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Avraham: Proactive Monotheist by Yaakov Bieler

November 1, 2011 by  
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Universal directives in the early Parashiot of the Tora.

Sefer Beraishit, in addition to presenting the particularistic personal histories of the founders of the Jewish people, also contains several universalistic statements that indicate Divine Expectations for all of humankind.[1]

A commandment in Parashat Lech Lecha’s that can be understood as relating not only to Avraham and his offspring, but ultimately all humanity[2] appears in 17:1: “…Hithalech Lefanai VeHeyeh Tamim (Cause yourself to go before Me and be whole).” In this verse, it appears that Avraham is being given a message by HaShem that encompasses the entire human religious experience, i.e., he is to attempt to live his life in accordance with God’s Values and Ideals, and at the same time strive to be as devoid of internal conflict and contradiction as a human being can possibly be.[3] Avraham suggests that at least from his point of view, he succeeds in “walking before HaShem”, when, towards the end of his life, while giving Eliezer instructions regarding how to search for a wife for Yitzchak, Avraham describes himself in these very terms: (24:40) “And God, before Whom I caused myself to walk, Said to me that He would Send His Angel with you in order that you will be successful in your mission…”[4] Yitzchak too is described by Yaakov to have lived in a similar fashion: (48:15) “God, Whom my fathers ‘Hithalchu’ before Him, Avraham and Yitzchak…”

The timing of when “Walking Before God” is Presented to Avraham as an ideal.

When the Divine Command “Hithalech Lefanai VeHeyeh Tamim” is taken out of the specific context of the Bible’s description of how Avraham becomes the founder of the Jewish people, it clearly serves as an inspiring motto not only for Avraham, but also for anyone trying to lead a deiocentric, “God-ward”[5] oriented life. But when we carefully consider not only the meaning of 17:1, but also the point at which it appears in the Tora’s account of the life of Avraham, the timing of God’s charge to Avraham to “walk before Him” appears to be extremely belated. God’s Relationship with Avraham begins to be recounted at the outset of Parshat Lech Lecha, 12:1, where Avraham is promised by God the things that lead to universal human happiness and fulfillment. One would think that a Divine Commitment to turn Avraham into a “distinguished nation”, to “make his name great”, and to cause him to be successful to the extent that others will use his example as a paradigm when they wish to impart blessings to others, would be contingent upon Avraham’s distinguished past, as well as his need to live up to some sophisticated, lofty Heavenly-Ordained standard, precisely like the one enunciated five chapters later in 17:1. Instead, in Beraishit 12, when the Heavenly Promises are articulated, we are told nothing significant about what Avraham has done until this point, and the only thing that appears to be required by HaShem of Avraham going forward is his relocation from Charan, where God Chooses to Reveal Himself to him for the first time (“Go for yourself from your land, from your birthplace, from the house of your father to a land that I will show you”), to Canaan. While we could posit that by virtue of Avraham’s undertaking this trip, he literally engages in “Hithalchut” [causing oneself to go] in accordance with God’s Directive, it is still difficult to imagine how the journey alone can be considered sufficient proof of Avraham’s possessing exceptional qualities and the sort of spiritual potential that would entitle him to all of the promised Divine Benefits.[6] Noach, by contrast, receives his Divine Blessings only AFTER he has built the Ark, taken care of the animals in his charge during the flood, and offered sacrifices once he disembarks—see 9:1 and the numerous actions that begin to be described in 6:13. Avraham appears to be getting off “easy”.

What does “Walking before God” mean at a time when Revealed Commandments were few and far between?

Furthermore, a Commandment utilizing the metaphor of a person “walking before” God vis-à-vis specifically Avraham, appears to be difficult to understand in light of the degree to which this man could possibly have been aware of the specifics that God Expected of him and his contemporaries. “Hithalchut Lifnai (before) HaShem” suggests that the individual in question is in synch with God and is following the proper path and proceeding in the correct direction to such an extent that  he is able to anticipate anything and everything that HaShem may Wish for him to say and do. Yet wouldn’t one think that during the Biblical period in which Avraham lived, a time when God has hardly Made known the details of the lifestyle that He ultimately Desires humanity to adopt,[7] it would be more apt to describe people such as Avraham as at best “following” HaShem’s minimally indicated Lead, or at least “walking with” Him as in the cases of Chanoch (5:24) and Noach (6:9), rather than “walking before” Him?[8] In contrast to the book of Devarim in which are found numerous references to the importance of the Jewish people remaining on the “Derech” (path)[9] that has been already well-delineated for them at Sinai, how would Avraham know God’s Path, let alone lead the way along this “Derech”?

