Who was the first Jew?


By Rabbi Dr. Sanford H. Shudnow

Special to WJW

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

In college, with the exuberance of youth, I accepted an invitation from a student to teach a session in her church’s Sunday school class. It was an eye-opening experience. I knew that the focal point of Christianity was Jesus, but I never expected his name to be the answer to my question, “Who was the first Jew?” I have since spent a great deal of my time explaining that Jesus, while an historical personality, plays no part whatsoever in Judaism. So what is the correct answer to the question, “Who was the first Jew?”


The answer is “Abraham.” His story begins with our Torah portion of Lech Lecha.

We ought to be clear that the major focus of the Torah, as well as all of biblical literature, is the line of Abraham. Little is related in the Torah about the earliest years of Abraham. The story begins when Abram/Abraham is already 75 years old. Naturally, the Midrash Aggadah (Jewish lore) waxes eloquent about the early years of Abraham’s life and how, through his powers of deduction, he discovered the one true God.

Our reading begins abruptly with God’s charge to Abram/Abraham: “And God said to Abram, ‘Lech lecha. Go for yourself, from your land, from your birthplace and from your father’s house — to the land that I will show you. And I shall make you into a great nation, I shall bless you and make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I shall bless those who bless you, and the one that curses you I shall curse. And all the families on earth will be blessed through you” [Genesis 12:1-3].

The sages in the Chapters of the Fathers (Pirkei Avot) consider this to be the first of 10 trials that God subjected Abraham to, in order to find him worthy of being the father of the nation. Rashi (11th century) comments on Abraham’s need for a blessing, since he was required to go on a journey, uprooting himself from his past.

“Since traveling causes three things—it diminishes the production of children, decreases one’s wealth and lessens one’s fame—therefore, Abraham needed blessings for these three things. Accordingly, God promised him [that he would be blessed] regarding children, wealth and fame.”

Clearly, the life of Abraham and his wife Sarah was one of trials. Immediately, upon their arrival in the land of Canaan (later to be called the land of Israel), there was a famine, causing them to seek food and shelter in Egypt. This was far from a promising beginning for Abraham’s mission.

What truly typifies Abraham as the father of the nation of Israel was his unflinching devotion to God. He passed all the trials placed before him. As we read our Torah portion and the next one, we are amazed that any human being could have the fortitude to remain steadfast in his love and devotion to a God that seems to make life so difficult and paradoxical.

Abraham appears perfect in his devotion to God, but God seems far from perfect in His devotion to Abraham. At every turn, it seems as if the promise of Abraham’s fathering a great people and inheriting the land is thwarted.

This is the tension that makes the story so compelling.

Abraham became the father of a great people. The Jews are known in the Torah as a stiff-necked people. They are stubborn in their devotion to principle as was their father Abraham.

Now, if anyone asks, “Who was the first Jew?” we know the answer.

Rabbi Dr. Sanford H. Shudnow served 22 years as a Navy chaplain, with his last duty station what is known today as Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

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