What was the revolution of Avraham Avinu? Initially, we are inclined to suggest that the revolution of Avraham was monotheism, the belief in one God. Indeed, the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard refers to Avraham as the knight of faith. Immediately before God selected Avraham to father His chosen nation and to start this revolution, the entire world participated in a construction project, the Tower of Bavel. It stands to reason, then, that the sin of the Tower of Bavel was that it was a pagan shrine and a defiant challenge to God’s authority. Therefore, after that sin, God selected a “knight of faith” to rekindle the spirit of monotheism in the world.
But whereas Soren Kierkegaard saw Avraham’s faith as his defining quality, our Sages may have disagreed. In fact, when our Sages reference “the descendants of Avraham,” they say that “Anyone who has compassion for God’s creatures, it is known that he is of the descendants of Avraham, our father, and anyone who does not have compassion for God’s creatures, it is known that he is not of the descendants of Avraham, our father” (Beitza 32b). It is notable that, contrary to Kierkegaard’s framing of Avraham’s character, our Sages do not say that “anyone who is a man of faith is a spiritual descendant of Avraham.” Furthermore, God refers to Avraham in Parshat Vayera as someone who will instruct his household to observe the way of God to perform acts of charity and justice. God is in the picture to ensure accountability for our behavior and to help define grey areas of charity and justice, but the ultimate goal is to live a life of charity and justice. This is the defining quality and this is the defining legacy of Avraham Avinu. If this is true, then perhaps we need to rethink our assumptions about the crux of the sin of the Tower of Bavel.
The Netziv explains that the people of Bavel wanted to create a single centralized government for the entire world, with a powerful city and a watchtower for the region to suppress any dissent. Seen in this light, we understand that the Tower of Bavel stood for suppression and intolerance. Avraham’s revolution was a revolution of tolerance and empathy.
We must also wonder where Noach was during the Tower of Bavel. What role did he play? What role could he have played? One could argue that Noach was passive, and not the type of leader to forcefully speak out against injustice. But I wonder if Noach might not have been so resistant to the idea of a centralized authority. After all, having witnessed the destruction of a world because there was complete anarchy, Noach might understandably have believed that a strong central authority is something positive, even if individuality is suppressed. In fact, when Cham and Canaan acted inappropriately in last week’s Parsha, Noach cursed them. Noach in that moment stood for boundaries of right and wrong, and showed no room for understanding or tolerance. Avraham, in contrast, was very unhappy when Sarah wanted to send Yishmael away for behaving inappropriately and he even prayed for Sodom, a city that stood for the antithesis of everything for which Avraham stood! Avraham seemed to be preaching tolerance.
This model has so many implications for our day to day lives. Ultimately, Avraham Avinu started a revolution in parenting. God Himself said that He would never destroy the world again after the flood, “ki yetzer lev ha’adam ra min’urav,” because even though our desires are evil from our youth, we can overcome them, with time and patience, and warmth and acceptance. Noach may not have understood this, but Avraham certainly did. When we let our children express their individuality and make mistakes, but we still empathize with them, guide them lovingly and never give up on them, then we become followers of the revolution started by Avraham Avinu.