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Dvar Torah delivered by Mike Garmise on Shabbat, 11th Cheshvan 5777, 12th November 2016
As the Torah introduces us to our earliest ancestors, and we begin to read about the greatness of Avraham, and we remember all the stories we heard about him based mainly on the medrash, it comes as something of a shock to reread the last two sentences of last week’s parsha. “And Terach, Avram’s father, took Avram and Lot his nephew and Sara his daughter in law and together they set out for the land of Canaan, and they arrived in Haran and they remained there.” And there Terach died, about 65 years after he arrived in Haran.
Then, we are told in today’s parsha, God tells Avram, go forth from your land (he already had), your birthplace (ditto) and your father’s home (he’s dead) and go to the land I shall tell you. Which is – surprise – Canaan.
Perhaps we should reevaluate what we have been taught or at least think about other options. As Rabbi Shlomo Riskin points out, nothing is known from the Torah about father Terach’s religious beliefs. The stories the rabbis made up about Terach making idols and Avram proving that they were useless are intended to aggrandize Avram, who seems to have been chosen out of the blue.
But remember that Terach set out for Canaan; he just never got there. Is it possible that he too was enlightened in terms of who created the world? Perhaps the laconic statement that he reached Haran and settled there is a metaphor to indicate that he didn’t have enough of what was needed to go all the way in his beliefs. That was left to Avram.
There is another surprise in the parsha. After Avram is successful against the four kings, and then saves Lot who had been abducted, he is met by Malkizedek, king of Shalem (perhaps Jerusalem), who greets him in the name of EL Elyon, God, the sovereign over all.
But wasn’t Avram the father of monotheism? Where did this monotheistic king of Jerusalem learn about the one God who ruled over all?
Some commentators made supreme efforts to undermine the text. One even said that Malkizedek believed in idols whose names were El and Elyon, and Avram simply jumped to a conclusion. But isn’t it possible that this idea of one God for all the world had occurred to other people and perhaps there was actually a nucleus of people who believed in that one God, in one name or another?
Am I trying to break down the myth of Avram and detract from his accomplishments? Not at all. If we think about Terach as a precursor of believers in one God, it makes Avram a person who built on his father’s beliefs and aspirations – Terach had wanted to reach Canaan, and Avram his son did it for him. He “sort of” believed in one God, and Avram built a whole religion on it. As for Malkizedek, he was a true believer but not privy to the special relationship that Avram had with the Supreme Being.
And by no means should we sell Avram short. He did do more than others. Based on the Torah we can say that he took positive steps toward recognition of one God. When he leaves Haran for Canaan he takes his wife Sarai, Lot his nephew, his moveable property (sheep), and the souls he “made” in Haran – the ones he converted to his belief.
Now this fits in with the stories we read. We are given no special reasons why Avram was chosen. What we see as the stories unfold is that he cared. He was passionate. He was a man of action, not a bleeding heart pushover, and he believed enough to go out and perform chesed – what we call good deeds, but is more accurately explained as deeds that need to be done (especially those that most others will not do). He was practical, he was pragmatic, he was principled. And unlike Groucho Marx who once infamously said, “I have my principles, and if you don’t like them…I have others” – Avram had his principles and to them he adhered with all his might throughout his life.
That said, one thing is sure. Avram would never have been elected president. With all his charisma and his chutzpa to stand up to God, the only way he could have won would have been if he had brought a thunderbolt down from heaven onto his opponents. And this year, both candidates deserved some electric shock.
This week we experienced the climax of the foulest and grungiest presidential campaign in memory. And the day after we heard the most civil and polite statements from the two contenders, from the President and from everyone else in official positions, as though the cleanest and calmest campaign had just ended. They were following protocol. But there is unrest in the streets and on the campuses because the basest urges have been toggled and inflated.
In today’s parsha, Avram marks the transition to a new future, a new religion. The elections this week – and I’m not talking for or against either contender – and in recent times in France, Germany, Hungary and other places indicate a reaction to the trend of recent decades and a desire to return to older values of tribalism, isolationism and rejection of those who are different from us. And the underlying reasons for this tendency are understandable.
The question is whether it is possible to reach some sort of compromise so that we don’t see more extreme manifestations of racism and of antisemitism. The answer is blowing in the wind, and only time will tell where it and we have landed.