We were introduced to Avraham at the end of last week’s parasha. This week, he begins his journey into history. As he begins his journey, we know little about him. His curriculum vitae is a bit thin. We know his lineage but little more. And, even after he has received his God-given mission, we are left to guess its purpose.
Who is this enigmatic Avraham? Why did God choose him? The Torah leaves us hungry for the details and rabbinic midrashim come to fill in these lacunae. We learn of Avraham, the master of the faithful, who sought out a relationship with God. Nearly everyone who has had an elementary Hebrew school education, is familiar with the “iconic” story of Abraham and the idol shop which portrays Abraham as the original “iconoclast”. There are two lesser-known midrashim, which reveal his religious heroism differently.
In the first, Abraham is likened to a sojourner who comes upon a city that is all aflame, and yet, no one seems to notice that the city is on fire except for him. The astonished visitor shouts out: ‘Does this city have a leader?’ The mayor of the city peers out of a window, making the visitor aware of his presence. Apparently, even the mayor needs to be saved since no one pays attention to him. (See Bereishit Rabbah 39:1)
In an earlier midrash, we find an even more radical casting of this same theme. Avraham is likened to a soldier who goes into battle along with the king. When the battle gets rough, the king is abandoned by all of his soldiers except for one solitary soldier who promises to return the king safely to his palace. (See Sifrei Devarim 313)
The protagonist in both of these parables is obviously Avraham; the mayor and the king in these stories represent God. In the first story, what marks Avraham is his discernment that things are not right. It does not dawn on anybody else that the city is on fire and that anarchy and chaos reign. No one realizes that if they paid attention to the mayor things might be different. It is Avraham’s responsibility to make them aware. In the second parable, Avraham actually saves the king! The king without this one loyal soldier would have been lost.
But, wait a second. A moment ago, I identified the mayor and the king with God. That would mean that Avraham’s task was to realize the significance of God’s place as Ruler of the world and to make everyone else aware of this reality as well. Otherwise, no one would have noticed. In essence, then, Avraham’s role, in these rather startling midrashim, was to rescue God. It is even more extraordinary that Avraham came to this awareness on his own, making him the appropriate choice for his God commanded mission.
These parables are provocative and, perhaps, that is why they are not well known. The idea that God might need help can be disconcerting for some. Abraham’s role in these parables is intended to remind us that, shocking as this idea may be, this mission is quintessentially Jewish.
God needs our awareness. Without it, God is just an abstract idea. We are tasked with both witnessing God’s existence and establishing God’s reality in the world. This, therefore, is what is means to be a follower of Abraham.