Was Abraham The First Wandering Jew?
Getting To Know The Character Of Abraham
In Parshat Lech Lecha, we read many stories about Abraham's life: God’s promise to Abraham, his move to Canaan, his move to Egypt, his involvement in a battle of kings, the birth of Ishmael, the flight of Hagar, the covenant of circumcision – and lots and lots of traveling. Yet most of the stories seem to have nothing to do with each other, and many of them seem trivial. Are they just disconnected episodes that make up the story of Abraham? Or are they parts of a larger whole, chapters in an overarching story?
In this video, Imu and David argue that the stories about Abraham are all connected — and if we fail to understand how they relate to each other, then we’re missing the point.
They all work together to tell a larger story about Abraham's most important character trait, which rises from the hardest test in Abraham’s life… and we bet that you’ve never heard of it before. When you're through, you may never think about Abraham's character – or man's purpose in the world – the same way again.
David: Hi everyone – I'm David Block.
Imu: And I'm Imu Shalev.
David: Welcome to the Parsha Experiment. Instead of picking one or two episodes out of the parsha to focus on each week, we try to uncover some of the grand themes that seem to tie those episodes tell together.
Imu: Parshat Lech Lecha begins the story of Abraham.
What Abraham the First Jewish Monotheist?
David: Right, Abraham is the famous founder of monotheism. We're going to read all about how he smashed his father's idols, how he was condemned as a heathen by Nimrod for his faith in the one God, and how he was miraculously rescued from the oven of fire. Abraham has this tent with four doors where he and Sarah missionize and teach thousands of converts all about God, their Creator.
Imu: The problem is...none of those stories are actually in the text themselves. They're midrashim, commentary by the sages and it's not always clear whether they're intended to be taken literally.
David: Wait a second, are you telling me that the fact that Abraham was the first monotheist isn't even in the text?
Imu: I'm afraid not. Adam and Noah were both monotheists...it's clear that the text itself seems to emphasize some different qualities about Abraham other than the fact that he believed in one God.
David: So what does the Torah want us to know about Abraham? What made him so special? That is what we are going to explore this week on The Parsha Experiment.
A Short Recap of Abraham's Story
Imu: So before we dig into this question, let's do the 20-second parsha recap:
- First, God asks Abraham to journey to Canaan.
- Abraham is driven by famine to Egypt where he says that his wife is his sister.
- Lot and Abraham separate and Lot moves to Sodom.
- There is the war of the four kings versus the five kings.
- Then Abraham and God forge the Brit ben Habitarim, the Covenant between the Parts.
- There is the episode of Hagar, Sarah and the birth of Ishmael.
- And finally, the covenant of circumcision.
David: We're not going to be able to get to the bottom of every story in just 10 minutes but this week and next, we may be able to get a lens through which we can better understand the character of Abraham.
A Deeper Study of Abraham's Character in the Bible
Imu: Much of what we are about to say borrows from Rabbi Fohrman's mind-blowing audio series called Abraham's Journey – links below.
David: Check it out, you won't regret it.
Imu: So let's see if we can start to gather some clues about Abraham from the way he is introduced in the beginning of the parsha: God tells Abraham to leave his home and go to Canaan. "וְאֶעֶשְׂךָ, לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל," – God will make Abraham into a great nation.
David: Sounds pretty great. But that's not all. Abraham listens – he follows God. And when he gets to the land of Canaan, Abraham's gifts get even better. "וַיֵּרָא יְהוָה, אֶל-אַבְרָם, וַיֹּאמֶר, לְזַרְעֲךָ אֶתֵּן אֶת-הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת," God appeared to Abraham and said, "I'm giving this land to your children!"
Imu: If you were Abraham and you heard that news – that this land would be yours – what would you do?
David: I don't know, I'd be elated. I'd probably throw a party or something. And then, I'd probably set up shop. I'd build a house, or a city, I'd mark my territory – after all, God just promised me this land! It's mine!
Imu: But Abraham's reaction to hearing that news is actually remarkable – and nothing like that at all. "וַיִּבֶן שָׁם מִזְבֵּחַ, לַיהוָה הַנִּרְאֶה אֵלָיו." He builds an altar to God. Okay, so maybe he is first saying thank you, and now he will build himself a home.
David: But then, instead of settling down in one place, he actually moves. "וַיַּעְתֵּק מִשָּׁם הָהָרָה, מִקֶּדֶם לְבֵית-אֵל" – he moved from there to a mountain east of Bet-El. Ok, so maybe he liked that place better. So now you'd expect him to plant roots, to build a house.
