By Rabbi James Michaels
This week’s Torah portion is Lech Lecha, Genesis 12:1–17:27.
This week’s Torah portion begins what I call “The Abraham Saga,” a collection of stories that spans 13 chapters in the book of Genesis. All of them deal with how Abraham grows in his faith in God.
Of special interest, however, is the fact that we are never told how or why Abram, as he was called in his early years, came to his belief in God. We simply meet him as an adult, when God commands him, “Go forth from your native land.”
The rabbis of the midrash, of course, fill in this gap with legends. One well-known story tells how a young Abram wondered what makes the world work as it does. He first thought that the sun was the supreme being; when it disappeared each night, however, Abram thought the moon must rule over the sun. But since the moon waxed and waned, Abram then thought the stars were divine.
The midrash continues through a series of suppositions, ultimately having Abram realizing that there must be only One Supreme Being who controls all the process of nature. Thus was born Abram’s faith in God, setting the pattern for all subsequent Jewish history and eventually bequeathing monotheism to the entire world.
When considering this legend, we should ask what it tells us about the world in which the authors lived. At that time, most of the known world did not worship one God; they worshipped idols or believed in a pantheon of gods. To be sure, the Greeks, Egyptians, Romans and Persians built great empires. When it came to recognizing the true source of human greatness, however, much was lacking.
The legend of young Abram taught the Jews not to envy those so-called great civilizations. The Jewish people were living through persecution and enforced poverty, and the rabbis told the Jews not to envy those who were on top; ultimately, they would fall and be replaced; those who had faith in God would persevere. Subsequent history has shown they were right.
Today, most of the Western World professes a belief in monotheism. While this is good, we should consider what today’s false gods might be. Money? Political power? The technology in our pockets? To be sure, all of these serve useful purposes, but we should consider whether we are spending too much time and energy on them, and how they can be used in the service of God.
When Abram heeded God’s command, “Go forth,” he began a journey which we are still making.
I pray that we will not be distracted as we continue on that path and that we will always rely on God as our true help and guide.
Questions for discussion
Are you an heir of Abraham? How and why?
Do you see yourself on a spiritual journey, or are you satisfied with where you are right now?
How can we use Abraham’s sacred heritage to make the world better?
Rabbi James Michaels is the director of pastoral care at the Charles E. Smith Life Communities in Rockville.