One of the outstanding models of deep and abiding faith in the Almighty in the Torah is Avraham Avinu. At the end of our Parsha, Avraham, commanded to circumcise himself at the age of ninety-nine years old, immediately fulfills God's charge to him without a moment's hesitation. "And he circumcised them (Yishmael and His household) on that very day as God had instructed him...And Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he circumcised his foreskin...on that very day Avraham and his son Yishmael were circumcised" (Bereishit 71:32-52).
Yet, if we turn to the Midrash here and in a number of places in Bereishit Rabbah, a different image emerges:
"At the time that the Holy One Blessed Be He commanded Avraham to circumcise (himself and his family), he went and consulted with his three close friends (as to whether he should fulfill this divine dictate)..."(Bereishit Rabbah 24:8).
Said Avraham: "If circumcision is so beloved, why was it not given to Adam himself?" (Bereishit Rabbah 64:3).
These passages (and others not cited for reasons of brevity) are striking in that they do not address any exegetical problem in the text. In fact, they seem to entirely ignore the plain sense of our text, the Peshuto Shel Mikra, which describes Avraham's unquestioning, immediate fulfillment of the divine norm. While the Avraham of the text never wavers nor challenges the Mitzvot of God (as opposed to his justice as in the Sedom narrative), in the Midrash he does so.
It appears that Chazal were interested in seeing Avraham as the embodiment of more than one type of religious personality. On the one hand there exists the model of the religious personality who accepts Mitzvot without hesitation, doubts or struggles. On the other hand, there are many, especially in a world devoid of direct revelation, who do not live with such automatic certainty. Were Chazal here struggling with our old-new question as to "can one be a good Jew with questions or doubts about particular Mitzvot?" "Can one search out for rationales behind the system and its details or is Emunah Temimah the only valid course to aspire to?"
Avraham, in the joint reading of Peshat and Derash becomes the model of both types of religious life. He is the Ma'amin (believer) par excellence, unflinchingly ready to fulfill any and all divine commands without a moment's hesitation or reflection.
Yet, he is also the Jew who struggles with קיום המצוות, searching for understanding and existential meaning in his religious life even as he, at the end of day, does indeed fulfill this and all other divine norms. He is the Jew, who makes a faith commitment that expresses itself in action and behavior after struggle and reflection.
In our own lives we are often pulled in these contradictory directions. At times we have moments of great אמונה תמימה luxuriating in a pure, almost childlike innocence and devotion to the ריבונו של עולם. We are sometimes Avraham of the text. And yet, we living in the age of modernity often identify and experience the reality of Abraham of the Midrash. We commit ourselves fully to divine service as we seek enlightenment, understanding and meaning. We struggle, question, - and explore in our search for edifying truth. We live in a world where much of the that "which had been taken for granted" in the age of faith is no longer the case. This breakdown is real and can damage our quest for the divine, but it can, properly harnessed be turned to our advantage as the noted religious sociologist Peter Berger has written:
"The breakdown of taken-for-granted structures of life and thought opens up previously unthinkable possibilities, including the possibility of religious faith."
May we all merit such religious experiences in our lives as we seek out the Ribono Shel Olam.