Who doesn’t love a true origin story? America certainly does. From yet another restart of Spiderman to going through Batman’s origin in Gotham, we are pumping out movies consistently that reboot characters, starting from their origin and seeing them grow up. As I am sure we will see tomorrow during Jewish Comic Con, comics were not usually like this. Sure origin stories are important, but the vast majority of comics are set later, only making references to their origins.
This is the way our forefather Abraham, at that point, Avram, is introduced in our story.
וַיֹּאמֶר יְ-וָה אֶל-אַבְרָם, לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ
1 Now the LORD said to Abram: ‘Get thee out of your country, and from your birthplace, and from your father’s house, unto the land that I will show thee.
No backstory. Just G-d choosing Avraham to be the beginning of the Jewish people.
In the Rabbinic literature, in this case Breishit Rabba, the Rabbis are not content with this story of our forefather. They go through excruciating detail of Avraham’s origin.
First, he finds G-d after critically thinking about the powers and gods he had grown up with. Then he breaks his father’s idols, blaming it on one of the idols as a statement about the idols abilities (which was very confusing for the insurance industry at the time – is it an act of gods?), and finally, he gets into an argument with King Nimrod and is thrown into and survives the fiery furnace with G-d’s assistance. Now that’s a forefather we can get behind.
Why the immense discrepancy? Sure, in the coming stories, Avraham passes many tests and does amazing things, but why does the midrash have such a different message than the Torah itself? Why does the Torah seem to describe Avraham as a man G-d chose without much backstory, who He knew would be great, while the Midrash treats Avraham as the iconoclast of his time?
I think the answer lies in a theme throughout Avraham’s life. When comparing the character in the Torah to the character in the Midrash, two distinct Avrahams emerge. It is through this bifurcation that I believe we can find some insight in how we can react to tuesday’s election results, and perhaps how Avraham would have as well.
Maimonides, Rambam, in his Shmonah Perakim discusses the 10 tests Avraham passed on his way to becoming our forefather. All 10 from his list are in the Torah itself. They begin with the quote from above, Avraham leaving Aram, through his fighting in a war to save his nephew Lot, to having a circumcision at an old age, to being willing to sacrifice his son Isaac.
After looking through all ten of them, a pattern emerges, Avraham is confronted with a test and passes. He does not seek out conflict. Conflict comes to him and he overcomes it.
In fact, contrary to the Midrashim, Rambam discusses Avraham’s backstory in a much more regular way. In Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim 1:2 Rambam states:
כיון שהכיר וידע התחיל להשיב תשובות על בני אור כשדים ולערוך דין עמהם ולומר שאין זו דרך האמת שאתם הולכים בה
“… When he recognized and knew Him, he began to formulate replies to the inhabitants of Ur Kasdim and debate with them, telling them they were not following a proper path.”
In his more simple interpretation, Rambam, does not treat Avraham as a brazen go getter, but a conciliatory changer. He creates replies for those that believe in idols rather than one that sacrifices himself willingly in the fiery furnace. Considering, G-d has to tell Avraham to leave his country, and it is considered a test, it makes sense that Avraham is fairly happy in Ur Kasdim. He has disagreements with those around him, but he is upset he has to leave.
The Midrash’s Avraham tries to fix the world by seeking out conflict. He tries to prove to the world that the G-d he knows is the one true G-d. He destroys his father’s idols shamelessly and fights with King Nimrod. He does not rest when the world is far from where he wants it.
The Torah’s Avraham reacts to problems as he sees them. He is unbelievable at responding to challenges, but they are challenges that come to him.
This is seen most strongly with S’dom and Amorah. G-d tells Avraham he is going to destroy the cities and Avraham tells G-d, that maybe there are some good people there, eventually acquiescing when there aren’t (other than Lot and his family). Avraham stands up for people when he sees bad things, but does not seek out conflict.
Perhaps, the Torah’s version of Avraham is the way we are supposed to behave normally. When we see problems in our society or in front of us, we should ensure that we do our best. We should create replies for those that spread lies. It is the Avraham that is from his birthplace, that is overall content with his life, who must still work to ensure he makes the world better when he sees its failures.
The Midrash’s version, on the other hand, is coming from the Middle Ages, when Jews were persecuted and downtrodden. In this situation, it is important to seek out ways to help others and solve problems, and to encourage others to do the same.
Over the last couple days since the election, I have largely seen two major reactions to the result.
For those that are upset about the outcome, there has been despair. Those worried about the immediate effect to the poor and to minorities, through hateful rhetoric or new policies. Those worried about women’s health issues, or the future of the planet through global warming.
For those happy about the outcome, there has been calls for unity and calls for alarmists to relax.
The question is though, how should we react? Depending on your side here, I think a different Avraham is appropriate.
For those that fear the future, don’t post about it on Facebook, go do something about it. Reach out to Muslims or immigrants you may know or can connect to and make sure they know you care about them, and believe they have as much of a place here that you do. If you are worried about Women’s health or global warming, donate your time and/or money to help those causes. Be like Avraham in the Midrash who sought to help the world in a proactive way. Sacrifice some of your time and money, as Avraham jumped in the fiery furnace for his cause.
For those that do not fear the future, continue to defend the political values you hold dear, but try to understand those that are afraid. Racist attacks have risen in the past couple days, and over the past couple months, including those targeted at us, as reported by many news sources (Update: Trump himself has repudiated such behavior). If you are not disturbed because they are coming from fringe people, that may be so, but try to commit to be like Avraham in the Torah itself. If you see even one instance of what those that fear are afraid of, stand up for what you believe in. Be like Avraham who responded to every test G-d put in front of him and passed. Be like Avraham at Sodom who would not even allow G-d to stereotype an entire city. Try to see how you can help out a community organization that helps the poor when you see it.
While we all have political differences, we all can learn lessons from our forefather Avraham. Be a giver of kindness as he was. By acting together and as Avraham did, regardless of our political affiliations, we can ensure that we help create a society that is for all of us together. Each of those actions matter more than whoever could have been elected President.
As the singer- songwriter, Leonard Cohen, who passed away this Thursday once said:
“There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”
*This Drasha was given this past Shabbat at Congregation Kol Israel: 603 St. Johns Place, Brooklyn NY.