Understanding Jewish identity through Avraham


This week’s Torah portion is Lech Lecha, Genesis 12:1-17:27.

With the opening words of this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, we are introduced to Avraham, the figure who will legitimately serve as the forefather of the Jewish people.

The Torah offers little introduction to who this person is and what brought him to merit such a role.  While there are external sources and the stories we learned in childhood that speak of the early years of Avraham’s life, the Torah chooses not to concern itself with those biographical tales.

This is in contrast to Noah, whose entire life story from birth was preparing him for the challenges which God would impose upon him.


Why would one man be deserving of a rich biography and the second — likely the most important character in the very history of our people — lack any such background in the text?

It would seem that the Torah is aiming to teach us a basic, yet critical lesson directly linked to our very identity as a Jewish people.

In essence, throughout the millennia that the Jewish people have developed and thrived, there have been two separate aspects of our existence: the spiritual and the physical.

But Judaism is not simply a religion like others. We are both a people and a nation who was called upon — and is still called upon — to physically defend its existence and set itself apart from the other nations of the world.
Avraham, as the “first Jew,” needed to have an identity that spanned both of these realities.  He was not chosen — and indeed we as a people were not chosen — because of any specific attribute or quality.

A parallel message applies to the fact that God commanded Avraham to come to the land of Canaan and for that fact this is now our land. While the land is great and bountiful and we have molded it into a country of great wonder and productivity, Eretz Yisrael is ours for no other reason than because God gave it to us thousands of years ago and ensured that it would remain ours throughout the generations.

Taking this explanation a step forward is the mitzvah of brit milah described later in this parsha. There are likely few less rational commandments than to be asked to perform such a physical act on a newborn child.
The lesson here and the lesson of Avraham, a simple man whose attributes as a leader would only be revealed later, is that there need not be an explanation for everything. That is an inherent reality of the Jewish faith and our nationhood which must be understood and appreciated from the very outset.

We are Jews, and proud to be Jews, and we are not always afforded the chance or the need to ask why. Just like we don’t always agree with our parents and siblings but understand that the institution of family allows for a level of respect that sometimes deprives us of the ability to demand answers, this is the message of the Torah.
The answers might not always be apparent, just like why a figure like Avraham became the father of our nation despite us knowing little about who he was and from where he came.

But to be a member of the majesty of the Jewish people — a people both bound by laws and nationhood — is a gift so precious that we relish the opportunity — even when the answers might not be readily apparent. n

Rabbi David Stav is the chief rabbi of the city of Shoham, Israel. He is founder and chairman of the Tzohar Rabbinical Organization in Israel.

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