Parshat Lech Lecha: Who Was Avraham?

“And Hashem said to Avram, “Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. And I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will aggrandize your name, and [you shall] be a blessing. And I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse, and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you”.” (Beresheit 12:1-3)

Our parasha begins with our forefather Avraham’s first nevuah – prophecy. In this nevuah, Hashem commands Avraham to abandon his homeland and to travel to a land that He will later identify. Hashem promises Avraham that He will protect him and bless him.

Nachmanides notes that these passages are unusual. Avraham is introduced and Hashem promises to protect and bless him. But who was Avraham? How did he earn this promise and blessing from Hashem?

“And He said to him, “I am Hashem, Who brought you forth from Ur Kasdim, to give you this land to inherit it.” (Beresheit 15:7)

Our Sages respond to this question. They explain that Avraham had previously demonstrated his complete devotion to Hashem. The pasuk above alludes to the event through which Avraham demonstrated this devotion. In this pasuk, Hashem refers to Himself as the G-d who brought forth Avraham from Ur Kasdim. This phrase, “Who brought you forth,” implies that Hashem was involved in Avraham’s exodus from Ur Kasdim. What role did Hashem play in these events?

Our Sages explain that Terach – Avraham’s father – reported Avraham’s monotheistic innovations and his campaign against idolatry to the king. The king was alarmed with Avraham’s revolutionary behaviors and ideas. He commanded that Avraham be thrown into a fiery furnace. Avraham emerged from the fire unscathed.

We can now understand the above pasuk. Hashem brought forth Avraham from Ur Kasdim. He saved him from the furnace and redeemed him from death.
This is directly relevant to Nachmanides’ observation. Who was Avraham? Why did Hashem select him to be his prophet? This incident explains Avraham’s qualifications and the basis for his selection.[1]

However, this information does not completely resolve the issue raised by Nachmanides. This incident is so well known that it is generally assumed that it is included in the text of the Chumash. However, it is not. The incident is noted by Rashi and is derived from the midrash.[2]

Nachmanides asks the obvious question: Why is this important incident not included in the text of the Chumash’s narrative? This incident provides us with essential background material. It explains Hashem’s selection of Avraham as His prophet. Without this incident, the Chumash’s narrative seems incomplete! Nachmanides notes that based upon this consideration, Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra suggested that the incident should not be understood literally. Ibn Ezra’s reasoning is simple. This event – if it occurred – would be a significant miracle. Why would the Torah conceal such an impressive event? Ibn Ezra concludes that the Sages’ comments should not be understood in the literal sense.[3]

Nachmanides disagrees with ibn Ezra’s conclusion. He insists that the Sages’ comments can be understood literally. The event did occur and Avraham was miraculously saved from the fire. But if the event did occur, why is it excluded from the Torah’s narrative?

Nachmanides responds that although the king and people of Ur Kasdim were impressed by Avraham’s emergence from the fire and his rescue from death, they did not change their attitudes towards his religious ideology. They released Avraham but remained skeptical of his claims. They believed that perhaps he was a wise and skilled magician and somehow managed to escape death. But, they did not feel that his rescue provided conclusive proof of his claims. The Torah does not record miracles and wonders that are likely to provoke debate and ultimately prove inconclusive. In other words, recording this miracle could prove counter-productive. Some readers will be impressed. Others may ponder why this wonder had so little impact on the observers and recognize that it was less than conclusive.

Nachmanides acknowledges that his position raises an obvious question. He asserts that the Torah does not record miracles that proved less than completely convincing. Yet, in describing Moshe’s confrontation with Paroh and his advisors, the Torah clearly departs from this policy. The wonders initially performed by Moshe did not convince the Egyptians of the legitimacy of his claims. They did not produce any change in the Paroh’s attitude toward him or toward Bnai Yisrael. Why are these miracles included in the Torah?

Nachmanides responds that ultimately the Egyptians did acknowledge the authenticity of Moshe’s miracles and declared that they were expressions of Hashem’s providence.[4]

This response requires some further explanation. It seems that Nachmanides has not completely explained the Torah’s treatment of Moshe’s early miracles. It is true that ultimately Moshe performed wonders that overcame the skepticism of Paroh and his advisors. We can understand the inclusion of these latter wonders in the narrative of the Torah. But why are the earlier, less impressive miracles included?

