Intro: In the physical world that G-d created, children acquire their parents’ genetic material. Looks, age, longevity and other factors are programmed into us as a mixture of our parents.
Our spiritual makeup is also affected by our parents and ancestors. We inherit spiritual potential from our ancestors who made choices in their relationship with G-d.
Therefore, when we study about the ‘forefathers’-Avraham, Yitzhak, and Yaakov, and the ‘foremothers’-Sarah, Rivka, Rachel, and Leah, we are learning something about ourselves. The Torah presents their story at great length so we can know what we have the potential to achieve.
After telling the history of the world from the creation of Adam to the splitting apart of the nations, the Torah turns to the story of the man who changed history the most-our father Avraham. When G-d first appears to Avraham, He tells him “Go from your land, your birthplace and your father’s house to this land that I will show you”. He promises him that he will have children who will become the Jewish people, the people who will change the world.
But Avraham was seventy-five years old at the time when G-d spoke to him. What had he been doing before? How did he get to be the person who G-d appointed to change the world?
Although the Torah doesn’t tell us what Avraham did to merit being appointed by G-d for his mission, information about his life was passed down in Midrashim. The Rambam wrote down, in his major work, Mishne Torah, what we know about Avraham’s life before the Torah focuses on him.
(At this point, I give out a page with this section of the Rambam, and have people read it. It’s the text for the rest of the class.)
Rambam, Mishne Torah, “The Laws of Idol Worship”“As time passed, the honored and revered Name of G-d was forgotten by mankind, vanished from their lips and hearts, and was no longer known to them. All the common people and the women and children knew only the figure of wood and stone, and the temple edifice in which they had, from their childhood, been trained to prostrate themselves to the figure, worship it and swear by its name. Even their wise men, such as priests and men of similar standing, also fancied that there was no other god but the stars and spheres, for whose sake these figures had been made. But the Creator of the Universe was known to none, and recognized by none, save a few solitary individuals such as Enosh, Methuselah, Noach, Shem and Eber.
“The world moved on in this fashion, till that Pillar of the World, the Patriarch Avraham, was born….While still a young boy, his mind began to reflect. By day and night, he was thinking and wondering: ‘How is it possible that this sphere should be continuously be guiding the world and have no one to guide it and cause it to turn round; for it cannot be that it turns round of itself.’ He had no teacher,and no one to tell him anything. He was submerged in Ur of the Chaldees, among crazy idolators. His father and mother and the entire population worshipped idols, and he worshipped with them. But his mind was busily working and reflecting till he had attained the way of truth, apprehended the correct line of thought and knew that there is One G-d, that He guides the celestial sphere and created everything, and that among all that exist, there is no god beside Him. He realized that the whole world was in error, and that what had occasioned their error was that they worshipped the stars and the images, so that the truth perished from their minds. Avraham was forty years old when he recognized his Creator.
“Having attained this knowledge, he began to refute the inhabitants of Ur of the Chaldees, arguing with them and saying to them,’The course you are following is not the way of truth’. He broke the images and commenced to instruct the people that it was not right to serve any one but the G-d of the Universe, to Whom alone it was proper to bow down, offer up sacrifices and make libations, so that all human creatures might, in the future, know Him; and that it was proper to destroy and shatter all the images, so that the people might not err like these who thought that there was no god but these images.
“When he had prevailed over them with his arguments, the king sought to slay him. He was miraculously saved, and emigrated to Haran.”
1–Our tradition tells us that Avraham struggled to find answers to life in a world that was totally unaware of G-d’s existence. To understand what this means, we can ask the following question: (Ask it to the class)
Today we see that there are many people who have strong convictions on many different issues. Many of these convictions are held so strongly that people are willing to die for them (suicide bombers are only one example). On what basis do most people decide the convictions that they are willing to give their life for?
The answer: (some members of the class might get it right away, everyone else when they hear the answer will admit it’s true): The convictions people decide on so strongly are mostly a result of where the person is born-if born in a Muslim country, he will be a Muslim, a European will likely be a secular humanist, etc. And this is in a world where it is obvious that there are many different opinions. A Serb will think he is right and fight for his cause against the Bosnian Muslims, and vice versa, even when the person who disagrees with him lives right next door!
2–What if someone grew up in a world where there was no difference of opinion?