Understanding “Walking before God” in a different context.

Perhaps by highlighting a passing textual reference regarding Avraham’s activities prior to the beginning of Parashat Lech Lecha, we can shed light upon the issues raised. The well-known phrase in 12:5, describing one of the groups of individuals that Avraham and Sara took with them upon their departure from Mesopotamia, “…VeEt HaNefesh Asher Asu BeCharan…” (and the souls that they MADE in Charan) leads to the conclusion on the part of the Rabbis that both Avraham and Sara were engaged in proselytizing already in Charan, and possibly some time before as well, if not for a system of practices that could be identified as Judaism proper, then at least with regard to a belief in monotheism.[10] Consider the interpretation of 12:5 in Beraishit Rabba 39:14:

Said R. Elazar ben Zimra: If one gathers together all of the peoples of the world to create even a single gnat, they will be unable to give it life, and here it states (12:5) “the souls that they made”? But rather these are the converts that they converted. If that is so, then why does the text not state, “that they converted” instead of “that they made”? This is to teach that whoever is “Mekarev” (draws close) the idolater and ultimately converts him, it is as if he created him…

It stands to reason that God is “Chagrined” when after a mere ten generations subsequent to the flood (Pirkei Avot 5:2), people have returned to worshipping idols along with the immoral practices associated with such worship.[11] His Decision to designate an individual who would attempt through his own efforts as well as those of his family to turn this tide of disbelief, raises the question of by which criteria should such an individual be chosen. Clearly, someone who on his own has already engaged in such work, a “self-starter” who has personally confronted time and again the paganism of the majority culture and had engaged in this struggle BEFORE God ever Comes to him, is the obvious choice. Jewish tradition recognizes that Avraham was not the first monotheist, or even for that matter the first prophet. RaMBaM, in Moreh Nevuchim Part II Chapt. 39 writes:

…Shem, Ever, Noach, Metushalach, Chanoch, about none of these individuals are we told that they went out to people, that they said to their contemporaries, “God has Sent me to you to tell you such and such.” This is something that neither the Tora nor the Midrashim attest to. Prophecy would come to them from God, as we have explained. However, someone, upon whom the Divine Spirit rested to a greater degree, like Avraham, gathered people together and charged them by means of learning and proper reasoning to the Truth that he had already discerned. He taught people, and clarified to them by means of logical deductions that there was a single God in the Universe, that He Created all else aside from Himself, and that there was no need to worship idols and to listen to idolatry’s reputed prophets…

Once God Concludes from Sara’s like involvement in these outreach activities, that Avraham’s entire family could be engaged in combating polytheism, He Decides to expand this family and its influence, so that God’s own Presence in the world will be promoted by an ever-increasing cohort of individuals who command public attention due to their personal and financial success—hence the considerable promises at the beginning of Lech Lecha, in 12:1. In effect, God was not Taking a chance on the future; He was Acknowledging and Rewarding what had already taken place in the past, and Investing in and Encouraging a continuity of those past actions. God can be understood to Attest to Avraham’s concern that future generations carry on his proselytizing work, when He Says prior to informing Avraham of His Intention to destroy Sodom and Amora (18:19) “Because I Know him that he will command his children and his household after him…” In addition, if we keep in mind that Avraham’s entire being has been devoted to spreading belief in HaShem, a new light is thrown upon his plaint regarding the impending destruction of even the righteous people of Sodom, (18:25) “…Will the Judge of the Universe not render justice?” RaShI interprets the phrase in this verse “Chalila Lecha” (it is a profanation (!)  for You), “It diminishes Your Holiness! This is what ‘THEY’ will say: He Sweeps away all the righteous along with the evildoers. This is what He Did by means of the flood as well as the generation of the Tower of Bavel (see 11:1 ff.).” Every instance of perceived[12] theodicy, i.e., bad things happening to good people, makes it that much more difficult for those who already believe, let alone individuals whom one is attempting to bring around to newly accepting religion and belief.

