Lech Lecha: Why Did God Choose Abraham?
Lech Lecha: Why Did God Choose Abraham?
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
This parsha is full of little vignettes about Abraham’s life: he builds some altars, goes to Egypt, splits up with Lot because their shepherds can’t get along, gets involved in a big war, and has this crazy dream where God makes him a lot of promises. It feels like a bunch of random episodes of “a day in the life of Abraham.” But what are we supposed to learn from all of these stories? Is there some central theme here that can teach us something about Abraham’s life and why God chose him? In this video, Rabbi Fohrman shows us that not only is there a common thread that weaves its way through all of these stories, but that together these stories make up the central, epic saga of Abraham’s life. In each of these life events, Abraham faces a single struggle and this struggle holds the key to understanding who Abraham was, what his mission was about, and why God chose Abraham in the first place.
Hi, everybody. This is Rabbi David Fohrman. You are watching Aleph Beta, and welcome to Parshat Lech Lecha. Lech Lecha begins the great saga of Abraham that takes up a few parshiyot in our Torah. I wanted to ask you a question about the saga. At face value, when you look at the Abraham story, it just looks like a bunch of disconnected vignettes.
The Key Events In The Life of AbrahamGod appears to Abraham, says leave your home behind, you're going to start a great nation. Okay, wonderful.
Then he hangs out in Egypt a little bit because there's a famine. Sarah is almost taken. They get out of Egypt, they have a lot of wealth. And then there's this fight that develops between the shepherds of Lot and the shepherds of Abraham. And so Lot and Abraham split up. Meanwhile, God comes back and reiterates a promise that we already knew, Abraham is going to have land and he's going to have children and it's all going to be wonderful. But if I was paying attention, I already knew that.
Then how interested are you in ancient Mesopotamian history and military conquests? There's this war between four kings and five kings, and Abraham gets involved and God helps Abraham. Then Abraham goes into a deep sleep and hears about Egypt. He gets this promise again, land and children. I mean, what's going on here?...
Some of the themes are repetitious, but most of the themes are just... they don't even connect to each other. It's just a bunch of short stories. So is there actually a story here? What's the Abraham story about?
So coupled with that question, I think you have to ask this. If it really is one story, might there be some sort of central issue that Abraham is struggling with throughout all these little vignettes? Is there a thread that weaves through the whole saga? What might be Abraham's central struggle? And I think we can identify such a struggle, and once we identify it, I think we will find the common thread that works its way through these stories and knits them together, such that it really is a saga and not just a bunch of disconnected stories.
That thread is legacy. What will be Abraham's legacy? God comes to him in the very beginning and promises that he is going to be a father of a great nation. What exactly does it mean? He's 75 years old, his wife is infertile, both of them are well past childbearing age. What exactly does this mean? Who will these children be? Where will this great nation come from?
But I want to argue to you that it's really even a little bit deeper than that. It's not just that God has promised Abraham this great nation and yet it seems impossible. It actually goes to the very reason why Abraham was chosen in the first place.
Why Did God Choose Abraham?Why was Abraham chosen? Who was he? What made him special? This is something I addressed in detail in a series of videos about the Book of Ruth. What I'm going to do is summarize the central thesis of what I said there. I really do recommend that you look at those videos, though, because the proof of everything really comes from there. Also, I'd like to refer you to an audio series on our site. The series is called "Abraham's Journey." It takes the themes that I'm about to talk about and really, really elaborates them with all the textual evidence and all the nuance.
But let me cut to the chase and give you the central thesis of those videos and that audio series. We revere Abraham as the first monotheist in the world, the discoverer of monotheism, the iconoclast who smashes his father's idols. But the Torah doesn't tell us any of that. Before God comes out of the clouds and says it's you, you're going to be the father of this great nation, there are six introductory verses at the very end of Parshat Noach.
You look at those verses, at first glance they don't seem to be telling you anything remarkable. They seem to be just a mix of travel trivia and who married who and what happened. But if you look at them carefully, something crucial happened. Abraham was one of three brothers. Abraham, Nahor and Haran, and then Haran dies young, in the lifetime of his father. Immediately after that, Abraham seems to lead Nahor in a great act of kindness. He and Nahor take wives, the daughters of Haran.