An example: I once met at Aish HaTorah someone who had traveled through Africa for five years. He had met a white police inspector in Northern Kenya who told him about two tribes who were cut off from the rest of the world. These tribes had an ancient custom: because of an ancient enmity between them, you could not get married in the tribe until you killed someone from the other tribe. The police inspector was trying to stop the custom, and if he came upon a wedding, would hang the groom, because it meant that he was a murderer.
Ask the class: Can you blame the people in the two tribes? The custom was agreed upon from time immemorial by both the tribes. They had no one to tell them differently. Could they have known that it was wrong?
(People will have trouble with the question. Most of the class will probably agree that they can’t be blamed, some people will feel that they should have had an intuition that it was wrong.)
3–In the Talmud, it talks about the great Rabbi Hillel. Hillel was a very poor man. He had to work all day as a woodchopper, and take the few pennies that he earned to pay to get into the Beit Midrash to study at night. He became the greatest Rabbi of his time.
The Talmud says: “Hillel obligates poor people”. I.e., no poor person can say to G-d: “How could you expect me to learn? I was so busy just getting food for myself!” HaShem can say to him-were you any poorer than Hillel, and look what he did! (Obviously the Talmud understands that Hillel achieved his greatness not because he was smarter or had a stronger constitution than anyone else, but because he used his free will in a way that any person could).
The Talmud is speaking about Hillel, but we can use the same principle (if one person can do it, everyone is responsible) for an even more encompassing statement: Avraham obligates all humanity. If Avraham came to truth in a world where he was totally alone, every human being is responsible for not doing it, even those tribesmen in Northern Kenya.
4-But how can we expect human beings to come to truth if there are no other opinions around and no one to teach them?
Our tradition about Avraham tells us the tool that Avraham used to come to his realization. He asked questions. How is it possible that this world is here and operating? What makes the sun go up and go down? Why are we here?
These questions can, and should, be asked by any human being. Questioning is the start for any search for meaning.
So the first thing we learn about Avraham is that he was a questioner. This is something that Jews have particularly inherited from Avraham: Jews naturally think for themselves and ask questions. But it is not a specifically Jewish trait-all human beings have the capability to do it, and some do.
5-We should be asking these questions, and some of us do. But the answers are hard to come by. What if you ask, and can’t find the answer?
Many of us have asked, at some point in our lives, is there a G-d, is there a meaning to existence? But what did we do afterwards? Turn on the TV, go to a movie, distract ourselves from the question. Some of us made more of an effort, and discussed it with friends before deciding it was too deep or difficult a question. A few of us may have read some serious books about it.
How many of us put in the effort that Avraham did? Our tradition says that he was thinking day and night about his questions. The Midrash says he tried out every idol worship in the world to see if it had answers. Starting as a child, it took him until the age of 40 to finally come to the answer.
The second thing we learn about Avraham is: he was committed to making the effort to find the truth. That also is a trait Jews have inherited from him. But it is not the defining quality of Jews-there are non-Jews who will also make that effort.
6-Avraham made a long and hard effort. At the age of 40, he recognized the truth.Having found truth, what should he do about it?
After discovering truth, there are three possible options:a-
Be happy you found it, keep it to yourself, and go on with your life.b-
Find some other people who are interested in what you understand, and create a community of fellow-believers.c-
Become a missionary-preach the truth to everyone, even the people who don’t want to listen to you. Tell them that their way of living is not the way of truth. Break their idols if they don’t want to listen (Breaking an idol is a very aggressive way of making a point-this thing can’t save itself, how can you expect anything from it?)
Ask the class: which would you think it would be better to do? (Almost everyone will agree that b is the most sensible).
So why did Avraham choose option c? If people were happy in their idol worship, and didn’t want to listen to him, why try to force his ideas upon them? (G-d hadn’t spoken to Avraham yet, and told him to do this. He was doing it from his own logic.)
7-To understand, Rabbi Weinberg brings the following story (not a true one): Imagine a women who all her life just wanted to get married and have children. But she married a bad husband, who beat her and left her. Now she’s a woman past child-bearing age with no husband and no children. Under the stress of it all, she goes insane. Her delusion, which she tells the doctor every day, is that she has a new baby every day.
Ask the class: If you were the doctor, and she shows you her ‘new baby’ would you play along, or show her she was deluded? Right now, she is happy in her delusion. If you show her that she has no baby, she will be an unhappy woman who can no longer get what she most wanted in life.
(A majority of the class will usually agree that it is better to play along with her delusion. A minority will feel that, even if it will leave her miserable, she needs to see the truth -but they usually can’t explain why.)
