The Greatest Discovery: Abraham Finds God, and Its Meaning for Rosh Hashanah

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As a child I fondly remember playing the game “hide and seek”.

While it was sometimes challenging for me to find my friends, invariably I was able to discover their hiding places as there were a finite amount of places where they could hide.

A greater and almost impossible challenge would have been to attempt to find my friends if they would have become invisible. I don’t know how I would have been able to find someone I couldn’t see or touch.

With many degrees of separation the scenario of the “hide and seek” game with invisible participants is somewhat analogous to Abraham’s discovery of a non-physical G-d.

Additionally, Abraham’s discovery was further complicated because of the world’s complete ignorance of G-d’s existence. Maimonides describes the world’s spiritual state at the time by stating:

וְכֵיוָן שֶׁאָרְכוּ הַיָּמִים נִשְׁתַּכַּח הַשֵּׁם הַנִּכְבָּד וְהַנּוֹרָא מִפִּי כָּל הַיְקוּם

After the lapse of time G-d was forgotten from all consciousness (Hilchot Avodah zarah 1:2)

The Medrash in Bereshit Rabbah 39:1 (BR39) seeks to explain the mechanism by which Abraham was able to find someone he could not see, and something he knew nothing about. 

While BR39 is not as well-known as the Medrash where Abraham destroyed his father’s idols and completely rejected the notion of a physical God, BR39 doesn’t focus on what Abraham disregarded, but rather on the pathway through which he found G-d.

BR39 quotes Rabbi Isaac who describes Abraham’s search for G-d, as comparable to an individual who wanders from place to place.

אָמַר רַבִּי יִצְחָק מָשָׁל לְאֶחָד שֶׁהָיָה עוֹבֵר מִמָּקוֹם לְמָקוֹם וְרָאָה בִּירָה אַחַת דּוֹלֶקֶת אָמר תֹּאמַר שֶׁהַבִּירָה הַזּוֹ בְּלֹא מַנְהִיג הֵצִיץ עָלָיו בַּעַל הַבִּירָה, אָמַר לוֹ, אֲנִי הוּא בַּעַל הַבִּירָה

According to Rabbi Isaac, Abraham metaphorically saw the world as a beautiful palace  with fires raging and asked, “Is it possible that the palace does not have an owner?”

To which G-d responded, and said to Abraham, “I am the owner of the palace.”

The brevity of the Medrash is surprising.

The Medrash can barely muster five lines to communicate the process of one of the greatest discoveries in the annals of human existence. 

Furthermore, according to BR39, Abraham was not moved to call out to G-d by simply seeing the world as an ordered and structured palace.

While the concept that orderly creation implies a creator is a compelling argument for the existence of G-d, the Medrash clearly indicates that the key factor behind Abraham’s discovery of G-d, was the presence of both order and chaos in the fiery palace.

Why is it that the presence of order and chaos convince Abraham of G-d’s existence, more than the existence of structured creation? 

Perhaps, the answer is as follows.

In 1948, leading British Astronomer, Sir Fred Hoyle helped develop the the Steady State Theory to explain the origins of the world.

Sir Fred thought that the world had always existed and rejection the notion of a Creator. Hoyle said that, “Things are the way they are because they were the way they were,and that the world, for whatever reason, always “was.”

Abraham, not knowing anything about G-d, probably considered this possibility that the world had always existed.

Abraham, looked at the world and saw structure. He saw that a day is always 24 hours, and that seasons had definite beginnings and ends. He saw consistency in the cycles of the moon and he saw the miracle of childbirth.

Returning to the words of BR39, Abraham saw the world as metaphorical palace, with order and precision. Consequently, he had to consider that the default position of the world is to order and that things are the way they are because they were the way they were.

However, Abraham saw a world that can be chaotic. He saw hurricanes, sickness, and disease. Additionally, Abraham observed that “mother nature” could be unforgiving as  the fires of chaos were raging in the palace of the world.

According to the Medrash, Abraham must have come to the conclusion that the Solid State Theory was incorrect, for if the world has always existed without guidance then the world could have only one default position; either chaos or order. If both order and chaos were the simultaneous default positions of the world, then the fires of chaos would eventually destroy the orderly world.

Therefore, it logical to assume that once Abraham dismissed the Solid State Theory and the concept of a physical G-d, he arrived at another objective possibility. That there must be a non-physical G-d Who created order, built the metaphorical palace and, for some unknown reason, allows the fires of destruction to exist.

Abraham metaphorically calls out to G-d and says “I know You, the Creator, are here. I see this beautiful world, with detail and structure, please put out the fires of chaos.”

Upon hearing’s Abraham’s plaintive appeal, G-d ended his period of silence and responded to Abraham.

BR39’s brevity, its presentation Abraham’s process for finding G-d, allows for the presentation of complex philosophical ideas in the form of a story that a six-year-old can comprehend on his or her level.

While BR39 has meaning and importance throughout the year, the Medrash’s conclusion has special relevance for Rosh Hashanah.

At the conclusion of BR39, G-d doesn’t seem to answer Abraham’s question: “Why don’t you put out the fire and make the world completely ordered?”

Perhaps, G-d addresses this question by saying that Abraham and the Jewish people will be charged with the mission of extinguishing the fires of chaos and fixing the world. 

It seems that G-d is telling us that if there is disease, then we should train religious doctors to heal the sick, and if buildings collapse, then we should develop rapid response teams to find the injured and to comfort those who are bereaved

Perhaps we are the ones who have to bring order to chaos, because when G-d was openly present in the world, His presence overwhelmed mankind. When G-d “walked in the Garden of Eden,” Adam and Eve hid, and after G-d revealed Himself at Mt. Sinai, the Jewish people constructed a golden calf. It appears for this world to function, then G-d has to remain hidden, and consequently it falls upon Abraham’s children to heal the world. 

On Rosh Hashanah, when we stand in front of G-d as individuals and as a community, the question will be asked whether we are fulfilling this mission.

Have we used our talents and our gifts to bring light to the world? Are we fulfilling our potential to bring order and godliness to the world? Is the world a better place because we are here?

Self-doubt is oftentimes a normal response to such weighty questions. Most of us have an inside voice that says that a mission of bringing order and light to the world is too daunting a task.

After all, Moses’s initial response to his mission of leading of leading the Jewish people was….

מִ֣י אָנֹ֔כִי כִּ֥י אֵלֵ֖ךְ אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֑ה 

Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh (Exodus 3:11)

While the task is helping to perfect G-d’s world is daunting, when the shofar is blown on Rosh Hashanah, the perception for many is that nothing is beyond our reach. Oftentimes, when we hear the notes of tekiah, shevarim and teruah, the impossible becomes possible.

This year, when we hear the sounds of the shofar, please G-d we will be moved to action.

Tekiah – we will try to make ourselves and our communities better.

Shevarim – we will try to extinguish the flames of chaos.

Teruah – we will try to bring G-d’s light to the world.

Tekiah Gedolah – this is the year that we will bring order to the world, complete the last page of Jewish history and bring mashiach.