It seems that according to Nachmanides, the Torah is making an important point about Paroh and his advisors. They were not a group that could be easily impressed. They were skeptics and doubters. Moshe’s initial wonders were rejected. The Egyptians observed these wonders and dismissed them. This response indicates their attitude and demonstrates that they could not be easily fooled or awed. This means that their eventual acknowledgement of Moshe’s authenticity and the authenticity of his miracles is even more impressive! Moshe convinced a group of committed and dedicated skeptics! This demonstrates the powerful impact of his wonders.

In summary: The Torah treats the wonders performed by Moshe differently than Avraham’s escape from the furnace. Moshe’s wonders are described in detail. Avraham’s rescue is only referred to by allusion. The reason for this distinction is that Avraham’s escape may provoke a skeptical response. Moshe’s wonders overcame intense doubt and skepticism. The ultimate triumph of Moshe’s demonstrations is evidence of the power of these wonders.

Nachmanides’ analysis expresses an underlying theology. Rather that dismissing skepticism, the Torah respects and responds to doubts and questions. We are not expected to be influenced or moved by inconclusive data. We are expected to respond to concrete and clear evidence.

This is a unique characteristic of Torah Judaism. This attitude distinguishes Torah Judaism from other religions. Other religions condemn and dismiss the doubter. The Torah respects a healthy sense of skepticism and responds to doubts.

A recently published best-seller discusses the attitude of religion to doubt and questioning. The author unfortunately groups Judaism with other religions and fails to recognize this fundamental distinction. In The End of Faith, Sam Harris mounts a general attack on religion. He explains that religious beliefs are unique and different from other beliefs. Other beliefs represent an attempt to form a conviction regarding reality in the absence of complete knowledge. For example, when I wake up in the morning and listen to the forecast I form a belief regarding the weather. I do not, however, know it will rain. But, I listen to the forecast. I know that the weatherperson has every reason to provide his or her best forecast of the weather. I decide that the evidence at hand justifies a belief that it will rain. I have used the available data to form a belief regarding a reality that I cannot ascertain with certainty. The validity of this process can be tested. Beliefs formed in this manner are generally accurate and conform to reality.

Harris claims that religious beliefs derive from a completely different process. They are not based upon an objective consideration of the available data. In fact, the true believer will often distain and reject objective data that contradict his beliefs. Instead, religious beliefs are generated from within the individual and projected upon reality. The believer believes that which he chooses or feels compelled to believe and disregards evidence contrary to his conclusions.

This process is akin to the fantasies projected by a person whose grasp on reality is weakened by a mental or psychological disorder. We recognize that this person’s convictions are not likely to correspond with reality and we are not surprised when he meets with disaster. Yet, we imagine that religious beliefs – derived through the same process – do correspond with reality.
Harris asserts that the beliefs of all major religions are nothing more than wishful thinking and deserve no more credibility than the fantasies of a disturbed individual. He further asserts that it is completely unwarranted for the practitioners of one religion to condemn the beliefs of another religion. All religious beliefs are equally flawed and unfounded!

Harris’ analysis reflects a basic misunderstanding of Torah Judaism. It may be true that many practitioners of Torah Judaism form their belief systems in the manner Harris describes. But this is not the method suggested by Nachmanides and our other great thinkers. Without exception, all of the classical Jewish thinkers proposed basing our beliefs upon a careful analysis of the available data. They respected skepticism and encouraged questioning. They believed that this was the unique characteristic of Torah Judaism. They maintained that this approach is the basis for our claim that the Torah is truth. It is our reason for asserting the validity of our convictions.

[1] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 12:2.

[2] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 11:10.

[3] The comments of Ibn Ezra quoted by Nachmanides do not appear in our editions of ibn Ezra’s commentary. Some editions actually present a different view. In these editions ibn Ezra quotes the comments of the Sages and suggests that they should be accepted in the literal sense.

[4] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 11:28.