Ask virtually any Jew to identify Avraham Avinu and he will do so without hesitation. On the other hand, he remains a mysterious figure. Despite reams of commentary, a coherent picture of the man, his beliefs, and their implications for our lives remains elusive. So why does he interest us so? Perhaps Avraham piques our curiosity because he was, in a sense, the original ba’al teshuva, and we live in an era of ba’alei teshuva. He was, of course, the progenitor of kiruv. However, even more compellingly, we sense that Avraham was a good man. A moral man. The morality of his situation seems always to have occupied him, and he was willing to engage and remain engaged with moral issues while struggling to find the path which incorporated the moral solution. Moreover, Avraham was uniquely able to reconcile morality and faith and when, despite all, the moral response was painful, he did not suppress this pain behind elaborate rationalizations. Rather – as in the case when he was forced to shut Hagar and Yishmael, his son, out of his life and send them alone into the desert – he accepted that morality was no stranger to pain, was willing to share that bond of hurt with those who suffered, and consequently brought empathy and some dignity to the moral undertaking.
This essay aims to shed light on Avraham, the moral man of faith, by elucidating his significance for contemporary Jews while hopefully adding to a more coherent understanding of his life. By drawing on Midrash and classical commentary, but primarily by conducting a careful reading of the text, we will attempt to understand the biblical sources anew. We feel it important to note that while we will thoroughly analyze each verse relating to Avraham, this series of essays is not meant as an exhaustive examination of every possible issue relating to him. It is our hope that the issues which are chosen for exploration will add substance to our understanding of this fascinating man whose modeling of moral values and ethical conduct is still reflected in our lives.
We begin in Parashat Lech Lecha. The first pasuk (12:1) reads:
God said to Avram: Leave your land and your birth place and your father’s home, and go to the land I will show you.
Following this verse’s context, we understand that God reveals Himself here to Avram1 for the very first time. That He does so when Avram is already at such an advanced age, 75, speaks to long years of development prior to this revelation. Avram is thus beginning a very particular phase of his religious development: having worked through fundamental faith issues, presumably, and having undergone essential character formation, his role at this stage is to present and represent these things to others. Of course, having said this is not to say that Avram is perfect, or that he has nothing further to learn. He has much to discover and has much change in store for him; he has great profundity to yet experience and by which experience be further transformed.
However, before we can explore Avram’s subsequent transformations, we must ask the obvious question: why Avram? Avram was the first person to whom God had spoken in ten generations. Why was he, in contrast to all others, chosen? Midrash Rabbah grapples with this question.
Rabbi Levi commented, “‘Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justice?’ (Bereishit 18:25): If you desire the world to endure there can be no absolute justice; while if you desire absolute justice the world cannot endure. Yet you would hold the cord by both ends, desiring both the world and absolute justice. Unless you forego a little the world cannot endure.” Said the Holy One, Blessed be He, to Avraham, “‘You loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore the Lord your God has anointed you with the oil of gladness above your fellows’ (Tehillim 45:8). What does ‘above your fellows’ mean? From Noah to you were ten generations and out of all of them I spoke with you alone.”
Bereishit Rabba (Vilna edition)
Lech Lecha, parsha 39
In this Midrash, Rabbi Levi quotes Avram, who points out a contradiction: if God wants a functioning world, He cannot also have absolute justice – the two simply cannot exist together, as we will soon explain. The Midrash then goes on to imply that because God is so impressed by this insight of Avram’s, He chooses Avram as the first person in ten generations with whom He speaks.
To begin to understand why this insight is so significant and impressive to God, let us take note that the Midrash opens by quoting the famous question Avram asks God in their discussion about the fate of Sodom. Faced with the enormity of what God intends to do to the city Avram asks, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justice?” In actual fact, the Midrash extracts Avram’s crucial philosophic insight – that absolute justice cannot coincide with a normally functioning world – from this very question. For clarity’s sake, let us read their biblical dialogue (Bereishit 18) in its entirety:
What is Avram seeking from God in this dialogue? What is he hoping to achieve? On the contextual peshat level, it seems he is seeking localized mishpat,2 justice, either for all of the cities’ inhabitants or just for the tzaddikim who, even if saved, will suffer the loss of family and friends. But if we return to our original Midrash, we can see that its focus is in fact much more of a global one – that is when Avram says, “Shall not the Judge of all earth do justice?”, he is not merely trying to achieve justice for Sodom in the here and now but is, actually, embarking on a much larger quest to elucidate the universal concept of justice.
