11 Marchesvan 5776
October 23-24, 2015
Annual: Genesis 12:1-17:27
Triennial: Genesis 16:1-17:27
Haftarah: Isaiah 40:27-41:16

Abraham, the First Jew – Why?

By Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb, CY Faculty

With Parshat Lekh Lecha the Torah narrows its focus, to the genesis of the Jewish people. It’s worth asking why God chose Avraham Avinu to be the first Jew.

Avraham was a monotheist. The Midrash tells how he broke his father’s idols and we read this week that he “built an altar to the Lord and invoked the name of the Lord.” (Gen 12:8). But it’s far from clear that he was the first monotheist. Back in the time of Enosh, the son of Seth (our common link back to Adam and Eve), people “began (huchal) to invoke the Lord by name” (4:26). Rashi interprets huchal negatively, “profane” (from chilul), thus preserving the monotheism copyright for Avraham. But other classic commentators – Ibn Ezra, Sforno and Onkelos – interpret the word favorably (Onkelos: “in his day people began to pray in the name of the Lord”). And Noah also “built an altar to the Lord” (8:20) on which he brought burnt offerings, a form of worship well known in the Torah.

There’s a good chance that Avraham was the first humanitarian. Whereas Noah raised no protest against God’s plan to destroy the world with the flood, Abraham challenges God not to kill the innocent in Sedom (18:22+). Abraham takes his household to battle to rescue Lot, the first instance of pidyon shevuyim (redeeming captives) (14:14+), and he treats the slaves of the kings he liberated as “people,” not as rechush (“property”), which was the prevailing custom amongst the neighboring peoples (compare 14:11 with 14:16).

And Abraham is the only person for whom the Torah uses the word chinuch (education): “…and he mustered chanichav (“his retainers/trained men”), the ones born in his house” (14:14). Rashi explains: “he educated them l’mitsvot.” And this was not the first time. Earlier, at God’s command, Avraham left Haran with his wife, Sarai, his nephew, Lot, “v’et hanefesh asher asu b’charan” (“and the persons they had acquired in Haran” [12:5]). Onkelos translates this as “the souls they brought into the realm of the Torah,” and Rashi brings the Midrash that Abraham converted the men and Sara the women. The Chizkuni, a commentator from 13th century France, goes one step further. On the phrase “the souls they made in Haran” he says “kan matchil matan Torah,” the Giving of the Torah starts here. Not with Moshe at Sinai, but with Avraham, the mechanech (educator), back in Haran.

Avraham was so special because he was the first person who took the words of Pirkei Avot 1:2 seriously. “Al shlosha dvarim ha’olam omed,” Shimon HaTsadik tells us: “On three things the world stands,” and Abraham engaged in them all. Al HaTorah – he educated people l’Torah u’mitsvot; al HaAvodah (on serving God) – he built altars and called on the name of the Lord; v’al Gemilut Hasadim (and on helping people) – he acted to save those in danger and he fought to have even slaves considered as persons, not property. Such a person deserves to be the first Jew.

A Vort on Parshat Lekh L’kha

By Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb, CY Faculty

Verse 13:2-3 tell us that Abraham was kaved m’od, “very rich in cattle, silver and gold” upon his return from Egypt. Kaved, literally, means “laden, burdened.” Wealth can be a blessing, but it can also be a burden, a source of troubles. “And he went his way from the Negev to Bethel.” Rashi says Abraham paid the debts he had incurred during the drought that had driven him to Egypt. Rabbi Shlomo Kluger (Galitzia, 19th Century) says that the yetser hara, the evil impulse, can tempt people with old debts to ignore them, but that was not Abraham’s way.

Table Talk

By Vered Hollander-Goldfarb

After 2 Parashot about humanity in general, we will begin to focus on Abraham – the beginning of the People of Israel. Here are a few questions to start some discussions:

1) The Parasha opens (12:1-3) with God’s command to Abraham to ‘go from your land, your birthplace and your father’s home, to the land that I will show you.’ Why does God stress what Abraham is giving up by going, and why does He not tell Abraham where he is going to?

2) A while after arriving in the land Abraham is forced to seek food for his household in Egypt because of a famine in Canaan. How might Abraham have felt about the situation in light of God’s command to him to go the land of Canaan?

3) Lot is Abraham’s nephew. Compare his relationship with Abraham in 12:4-5 and in 13:1, 5-14. What might have brought about the change?

*How does the text reflect the change?

4) Sarah realizes that she is unable to have children. She chooses to give her Egyptian handmaid to Abraham as a wife so that she might get a child from that union (16:1-3). Why does Sarah choose a woman who is Egyptian (not local or from the ‘old country’)?

5) This Parasha ends (17:1-14) with God’s covenant with Abraham (that is practiced until this day). What is the covenant? What is the sign (ot) of the covenant? Why do you think that this sign was chosen?

*a challenging question

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