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Answering the Unexpected

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.’” (Genesis 12) We are left to wonder why Abraham? What is it about his character that made God choose him?

The rabbis of course spin many stories to explain this. The most famous of which is the tale 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!” He reasons that 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 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 writing 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 our rabbis are 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 might be 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 students write in their college essays. We then imagine that we are only chosen if we are fit for the position. We think we are picked for the task if our experiences merit our selection. This suggests that we are truly masters of our own fate and that we are picked because of our demonstrated abilities.

Yet there are 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 chosen because of our own merits each and every time is a myth. There are moments when the choice is indeed random, when we are chosen (or not) for no apparent reason or explanation. Our character does not always dictate the selection. Our past experiences cannot always shape our future.

Instead, our character is determined by how we respond to the choice. Our destiny is shaped by how we respond when called. Our Torah is written when we embrace the mystery of how life's choices unfold.

The only question then becomes, do we respond like Abraham. Do we say, “Hineni—here I am?”