This evokes a law much later on in the Torah, the law of yibum, of levirate marriage, which says that when a man dies childless, it's a commandment upon the brother to marry the widow of the deceased and have children. Those children will perpetuate the name of the deceased. Here, too, it seems that something like that is going on. Not exactly the same, but it seems like Abraham is engaging in an act of proto-yibum. He's trying to keep alive, to expand, to magnify the threatened legacy of Haran. So he and Nahor marry the daughters of Haran, and the children that they have will continue the name of Haran. It's a kind of sacrifice that Abraham is making, to be concerned about the legacy of his brother, the shem , the name of his brother.
This is especially important because it comes right after the Tower of Babel. The central sin of the Tower of Babel also had to do with legacy. "Na'aseh lanu shem", the Tower builders said; let us make a name for ourselves. But it was a narcissistic attempt to make a name for ourselves. The Tower is our name, it's all our legacy. When you build a name for yourself and that's the only thing you care about, it just crumbles in on itself. It's building a name for another that's the magic.
That's what Abraham is about – perpetuating the name of his threatened brother Haran, who died young. God, after the Tower, says that's what I need. I could use somebody like that. Abraham is chosen to build a nation that's devoted to this great ideal; to worry about another's deepest concerns, to worry about the shem of a brother, to bring God's name into the world. Abraham's greatness is that he was showing the ability to not be narcissistically self-focused. I like that. I'm going to make your name great.
And Therein lies the central tension in Abraham's life: how do I balance this? His mission is devotion to the threatened name of another, and yet his promise is, I'm going to make your name great. The question of legacy is now front and center. Where will this nation come from? What does it even mean for me to be the father of a great nation?
Studying Abraham's Life Through A New LensHere is where you cannot read this story with the end in mind. One of the things that messes us up sometimes when we read the Bible is that you already know what's going to happen. You know that he's going to have this child, Isaac, it's going to be miraculous and all that. But God did not tell Abraham that at the beginning. All he said was you are going to be the father of a great nation. So what does that mean to you?
The truth is, it doesn't necessarily mean that Abraham's going to be the biological father of the nation. He never said, you're going to have a child in the beginning. George Washington was the father of a nation, too. Not the biological father of the nation; we revere him as one of the forefathers, his vision of the nation. So if you're Abraham, maybe it's just you're going to be a charismatic person.
And If you actually look, that explains something. Because in the very beginning, what does Abraham do when he leaves? "Vayikach Avram et Sarai ishto", he takes Sarai, his wife, "v'et Lot ben achiv". Ah, he does have somebody who can carry on his legacy. That somebody is not actually a biological child, but it's his brother's child. And Lot grows up in his household. Plus, "et kol rechusham asher rachashu", he's got stuff, the beginning of a nation, human resources. There are also capital resources. You've got to have a nascent economy. So he takes all of his stuff with him. "V'et hanefesh asher asu b'Charan", plus he's got other people, too, who travelled with him. So he's got the beginnings of a nation.
That's his picture. We know it's not going to happen that way, but does he know it's not going to happen that way?
Now let's fast forward a little bit. There's a famine in the land. Abraham goes down to Egypt. He comes out with great wealth; "Avraham kaveid me'od bamikneh, bakesef u'vazahav", he's really a rich guy now. So stop. If you're Abraham right now, what are you thinking? Boy, this is really going well. You know, God promised I was going to be this nation, and I got all this wealth. I've got my trusty Lot with me. We're good.
What happens next? Trouble on the horizon. "Gam l'Lot haholeich et Avraham hayah tzon u'bakar v'ohalim", Lot's also kind of wealthy. And then a dispute erupts between the shepherds of Lot and the shepherds of Abraham. "V'lo nasa otam ha'aretz lashevet yachdav", they couldn't dwell together. "Hayah rechusham rav, lo yachlu lashevet yachdav", they had so much stuff, they couldn't sit together in the land.
At that point Abraham tells Lot, we've got to go separate ways. You go your way, I'll go my way. "Vayivchar lo Lot", Lot chooses "et kol kikar haYarden", the Jordan valley. "Vaye'ehal ad Sedom", he pitches his tent in Sodom. "V'anshei Sedom ra'im v'chata'im la'Hashem me'od", the people of Sodom were terribly wicked in God's eyes.