Imu: But still, no. "וַיֵּט אָהֳלֹה" – he pitches his tent. A tent is so temporary – it's for a traveler, not a settler. And what does he do in his new location? "וַיִּבֶן-שָׁם מִזְבֵּחַ לַיהוָה, וַיִּקְרָא בְּשֵׁם יְהוָה." He builds another altar and calls out in the name of God. Notice that Abraham isn't averse to building permanent things. It's just that he's not building those things for himself. It's almost as if he is going out of his way not to mark his territory. How strange…
David: And in the very next verse he travels again, "וַיִּסַּע אַבְרָם, הָלוֹךְ וְנָסוֹעַ הַנֶּגְבָּה." Abraham traveled and went farther south.
How Do We Understand Who Was Abraham?
Imu: What's going on here?? Is Abraham just so antsy, he can't stay still in one place? Why doesn't he just settle down, build a home, enjoy his life?
David: And, why is the text telling us all this? It just seems like a boring travel log, with a few altars thrown in for good measure.
Imu: And finally, why would these be the first stories in our parsha? Shouldn't the text be telling us who Abraham is, maybe giving us a resume of his accomplishments, and then tell us what God's plan for him is? This would be the perfect place for some of those great Abraham stories, like when he smashed his father's idols or when he preached to the masses. Instead, we hear about all of his wanderings and these seemingly trivial details.
David: But maybe our problem is what's now become a classic Parsha Experiment problem. We're looking at this story in isolation instead of seeing it in its larger context.
The Biblical Context of Abraham's Story
Imu: Let's ask, what big event happened right before all these stories, right before God first speaks to Abraham?
David: The Tower of Babel!
Imu: Exactly! If you remember, in the last two parshas, we spoke about God creating a world for humanity in order to have a close relationship with them. What followed were a string of sins that distanced humanity from God, culminating in the story of the Tower of Babel. We discovered that perhaps the Tower wasn't about fighting God or anything like that…it was about dangers of forgetting God and focusing only on yourself.
David: Marveling at their own technological creativity, they said "הָבָה נִבְנֶה-לָּנוּ עִיר וּמִגְדָּל וְרֹאשׁוֹ בַשָּׁמַיִם" – let's build a city and a huge tower up to the sky! But why, for what purpose? "וְנַעֲשֶׂה-לָּנוּ, שֵׁם" – to make a name for ourselves! Confronted with their own impermanence, the tower-builders were afraid they would be forgotten. And instead of strengthening their relationship with the only eternal being, they worshiped at the altar of their own creativity and built a tower – vinaaseh lanu shem – for their own legacy.
Imu: But look at what happens when we compare that story with the very next chapter – with the beginning of Abraham's journey. When we look at those stories side by side, we'll see that the narratives are similar in some respects, but also that they differ in some important ways. Let's take a look.
Studying the Connections to Abraham's Story in the Bible
David: "וַיַּעְתֵּק מִשָּׁם הָהָרָה, מִקֶּדֶם לְבֵית-אֵל" – Abraham traveled towards the mountains, east of Bet El. Seems like it's just geographical details. But now look at the beginning of the Tower story: "וַיְהִי, בְּנָסְעָם מִקֶּדֶם; וַיִּמְצְאוּ בִקְעָה בְּאֶרֶץ שִׁנְעָר" – they traveled east, and they found a valley in the land of Shinar.
Imu: But what did the builders do when they go to their destination? "וַיֵּשְׁבוּ שָׁם" – they settled there. And what does Abraham do when he reaches his destination? "וַיֵּט אָהֳלֹה" – he pitches his tent. It's like the text is begging us to realize the contrast. Both the tower builders and Abraham traveled east… but while the builders settled there as a permanent residence, Abraham simply pitched a tent.
David: Then, the Tower builders make bricks, and say: "let's build a city and a tower! – "הָבָה נִבְנֶה-לָּנוּ עִיר וּמִגְדָּל וְרֹאשׁוֹ בַשָּׁמַיִם" It wasn't enough that they settled there, the text tells us that they built a city AND a tower. A city has a function, you live in it – but what was the tower for? A tower is a monument, one that reaches to the heavens, a monument to their own legacy.
Imu: Back to the Abraham story: the next thing Abraham does after pitching his tent is "וַיִּבֶן-שָׁם מִזְבֵּחַ, לַיהוָה," he builds an altar for God. That's the same word for build – נבנה, ויבן; a monument. But what they build is very different. The builders want to build a monument to themselves… Abraham builds this monument, an altar for God.
David: What is an altar? It may be more telling to think about it not in terms of its function, but in terms of its purpose. An altar is a structure that is used in the service of something – to worship something.
