

  •   God makes human beings accountable for administering a system of justice where evil doers are punished (GN9:5). 
  •  For the first time God gives humanity permission to eat meat. (GN 9:3) 
  •   God promises unequivocally “Never again will I doom the earth because of man…nor will I ever again destroy every living being.”  (GN 8:21) 

By the way, God’s promise that God will not destroy the world again does not mean that we human beings are not capable of doing so.  When God created Adam and Eve, the Midrash (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13) says that God addressed them saying: “Pay heed that you do not corrupt or destroy My universe; for if you ruin it, there is no one to repair it after you.”

Third attempt: Post flood

Unfortunately, the third society gets off to a horrible start.  The first thing Noah does upon leaving the ark is plant a vineyard and get drunk.  Then Scripture records (GN 9:20)  Ham “saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers.” (GN 9:22) Now we cannot be sure exactly what that verse means, but the rabbis of the Midrash have a field day with that passage imagining anything from forced sexual contact to castration. (see discussion between Rav and Samuel in B. Sanhedrin 70a).  

Then we read of the Tower of Babel.  From a modern perspective I love the story of the Tower of Babel.  Perhaps the religious question non-Jews ask most frequently (second only to “Why do Jews not believe in Jesus?”) is “Why do we have to have all of these different religions.  Wouldn’t the world be better if there was just one religion instead of all the problems caused by religious difference?”

My response to this question is: “Whose religion would it be.  Would it be yours where the life, death on the cross, resurrection and ascension to heaven of Jesus is the defining religious motif?  Or would it be mine where the life and death of Jesus plays no role whatsoever?”

No, religious unity should not be our goal.  Rather respect for and appreciation of honest religious differences is what we need more of in this world

While exactly what happened is not clear from the biblical text, whatever it was it is clear that God did not like it.  Seen through Midrashic eyes the building of the tower was rebellion against God’s divinity and authority (Bereshit Rabbah 38:7).  According to another Midrash (Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer (Jerusalem Eshkol, 1983, pp. 78-79 and Midrash Ha Gadol 11:3) the wickedness of the generation of the tower was so great and their regard for human life so little that if a brick fell from a scaffold, all work would stop until the brick could be retrieved.  If, however, a person fell from a scaffold, they would just plaster over the injured party and build him into the tower.

We see through Midrashic eyes that society number three worked out no better than the first two.  Now God has a serious three-pronged dilemma.  

  • God still cares.  
  • God is still disappointed in the moral progress of the world.
  •   But God has promised never to destroy the earth again.

The answer to that dilemma, of course, is that God chooses the family of Abraham and Sarah and makes a sacred Covenant with them and their descendants. 

The Election: A Plea for Perspective

As I grow older I recall with increasing frequency many of the stories I first heard as a child.

I may have been seven or eight when Rabbi Avraham Soltes told the story at family Shabbat services of a King who wanted a signet ring with a motto engraved in it that would fit any occasion.

Many jewelers tried and failed to create such a ring until one-day a craftsman appeared at the palace with a design that contained three Hebrew letters: Gimel, (ג) Zayin (ז) and Yod (י).

In subsequent years, we have all heard – and likely quoted — the tag line but probably without the story.

When the king asked what this signified, the jeweler answered, “It is for the three Hebrew words, Gam Zeh Ya-avor – And this too shall pass.”

The rapidly approaching presidential election is a particularly good time to keep the king’s motto in mind. Why? One thing is very clear to me: 

That when the election results are in, nearly half of those who voted will be very disappointed.

Those who oppose either President Trump or former Vice-President Biden truly fear for the very future of our country if the one we do not favor wins the White House.

Whatever crisis you imagine will ensue if the “wrong” person to your mind is elected, I want to try to reassure you:  Gam zeh ya-avor –This too shall pass.

Maybe it is because I am getting older, but in all my years –since my mother took me to the polls where I could cast a mock vote (I liked IKE) in 1952, I have never heard doomsday rhetoric like I am hearing this election year.

I understand people are very concerned, and the intensity is no less whether it comes from those who fear a Trump or a Biden victory.

My plea is for a bit of perspective. 

 I have my own strong feelings about this election, and I urge each and every eligible individual to vote.  But no matter how the vote turns out, I do not believe the nation will topple if the “wrong” person is elected.

