This week’s parashah begins the story of the Jewish people. All people mythologically descend from Adam and Eve and through the one remnant of their descendants, Noah, as we read last week. From here on out, the Torah will narrow its focus onto one descendant of Noah, ten generations later, the singular character of Avraham (born name, Avram). All we know of Avram coming into our parasha is his lineage, that he and his wife had fertility problems, that the family moved westward once from present day southern Iraq, and that his father died (Genesis 11:27-32). Then, out of the blue, with no context, when he was 75 years old, a God whom we have no reason to think he’s ever heard of speaks to him with no introduction, tells him to go to an as-yet-unnamed destination, and that great things will happen to him. And he does it, no questions asked:
1 And YHWH said to Avram, “Go forth, you, from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you; and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.” 4 Avram went forth as YHWH had commanded him, and Lot went with him. Avram was 75 years old when he left Haran. 5 Avram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the wealth that they had amassed, and the persons that they had acquired in Haran; and they set out for the land of Cana‘an, and they arrived in the land of Cana‘an.
So.Many.Questions! It’s hard enough to know God (if there even is such a Being) even with inherited traditions, language, and context. How does it make sense that a 75-year-old, established person, would hear the voice of an unknown God, recognize it, and nonchalantly uproot his life as a consequence? What’s the backstory? What must Avraham have been doing, who must he have been to enable Divine encounter? And what’s God’s tone of voice? How and why does God choose Avraham? The spiritual-moral corollary of that textual question is: what is the essential grounding for religious experience? How does one become able to hear the word of God? And how does God speak to us? One famous midrash relates a parable with a poignant interpretation and theological proposition:
Midrash Bereishit Rabbah 39:1 (edited c. 400 CE, Land of Israel)
Rabbi Yitzhak said: This may be compared to a man who was passing from place to place when he saw a highrise on fire. He said, “Is it possible that this highrise lacks a caretaker?!” The owner of the highrise peered down at him and said, “I am the owner of the highrise!”
Similarly, once Avraham our father said, “Is it possible that this world has no caretaker?”, the Holy Blessed One peered down and said to him, “I am the owner of this world.”
What does it mean to say that God’s calling out to Avram to get up and go must have been the cry of a building owner shouting out from the top floor of a burning building with no caretaker present putting out the fire? What does it mean that Avram heard it and responded?
Before we process that, a few words on terminology. The word rendered here as “highrise” — “birah/בירה” in Hebrew — is often translated as “castle”, which is what it means in medieval Hebrew. In 3rd-4th Century Palestinian Hebrew, though, it means “building”, usually referring to a highrise apartment complex, corresponding to the Latin term “insula”, referring to the tenement houses, often as tall as five stories, which had become popular at that time throughout cities of the Roman empire. The term “on fire” is sometimes translated as “aglow” by commentators who have a hard time figuring out how it could be that Avraham’s experience of knowing God came through seeing something negative. But the Hebrew “doleket/דולקת” could not be more straightforward, and always means, “on fire”. [My reading of this midrash follows the excellent scholarly work of Paul Mandel, “The Call of Abraham: A Midrash Revisited”, Prooftexts 14 (1994).]
So how did Avraham come to hear God’s voice? It must be, says the midrash, that first of all, he noticed the world on fire, like a passerby who notices that a building is on fire and doesn’t accept it as normal. Then, it must be that Avraham was bothered enough by the fire to wonder why there was no one putting out the fire. Isn’t there a building superintendent or some other kind of caretaker whose job it is to rally a fire crew? It is in the experience of noticing the world being destroyed and being bothered enough to wonder why someone’s not in charge of fixing it, that Avraham hears God. And who is God, the owner of the building, usually thought to be absent, but actually right there, trapped on the top floor, looking down, maybe desperate for any passer-by to intervene? Implicit in God/the owner’s call is an answer, “No, there’s no caretaker, no one’s in charge; if you don’t intervene, the world will be destroyed, and I with it.” For this midrash, the baseline, and perhaps even the definition, of religious experience, is the personal recognition of injustice, suffering, or danger, and the process of understanding one’s own obligation to interrupt it. Any interpretation of God’s word that doesn’t start from there and further interpret it is bogus.
How did God choose Avraham? Because Avraham noticed and cared about social justice. God’s voice is an urgent plea for help, a voice which must translate as responsibility, for one who is bothered by the injustice. This is, this must be, Judaism’s origin story. All the rest is commentary; go and study.