The Torah provides very little biographical information. Rather, it highlights significant events in their lives from which we can deduce and debate the lessons we the reader – to whom the Torah is addressed - are to glean. Much background information is left out allowing and demanding we read the Biblical narrative with varying assumptions – each providing different messages.

We might be very curious to know how Avraham came to discover G-d, or what Moshe did in his many years in Midian, but the Torah left that out and for good reason. Had the Torah told us how Avraham came to discover G-d many would try and copy that model – and for many that would be a disaster. What may have worked for Avraham is unlikely to work for the vast majority of people. Each must find their own path to G-d. Few are those who, dealt the life experiences Avraham faced would have maintained their faith, especially as there was no community to lend support.  

Let us simply highlight what the Torah tells us about Avraham. As a young man – before he is even married – his brother dies. His wife not only is barren, she has no children[1]. The family moves to Charan where Avraham’s father dies. He is then instructed to leave his land, his birthplace and his family to travel to some unknown land. What does it take to listen to such a command?

Yet without uttering a word Avraham does so and for good measure takes his orphaned nephew with him. Soon after arriving in the land there is famine and he is forced to leave for Egypt. He is fearful of what may happen to him and, to put it in modern terms, lies on his immigrant application claiming his wife is really his sister. While his life is spared his wife is kidnapped and joins the King’s harem. When his lie is discovered he is deported and returns to Canaan[2]. Adding to his difficulties, his relationship with his nephew Lot begins to fray; rather than endure a full-blown dispute Avraham suggests they go their separate ways.  If that isn’t enough, what follows is what is best described as the first world war – the war of the four kings and the five kings. And while Avraham was in theory a bystander to this war he too was forced to get involved – to free his nephew who was taken captive.

 “After this, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: ‘Fear not, Abram, I am a shield to you; Your reward shall be very great” (Breisheet 15:1). Is it any wonder that Avraham is afraid?

Despite G-d twice promising him that his descendants will inherit the land – the second promise adding that these descendants will be as numerous as the “dust of the earth” (Breisheet 13:16) – Avraham is far from reassured. “What can You give me, seeing that I shall die childless, and the one in charge of my household is Damesek Eliezer!” Perhaps a little brazen and chutzpadik but who can blame him.

G-d reassures him that his seed will be as numerous as the uncountable stars, following that with a precursor to the first of the Ten Commandments “I am the Lord who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to assign this land to you as a possession [3]” (Breisheet 15:1). Yet Avraham is not convinced and dares G-d to demonstrate that His promises can be relied upon. “How shall I know that I am to possess it?”, he responds[4]. Avraham is near his breaking-point, unwilling to blindly accept G-d’s word at face value.

G-d, understanding what Avraham has been through, does not get upset, and instead enters into a covenant with Avraham. For the first time G-d tells him when his descendants will inherit the land – some 400 years hence. Yet despite the long wait Avraham seems reassured. The previous promises were open-ended and could have taken thousands of years to be fulfilled. 400 years is a long time but with uncertainty removed Avraham can focus on his covenantal role. Avraham has established the virtue of patience for his nation.

He thus accepts Sarah’s advice to marry Hagar so that he may have a child who will begin the fulfilment of the covenant. So convinced is Avraham that Yishmael will carry on the covenant that when G-d tells him that Sarah will bare him a child Avraham responds “O that Ishmael might live by Your favoru!”

Avraham follows G-d’s first command to him, Lech Lecha, to leave his past, with complete obedience, with nary a word of protest. He follows G-d’s last command to him, Lech Lecha to sacrifice his future, with complete obedience, with nary a word of protest. But these are very different forms of obedience.

When told to leave home he is too afraid to challenge G-d. How dare one question the word of G-d? But as Avraham’s faith is tested, challenged and even shaken, his faith matures and is of greater sophistication. He is not afraid to first question G-d, and then to challenge him with the harsh words “Will the judge of the earth not do justice”. Yet G-d patiently demonstrates that He does do justice. Thus when Avraham is told to sacrifice his son he intuitively understands that this most difficult command is coming from a just and caring G-d, one who (as he will soon discover) would never actually order one to sacrifice their child

Avraham begins his career with fear of G-d and thus hearkens to His voice. He ends his career with love of G-d and thus hearkens to His voice. Few would like to face the challenges Avraham faced. Fewer still would be able to withstand those challenges. Blessed are those who can hearken to G-d’s voice out of love.

[1] This is a most redundant sentence. Obviously if Sarai is barren she has no children. But I merely repeat the “redundancy” found in the Torah which defines Sarai through her bareness, an especially harsh condition in a world in which pretty much the sole function of a woman is to have children. Shifting away from this paradigm is one of the many revolutionary ideas Avraham brought to the world.

[2] We are never told that the famine actually ended in Israel and considering Avraham is expelled from Egypt there is no reason to believe it has. If the famine was still raging this could help explain the dispute between the herdsman of Lot and Avraham. Once again the silence of the Torah allows for multiple ways of examining the narrative.

[3] Whereas in the aseret hadibrot G-d reveals Himself as the One who took us out of Egypt, no destination is mentioned, here G-d not only took Avraham from Ur Chasdim but promised to bring him to the land of Israel.

[4] Challenging G-d like this was too much for many commentaries who thus understood his words to be directed at himself, worrying that what will happen if my descendants sin and are unworthy of inheriting the land. Nonetheless the Talmud notes, "For what reason was Abraham our Patriarch punished and his children enslaved to Egypt for 210 years…Shmuel said: Because he went too far in testing the attributes [i.e., the promises] of the Lord of the Holy One, Blessed be He, as it is stated: “Whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it?” (Nedarim 32a).