You may know that at a young age Avraham Avinu recognized that there is a single Creator and Conductor of the World, that he smashed his father’s idols, and that he miraculously survived Nimrod’s fiery furnace.
But why did God single out Avraham to become Avinu, the forefather of the Jewish nation?
A reading of the Torah offers very little insight as to who he was or why God entrusted him with his unique spiritual mission. The story merely picks up in the middle with God’s commandment of “lech lecha.” At that point he was already in his seventies.
The fuller story and other important events in Avraham’s early life were passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth and eventually recorded in various Midrashim. So, to fill in the gaps in Avraham’s personal history and character we need to look there.
What we find not only gives us a lot of insight into the person who became the forefather of the Jewish nation, but serves as a model of our personal journey as a part of it.
That said, here are three facts about Avraham Avinu that you may not know:
#1. Avraham’s Faith in God Was a Work in Progress
Though everyone agrees that Avraham came to his belief in the Creator and Master of the world through his own intelligence and contemplation, not everyone agrees about the age at which that happened. There are actually three different opinions: age three, age forty, and forty-eight.
These dates are not a contradiction, however, but a profound lesson in perseverance and spiritual growth.
At the age of three, long before God revealed Himself to him, Avraham began his spiritual quest for truth. According to the Midrash, he looked out into the world and wondered how it could constantly turn if it does not have a ruler? Who keeps the universe going? Clearly, it cannot run by itself!
He looked up to the sky and saw the sun shining upon and sustaining the world. Perhaps, he concluded, that the sun is the master of the world. But then sun began to set, and in its place stood the moon and the stars. Avraham thought to himself, if the sun relinquishes its place because of the moon and the stars, then surely they must be the masters of the world. When the morning dawned, and he saw that the sun shone once again, Avraham inferred that neither the sun nor the moon and the stars are the masters of the world. They are merely servants over whom stands the true Master who causes the sun to rise in the morning and to set in the evening.
Though Avraham began to recognize God at the age of three, his emunah was peshutah, simple, at the level of a child and not fully developed.
From that point on, however, he continued to build his knowledge and understanding:
…sunk in Ur Kasdim, among the foolish worshipers of stars- and his father, and his mother and all the people [there], worshiped stars… he followed them in their worship. Yet, in his heart he was busy searching and reflecting until he attained the path of truth.
At the age of forty, affirms the Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Foreign Worship and Customs of the Nations 1:3 ), Avraham finally “found God.” It was only then that he firmly recognized and believed in the singular Master of the Universe and stopped outwardly worshiping the stars and planets.
Finally, we need to consider a third opinion that Avraham Avinu became aware of Hashem at the age of forty eight (Bereishis Rabbah 64:4). What does this mean given the opinion of the Rambam? Moreover, what prompted such awareness specifically at that time?
It’s been pointed out that Avraham Avinu reached age 48 in the same year that Peleg died (Rashi on 10:25), which according to Chazal corresponds to the year God disrupted the construction of Migdal Bavel (the tower of Bavel) and dispersed the population. Hearing about this miracle radically changed Avraham. He gained new understanding of Hashem and how He runs the world, and that understanding drew him even closer. It was as if he recognized Hashem anew.
#2. He knew the Enemy… and Himself
It is well known that each of the Avos learned Torah and kept all the mitzvos. The gemara (Avoda Zara 14b) brings an interesting account of the Torah that Avraham Avinu learned in his early years:
Our mesechta Avoda Zara with its five chapters pales in comparison to the mesechta of the Avraham Avinu which contained 400!
Why was Avraham Avinu’s chapter of avoda zara so extensive, and what does this midrash really mean?
Avraham no doubt sought to understand every nuance and aspect of idol worship in order to break its grasp, and that journey began not with the idolatrous people of Ur Kasdim, but within himself.
The negative spirituality and practices of those around him, including his own father and mother, undoubtedly left an impression. On account of this, as we saw above, for many years Avraham continued to outwardly worship these false god as he tried to reconcile these practices with the inner truth that called out to him from the depths of his soul.
This very idea is taught in Pirkei Avos (2:14):
Rabbi Elazar would say: Be diligent in the study of Torah, and know what to answer a heretic, and know before Whom you toil…
We must learn the principles and practices contained in the Torah in order to answer the “heretic” in our own heart. The goal being to increase our knowledge of and connection to God.
