Perhaps the most famous “first words” in literature are those of Ishmael, narrator of Herman Melville’s classic novel, Moby Dick. “Call me Ishmael,” he said. Not terribly profound, perhaps, but somehow memorable in its simplicity.
Let’s look at the first words by which some other famous characters have been introduced to the world.
“Is the day so young?” – Romeo, Romeo and Juliet
“Shall we pick some flowers, Doctor? When a man visits an old girlfriend she usually expects something like that.” – James T. Kirk, Star Trek
“The key to faking out the parents is the clammy hands. It’s a good non-specific symptom; I’m a big believer in it.” – Ferris Bueller, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
Pretty unimpressive, huh? Now let us look at the first words spoken by Avraham Avinu, our forefather Abraham, in the Torah:
“I recognize that you are a beautiful woman” (Genesis 12:11).
This also does not appear to be what one would consider a “blow-away” introduction. This statement of Avraham is not one of the more famous verses in the Torah. We don’t recite it as part of the liturgy. To my knowledge, neither Avraham Fried nor Shwekey has ever turned it into a song. But let’s continue to compare it to the first words ascribed to others:
“Make yourself comfortable! I haven’t time to attend to it!” – Superman, Action Comics #1
“What are you doing here?” – The Doctor, Doctor Who
“Seems to me, that button is in the worst possible spot. The second button literally makes or breaks the shirt. Look at it: it’s too high! It’s in no-man’s-land. You look like you live with your mother.” – Jerry, Seinfeld
As a general rule, our heroes are introduced with some mundanity that establishes the protagonist’s personality. “But I was going into Tosche Station to pick up some power converters!” (Luke Skywalker’s first words in Star Wars) isn’t meant to inspire us, it’s meant to establish Luke for us.
Abraham was 75 years old at the time his narrative begins. The Torah doesn’t introduce him with words of faith from when he smashed his father’s idols, nor with words of defiance from when Nimrod had him thrown into a fiery furnace. What does it accomplish by introducing him with, “I recognize that you are a beautiful woman?”
I must have read this verse hundreds of times over the years and this question never even occurred to me, let alone the answer, until I saw the following observation from a gentleman named Paul Ginsburg, who sends out an email with thoughts on the parsha. His observation on this verse, in its entirety, is:
The first words Avraham Avinu speaks in the Chumash are a compliment to his wife.
Now, all of a sudden, it’s a very powerful verse!
Our mothers all taught us, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” but how many of us actually follow that advice? We never hesitate to vent all of our negativity but how often do we remember to accentuate the positive? We don’t hesitate to complain to our family when the trash hasn’t been taken out or about a host of other minutia but how often do we think to compliment our spouses and children? Long before we see Avraham taking in guests, the Torah establishes his kindness towards others – especially family members, whom we are the most likely to take for granted!
There’s a saying, “you only get one chance to make a first impression.” With one very subtle verse, the Torah introduces Avraham, establishes his personality and teaches us a lesson about how to treat those closest to us. That’s a pretty good introduction!
The first words spoken by Fanny Brice, as portrayed by Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl, are “Hello, gorgeous!” Those may sound similar to Avraham’s first sentiment until you realize that Fanny was speaking to herself, in a mirror.
I’m not suggesting that we can aspire to be Avraham but we must each ask ourselves what first impression we make when introduced to the world. If we’re not happy with the answer, we owe it to ourselves to re-write the narrative while we still can.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.