Why do I need to know that now? Whole chapters later that becomes relevant, when the city of Sodom is, in fact, destroyed. But why do I need to know now that the people of Sodom were wicked? Because that's telling you something about the story now. It is important for you to understand that Lot chose to go to a place where there were terribly wicked people.
What does this do to the plan that Lot was going to carry on Abraham's legacy, and the nation is going to come through him? Not only are these men not together, but where is Lot now? He's in the most wicked place on earth. Interestingly, at this very moment, "va'Hashem amar el Avram", and God said to Abraham "acharei hipareid Lot m'imo", after Lot left. Notice the emphasis on the text, after Lot left; after Abraham was willing to let go of Lot.
"Sa na einecha", lift up your eyes, "u're'eh min hamakom asher atah sham", and look where you are. "Tzafonah vanegbah vakedmah vayamah", north, south, east and west. "Et kol ha'aretz asher atah ro'eh lecha etnenah u'lezar'acha ad olam", the whole land that I'm going to give you. I'm going to give it to all of your children forever. North, south, east and west, as far as the eye can see, to the horizon. Expansion in space, expansion in time. I'm going to give it to all of your children forever.
The promise has been deepened. Why? Abraham has acted with great faith. God has promised him that he's going to be the father of a nation, but where is it going to happen? His plan isn't working out. It's not going to be through Lot, right? He's just trusting God. So God says, I love you. You're really trusting me. But don't worry, we're on this great, magical journey together. It's going to work out.
Then we get to the war of the four kings and the five kings. It's not about ancient Mesopotamian history. It's about the story, the development of Abraham's nation. Because if you're Abraham, word gets to you Lot has been taken as part of this war. Abraham, through the help of God, succeeds in vanquishing the opposing armies and plucking Lot out of Armageddon itself. At that moment, if you're Abraham, what are you saying to yourself now?
Remember, you do not know the end of the story. You say, Baruch Hashem , look at the hashgachah, look at the providence. I let go of Lot, but really it was only because I was going to get Lot back. I see the hand of God. He helped me win this war. God, thank you so much for giving me Lot back. Now I get how we're going to have this great nation.
And Then what happens? The king of Sodom comes to Abraham and says, "tein li hanefesh v'harechush kach lach". You know, let's divide up the spoils over here. You can take the stuff, but give me all the people. And that's it. All the people, including Lot, go with the king. Lot is out of Abraham's life for the very last time. Can you imagine a more devastating thing? You saw the hashgachah, you saw the providence, only to have the door slam in your face.
Abraham, The Man Of FaithAt that moment, God speaks to Abraham one more time. "Achar hadevarim ha'eileh", after these things, the Torah points out that Abraham is still trusting God, that he is still holding on to this promise. He has no idea how it's going to happen. Look at this man of faith. After these things, "hayah devar Hashem el Avram", God comes out of the clouds and tells him "al tira, Avram", don't be afraid. It's all going to work out fine. "Anochi magein lach, secharcha harbeh me'od", your reward is beyond measure.
But now Abraham has reached, like, a breaking point. Listen to the words he says. "Hashem Elokim", my Lord, "ma titein li?" What can you possibly give me? "Anochi holeich ariri", I don't have any children, "u'ven meshek beiti hu Damesek Eliezer", the only one I have left is, what?My servant Eliezer from Damascus? Like, this is it? We're down to Eliezer?
Then look what happens. "Vayomer Avram", and then Abraham said – but stop right there. Abraham was the last one talking. God didn't say anything. But that's the whole point. There was this long silence. God wasn't really ready to say anything. Then Abraham speaks again. He says the same thing as before: "hein li lo natatah zera", You didn't give me any children, God. You say I'm going to have this reward; what's it going to be? "Hineh ben beiti yoreish oti", it's down to my servant. Is this really where we're at?
And then God comes to him and says, for the very first time, "lo yirashcha zeh", it's not going to be him. "Asher yeitzei mimei'echa hu yirashecha", those who come from you biologically, they are going to be the ones who inherit. You, you old man, you're going to have a child. It's the first time Abraham gets this news. That realization, that they will have a biological child, is a turning point in the story. It sets up the next great series of chapters in Abraham's life, the next great challenge in Abraham's life; a challenge epitomized by the birth of Ishmael and by Ishmael's ultimate expulsion.
We'll talk about that when we come back next week.