Avraham’s Big Ideas: A Look Back on the Life of our Father by Rabbi Chaim Poupko


The story of Avraham’s upbringing and how he came to believe in Hashem is one of the most famous omissions from the Torah. And as strange as that omission is, equally strange is where the story does appear. While we would expect the Midrash to fill in the details, we would not expect to find that Rambam includes this story in the Mishneh Torah, a predominantly Halachic work where stories and homiletics are rare. In the first chapter of the Avodah Zarah section, Rambam describes in detail how idolatry developed during the generations following Adam and Chavah, and how Avraham, in his early years, began to question prevailing attitudes and found Hashem despite the dominance of idolatry.

Understanding why Avraham’s upbringing is found here in Rambam’s work can help us understand why the story is absent from the Torah and can ultimately give us deeper insight into the character of Avraham.

Arguably, the two most formative personalities in the Torah are Avraham and Moshe. Consider then the following differences in their characters and what they represent: While Avraham is known as Avraham Avinu, our father, Moshe is known as Moshe Rabeinu, our teacher. Avraham finds God, Moshe delivers God. Avraham is a man who searches and questions while Moshe is a man who transmits Halachah, decisions, and answers.

Furthermore, consider the fact that while Avraham is “our father” and is considered by many opinions to be the first Jewish person, we find no practices of Avraham recorded in the Torah that match what we observe today on a daily basis besides for Berit Milah. Wouldn’t we at least expect to find Avraham and the other Avot recognizing Shabbat which had already been given to the world at the outset of the Torah?! Even further, Avraham teaches us no direct lessons. He transmits no commandments nor states directly any principles or ideas.

All together, we have two very different paradigms in Avraham and Moshe. Moshe Rabeinu represents fidelity to the Torah and its observance, of understanding our responsibilities. Avraham Avinu, however, represents an entirely different paradigm and a whole different series of expectations.

Avraham represents our responsibility as Jews to search, to inquire, to be engaged, and at the same time, to be unsatisfied and restless. The story of his youth and how he went against the culture of idolatry and corruption is meant to teach us how to be restless and inquisitive within the framework of the Torah in order to deepen our faith and commitment to its ideals. Avraham does not convey these expectations directly or didactically. Rather, Avraham is purely a role model whose actions and words form a comprehensive paradigm for how to search restlessly and how to do so in a way that cultivates a belief in God and commitment to the core principles of the Torah. In this light, one of the most crucial verses in the life of Avraham becomes clearer. When the Torah reveals Hashem’s thinking before divulging to Avraham what will be done to Sedom and Amorah, Hashem says that He cannot hide from Avraham what He will bring upon these cities. "Ki Yedativ Lema’an Asher Yetzaveh Et Banav VeEt Beito Acharav VeShameru Derech Hashem LaAsot Tzedakah UMishpat," “For I have known him, to the end that he may command his children and his household after him, that they may keep the way of Hashem, to do righteousness and justice” (BeReishit 18:19). Here is the one and only thing that Avraham our father is expected to “command" – that his children promote righteousness and justice. While Moshe is responsible to fill in the details, Avraham’s role in the history of the Jewish people is to be an active paradigm in the pursuit of our loftiest principles. The belief in God, the pursuit of righteousness and justice, are guided by the way in which we follow the example of Avraham. Our responsibility is to adhere to this model of Avraham. The fact that he is referred to as “Avinu” is instructive. The difference between Moshe Rabeinu, Moshe our teacher, and Avraham Avinu, Avraham our father, is like the difference between our communal institutions on the one hand and our homes on the other hand. Our schools and our Shuls are there to fill in all the details contained in the Torah that Moshe teaches us. It is in our homes, though, that we are instilled with our belief in God and our commitment to the Torah's loftiest ideals. We are taught this by the example set by our parents and grandparents – the example set in the home. Our homes are the primary spheres of the paradigm of Avraham Avinu while our schools and Shuls are the primary spheres of the paradigm of Moshe Rabeinu.

This is why I believe the story of Avraham’s own search is absent from the written Torah and relegated to the oral Torah including Rambam’s Mishneh Torah. Each individual’s search, each individual’s approach to cultivating Emunah and a commitment to righteousness and justice, will be personal and different from the next person's. The written Torah is rigid and set in stone and contains the very same words each time it is opened. The oral Torah, though immutable in its content, is conveyed differently depending upon the teacher and the student and the era in which it's being taught. This is why it makes sense that Avraham’s search should be in the oral Torah, the place that reflects the notion that everyone's modeling of Avraham’s paradigm will be different. This is why the story is absent from the written Torah and relegated to the oral Torah. And perhaps this gives us deeper insight on the very first words spoken by Hashem to Avraham. Avraham is summoned with the words "Lech Lecha" (BeReishit 12:1), often rendered as “go to you.” Many commentaries seek to understand this strange wording. Now that we know that Avraham is the paradigm for an individual Jewish person’s unique journey, the phrase “to you” can be a hint that what Avraham is being summoned to do will be a paradigm for each and every one of us in a different way.

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