Parshat Lech Lecha relates to us the life and times of Avraham Avinu, the first of the Avot. Much can be learned from a study of the origins of Avraham, his recognition of the Almighty, and his Avodat Hashem which can serve to instruct us in our endeavor to follow in his footsteps.
I would like to examine Avraham’s life in the context of people who were his contemporaries as well as of world events that took place before his coming on the scene.
At the end of Parshat Noach we read of the Dor Haflaga, who, although they displayed unity of purpose, were nevertheless misguided in their goal and were dispersed to the corners of the earth. Thus while the punishment of the Dor Hamabul was obliteration, that of their Dor was dispersion. Avraham’s life work, bringing people to Avodat Hashem, can then be seen as an endeavor to heal the separations that were created as a result of the Dor Haflaga. The Medrash at the beginning of our Parsha asserts that the Pasuk in Shir Hashirim “Achot Lanu Ketana…” is referring to Avraham Avinu. The Medrash goes on to explain that this is because he was “Meacheh,” joined, [a play on words of “Achot”], the divisions which existed in the world. Additionally, the Rambam, at the beginning of Hilchot Avodat Hakochavim writes that through his teachings, Avraham was “Mekabetz,” gathered people from city to city to unite mankind in the service of Hashem. But this was a unity which was predicated on Avodat Hashem as opposed to the “Venaaseh Lanu Shem” of the Dor Haflaga.
Avraham served to unite, but on the other hand his coming on the scene could be viewed as a threat to the prevalent Mesora at the time. The aforementioned Rambam relates that there were individuals throughout the generations such as Chanoch, Metushelach, Noach, Shem, and Eiver who preserved the Mesora and taught it to individuals in each subsequent generation. The Medrash Rabbah in Parshat Vayera describes a possible conflict in the perceptions of Avraham and Shem. Hashem was faced, Kaviyachol, with a dilemma in naming Yerushalayim. Shem ben Noach is referred to as the king of “Shalem.” Avraham on the other hand referred to the city as “Yireh.” Since calling the city either name would offend one Tzaddik, Hashem made a compromise and named the city Yerushalayim incorporating both ideas into the name. A number of explanations are offered explaining the differing perspectives which guided the choice of the names “Shalem” and “Yireh.”
Given their unique roles in the Mesora, perhaps we can suggest that Shem, whose teachings were based upon the Mesora of previous generations saw his Avoda and role to perfect or be “Mashlim” that which he was given. He was the Master Craftsman who would polish and complete his creation.
By contrast Avraham Avinu was a revolutionary bursting through the idolatrous beliefs with which he was raised and blazing a new trail. He was a self made man who had the vision (Yireh) to lead people and unite them in their Avodat Hashem.
It is instructive to note that it is precisely this ability to discover and change direction which enables Avraham Avinu to bring people back to a recognition of the Ribbono Shel Olam and a commitment to his service.