Imu: So if you think about it, the tower builders' monument was really an altar too. And they don't hide what it is that they're worshipping with their impressive altar… themselves. ונעשה לנו שם – let's make a name for ourselves.
David: But look again at what Abraham does when he builds the altar: ויקרא בשם ה. He called out in the name of God. Abraham and the tower builders both really care about shem, about names and legacy. But Abraham doesn't care about his own legacy, he promotes God's.
Imu: Here's a theory for you: the text seems to be suggesting that Abraham's actions are really the antidote to the tower builders'. That's the link that connects Abraham – and really the whole rest of the Book of Genesis – to what happens before. It was right after the flood and the tower that God seems to implement a new plan for humanity. He chooses one man to start a nation to model a relationship with God, to right the wrongs of mankind and set them off on a better trajectory.
David: And now, let's come back to the idea of "name."
Why Was Abraham Important to God?
Right at the beginning of the parsha, God tells Abraham: 'Vi'e'escha ligoi gadol vaavarechicha vaagadlah shimecha" – I'll make you into a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great. Wait, God is going to make Abraham's name great? But that's what the tower builders wanted, to build their own name!
Imu: Why is God so interested in making Abraham into a nation? And why does it matter if his name is great?
Imu: God tells us in the next few words of the verse: "vinivrichu bicha kol mishpichot haadamah" – through you, blessings will come to all the families of the earth. After multiple failures of humanity, God picks out one of humanity's successes. He is going to make that small success into a massive one.
And here's how: Abraham's nation focuses on God's name, so God will make Abraham's name great. The nation of Abraham are role models for the relationship with God, and through them, by putting them on a pedestal, by making their name great, blessings will come to the families of the earth.
The Importance of Abraham's Character as a Model for Judaism
Imu: And that idea carries on in Judaism, centuries later. There's an idea in Judaism that whenever possible, we try to do good deeds or model Godly values in the world. And you know what that's called? Kiddush Hashem – Sanctification of God's name. We, like Abraham, become models of these Godly values not just through our beliefs, but through our actions – like ambassadors of God. And when we're successful, it's kind of like our own version of building that altar and calling out "b'sheim Hashem" – in the name of God. It's a kiddush Hashem.
David: So is that it? The rest of the Abraham stories are all about him traveling the land, sanctifying God's name and teaching people good values?
Imu: Not quite. Not every story fits into that category. There is actually a built-in challenge to the mission of Abraham. If God is going to make your name great so that you can bring blessing to the world, how do you balance being a prince of God with pride and arrogance at having been handed that destiny? How do you stop yourself from becoming a tower builder?
David: Take a look at something that many of us take for granted right at the beginning of this parsha. When God first talks to Abraham in Canaan, we assume that God is giving Abraham the land. That's why it's so strange that Abraham wanders around and builds tents. But that's not what the text says. Vayera Hashem El Avraham vayomer, lizaracha eten et haaretz hazot – God says, I'm giving this land to your descendants, not to Abraham.
Imu: And the verse before that is very careful to tell us that when Abraham gets to the land, "vihaknaani az baaretz" – the Canaanites were there. While the land might eventually become his, Abraham does not take what he does not yet own.
David: Abraham is deeply sensitive not to promote his legacy at the expense of others, not at God's expense or even at the expense of the Canaanites. So he doesn't settle down… he constantly travels and he lives in tents. And when he does choose a place to stay for a few nights, he doesn't build a home or a city for himself. He builds a mini tower – all for God.
Life Lessons from the Story of Abraham
Imu: So when we asked at the beginning – what does the Torah itself want us to know about Abraham – this seems to be the answer: it's about Abraham becoming a model nation, living what it means to be a relationship with God. It's not just about smashing idols or escaping from a fiery oven, it's about the successes and struggles that come along with fulfilling that mission and creating a legacy.
David: We don't have time to go through the rest of the parsha, but here is our challenge to you: Reread the story of Abraham, but pretend you don't know how it ends, Abraham sure didn't.
Imu: Each of the stories may be exciting on their own, but don't lose sight of the link between these stories or of their significance in the larger story of the Torah. And as you read, try reading it through the lens of legacy. Ask yourself: what does this story tell us about how Abraham is doing at his mission to bring God's name into the world? Where is he succeeding? And where is he facing personal struggles that might come along with the promise of legacy?
David: Or if you are more ambitious, check out Rabbi Fohrman's audio series "Abraham's Journey," where he really delves into these stories in stunning detail – it will make the character of Abraham truly come to life.
Imu: And, of course, join us next week on the Parsha Experiment.