The beginning of Jewish history

Abraham’s nation will be either like the stars shining in the darkness or else like the sand, down-trodden, and kicked aside by everyone.

Daniel Pinner ,

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It was 1948 years since the Creation (1812 B.C.E.), and in Ur Kasdim, the country that would later be called Mesopotamia, later Babylon, and later still Iraq, an idol-maker called Terah begat three sons.

He couldn’t possibly have known it at the time – but one of those sons, the one whom he named Abram, was going to revolutionise humanity.

When Abram was a young child, he first began to realise that a universe as perfect and as complex as our observable reality had to have a Creator; and the next few decades were Abram’s spiritual odyssey of discovery.

When he was forty-eight, he achieved full and mature understanding (vide Nedarim 32a, Bereishit Rabbah 30:8 and 64:4, and Tanhuma, Lech Lecha 3 et al.; compare also the Rambam, Laws of Idolatry 1:3).

Abram comprehended the futility of his father’s idols, so he publicly made fun of them, demonstrating the foolishness of worshiping carved bits of wood (vide Bereishit Rabbah 38:13, Targum Yonatan to Genesis 11:28, and Yalkut Shimoni, Genesis 62 et al.).

As a result, his father delivered him to the regional tyrant, Nimrod, the son of Cush, the son of Ham, who began his reign in Babylon and from there extended his tyranny to the entire region (Genesis 10:6-8).

And then began a philosophical debate between Nimrod, the all-powerful dictator, and Abram, the youthful headstrong rebel.

Nimrod said to Abram, “Let us both bow down to fire”, to which Abram responded, “Why not bow down to water, which extinguishes the fire”.

For sure, if water extinguishes fire, then water is the more powerful of the two. If you are going to worship either, then why not the stronger one?

“Very well”, said Nimrod, “Let’s bow down to water”, to which Abram responded, “If so, better that we bow to the clouds, which carry the water”.

“Very well”, said Nimrod, “Let’s bow down to the clouds”, to which Abram responded, “If so, better that we bow to the wind, which blows the clouds away”.

“Very well”, said Nimrod, “Let’s bow down to the wind”, to which Abram responded, “If so, better that we bow to humans, who can withstand the wind”.

Nimrod told him: “You’re just playing with words. I bow to nothing but fire, and I hereby throw you into it. And let the G-d to Whom you bow come and save you from it!”.

Haran, Abram’s brother, was standing by listening to this debate, and could not decide which of the two to follow. He saw Abram refuse to recant his faith and trust in the One true G-d and was impressed, but he was also aware of Nimrod’s awesome temporal power, so he thought: I’ll watch my brother Abram and see what happens to him. If he survives the furnace, then I’ll declare my faith in his G-d; if not, I’ll declare my allegiance to Nimrod.

Abram was flung into the furnace and survived, whereupon Nimrod turned to Haran and demanded of him: “Whose side are you on?”

Haran confidently declared, “On Abram’s side!” whereupon Nimrod’s henchmen seized him and flung him into the furnace – and his innards were burnt and he died.

This is the inference of “Haran died in the presence of his father Terah...in Ur Kasdim” (Genesis 11:28): אוּר כַּשְׂדִּים, Ur Kasdim, literally “the fire of the Chaldeans” – Haran died in the fire of the Chaldeans, in the furnace into which the tyrant Nimrod flung him as his father looked on helplessly.

But though Haran was dead and Abram survived the furnace, the entire family was still in danger of being persecuted by Nimrod. And so the patriarch of the family, Terah, took them all away from Nimrod’s empire, heading towards Canaan.

Travelling along the ancient route following the great Fertile Crescent, they reached the great city Charan, where Terah decided to remain with all his family.

With this location, Parashat Noach ends.

And this following Shabbat, Parashat Lech Lecha, continues:

“Hashem said to Abram: Get yourself away from your country and from your family and from your father’s house, to the Land that I will show you; and there I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you; and I will make your reputation great – so be a blessing!” (Genesis 12:1-2).

Now it is a basic theme in Judaism that our Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all kept the Mitzvot of the Torah, even though they lived centuries before the Revelation at Mount Sinai.

And considering this, G-d’s first-ever charge to Abram takes on new significance.

For decades, Abram had been refining himself. He had discovered G-d by himself, by his own efforts. He had risked his very life for G-d, without yet having had any communication from Him at all.

And now, after all these decades, what might we have expected G-d’s first words to Abram to be?

– Maybe, “Keep Shabbat!” Or maybe, “Eat only kosher food!” Or maybe, “Pray to Me three times every day!” Or maybe even, “If you ever want to become holy, then tell your wife Sarai to wear a sheitel!”

But no. G-d’s first words ever to Abram were His command, “Get yourself away from your country…to the Land that I will show you”.

Make Aliyah! This is the beginning of Jewish history. Without Aliyah, Jewish history isn’t going to begin at all. Outside of Canaan (the name Israel didn’t exist yet), Jewish history is a complete non-starter.

Hence G-d’s charge: “Get yourself away from your country…to the Land that I will show you; and there I will make you a great nation!”

Says Rashi: “‘Get yourself away’ – for your own benefit and your own good; there [in Canaan] I will make you a great nation, while here [in Charan] you won’t [even] have children”.

Such is the dichotomy between the Land of Israel and the rest of the world:

Outside of Israel, Abram will remain Abram and Sarai will remain Sarai, they will remain childless. Yes they can continue worshipping Hashem, yes they can continue to preach the truth of His existence and omnipotence – but they will never be able to fulfil their mission in this world.

By contrast, in Israel, and only in Israel, Abram will become Abraham, Sarai will become Sarah, and they will become a great nation.

There is no in-between. Either childless, or a great nation.

Just as, two-thirds of a century later, G-d promised Abraham that “I will greatly increase your offspring, like the stars of the Heavens and the sand on the sea-shore” (Genesis 22:17).

Again, there is no in-between. Abraham’s nation will be either like the stars of the Heavens, shining, providing light in the darkness, showing humanity their way, inviolable, high above all. Or else they will be like the sand on the sea-shore, worthless, down-trodden, and kicked aside by everyone.

Such is Jewish history, such is Jewish destiny.

Just as Jewish history begins with G-d’s command to Abram to make Aliyah, so Jewish destiny is, and can be, solely in Israel.

This is G-d’s primordial command to every Jew in every generation:

לֶךְ לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ – Get yourself away from the land of your birth, away from your familiar surroundings, and come to the Land of Israel. Come for your own benefit and your own good, because in Israel, and solely in Israel, we are destined to become the great nation that G-d decreed us to be.



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