A Life Worth Recording

By Levi Brackman, 10-19-2015.

An old lady walked in to her local travel agent and asked to buy a ticket to the Himalayas. The agent tried to convince her that the Bahamas or the Canary Islands would be a more suitable holiday destination. Seeing that the old lady was insistent and after explaining all the dangers inherent in her trip he sold her a ticket.

Upon arriving she started out on her trek. After a number of days she reached a very distinguished looking temple in the middle of the mountains. She knocked on the door and asked to speak with the guru. She was told that the guru is not holding audience for the next six months. She begs and pleads - but to no avail. She insists that she only wants to say three words to the guru, and must be granted entry.  The assistant goes inside, checks once more and finally she is allowed in. As she enters she sees the guru sitting on the floor surrounded by a handful of his followers meditating. The guru looks up and their eyes meet:

“Moshe! come home!” she exclaims.    

So in good Jewish tradition, Abraham was a spiritual leader, a teacher, a philosopher, a maverick, a revolutionary – a guru. The popular wisdom of his time believed in idolatry. Nimrod the king of Ur Kasdim – Abraham’s birthplace - proclaimed himself to be a deity and the people worshipped him. This bothered Abraham. He soon came to the conclusion that idols were powerless and that king Nimrod was no god. He then went about convincing his fellow citizens of this.

Based on Maimonides’ description of Abraham’s life, Abraham was a kind of demagogue who spent his time countering idolatry and spreading monotheism to whoever  wanted to hear it.  Abraham built quite a following. One can imagine that he became something of a phenomenon making grand speeches and wooing the crowds with his eloquent and inspiring oratory. But on close inspection, all of this seems to be missing from the Torah account.  

This week’s Torah portion starts with the first recorded event in Abraham’s life. God appears to Abraham, now 75 years old, and instructs him to “…leave your land, your birthplace and you father’s house and go to the Land that I will show you.”  What about the story of his miraculous escape from the fiery furnace or how he smashed the idols in his fathers shop?  Why are we not told about the thousands of followers that he had attracted and the countless divine interactions that he may have had? Given such an eventful backdrop, God’s command to leave his birthplace seems rather unexciting. So why did the Torah choose this incident to be the opening to the story of Abraham’s life?

The answer lies in the fact that up until the point where God told Abraham to leave his father’s house he may have been an effective revolutionary leader, a person who preached an effective message but he was still not worthy of mention in the Torah.

Victor Klemperer in his diaries of the Holocaust entitled, ‘I Shall Bear Witness: The Diaries of Victor Klemperer’ wrote that after assuring a fellow Jew that God will look after them and they will make it to the end of the war alive he thought that there are three types of preachers: one who believes in what he preaches even when he is not actually preaching, another who only believes in it while he is preaching, and a third who does not even believe in it while he is preaching. He wrote that he felt like the second type.

When we hear politicians give speeches we often feel that the politicians themselves do not live up to what they are talking about. Spiritual leaders too are vulnerable to this. Abraham may have been an effective leader, rabbi, guru and politician. But the Torah is not only a book about leaders: it is primarily a book about followers. It is not a book that contains grand speeches and fiery rhetoric: it teaches by example. All the previous events in Abraham’s life can be viewed as manifestations of his maverick type personality.

The Torah’s first story of Abraham, however, presents a man who is dedicated to God, a man who is willing to leave all the prestige that he had built up in the land of Choron and go to an unspecified destination just because God asked him to. This showed that Abraham was not simply another revolutionary leader wanting to promulgate his own ideas. Here was a man who had devoted every ounce of his being to a God. All along Abraham had lectured on the importance of this sort of dedication and devotion; but until he put it in to practice it remained rhetoric and therefore unworthy of reporting in the Torah. The moment Abraham actually walked the talk his life became worth recording.