Lech L’cha: How did Abraham have the right stuff? (October 18, 2018 Shabbat Sermon)
Those of us of a “certain age” remember The Right Stuff which was both a best-selling 1979 book and a critically acclaimed 1983 movie. The subjects of the Right Stuff are the Project Mercury astronauts selected for the NASA space program, and the U.S. pilots flying and researching experimental high-speed aircraft.
The title, The Right Stuff, refers to the special “it” factor – hard to pinpoint or name – that men [had to have] to become one of the elite: capable of flying high-speed, rocket-driven aircraft. As the author, Tom Wolfe, described it – the Right Stuff “seemed to be a man’s ability to go up in a hurtling piece of machinery and put his hide on the line and then have the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness, to pull it back in the last yawning moment – and then to go up again the next day, and the next day, and every next day . . . and to do so in a cause that means something to thousands, to a people, a nation, to humanity, to God.”
If you take out the phrase about the hurtling piece of machinery, you might be describing our idea of the first Hebrew patriarch: Abraham. In this week’s Torah portion, God specifically identifies Abraham, someone we, until now, know almost nothing about. Someone we have to assume was – until this moment – unremarkable. God says to this seemingly random man, “Lech-l’cha!” “Go! Go on this journey that you’re not going to know anything about until you’re on it. I will be guiding you into an unknown but blessed future.”
And so Abraham, along with his wife Sarah and nephew Lot, goes.
The question that I have been asked many times – the question that seems to be the obvious one – is: “Why Abraham?” Of everybody living in the world at that time, why did God choose Abraham
to go on this unique journey?
to start a new relationship between the one true God and human beings?
to start a new people who would pass down – l’dor va-dor — through the generations, the belief in one God who teaches us – who expects us – to live ethical lives with solid values?
A brand new idea at the time! One God – a God who cares that each of us lives a good life and works to make the world a better place. As far as we know, this idea had never existed before. And now, this guy, Abraham, is tasked with bringing this innovative idea into the world, not only during his own lifetime, but to bring this idea forward many, many centuries into the future. How did God know that Abraham had The Right Stuff for this daunting task? DID God know that Abraham had the right stuff for this task?
So the quick and easy answer to the question, “Why Abraham?” is – We don’t know. The Torah doesn’t tell us. But questions that aren’t directly answered in Torah make the best discussions for Jewish teachers and leaders through the centuries.
The question: “Why Abraham?” has often been answered by taking one trait of Abraham that we see through his Torah stories and say: “That’s it! That’s why God chose him!” And, of course, each of us identifies the trait that we consider most important.
For example: Our Talmudic rabbis – who interpreted Bible stories and created early Judaism – thought of faith in our one God and faith in God’s Torah as the most important Jewish traits. So they came up with a story about Abraham as a child. Their story teaches us that Abraham, from an early age, had faith that there was only one God – even before God ever spoke to him!
What’s the story? Many of you probably know it and think it’s in the Torah. But it’s not. It is the early rabbis’ answer to the question, “Why Abraham?”
The story goes that Abraham’s father owned a shop that sold idols. Abraham was against the sale or use of idols because it drew people away from worship of the one, true God. So the story goes that one day, Abraham’s father, Terach, went out and left Abraham in charge of the idols in his shop. After Terach left, Abraham smashed every single idol / except one. In the hand of that one idol, Abraham placed a stick.
Terach returned to his shop and was horrified! “Abraham, what did you do here!?!”
Abraham said, “What do you mean? I didn’t do anything! See that idol with the stick? He smashed all the other idols before I could stop him!”
Terach, still very upset, yells at Abraham: “What do you mean? An idol can’t rise up and massacre other idols!”
Abraham then smiled. “You are right, father. An idol can’t do anything. It is just made of stone. That is why I only believe in God.”
Boom! Mike drop!
