Rabbi David Walk
Brownies! I bake an amazing version of this all-time favorite, which is literally world famous. I say this because many of my students over the years have brought this recipe to every continent on earth, and it works just as well for Pesach. I gladly give out the recipe (just send me an email); it's my pleasure. But the weird thing is that many times someone doesn't get the brownies right the first time and I get an irate call or email asking me, 'What's the secret ingredient you didn't tell me about?' The answer is always, 'There isn't any.' They just have to do it right, with love and gluttony. It's really an easy, almost no-fail, recipe. People, though, love to think that that there's a secret or a conspiracy. Usually, like with my brownie recipe, there isn't any. However, this week's Torah reading really does seem to be hiding a big time secret. And that secret is: Avraham's merit! I mean God could have picked any of half a dozen famous people to father the Chosen People, Adam, Seth, Chanoch, Enosh, Noach, Shem. So, what was so special about Avraham? Sadly (or perplexingly), the Torah is silent on this seemingly crucial detail. Our Torah reading begins with God's instruction to leave Dodge (probably before sundown). No introduction, no explanation. Even Noach gets an intro (Noah was a righteous man he was perfect in his generations; Noah walked with God, Genesis 6:9) before given his assignment.
Before I begin the quest for the secret ingredient, I feel that I must mention the opinion of the Kuzari (Reb Yehudah Halevi, 1075-1141). He famously opined that the pursuit is futile because Avraham was destined for this role and his merit was intrinsic and, therefore, not observable. But that route leaves us without an article this week.
However, the Midrash, which explains vague texts, doesn't let us down. We are told the following famous tale: Avraham's father, Terach, sold idols. One day Avraham was left to mind the store, and he took a hammer and smashed all the idols except the largest. He placed the hammer in the hands of that statue. When Terach returned, Avraham explained how the big idol killed all the others. Terach yelled that that was impossible; they're just statues. Avraham then inquired, if so, how can we worship them. So, Avraham was an iconoclast. His merit was his opposition to idol worship. It's plausible, but not entirely satisfying. Why wouldn't the Torah tell us such a wonderful tale? So, there are a number of alternative approaches to explain the great virtue of Avraham. Let's explore a couple.
There is a fascinating idea presented by the Sfat Emet (Rabbi Aryeh Yehuda Leib Alter of Gur), which parallels a similar story about Moshe and the Burning Bush. The Gerrer Rebbe, based upon an idea in the Zohar, suggests that the call of lech lecha (go forth) was a universal call for all to hear. This was like an open casting call in the New York Times. Anyone could have answered the call to become a great nation. Only Avraham went. God had spoken and he acted accordingly. Avraham was self-chosen.
Or maybe the answer to our question is given by Maimonides, who was echoing earlier sources: After this mighty man (Avraham) was weaned (at 3 years old), he began to explore and contemplate. Though he was a child, he began to think incessantly throughout the day and night, wondering: How is it possible for the sphere to continue to revolve without having anyone controlling it? Surely, it does not cause itself to revolve. He had no teacher, nor was there anyone to inform him. Rather, he was mired in Ur Kasdim among the foolish idolaters (Laws of Idolatry, 1:3). To Maimonides, Avraham was worthy of this great assignment because he was the great philosopher, discerning truth in an intellectual vacuum. God reached out to him, because he was searching for the Divinity that he was sure existed.
But I'd like to suggest another possible solution. In next week's parsha, when God is preparing to destroy Sodom, we have the following statement: And the Lord said, 'Shall I conceal from Abraham what I am doing? And Abraham will become a great and powerful nation, and all the nations of the world will be blessed through him. For I have known him because he commands his sons and his household after him, that they should keep the way of the Lord to perform righteousness and justice, in order that the Lord bring upon Abraham that which He spoke concerning him (Genesis 18:17-19).' God sees Avraham as the founder of a dynasty of those who will 'perform righteousness and justice'. The special character of Avraham is such that God is willing to discuss with him Divine justice before it is meted out. This stems from two aspects. First Avraham will teach these principles to his progeny. And, secondly, these principles are based upon tzedaka (righteousness) and mishpat (justice).
These two concepts go way beyond just believing in God. This God has Divine attributes. Many ancients believed that the basis of godliness is power. Avraham was, apparently, the first to believe that infinite power was just the beginning of Godliness. There had to be morality (I'm calling that tzedaka) and a system of laws (mishpat) for the Divine way to make any sense at all. Power without integrity was just chaos, like the tohu v'vohu (primordial chaos), which God banished on Day One. God observed that Avraham understood that there had to be a logic behind it all or the whole thing wasn't worth it. That's why God could discuss the punishment with Avraham, but couldn't with Noach.
Noach understood mishpat very well. He saw the destruction. However, Noach didn't or couldn't understand that God had a plan and purpose behind the Creation. That's the secret! Tzedaka and mishpat can work together. It's not an ingredient as much as a process. And Avraham's greatest role is to make sure that it doesn't remain a secret, and we try to continue that effort.