How does such an interpretation affect  the meaning of 17:1?

But if Avraham was already “walking before HaShem” by the proselytizing that is referred to in Chapter 12, why is there a need to reiterate this goal in 17:1? NeTzIV, in his commentary HaEimek Davar, regards the phrase in 17:4, “…And you will be for a father of a multitude of nations”, as providing a specific context for 17:1, and thereby constituting an expansion of the activities previously only referred to in passing in 12:5.

Until this point, Avraham had called upon the Name of God and converted some individuals, only those people who had completely converted[13] and entered into the category of servants of God and His Tora, due to the teachings of Avraham, as explained in Sanhedrin 99b and Avoda Zora 9a, where the implications of “and the souls that they made in Charan” are defined, i.e., that Avraham had taught them Tora. And this thing would be impossible to do throughout the entire world, with the original intention being to establish the same number of nations as the members of the Jewish people (i.e., 70, in accordance with the numbers that originally went down to Egypt—see RaShI on Devarim 32:8). But there was no plan that all these nations should become members of the congregation of Israel. However, there was a goal that all nations would at least know HaShem—be monotheists, and that idolatry would cease. Regarding this matter, God Charges Avraham in order that he view himself as the father of a multitude of nations with respect to acquainting them with HaShem. In this manner he will be referred to as the “father” in the sense of a father who directs his children to believe and act properly. And this is the intent of the previous commandment, “Cause yourself to walk before Me”, i.e., that he will publicize His Divinity before the nations of the world, who may not be prepared to accept upon themselves a more complete conversion (to Judaism).

The change that seems to take place at this juncture according to NeTzIV is that whereas until now, Avraham has attempted to influence individuals to become monotheists and even Jews, joining his encampment—see 14:14—now, as a result of his new contacts with kings and their armies, specifically in Chapt. 14, he is being called upon to redefine his goals so that he sees himself, and his offspring as responsible for the beliefs of the entire world.[14] Consequently, from this perspective, 17:1 is the first articulation of the aspiration that the Jewish people serve as a light unto the nations, if not for the practices of Judaism, then at least for the basic beliefs associated with monotheism


[1] The first such universal description of an aspect of human nature that can be subject to individual choice appears in Parashat Beraishit. After his disappointment over the rejection of his sacrifice and God’s Acceptance of that of his younger brother (Beraishit 4:5), Kayin is given a directive concerning personal accountability for one’s actions that clearly applies to us all, at all times, in all places: (Ibid., 7) “Behold, if you do good, you will be uplifted/forgiven; but if you do not do good, sin crouches at the door and you are the object of its desire, yet you can rule over it.” Not only Jews, and not only even deists, could easily subscribe to such sentiments, reflecting the importance to do good and the avoid evil.

In Parashat Noach, upon his emergence from the ark following the flood that devastated practically all living things, Noach, as the representative of all Bnai Adam/Noach, is Commanded regarding the preciousness of all human life, and the consequences in store for those who murder. (Ibid., 9:5-6) “Surely your blood which is the essence of your souls I will Hold accountable (whomever spills it), from the hand of every living thing I will Demand it, as well as from man, from man’s fellow man I will Demand the soul of man. A person who spills the blood of another person, his blood will be spilled, because in the Image of God man was made.” Once again, all of humanity is expected to agree that the ultimate anti-social crime is the taking of human life, and that all human societies are expected to develop comprehensive codes of law designed to prosecute those that willingly disregard this most basic social and spiritual taboo. While the Commandment includes a warning of Divine Consequences should it be ignored, i.e., “I will Hold accountable”; “I will Demand it”, as well as a justification for such a law that depends upon believing in a Creator behind man’s Creation, i.e., “in the Image of God man was made”,  the prohibition against human murder is generally a feature of all social contracts, even those applying to  secular societies, governing human civilization.

