Abraham’s centrality for Western civilization has been debated since the earliest Christians described him as the paradigmatic “man of faith.” Salvation, they concluded, arises through “faith” (what we believe), not through “works” (what we do). The rabbis, by contrast, emphasized works over faith.
But the image of Abraham as a paragon of faith is also part of Jewish tradition. It is only because of faith in a God who summons him that Abraham leaves home and family altogether. Rav Soloveitchik has provided an entire treatise, The Lonely Man of Faith. Faith matters in Judaism.
But how could it not — faith is inherent to being human. It takes faith to imagine that anything we do at all has importance in the long run. We have little or no control over our personal fate; we cannot predict what will happen to those we love; when we die, we take nothing with us; and, frankly, how much do we remember about even our grandparents, not to mention their grandparents? The entropy of time washes memories away.
It is also not clear that what we do has any long-term impact on history, which we wish we could control but, obviously, cannot. It takes faith to act as if life is worthwhile despite regular personal setbacks and in the face of traumatic global events we never expected and have trouble controlling.
Soloveitchik traces the human experience of faith to the Bible’s beginning. He links the Bible’s two separate accounts of creation (Genesis 1:1-2:4 and 2:5-2:24) to parallel aspects of human nature. The first story addresses the need to be creative. “Fill the earth and master it,” God says (1:28) — in other words, “Be productive; do something.” The second narrative, however, focuses on God’s act of providing “the breath of life” (2:7). Its concern is not what we fill our lives with doing but what the point of all that “doing” is. This deeper question addresses what we mean by redemption or (as Christians prefer) salvation. Story one highlights “accomplishment”; story two underscores redemption.
We are trained to value accomplishments but, eventually, accomplishments pale. That is the message of Ecclesiastes, which we read on Sukkot: “Utter futility! All is futile. What real value is there in all the gains we make beneath the sun?” If that sounds jaded, just consider how history is filled with accomplishments that do not matter anymore. We go to school to get a job, get a job to build a career, build a career to get ahead, get ahead to get further ahead, and so on. But to what end?
“Accomplishment” is what we do; “redemption” is the certain sense of why we do it. Redemption derives from faith in a transcendent purpose, a higher ideal to which we owe allegiance. Judaism calls that God.
We are back to asking whether we are saved by works or by faith — by accomplishments, that is, or by redemption. Accomplishments satisfy the human thirst for creativity, but faith alone can tell us we amount to something, even when we feel like failures, when devastating illness interrupts our plans, or when we die so poor as to have little sense of material accomplishment or so young as to be unable even to conceive of a lifelong project, let alone to see it through. Only faith provides the redemptive certainty that we matter regardless of how our accomplishments turn out. And only faith can measure our accomplishments in the first place.
Torah introduces Abraham as someone of no accomplishments; we get no biography of him whatsoever (the midrash has to make all that up). Abraham’s single claim to fame is that he responds to God’s call to undertake a journey in faith. He will face disappointment after disappointment; struggle with the land to which he is summoned; lose the battle to save Lot; banish his first son, Ishmael; prematurely bury his beloved wife Sarah; and die virtually alone, far away from Isaac, whom he once almost sacrificed. But his faith in a God whom he never sees will not flag.
Why are Jews so heavily invested in accomplishment, but not redemption or faith? Why are we so ready to dismiss the possibility of God, of being called, and of measuring ourselves without accomplishment as our center? The challenge of our sedra is hardly to be like Abraham the great accomplisher; it is to face the possibility that we are called, like Abraham, to have faith in redemption, no matter what we manage to accomplish.