God, the Midrash tells us, desires absolute justice. This is His ideal state of affairs. Avram, however, understands that the desire for absolute justice is shortsighted and ineffectual because the world by its nature is imperfect, and thus cannot measure up to the lofty ideal of absolute justice. A world whose standard is absolute justice is not a world that can ever be, nor ever endure. Therefore, Avram posits, in order to ensure the world’s survival, God must surrender His dream of absolute justice, and introduce another foundational ideal alongside justice: that of rachamim, mercy. According to Avram, an ideal moral world must include both justice and mercy.
This is the paradox of existence: justice toward the whole of existence demands rachamim, mercy. We now see that Avram’s famous question – השופט כל הארץ לא יעשה משפט? – is actually not to be read as a question at all! Rather, it is a statement: “One who wholly and solely judges the world does not do justice to it.” And not only does He not do justice to it, He actually destroys it. Avram asserts that mercy is not subordinate to justice, depending on situation and circumstance, on when and where and if it is needed; rather, he declares, mercy is of the very essence of creation. It is a foundational value without which creation and human life on earth is impossible, for all men are limited, all knowledge partial, all behavior imperfect and thus error inevitable.
This balanced and complex insight, says our Midrash, so impresses God that He chooses Avram as the father of His new faith.
But Avram does not stop there. He also points out that mercy cannot exist without justice. It is indeed an ideal and foundational value, but pure mercy without any tempering justice leads to its antithesis: pure devastation. Untethered mercy leads to anarchy, since in a society where all can be excused, all becomes possible.
Avram is not sure, though, how the balance between justice and mercy should play out; where the line should be drawn between too little and too much mercy. Thus, in his exchange with God regarding the Sodomites, Avram seeks the boundary limits of mercy. He pokes and prods at God in their dialogue about the tzaddikim of Sodom (or lack thereof), trying to steer a course along that boundary line. And, in fact, it seems that Avram comes to the answer himself: he realizes that the limit to which God can extend rachamim is at that point where there is no longer the possibility of a community of tzaddikim with the power to sway their surroundings towards goodness and righteousness and away from evil. At that point, extending rachamim to a society that has insufficient potential for good will of necessity allow for and even empower evil. That is why Avram breaks off his requests to God when he reaches ten: a quorum or community of such righteous individuals. He understands that at that very juncture, rachamim becomes counterproductive, because if virtually all can be forgiven then every horror can be excused.
Now, as individuals, how do we strike that balance? How much mercy should a person seek for himself from others and from God? And where must we acknowledge that justice is the more appropriate measure of our actions? On the one hand, it is at this stage that halachah makes its entrance, regulating our behavior and setting “minimal” requirements for which one will be held responsible. However, what of Avram, pre-halachic man, or even in our own lives, in those situations that confront us daily and demand our moral response but for which there may not be clear halachic guidelines (or, where in the chilling words of the Ramban, I can become a “Naval B’Rshut HaTorah” – someone who is vile within the boundaries of halachah)? For example: when, in their presence, I honor my parents but seek most often to avoid them; or where in public I speak well of others while privately holding them in contempt. Or simply, where others seek warmth, empathy and a sympathetic ear and I am unresponsive to their need out of lack of perception or sufficient sensitivity. Where in the myriad of such situations is the line between rachamim and mishpat?
The answer lies, perhaps, in the context of the Bible’s first introduction to Avram, when God tells him to leave his land and his birthplace and go to a new land. וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-אַבְרָם, לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ. The sages tell us that the command of Lech Lecha was the first of ten nisyonot, challenges to which Avram was subjected by God. Avram understood that it is nisayon which ultimately mediates between rachamim and mishpat, between mercy and justice, and which holds them in balance. How so? For himself, Avram threw off the crutch of mercy. By taking on God’s nisyonot he, as it were, asked God to apply to him the higher standard of justice. For himself, Avram accepted every challenge, for that is what was required for him and his world of moral rigor to move forward. He viewed himself only through the lens of nisayon. At the very same time, though, he viewed others through the lens of mercy. He did this recognizing that mercy is not only extended due to generosity or pity, but because it is itself of life’s foundational essence. Thus, he chose to see others in this light rather than to judge or condemn them. For himself, nonetheless, he discerned that only through accepting life’s challenges could he advance the goals God had set for him in the world: to oppose evil and bring a measure of kedushah, alignment with God, into his life. It is for these reasons – because of this complex and profound worldview, and the behaviors implicit in it – that God chose him over all others. Avram was a singular, exemplary human being, even over the span of ten generations.
