Avraham’s Long Path to Knowledge of Hashem

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Avraham’s Non-Traditional Path

Noach was good, Avraham was better [one strand of traditional thought assumes—I personally feel Noach deserves more respect, but we’re here to learn from R. Arama]. Noach followed tradition as given him, without advancing it. Avraham, who had no tradition (his ancestors were idolaters), had to reason his way past the erroneous ideas of the societies he inhabited, as the stories about his smashing his father’s idols show.

On his own, he went as far as he could, and then left the path of analysis [a dig, I believe, at people of R. Arama’s time, who cannot imagine any other path to knowledge or wisdom than the intellect], and arrived at the kind of faith Noach inherited. His efforts brought him to a faithful acceptance of Gd, farther down the road of belief than Noach, with some grasp of all the central ideas R. Arama mentioned above.

His mix of finding his way on his own and accepting what he could not figure out led Bereshit 15;6 to describe Avraham as believing in Hashem, is why Hashem could tell him, as part of the command to circumcise himself and his family, to walk before Hashem and be tamim. Noach was also tamim, pure or perfect, Avraham at a higher level of it.

Avraham’s advantages over Noach show themselves in Bereshit 18;19, where Hashem “decides” to tell Avraham about the imminent end of Sodom. The verse gives Hashem’s reason, as it were, as that Hashem has “known” Avraham in order that he command his children to follow the path of Hashem.

R. Arama thinks the path, which the Torah descirbes as to act justly and righteously, means to act in ways we can only understand as valuable based on Divine guidance. It is also why the verse says it was to bring reward to Avraham; human intellect would not reason its way to the idea of reward for acting nonintuitively.

The Blank Space of Avraham’s Biography

The distinction between what a person figures out on his/her own and what Hashem tells us to do explains to R. Arama the Torah’s omitting any stories of Avraham’s early life. In his view, the Torah praises or denigrates people for how they respond to prophetic commands, in areas the human intellect does not reach.

The Torah did tell us Avraham was born with brothers in Ur Kasdim, one brother died in his father’s lifetime, and Terach decided to leave for Canaan. R. Arama thinks the summary sufficed for Chazal to infer the whole background we know, Avraham getting into fights with the idolaters around him, Nimrod threatening to throw him in the fire, Haran choosing to go in after Avraham was saved and not meriting a miracle, and Terach then having some kind of prophetic instinct to leave. He reads Bereshit 15;7, where Hashem introduces Himself to Avraham as “Hashem, Who took you out of Ur Kasdim,” to refer to Terach’s decision to leave. Hashem inspired Terach in a proto-prophetic way.

[He does not go further with this, but he surely knew Rambam held only people of certain character and wisdom could ever have prophecy. He has just staked out a broader ground for prophecy.]

Avraham Grows in Knowledge of Hashem

It is all part of the long arc of Avraham’s development, says R. Arama. From his start as a believer in astrology, he came to recognize Hashem’s existence, and that Hashem deserves to be called Master of the Universe. The insight led him to argue with his contemporaries, to become a contentious person, to the point where he preferred death to conceding a falsehood, which R. Arama thinks is true of all who love truth for its own sake.

[I want to stress two of his points. First, he implies Avraham changed in personality as he grew in his recognition of Hashem. He had been an ordinary, collegial person and became argumentative, felt forced to repeatedly disagree with those around him, enough of a thorn in their side to throw him in a furnace. I grew up thinking Nimrod became annoyed by Avraham’s impact on the idolatry to which he was devoted; R. Arama reads it more as Avraham having made himself too much of a nuisance.

I think the idea of Hashem’s service calling/forcing us to change who we are applies in other contexts as well, and was fascinated to see R. Arama find it here.

Second, we might attribute Avraham’s adamance or even pushiness to a personality trait, quirk, or (Gd forbid) disorder; R. Arama thinks it would or should be true of anyone who cares about the truth for its own sake. To value truth means to be unable to tolerate falsehood, I read him as saying.]

Hashem saves Avraham from the furnace, showing providence, teaching Hashem’s ability/ willingness to intervene in the world. Avraham did not yet know whether Hashem intervenes other than where issues of awareness of Hashem are at stake, however. To prevent his being burned for declaring Hashem’s existence and oneness merited direct providence, Avraham now knew; would that be true of more ordinary human concerns?

Avraham Learns the Extent of Providence

His uncertainty of how broadly providence affected his life explains his conduct in his early days in Canaan, where he went from place to place, speaking about Hashem, calling out in Hashem’s Name, yet also employing ordinary human stratagies to avoid troubles.

(R. Arama means such as asking Sarah to say she was his sister. I have long thought Avraham was not sure he deserved special interventions and therefore employed more mundane strategies; R. Arama is saying Avraham did not yet know of the possibility of Hashem intervening for such minor matters as to save his life, where saving him had no impact on questions of knowledge of Hashem in the world. His idea also dispenses with Ramban’s view of Avraham as having sinned by putting Sarah in peril, and negates his view the exile to Egypt was punishment for the sin, as R. Arama mentions later in the sha’ar.)

Avraaham’s view of providence explains why he does not pray, as Ya’akov did on his way out of Be’ersheva and on his return (later in the sha’ar, R. Arama notes Hashem tells Avimelech to ask Avraham to pray for him. The experience of milah and of arguing on behalf of Sodom had taught Avraham the possibility of prayer’s efficacy).

He does not pray now, for R. Arama, because he still held on to philosophy and astrology. He had accepted the strange idea of a Creator Who brought the world into existence from complete nothingness, did not yete realize the Creator retained the ability to do anything necessary, including respond to the needs, concerns, or desires of those who feared Hashem. (Note how he inserts philosophy—he means Avraham was still committed to the highest science of his day, astrology. R. Arama is so aware of philosophy as the highest form of knowledge, as considered in his time, he cannot but be sure it was true in Avraham’s time as well. Today, we might say physics.)

Being saved from Par’oh and Avimelech expanded Avraham’s awareness of how Hashem does and can impact the world.

The Promise of Yitzchak

Knowing Hashem saves from trouble does not yet teach Hashem can improve or fix personal problems. After Hashem helped him win the war against the four kings, visited him in a vision to promise to be Avraham’s shield, Avraham brings up his lack of an heir. R. Arama points out Avraham does not ask for an heir, he states it, as a complaint or concern, because Avraham does not believe Hashem can do anything about it!

When Hashem corrects his misimpression, Avraham concedes and accepts the new idea, Hashem can override the astrologically predicted future (a huge step, R. Arama wants us to know—just as his audience struggled to accept any truths of Torah the philosophy of their day denied, as people of our time struggle to reject anything scientists say with confidence, Hashem challenged Avraham to relinquish the certainties of his time. And he did.). Bereshit 15;6 pauses to applaud him for it, saying he believed in Hashem, which Hashem counted as atzedakah, a great righteousness, and Hashem promises him offspring, success, and a peaceful end to his life (all in that same Covenant Between the Pieces, the Berit ben Ha-Betarim).

The crowning act of dedication was the ‘Akedah, which no rational person would accept. It showed his complete submission, his acceptance Hashem asks/ commands certain acts we cannot understand, his awareness he had to follow where Hashem led.

The road R. Arama sees Avraham traveling is a road we re-start this coming week, with the celebration of Shavu’ot. The week after, we’ll see how he closes the sha’ar, evaluating where Avraham did and did not reach in his journey towards knowledge of Hashem.

Chag Sameach.

About Gidon Rothstein

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