Well – the story may be silly, but the rabbis were making a point. God chose Abraham to go on a journey to start a new religious people, because Abraham – even as a child – showed that he was loyal to the one God, that he wasn’t easily swayed by those around him, and that his faith was so strong that he was willing to get into trouble to stand up for that faith. This story by our early rabbis demonstrates that faith in God was the trait most important to them – the one that made Abraham fit to be the father of a people.
If we move ahead about 1000 years, we come to our brilliant thinker, philosopher, and physician, Moses Maimonides. To Maimonides, the most important trait a person could have was rational intelligence. Maimonides believed that God was the sum of all the natural and scientific laws and only the very brightest thinkers could have a true connection with that God.
So in answer to the question, “Why did God choose Abraham?” Maimonides answered, “Actually – Abraham chose God.”
To the philosopher Maimonides, who believed that philosophical thinking, such as his own, was the highest level of being, he understood Abraham as a brilliant philosopher who must have used logic to figure out that there was one God. Since Abraham was apparently the smartest person to date, according to Maimonides, Abraham was the first person to logically deduce that one God existed. For this reason, Abraham had the first real relationship with that God and spread the idea of God to those around him and to those who came after him.
In our modern day, and particularly among Reform Jews: to speak up as an advocate for the weak and the vulnerable – the pursuit of Tikkun Olam, fixing our broken world – is considered by many to be the highest form of Jewish life. That is why many in our modern Jewish community cite the Torah story of Abraham speaking up to God to save the citizens of S’dom who are about to be destroyed. Daring to question God and plead for the lives of others, is what makes Abraham someone who we see living the value of Tikkun Olam. And that is why many today might say: “This is why God chose Abraham.”
I would like to suggest a different response to the question, “Why did God choose Abraham?” I don’t think God chose Abraham because he had the right stuff. I think Abraham had the right stuff BECAUSE God chose him.
An illustration: A number of years ago I was at a Chanukah party in Boise – it was during the 10 years I worked as a hospital chaplain. Someone sitting next to me made the comment, “I couldn’t be a chaplain. I’m not compassionate enough.”
I responded, “I have no more compassion than anyone else. I’m not a chaplain because I’m compassionate. I’m compassionate because I’m a chaplain.”
We become what we are expected to do. If you learn chaplaincy skills so that every day you can listen to, and connect, with all types of people from all faiths and backgrounds, it brings out and develops your inner compassion for the diversity of human beings.
Another example: As we know from the news and from history, many people in our world have acted heroically – not because they were born different from others – but because a situation arose where they needed to be a hero – and they rose to the occasion.
I think God didn’t really know if Abraham had the right stuff for his enormous task – but God took a leap, just as Abraham took a leap – God told Abraham – an older man, comfortable with family, wealth and home – to leave comfort and family behind and take an unprecedented spiritual journey. And Abraham went. And knowing that God trusted him to carry out the most important mission known up to his day, Abraham rose to the occasion. He felt the great responsibility on his shoulders and he acted accordingly.
None of us will ever be asked to carry out a holy task of this enormity. But as people living a Jewish life, we carry a great responsibility on our shoulders. It is upon us to do mitzvot, to live Jewish values, to speak out against injustice and intolerance, to build bridges and heal wounds within our society and our world – to do the right thing, even if it is very, very hard.
As Abraham had faith that the world could be better, so can we. As Abraham was open, gracious and hospitable to the strangers who came by his home, so can we. As Abraham served as a voice for the voiceless, so can we. As Abraham swam against the tide of his time and lived the counter-cultural life he felt was right, even if not popular, so can we.
Abraham, I believe, wasn’t necessarily born with all the right stuff but took it upon himself to become that person. So is it our responsibility to develop the right stuff that is within each of us.
As Tom Wolfe writes in his book about the pioneers of the early space program, “Those with the right stuff are those who engage in their vital task the next day, and the next day, and every next day . . . and do so in a cause that means something to thousands, to a people, a nation, to humanity, to God.”
So may we answer the call to “Lech L’cha” – to be people who rise to the task of the holy journey through life that we are expected to make.