It is this orientation toward life which uniquely defines Avram, and which ultimately defines the goal of each Jew. Life constantly challenges us. We constantly face tests, large and small, of our moral capabilities. If we do not accept these challenges we are pitiable. If we do respond we may even become heroic. However, we often see the trials we face as God’s punishment for our sins. Certainly they are painful. Yet, we learn from our forefather and exemplar Avram that these “punishments” are not necessarily punishments at all! The word punishment connotes retribution. Nisyonot, on the other hand, are a vehicle not only to build inner resolve but to comprehend the nature of evil and the means to oppose and overcome it. From this perspective, we understand that our confrontation with nisayon is God’s offer of profound comprehension together with the development of subtle strength, as well as strategies for countering evil. This is not to suggest that of necessity every nisayon which we face is God challenging us. Evil resides in the actions of men and they are often the authors of our trials. Nor do we mean to trivialize evil. The weak and the young lack the resources to face the forces arrayed against them and even the strongest individual may not find the inner endowments required for every trial. For this mercy was created. Nonetheless, whatever the source and nature of the nisayon, the opportunity remains to employ it for our benefit as well as for the benefit of the community or society as a whole.
Prior to a final note let us summarize what has been said so far. God appeared to Avram for the first time at age 75, instructing him to begin a new life as the living exemplar of a monotheistic creed and the progenitor of a people dedicated to this faith. The Midrash suggests why Avram was chosen for these roles: because of his deep understanding of the relationship of justice to mercy. Avram comprehended that the world could not exist if God were to apply to it strict justice. This is so because humans, by their nature, are imperfect moral beings. They have imperfect knowledge, imperfect understanding and imperfect ability to implement correct solutions to moral issues. Thus, to act justly toward His world, God must exercise mercy. Mercy is not dependent on a particular set of circumstances; it is fundamental to the existence of a flawed world where both justice and mercy must be in balance. And, yet, mercy too carries with it the potential to destroy all civilized life, for if God and man forgive all, then every horrific behavior can be overlooked! What, then, are we to do? Avram answers that for a society to endure, it must be certain that a community of righteous individuals is present within it in order to sway the city, state, nation toward good. That suffices to justify its ongoing existence. However, how is this balance struck for individuals? Partially, it is decided through the setting of minimal standards to which we are held responsible. However, Avram understood that this alone does not necessarily suffice, as pointed out by the Ramban, and as is observable through our own life experiences. What is the missing element, then? This, Avram grasped, was nisayon: the moral challenges God and life pose for us. By accepting these trials, I can hope to attain comprehension of evil, learn how to face and oppose it, and thus advance the world toward the ends God has set for it and which God has set for my life as well. Thus, strangely, what may nominally appear as God applying justice to my life may actually incorporate mercy as well, since it allows me to grow as a person and help incrementally to improve this world. For others, however, I adopt the perspective of mercy in the realization that I am not able to fathom the complexity of particular lives; therefore, balanced moral judgment is largely impossible and must be left to God. For myself I seek a stricter judgment; for others I seek mercy! In this way, through the setting of minimal standards, and more profoundly through my acceptance of nisayon, the threat of mercy is held in check.
Now finally, the daunting truth of nisayon must be emphasized again, since this reality was something that Avram understood so well: nisayon is hard. Our world is replete with moral paradox. When we remove the shattered limb of an injured person so that he may survive, our means are destructive but our end fully justified. Yet, we cannot help but regret this necessity and mourn along with him the limb he has lost. Or, in fighting a just war where many are slaughtered, can we help but mourn the dead even though these actions are fully justified? To realize that both the means and ends of moral decisions can be tragic, to empathize in the depths of one’s being with the tragedy, and yet to accept the reality of these nisyonot as well: that is the legacy of Avram. For others I seek mercy. For myself I seek a more difficult and lofty and at times paradoxical judgment. This was Avram and to this day that remains fundamental to the definition of a Jew.