Filling in the blanks
Noach | Genesis 6:9-11:32
The Torah is replete with inspiring stories of its heroes. The lives of Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and David, to name a few, are narrated at great length and in vivid detail.
It is therefore frustrating when a story is incomplete. We not only wish to ascertain the missing facts, but are puzzled by why those facts were omitted.
In Noach, we are introduced to our patriarch Abraham, originally Abram. We learn of his father, Terah, and his siblings and his marriage to Sarai and that she was barren. We are told that Terah set out with some of his family, including Abram, for Canaan, that he stopped short and settled in Haran. That’s it. The Torah is almost silent about the details of Abram’s youth.
In next week’s Torah portion, and many after that, we will become immersed in the dramatic story of Abraham’s life, beginning when he leaves Haran at age 75 for Canaan at God’s command.
The gap is disturbing. What transpired in Abraham’s life from the time he accompanied his father to Haran until the Almighty spoke to the elderly Abraham and enjoined him to go to the Promised Land? What did he do to merit hearing the voice of the Almighty charge him with his sacred mission?
But Abraham’s early life is not a blank for readers of the rabbinic commentaries, especially the Midrash. They learn of Abraham’s discovery, at the age of three, of the one God, of his struggle against idolatry, of how he defied his own father and smashed the idols that were Terah’s merchandise.
They learn how Terah cruelly delivered Abraham to Nimrod, of Abraham’s debates with Nimrod, and of how an angry Nimrod cast him into a fiery furnace — and of his emergence unscathed.
So why was this dramatic narrative of religious courage not deemed worthy of inclusion in the Torah?
Ramban’s answer is fascinating: “Scripture avoids describing these wondrous events, because to write about them would have necessitated mentioning the idolatrous views of those whom Abraham debated, and unlike Moses, whose responses to the Egyptian sorcerers are on record, Abraham’s responses to his opponents were not made available to us.”
But why were Abraham’s counter-arguments not recorded? Surely they would have been of at least historical interest.
Another approach: It is commonly assumed that Abraham’s great contribution to the world was his discovery of monotheism. But that is not completely true. In two weeks, in Vayera, we will read what God considered to be Abraham’s greatest contribution: “For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right…” (Genesis 18:19).
The biblical stories recount Abraham’s ethical behavior, not his theology. He is known for his hospitality, not his metaphysics. He argues for justice, not against heresy.
The Torah omits the stories of Abraham’s early battles against idolatry, because they don’t represent Abraham’s essence. Rather, that essence is better expressed in the stories of his defense of the sinners of Sodom and Gomorrah, in the compassion he showed to his nephew Lot, and in his generosity to those he thought to be idolatrous wayfarers but were, in fact, God’s angels.
True, Abraham introduced monotheism to the world, but that monotheism is best termed “ethical monotheism.” The God he came to know was not just One God, but a God who teaches humankind right from wrong and who expects humankind to abide by that teaching. The Torah does not demand that we be theologians, but it does demand that we perform acts of righteousness and justice — that is Abraham’s primary teaching.