The American political system has a built in pendulum. It swings one way and then, as two hundred plus years of electoral history dating from 1788 teach us, the pendulum will swing back again. And so my plea is for perspective. Although nearly half of us will think that the election results are an unmitigated disaster, our Constitution will hold, our nation will endure, and as Rabbi Soltes taught me long ago:  Gam Zeh Ya-avor.

Counting Our Blessings

When I was a child, and things troubled me I found great comfort in the 1954 Eddie Fisher top ten song,” Count Your Blessings.”

“When I’m worried and I can’t sleep I count my blessings instead of sheep, and I fall asleep, counting my blessings.”

How frequently that haunting refrain has played in my mind over the past seven months!  The novelty, if ever there was one, of the pandemic has worn off.  The “camping trip alone in the woods” mentality that some of us could adopt during the early weeks of lockdown has long since given way to the harsh realities of isolation, economic hardship, suffering and death which are the enduring “worries” of the time in which we are now living.

And yet … if there is a single factor that has sustained the Jewish people through the many dark nights history has forced us to live through, it is our ability to savor and count our blessings.

The response of Bat Yam Temple of the islands to the pandemic is a wonderful example of counting our blessings in the midst of “worry.”

Instead of allowing Covid-19 to sink us, our leadership team, headed by Michael Hochschild and Janice Chaddock, exhorted us to pool our individual skills and dedicate them to furthering the congregation’s sacred task of providing a warm, welcoming center of meaningful Jewish worship, study, community and social justice initiatives. Other congregations have responded similarly.

Among the blessings we have discovered is the miracle of our extended reach.  Passover was a prime example.  Our Seder included participants not only from Sanibel but also from as far away as Hawaii and Europe and many places in between.

Likewise our High Holy Day worship was a miracle.

This year many congregations spent big money on costly show business technology and professional experts to pre-record dazzling extravaganzas to enhance their Holy Day offerings. To each their own! But Bat Yam Temple of the Islands quickly and prudently decided to maintain the boundary between soulful worship and show business. Relying on the considerable knowledge and skill thankfully possessed by our wonderful Tech Team volunteers, our Holy Days were not only spiritually fulfilling, they reached far beyond the walls of our sanctuary to homes of congregants and others from around the country and other parts of the world.

Similarly our educational and social justice programs, which traditionally had been on hiatus between May and November stimulated hearts and minds not just in this country but in Germany, South Africa and Australia as well.

Personally, Vickie and I had looked forward for years to sharing the joy of our first grandchild’s Bar Mitzvah in November. The pandemic, though, forced us to forego the hugs and togetherness that would have brought our far-flung family together with great joy.  We do not minimize how much our experience was diminished.  But at the same time we savor our ability to view and share the joy of Zachary’s achievement through the miracle of modern technology.

Through many difficult periods of history our people have made do as best we could and continued to find blessings in difficult circumstances. Our celebration of Chanukah is a prime example. From slavery in Egypt to the Inquisition in Spain to the Shoah in Germany and many times in between, we have endured. And while it threatens to continue to plague us, the Covid -19 pandemic will not defeat us either.

Lam-rot ha-Kol  (in spite of everything) as we say in Hebrew, we Jews have survived and thrived because of our ability – even in the darkest of hours—to count our blessings and trust that the future will be better. 

This time of Covid-19 will be no different. Despite the difficulties of these days, our blessings are many, and our future will be bright

A Tale of Two Hernias

It was early March in 1953. My mother and I sat in the office of Dr.Roman Kawalik, a surgeon who told us I needed an operation to repair a hernia.

“Can it wait until after his birthday?” I remember my mom asking.

“When is his birthday?” the doctor asked in return.

“March 16,” my mother answered.

“Bring him to the hospital on March 17,” Dr. Kawalik responded.

And so on March 17, 1953, Stephen Fuchs returned to East Orange General Hospital where he had entered the world 7 years earlier.

It was a six-day stay.

Tomorrow, when I enter Healthpark Medical Center at 8:15 AM for my second hernia operation, the estimate is that I shall walk out six hours later.

Still, I admit that I am frightened . It might be a minor procedure for Dr. Salomon Levy Miranda, but it will feel like a major assault on my body very close to the most sensitive area of all.

I marvel at how far medical science has progressed in the 67 years between my two hernia procedures. But I won’t breathe easier until it is over, and sufficient time passes for me to resume normal activities.

I would appreciate any and all prayers.


Follow me on Twitter: @rabbifuchs6