Avraham Avinu was the classic undrafted free-agent. He played at a college nobody had ever heard of. He did not stand out. And then suddenly Hashem decides to give him the chance to play in the big leagues, telling him [Bereishit 12:1] “Leave your land… and go to the land I will show you”. What did Avraham’s early years look like? Which god did he serve? The obvious answer is that Avraham was a pagan, just like everybody else in the world. One day, for whatever the reason, he had a change of heart and he became a monotheist. What it was that spurred Avraham’s religious change-of-heart is unknown, although the Midrash tries to fill in the blanks with famous stories of idols, baseball bats, cruel kings and cold fires.

How old was Avraham when he finally “saw the light”? The Torah tells us that Avraham left his home to move to the Land of Israel on Hashem’s command when he was seventy-five years old. The Talmud in Tractate Avoda Zara [9a] calculates that Avraham was fifty-two years old when he first recognized Hashem as the one true G-d. But whether he was a pagan for seventy-five years or for fifty-two years, Avraham spent a long time bowing down to idols. The Midrash brings a hypothetical conversation in which Avraham tells Hashem that he is concerned that one day he will be punished for his years of idolatry. Hashem consoles him, telling him that it was “all for the best”. Rav Shmuel Borenstein, also called the “Shem Mi’Shmuel”, quoting his father, Rabbi Avraham Borenstein of Sochatchov, better known as the “Avnei Nezer”, explains this Midrash in a highly problematic manner. According to the Avnei Nezer, Avraham had to see the world of Paganism from up-close. He had to become intimately familiar with its flaws so that when he would one day discover Hashem he would be able to internalize not only what was so good about monotheism, but what was so bad about Paganism. The upshot is that the first part of Avraham’s career was a necessary prelude to the second part of his career, and so was not a cause for sadness.

And this is a huge problem. Why can’t we just say “Ma’ase avot siman l’banim” – “The deeds of the fathers are signs for their children”? How can we know that Judaism is “the real thing” unless we ourselves, like Avraham before us, try out other religions, just to be sure? Perhaps we should encourage our children to join a cult for a few years, instead of sending them to Jewish Day Schools?

The Rambam can help extricate us from our troubles. The Rambam at the end of the Laws of Kings [11:9][1] discusses true Messiahs and false Messiahs and how to differentiate between the two. One of these false Messiahs was Jesus of Nazareth, who “caused Israel to die by the sword, and to scatter and to humiliate those who remained, and to exchange the Torah [for something else], and deceived most of the world from worshiping the one true G-d.” However, continues the Rambam, this cloud had a sort of silver lining. The teachings of Jesus and Mohammed have made great headway all around the world. Millions of former pagans have been converted to Christianity and Islam[2]. While it is debatable whether these religions are monotheistic[3], they are definitely closer to monotheism than to paganism. According to the Rambam, these religions pave the way for a future return of the world to true monotheism.

The point the Rambam is making here is that there exists a highway that starts from spiritual mayhem and leads to Godliness. This highway, like all highways, has multiple points of entry and exit. Christianity and the Islam exited before they reached the end of the highway, but they are nearer to godliness than a pagan tribe living somewhere in an African jungle. Avraham travelled the entire length of the highway. He entered at its beginning and he and did not leave until the very last exit.

What about us? Where did we get on the highway? The answer to this question lies in the answer to another question: Why did Hashem choose Avraham? Contrary to what we might have been taught as children, the reason for this has nothing to do with Avraham’s breaking idols with a baseball bat or any other story from the Midrash. The reason is written clearly, in black and smudge, in the Torah [Bereishit 18:19]: “For I have known him, to the end that he will command his children and his household after him that they may keep the way of Hashem, to do righteousness and justice; so that Hashem may bring upon Avraham all which He has spoken of him”. Hashem chose Avraham for one reason: because He knew that Avraham would make absolutely certain that his descendants would keep to the path that he had blazed. And so the simple answer to our question above is that we don’t have to travel that highway. Avraham Avinu did that for us. We were lucky enough to be born into Godliness.

But that seems to be dodging the point. Avraham experienced Paganism; we did not. So maybe we should try it out just so we can see how awful it really is.

The Talmud in Tractate Niddah [30b] teaches that while a baby develops within the womb, an angel teaches him the entire Torah. Just before birth, the angel touches the child over his mouth causing him to forget all that he has learned[4]. Why would an angel go through all the trouble of teaching the child the entire Torah if the child is only going to forget the whole thing before it ever becomes relevant? The answer has to do with what could perhaps be called “déjà vu[5]”. It is always easier to learn something a second time than to learn it for the first time. Because we were once taught the Torah in utero, when we learn Torah we are really relearning, or, reviewing, the Torah. As we learn Torah we should have a sense of “This seems eerily familiar!”[6]

In a similar way, Avraham’s journey down the highway is indelibly imprinted in our national psyche. Once, while walking down the streets of Bangkok[7], I saw people offering fruit and incense to a statue of Buddha, right there on the street. I was appalled. The sight of this idolatry made me physically nauseous. This is because somewhere deep in my soul I remembered what Avraham lived through. I remembered the human sacrifices, the children being thrown into the fire, shrieking to their parents to save them. And I remembered Avraham’s long and arduous climb, his painful soul-searching that culminated in his hearing a Heavenly voice that told him to get up and leave, both physically and spiritually. I remembered the scorn of his neighbours, how they spat on him and threw rocks at him and his family as they left Haran forever. And so, like my father Avraham before me, I turned and walked away from Buddha and his followers. I really had no other choice.

And as a nation, neither do we.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5775

[1] These laws appear only in the uncensored version of the Rambam, for obvious reasons.

[2] While this statement was true in the time of the Rambam, it is even truer today. More than 55% of the world population, from Micronesia to Japan to South America, belongs to these two religions.

[3] The Rambam rules that Islam is not equivalent to idolatry, but that Christianity is. This ruling is not so clear cut. The problem lies in the nature of the Trinity, and this nature is interpreted in many different ways by the various Christian denominations.

[4] This piece of Talmud is the source of a number of customs that relate to the first few days of a child’s life. For instance, the gathering in the home of the newborn at the “Shalom Zachar” is to console him for the Torah he has forgotten (Ta”z YD 265:13). And since the baby is “in mourning” for the Torah he has lost, chick peas are usually served, since these foods are customarily eaten by mourners.

[5] This is what happens when I write a shiur in Paris.

[6] Lest the reader fear that I have strayed from my typically rational world view, the Talmud could be interpreted as metaphorically describing the intimate connection between Am Yisrael and the Torah. But I’m going to continue down the admittedly irrational path here. Hey, I’m in Paris.

[7] Or any other Eastern city: Beijing, Singapore, Hararit…