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Completing His Father’s Journey

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The call to Abraham, with which Parshat Lech Lecha begins, seems to come from nowhere:

“Leave your land, your birthplace, and your father’s house, and go to a land that I will show you.”

Nothing has prepared us for this radical departure. We have not had a description of Abraham as we had in the case of Noah: “Noah was a righteous man, perfect in his generations; Noah walked with G-d.” Nor have we been given a series of glimpses into his childhood, as in the case of Moses. It is as if Abraham’s call is a sudden break with all that went before. There seems to be no prelude, no context, no background.

Added to this is a curious verse in the last speech delivered by Moses’s successor Joshua:

“And Joshua said to all the people, ‘Thus says the Lord, the G-d of Israel: Long ago, your fathers lived beyond the [Euphrates] River, Terach, the father of Abraham and of Nahor; and they served other gods’ ” (Joshua 24:2).

The implication seems to be that Abraham’s father was an idolater. Hence the famous midrashic tradition that as a child, Abraham broke his father’s idols. When Terach asked him who had done the damage, he replied, “The largest of the idols took a stick and broke the rest.” “Why are you deceiving me?” Terach asked. “Do idols have understanding?” “Let your ears hear what your mouth is saying,” replied the child. On this reading, Abraham was an iconoclast, a breaker of images, one who rebelled against his father’s faith (Bereishit Rabbah 38:8).

Maimonides, the philosopher, put it somewhat differently. Originally, human beings believed in one G-d. Later, they began to offer sacrifices to the sun, the planets and stars, and other forces of nature, as creations or servants of the one G-d. Later still, they worshipped them as entities – gods – in their own right. It took Abraham, using logic alone, to realize the incoherence of polytheism:

“After he was weaned, while still an infant, his mind began to reflect. Day and night, he thought and wondered: how is it possible that this celestial sphere should be continuously guiding the world, without something to guide it and cause it to revolve? For it cannot move of its own accord. He had no teacher or mentor, because he was immersed in Ur of the Chaldeans among foolish idolaters. His father and mother and the entire population worshipped idols, and he worshipped with them. He continued to speculate and reflect until he achieved the way of truth, understanding what was right through his own efforts. It was then that he knew that there is one G-d who guides the heavenly bodies, who created everything, and besides whom there is no other god” (Laws of Idolatry, 1:2).

What is common to Maimonides and the midrash is discontinuity. Abraham represents a radical break with all that went before.

Remarkably, however, the previous chapter gives us a quite different perspective:

“These are the generations of Terach. Terach fathered Abram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran fathered Lot … Terach took Abram his son and Lot the son of Haran, his grandson, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram’s wife, and they went forth together from Ur of the Chaldeans to go into the land of Canaan, but when they came to Haran, they settled there. The days of Terach were 205 years, and Terach died in Haran” (Genesis 11:31).

The implication seems to be that far from breaking with his father, Abraham was continuing a journey Terach had already begun.

How are we to reconcile these two passages? The simplest way, taken by most commentators, is that they are not in chronological sequence. The call to Abraham (in Genesis 12) happened first. Abraham heard the Divine summons, and communicated it to his father. The family set out together, but Terach stopped halfway, in Haran. The passage recording Terach’s death is placed before Abraham’s call, though it happened later, to guard Abraham from the accusation that he failed to honor his father by leaving him in his old age (Rashi, Midrash).

Yet there is another obvious possibility. Abraham’s spiritual insight did not come from nowhere. Terach had already made the first tentative move toward monotheism. Children complete what their parents begin.

About the Author: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently “The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning.”

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