[2] Several commentators, due to the subject matter discussed further along in Chapter 17:9-14, assume that what is being commanded in 17:1, at least with respect to the instruction to be “Tamim” (whole), is specifically circumcision. Such an interpretation could be seen to be consistence with the general Rabbinic approach to take Commandments that appear to address emotional e.g., love, honor, fear, etc., or overall existential stances, e.g., whole, good, faithful, etc., and associate them with specific actions in order to be able to evaluate and quantify compliance or non-compliance. Once one applies to 17:1 a narrow ritualistic interpretation, such as the requirement for circumcision, this particular commandment ends up being understood as directed to Jews alone. (RaMBaM in Mishna Tora, Hilchot Melachim 10:8 posits that since the children of Ketura, who were born after Yishmael, were included, as members of Avraham’s household, in the obligation of circumcision, now that they ultimately became mixed together with Yishmael’s offspring, and that all Arabs should undergo this ritual as well, but only as the result of the possibility that the obligation might apply to them) and therefore will have no relevance to the rest of the nations of the world. However, if it is maintained that “Temimut” (wholeness) refers to a general state of mind generated by a belief in God, as in Devarim 18:13 “You will be wholehearted with the Lord your God”, it is significantly universalistic in its implications.

[3] Judaism assumes that man has a dual nature—on the one hand, he possesses a spiritual soul which links him  with God from which the soul is believed to originate; and on the other, he exists within a physical body which seeks pleasure and is committed to self-preservation. The tendencies of these polar opposites are represented conceptually by the “Yetzer Tov” (the “good” inclination) and the “Yetzer HaRa” (the evil inclination). The ongoing dialectic between these two apparently irreconcilable aspects of every human being results in sometimes one and at other times the other tendency gaining the upper hand and dominating the individual. Man is expected to strive to utilize his inner qualities in a complementary rather than an antagonistic fashion, as in the Rabbinical interpretation of Devarim 6:5, “And you will love the Lord your God with all ‘Levavcha’ (lit. your hearts)…”—RaShI: “With both of your ‘Yetzer’s’”. When the passions and desires of a person all focus upon a common objective, in this case, loving HaShem, then an individual is more likely to be consistent rather than bifurcated and conflicted.

[4] Although Avraham’s words are recorded in the Tora as being presented by Eliezer when he explains to Rivka’s family the events that led to his coming to search for a wife for Yitzchak, and when we look at the Tora’s account of what Avraham originally tells Yitzchak, we do not find these precise words included—see 24:7—nevertheless there is no reason to assume that Eliezer fabricated the phrase in question. This apparent inconsistency serves as yet another example of the Rabbinic principle, “Divrei Tora Aniyim BaMakom Echad VeAshirim BaMakom Acher” (the words of Tora are impoverished/sparse in one place, and effusive in another). See Yerushalmi Rosh HaShana 3:5.

[5] See Eliezer Berkovitz, “Prayer”, in Studies in Tora Judaism, ed. Leon Stitskin, Ktav/YU Press, 1969, p. 92.

[6] Although one might maintain that the fulfillment of the promises in Beraishit 12 may be contingent upon Avraham passing the various tests that HaShem Sends his way during the course of his life (see Pirkei Avot 5:3), with at least one of them having possibly already occurred,* must we assume that because God is above time ** and therefore appears to us to “Know” the future, tests that have as yet not taken place from Avraham’s time-bound perspective, were for all intents and purposes already successfully completed as far as God was Concerned, and therefore Avraham could be the deserving recipient of such Divine Promises and their fulfillment? But then what would be the purpose of presenting him with any sort of additional commandment regarding the need for continual self-perfection, as exemplified in 17:1?

