Parshat Lech Lecha (Genesis 12:1-17:27)
The central character of Parshat Lech Lecha is the progenitor of the Jewish People, Avraham Avinu. Avraham is commanded to leave his native town, Ur Kasdim, and sojourn to the Land of Israel. Avraham comes to the Land of Israel, where he must face the challenges often met by many people who immigrate to a new place, challenges like adapting to life with different people, problems with earning a living, and more.
The main character of last week’s portion, Noah, had to deal with a corrupt world that was destroyed, and later, reestablish a new post-diluvian world. In briefly contrasting the life stories of these two characters, we discover a fascinating gap. Whereas Noah is described as the one who, at his birth, was regarded as the one who would console the world, and later, is awarded the title of a righteous and complete person – and even termed one who found favor in the eyes of God.
Nothing at all is said about Avraham. We know who his father, Terah, was. We also know who his two brothers are, Terah and Nahor, but that’s it. And then, one fine morning, Hashem commands Avraham to set out on a journey to a different place, one that Hashem would show him later on. “Leave your warm and comfortable home,” Hashem says, “and move to somewhere new.” We find not even a hint to Avraham’s personality traits, his good qualities, or anything of the kind.
When we were in school or kindergarten, we learned all kinds of stories about Avraham. One story is about Avraham wandering around the world, in search of the creator of the world. Another concerns Avraham as a boy, who shatters the idols his father was selling. Yet another relates Avraham’s experience getting thrown into a furnace, and surviving, thanks to his faith. One thing that all these stories share in common is that not one explicitly appears in the Torah.
The obvious question is why the Torah found it so important to describe Noah and his actions, while it offers no such descriptions for Avraham. The text doesn’t even specify the reason Avraham was commanded to leave his family and go to a new land. While all of the events of the flood and the construction of the ark are described in great detail, Avraham’s story and reason for his trip to the Land of Israel and selection as the forefather of the Jewish nation are left entirely vague. Why?
Perhaps the Torah wishes to convey that in the annals of Jewish history, the nation’s identity is described in terms of a variety of character traits. During part of its existence, it is the people’s faith in Hashem and their commitment to performing the Mitzvot that defines this identity. At other times, their national character is given greater emphasis.
The Talmud (Yevamot 79a) teaches that humility, bashfulness and performing acts of kindness are the three traits that characterize the nation of Israel. Maimonides rules (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Issurei Bi’ah 19:17) that people who appear to be brazen should be suspected of not being Jewish. (Later on, some rabbis stated that if we were to follow Maimonides’ criteria, we would never marry, because the quality of brazenness in society has become more pervasive over the generations.)
Had the Torah stated that Avraham was chosen because of a particular act he performed, it would have established the foundation for the assertion that just one such quality is enough to be considered a Jew.