Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Mekor Chaim Lech Lecha

The following commentary was distributed by the Jewish Federations of North America.  I continue to participate in its Rabbinic Cabinet.

Seemingly out of nowhere God calls Abraham, “The Lord said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you…’” We are left to wonder why Abraham?  What was it about his character that made God choose him?

The rabbis of course spin many midrashim to explain this.  The most famous of which is the story about the time young Abraham was working in his father idol shop.  Abraham smashes all the idols except one and then when his father confronts him, he blames the single idol.  His father screams, “That is ridiculous!  An idol can’t destroy other idols.”  And Abraham says, “Exactly!”  A statue of wood and stone cannot be responsible for our lives.  In that moment Abraham begins to realize that there is only one God who moves heaven and earth.

Moses Maimonides as well offers a similar insight.   He suggests that Abraham looks to the stars and realizes that they should not be objects of our worship.  He understands that there is an invisible force who instead moves the stars and orders the heavens.  Aristotle, whose thinking greatly influenced Maimonides, called this force the Prime Mover.  Maimonides saw this as synonymous with God.  Abraham understood that only this force is worthy of our devotion.

The particulars of these different stories are somewhat immaterial.  All the commentators agree that there was something remarkable in Abraham’s character.  There was something unique in his insights.  He must have been called by God because he was in essence the first to understand the power of monotheism.  Perhaps the commentators are wrong.  Perhaps the Oral Torah is mistaken.  Is it blasphemous to suggest such an idea? 

Is it instead possible that there was nothing special in Abraham’s character?  Is it imaginable that God decided to pick an ordinary, everyday man?  Perhaps the power of the story is what Abraham accomplished after the call.  That in truth is the more important Torah.  Abraham’s character is inconsequential until he is called.

We spend so much of our lives devoted to establishing our credentials.  Here are my accomplishments we say over and over again. Here is what I can bring to your university is what my son is presently toiling over.  We then imagine that we are only chosen if we are fit for the position or task, if our experiences merit our selection.  This suggests that we are truly masters of our own fate and that we are picked for our demonstrated abilities.  Yet there are often times when we are called for no other reason than we are present to be chosen.  We are standing there and so we are picked.

The notion that we are only chosen because of our own merits is a myth.  There are times when the choice is indeed random.  Our character does not always dictate the selection.  Our past experiences cannot always shape the future.

Instead our character is determined by how we respond to the choice. Our destiny is shaped by how we respond to the call. Then the only question is, do we respond like Abraham. Do we say, “Hineni—here I am?”

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