Parshat Lech Lecha: Spreading the word

Alexander Graham Bell at the opening of the long-distance line from New York to Chicago in 1892. (Public Doman/ Wikimedia Commons)
Alexander Graham Bell at the opening of the long-distance line from New York to Chicago in 1892. (Public Doman/ Wikimedia Commons)

On January 25, 1915, Alexander Graham Bell called his assistant Thomas Watson on the telephone. He famously said, “Mr. Watson, come here. I want you.” But unlike back in 1876, when he was just in the next room, this time Watson answered the phone in San Fransisco, some 3,400 miles away from New York, and replied, “It will take me five days to get there now!”

In less than 40 years since he founded the Bell Telephone Company (which later evolved into American Telephone and Telegraph Company) phone lines now stretched from one coast to the other and had almost 10 million customers. It had forever changed the way America (and the world) communicated.

But not only were people able to speak to each other from opposite sides of the country, the widespread use of telephones radically altered the way in which people heard the news, did business, conducted wars and so many other things that impacted lives across the country and later throughout the world.

Not bad for a Scotsman, born in 1847, who moved to Canada at the age of 23 in the hope that it would save him from the tuberculosis that killed his two brothers. In 1871, only five years before his fateful first phone call, Bell moved to Boston to become a teacher of the deaf (both his mother and his wife were profoundly deaf).

It is fair to say that from his humble beginnings as a newcomer to the country, Bell made a profound impact on the entire world.

Thomas Watson in his later years, holding Bell’s original telephone. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Yet he was not actually the first to invent the telephone. Another American inventor, Elisha Gray, joint owner of Western Electric, filed a patent caveat for the telephone on February 14, 1876, exactly the same day that Bell’s lawyers filed a patent for his invention. Eventually, Bell was awarded the patent despite the fact that he did not produce a working telephone for another month.

But neither Bell nor Gray was the first to invent the telephone. On June 11, 2002, US Congress recognized Antonio Meucci, an Italian immigrant to New York, for his invention of the teletrofono in 1860. He first connected the telephone between his first floor and basement, and then later, when his wife was bedridden with crippling arthritis, he rigged up the system to her second-floor bedroom. He demonstrated this device a full 16 years before Gray and Bell filed their patents.

However, unable to afford the $250 patent fee, Meucci filed a patent caveat on December 28, 1871. But three years later he was unable to afford the $10 renewal fee, and the caveat lapsed.

Yet despite not being the first to invent the telephone, without Bell’s ingenuity and business acumen the telephone would not have spread as quickly or as successfully as it did. It was he who transformed a machine that was earlier dismissed by the president of Western Union as “a child’s toy” into a world-changing device.

Antonio Meucci (1808 – 1889), inventor of the telephone. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

I find a parallel between Bell and the hero of this week’s Torah reading, Abraham.

The portion opens with God’s instruction to the patriarch (at the time called Avram) to leave his home and head to Israel. From there, Abraham went on to make an enormous impact on the Western World with his belief in monotheism. But he was not the first to believe in God.

Long before Avraham, there was another who believed in the “most high God” already living in Israel and ruling as king of Jerusalem.

After winning a miraculous victory, Avram brings a thanksgiving offering to Malki-Tzedek.

“And Malki-Tzedek (Melchizedek) King of Shalem brought out bread and wine for he was a priest to the most high God. And he blessed him and said, ‘Blessed is Avram to the most high God, Who acquired heaven and earth. And blessed is the most high God who delivered your enemies into your hand.’ And he gave him a tithe from everything,” (Genesis 14:18-20).

The Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek by Peter Paul Rubens in the National Gallery of Art. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

The rabbis (Bereishit Rabba 56:16 and Targum Yonatan on the verse) tell us that Shalem was the original name of Jerusalem (and is still the second half of the city’s name). Jerusalem is described as the city of tzedek (righteousness) in Isaiah 1:21 and it seems other kings of the city also had names which included the word tzedek (e.g. Adonitzedek mentioned in Joshua 10:1).

Avraham is often described as the first Jew, yet the Torah explicitly states that there was already an established priest of God in Jerusalem before Avram arrived.

Furthermore, the rabbis in Bereishit Rabba (43:6) offer different opinions as to the meaning of the bread and wine that Malki-Tzedek gave to Avram. Rabbi Shmuel said he taught him the laws of the high priest. And the Rabbis say he taught him the Torah.

That means that Avram wasn’t the first person to believe in God, nor even the first in that generation! Furthermore, Malki-Tzedek taught him the rites and rules of Judaism. So what was it that made Avram so unique? Why is Avraham revered as the founder of Judaism whereas Malki-Tzedek is relegated to a minor part in the scriptural narrative?

Perhaps the answer is in the blessing Malki-Tzedek gives him, “Blessed is Avram to the most high God, Who acquired heaven and earth.” Why is God described here for the first time by this description?

Midrash Rabba (43:7) explains that Avram and Sarai would invite passers-by to their home, provide them with food, drink and a place to rest. When the guests came to leave they wanted to thank their hosts. Avram told them instead to thank God who provided them with all their needs. God said, “My name was not known to people, but you made My name known to people.”

Avraham’s gift for God was given because he had spent his entire life acknowledging the gifts he received from God, and sharing that message with all those around him.

According to the midrash, Avraham was not the first to worship God, not the greatest Torah scholar or best high priest. But he and his wife welcomed people into his home and in that way spread the awareness of God among people. Avraham and Sarah are the founders of the Jewish people because they were warm and welcoming, and in so doing showed the kindness of God to all the people on earth and forever changed the world.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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