Parshat Lech Lecha
October 27, 2001
Parshat Lech Lecha is primarily the story of Abraham’s mission yet as the parasha begins, Abraham is a relatively unknown figure. We know little more about him than his place of birth, his genealogy and his choice of spouse. The characteristics that made him worthy of being chosen by God remain a mystery. This gap is, in part, what led the tradition to interpret the following verse as referring to Abraham: “Who has raised up one from the east at whose steps victory attendeth. He (God) gives nations before him and makes him rule over kings. His sword makes them as the dust, his bow as the driven stubble.” (Isaiah 41:2 – adapted from the old JPS translation)
In his search for the plain meaning (pshat) of this verse, Abraham Ibn Ezra, the 11th – 12th century Spanish exegete, identified the one “raised up from the east” with the great Persian king, Cyrus, who came from the east to conquer the land of Israel from the Medes around the year 550 BCE. An earlier tradition, found in the following midrash, interprets this verse quite differently, relating it to Abraham – the man who came from the east on his journey to the land of Canaan.
“‘Who causes ‘awakening’? The man from the east. He also calls righteousness to attend his steps” (Isaiah 42:2). Rabbi Reuben, a 3rd century Babylonian sage, said: The nations of the world were asleep (unaware of God) and so they had come under the wings of the Divine Presence. Who roused them up to come and take refuge under God’s wing? Abraham, as it is said: “Who caused ‘awakening’? The man from the east.” And do not say that Abraham only awakened the nations of the world. He did more, for righteousness (charity) was also asleep, and he roused it. How? Abraham opened an inn, and welcomed those who came and went, as it is said: “And Abraham planted an ‘ashel’ in Beer Sheva’ (Genesis 21:33). [The letters of the word “eshel” are taken to stand for “food, drink and a place to rest”] Of this verse, R. Azariah taught: Abraham built an inn, and welcomed wayfarers.” (Midrash Tehillim 110:1 – reworked from the Braude translation)
This reinterpretation of the verse from Isaiah provided the rabbis with ample evidence of Abraham’s unique qualities. God chose Abraham because Abraham chose God. He was a sincere and loyal representative of God’s truth who brought God’s message to all who encountered him. His message embodied not just ideas but action, making him the ideal model for the Jewish faith community.