To get at the answer, ask people to use their intuition. Imagine you were in a very bad mood that day. When she shows you her baby, you say: Lady, there’s no baby there! How do you intuit she would react? (Most people will appreciate that she will get upset, start shouting at the doctor, etc.)
Now imagine a different scene: A woman is in a maternity ward with a real baby. The doctor comes in, and she shows him her baby. He says: there’s no baby there! How would she react? (People easily appreciate that she wouldn’t get angry, she would laugh at how many crazy doctors there are today).
Why does the woman with the real baby laugh, and the woman with the imaginary baby get angry?
The class will see the answer themselves. The woman with the imaginary baby deep down knows that she doesn’t have a real baby. That’s why she reacts so defensively.
So the answer to the question: do you play along with her delusion or get her to see the truth is: she loses nothing by being made to realize the truth. On a deeper level she knows it anyway, and is in deep pain. Her delusion is just a cover up to the pain that is always there.
Avraham understood that a world without awareness of G-d is a world in pain.People may cover up what they are missing, but delusions can’t take the place of reality.
To Avraham, there was no difference between the ‘happy’ idol-worshipper and the person who was more ready to listen. He loved human beings, and saw they all needed help.
Today, this is still the mission of the Jewish people. We understand that everyone in the world needs a connection with G-d, and the suffering that is so prevalent in the world has as its root cause a lack of connection with G-d and real meaning. The fact that people are defensive-don’t convert me, don’t push religion on me-is because they are unhappy with their own lives (A happy person might say “That’s very interesting”, or “Thanks, but I’m not interested now”-but he wouldn’t be angry or upset.
7-Avraham goes out to reach people. He tells them their way is not the way of truth, and argues with them; he breaks their idols to make the point stronger.
What is the result? The Rambam says: “When he had prevailed over them with his arguments, the king of the country sought to slay him”. No one stood up for him.
Avraham learned a lesson from this. Although intellectually defeating your opponent in an argument might seem to be the best way to spread truth, people will hate the winner. We see that, later in his life, Avraham adopted a totally different outreach technique-invite people in for a meal, do kindness to them, than discuss G-d with them.
This is still the way that Jews need to communicate their message to other Jews. (Why we don’t missionize the world is a deeper point. I’ve included an answer below, but it is probably too much for this class unless someone asks).
// Why don’t we missionize the world? We certainly believe that Judaism is the way to get closest to G-d not just for Jews but for non-Jews as well. We don’t, because when G-d gave us the Torah at Mount Sinai, he appointed us a “nation of kohanim”. A kohen effects people by how he lives, not by what he says. G-d told us that the nations will only be effected by us if we show them living examples of Torah life, not if we teach them our ideas. And this has been borne out in history-Jewish ideas of G-d and morality have been spread all around the world by the Roman pagans who saw Jews and accepted Christianity, and Mohammed who saw Jews and invented Islam. It didn’t happen through our proselytizing. //
8-According to our tradition, Nimrod, the king of Shinar, gave Avraham a choice: bow down to idols or get thrown into a fire.
What should Avraham have done? To save his life by bowing down to idols would seem to be more practical. He can run away to teach what he knows in a different place, or at least save his life so he can think about G-d (and bowing is only an outward action, in your heart you can still be true to your beliefs).
In the Torah, one of the commandments is “kiddush HaShem”, sanctification of G-d’s name. The first part of ‘kiddush HaShem’ is willingness to die rather than do three things: idol worship, murder, or illicit sex. The prohibition against idol worship includes even outward acts, even when no one is watching.
Avraham understood on his own, even though G-d hadn’t spoken to him, that to give in to Nimrod, even in an outward way, would effect his relationship with G-d. To value your life more than that relationship is more destructive than to lose your life.
So Avraham refused to bow down, and was thrown into the fire. He expected to die, because we can’t depend on miracles. G-d did a miracle for him, and he walked out alive.
The third thing we learn about Avraham is: He was ready to die for what he believed in.
Conclusion: We see, from Avraham’s early life, some great things about him. He was a man who worked all his life to understand reality. When he understood, he committed himself to helping people by bringing that reality to others. He was willing to die for what he understood to be reality.
So why doesn’t the Torah tell us directly about these great things? And why, when he walked out of the fire alive, didn’t G-d come and speak to him then?(He had to run away from Nimrod, and go to Haran, where, at least ten years later, G-d said “Go, and start the Jewish people”).