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* If we accept the Rabbinic contention that Avraham had already passed the test of being cast into the furnace by Nimrod as a result of his refusal to participate in idolatrous practices—see e.g., RaShI on Beraishit 11:28 as well as R. Ovadia MiBarenura on Avot 5:3—then perhaps he has already earned God’s Respect and is entitled to Divine Promises of reward. But then, if this action is deemed so seminal in the determination that Avraham would become the founder of the Jewish people, one would expect that some sort of explicit reference in the Biblical text would be made regarding this particular event. A simple reading of the text yields the impression that HaShem was taking Avraham “as is” and promising him personal success and happiness. At best, according to RaMBaN, there is no more than an allusion to the furnace in 11:28 in terms of the name “Ur Kasdim”, “Ur” referring to fire, as well as an inference in 15:7 that it wasn’t so much Avraham’s family voluntarily leaving Ur, as implied in 11:28, as God Taking them out, i.e., Performing a miracle to extract specifically Avraham from a potentially dangerous situation. But these subtle references, if in fact that is what they are, do not appear to do justice to the event.

** It is assumed that entities that undergo change, i.e., that have beginnings, middles and ends, measure such changes by the passage of time. However, for someone/thing that is immutable, time is meaningless. Consequently, since God does not “age”, does not “evolve”, time is meaningless, and therefore He Enjoys a perspective unbounded by “before, during and after”. This is the connotation of the Tetragrammaton, i.e., “Yud-Keh-Vav-Keh” comprised of the “being verb” in past, present and future tenses—“Hayah, Hoveh, Yihyeh”. It is impossible for man, who is a time-bound being, to appreciate what this means, since at best we can only project our own experience onto those with whom we share existence.

[7] The only specific “commandments” that the Tora records as being demanded of people are: a) (1:28; 9:1) being fruitful and multiplying as well as using and controlling the world and the creatures within it, b) (4:7) doing “good” (?) in order to be uplifted, c) (4:10) by implication, the prohibition against murder, d) (6:5) by implication, “evil” (?) will be punished, e) (6:11) by implication and hermeneutic interpretation, thievery is the social crime that finally condemns humanity and the world, f) (6:12) by implication and hermeneutic interpretation, sexual immorality where different species cohabit with one another is considered a further significant factor in the decision to destroy everything by flood, and therefore is generally prohibited, g) (9:4) blood must not be consumed when meat is eaten, h) (9:5-6) murder is explicitly prohibited, i) (9:22) by implication, parents must be treated with respect, j) (11:4) by implication and hermeneutic interpretation, all idolatry and polytheism are prohibited.

[8] RaShI on 6:9 weighs in that Avraham was more admirable than Noach, since “walking BEFORE God” is a greater accomplishment than “walking WITH God”. While that may be understandable in relative terms, just how Avraham was able to “walk BEFORE God” needs to be understood.

[9] See Devarim 5:30; 9:12, 16; 11:28; 13:6; 31:29.

[10] RaMBaM, Mishna Tora, Hilchot Avoda Zora 1:3 reports that Avraham was regularly debating with people in Ur Kasdim, and it was the objection of the government to these proselytizing activities that caused the family to relocate. Beraishit Rabba 38:13, when describing the challenges that Avraham issued to those coming to buy and worship in his father Terach’s “idol factory” might also suggest that already at an early age, Avraham was publicly trying to refute widely held polytheistic beliefs.

[11] Idolaters depicted in the Tora are involved in child sacrifice (Devarim 12:31), temple prostitution (23:18), and the like.

[12] While the Bible contends that during the time of the flood, only Noach and his family deserved to be saved, and as for the generation that was scattered due to their involvement in the construction of the Tower of Bavel, no one was singled out as meriting special treatment due to some particular personal righteousness, that does not prevent people from jumping to conclusions regarding what they consider God’s “indiscriminate” use of Divine Power.

[13] The assumption that Avraham actually fulfilled all the commandments and this is what he taught those he converted to do as well is based upon Kiddushin 82a, which interprets the redundancies in 26:5 to connote that the patriarch was practicing much more than the Seven Noachide commandments.

[14] This may also account for the radical change in Avraham’s proselytizing approach that I discuss in “Abraham: Pioneer Jewish Educator, Paradigm for Contemporary Teachers of Judaism” in Rav Chesed: Essays in Honor of R. Dr. Haskel Lookstein, Vol. 1, ed. Rafael Medoff, Ktav, Jersey City, 2009, pp. 29-51.

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