At the age of forty, Avraham’s emunah and knowledge of God was firmly planted within him. It was as if he had recognized God anew. Only at that point was he able to stand up to idolatrous masses in order to bring them to the path of truth:
And, when Abraham was forty years old he recognized his Creator. After he came to this comprehension and knowledge he started to oppose the people of Ur Kasdim, and to organize debates with them, cautioning them, saying: “This is not the true path that you are following”, and he destroyed the images, and began announcing to the people warning them that it is not right to worship anything other than the God of the universe, and unto Him alone it is right to bow down, to offer sacrifices, and libations, so that future generations shall recognize Him.
#3. He was in Eretz Yisroel Before the mitzvah of “lech lecha”
When Avraham Avinu received the mitzvah of lech lecha, the Torah does not give us a time frame. We do, however, know that “Avram was 75 years old when he left Charan” (Bereishis 12:4). Logically, then, we could assume that Avraham was 75 went he set out on his fateful journey to the land of Canaan. He heard God’s command, and he just picked up and left.
But, there is just one little problem. Based on a simple calculation (which I’ll include in the footnotes below1), we also know that by the Bris Bein HaBetarim (The Covenent Between the Parts), Avraham was 70 years old. At that time, God promises Avraham “To your descendants I have given this land...” Since God made reference to “this land,” Avraham must have already been in Canaan when he was 70!
Most commentaries suggest that Avraham made two trips to Canaan. He was there at the age of 70, most likely on a solo trip, but then returned to Charan at some point. Only five years later, at the age of 75, did he permanently settle in the land God promised him, bringing with him his wife, a few members of his family, and those who he and his wife Sarah had converted.
But, this new insight only leaves us with additional questions… What was Avraham doing during those five years? Why did Avraham go to Canaan in the first place, and why didn’t he initially bring his family? If he was already there and knew from Bris Bein HaBetarim that he would inherit the land, then why didn’t he quickly return from his solo trip and immediately bring his family then?
Even before the age of 70, Avraham was headed to the land of Canaan on account of his father, Terach (Bereishis 11:31):
Terach took his son Avram, and his grandson Lot, the son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of Avram. And they set out with them from Ur Kasdim to go to the land of Canaan, and they came to Charan and dwelled there.
He knew his place was in Canaan, so perhaps he went on a pilot trip to see what the land was like. However, though he may have physically been in Eretz Yisroel, he was not fully prepared to be spiritually in Eretz Yisroel.
According to many commentaries, “lech lecha” is not just a command to move to another location, it is a Divine call “go to yourself,” to your essence, to that which you are meant to do in the world. It’s a call that is directed at every single person at all times.
And this brings us to an amazing insight from the Sefas Emes on Bereshis 12:1 in response to a difficulty raised by the Ramban:
It appears to me that the holy Zohar sees… what makes Avraham praiseworthy. He heard the call of ‘lech lecha’ which comes out from God to all people at all time, as it says ‘oy to those who sleep in their holes (and do not hear)!’ Our father Avraham heard the call and received its message. Out of necessity the Divine word was calling to him alone, because there was no one but him listening.
There is no time given for the command of lech lecha simply because God was (and still is) continually repeating it.
Avraham was commanded to abandon everything, to sever himself from his family (particularly his father Terach and his father’s household) because only when he disconnected himself from the negative influence of his family, could he clearly hear God’s call– not just externally, but from within himself. Only then could he discover his essence and actualize his spiritual potential.
Several commentaries note that the three areas, “your land, your birthplace, and your father’s house” are in increasing order of difficulty. The hardest thing to break away from are the experiences and environmental influence we received from childhood that helped to shape who we are today. Perhaps Avraham heard God’s call of “lech lecha” at age 70, yet he wasn’t ready to full act on it, to break away from his father’s house, till five years later.
Real spiritual growth and character development take time. Avraham didn’t back down from this process. He continued on… until the time was right… and then he moved. This is his greatness!
- Since Avraham was 100 years old when Yitzchok was born (Beraishis 21:5), Avraham must have been 70 by the Bris Bain HaBetarim. This is based on the fact that there are two different lengths of time given for the period during which the Jewish people were in Egypt: 400 years (Bereshis 15:13) and 430 years (Shemos 12:40). These dates refer to the exodus from Egypt which occurred 400 years after the birth of Yitzchok and 430 years calculated from Bris Bain HaBetarim.