Parenting in Judaism: Learning from Abraham
by Jonathan Sacks
The call to Abraham, with which (the Bible portion of) Lech Lecha begins, seems to come from nowhere:
“Leave your land, your birthplace, and your father’s house, and go to a land which I will show you.”
Nothing has prepared us for this radical departure. We have not had a description of Abraham as we had in the case of Noah: “Noah was a righteous man, perfect in his generations; Noah walked with G-d.” Nor have we been given a series of glimpses into his childhood, as in the case of Moses. It is as if Abraham’s call is a sudden break with all that went before. There seems to be no prelude, no context, no background.
Added to this is a curious verse in the last speech delivered by Moses’ successor Joshua:
And Joshua said to all the people, “Thus says the Lord, the G-d of Israel, ‘Long ago, your fathers lived beyond the river (Euphrates), Terach, the father of Abraham and of Nahor; and they served other gods. (Joshua 24: 2)
The implication seems to be that Abraham’s father was an idolater. Hence the famous midrashic tradition that as a child, Abraham broke his father’s idols. When Terach asked him who had done the damage, he replied, “The largest of the idols took a stick and broke the rest”. “Why are you deceiving me?” Terach asked, “Do idols have understanding?” “Let your ears hear what your mouth is saying”, replied the child. On this reading, Abraham was an iconoclast, a breaker of images, one who rebelled against his father’s faith (Bereishith Rabbah 38: 8).
Maimonides, the philosopher, put it somewhat differently. Originally, human beings believed in one G-d. Later, they began to offer sacrifices to the sun, the planets and stars, and other forces of nature, as creations or servants of the one G-d. Later still, they worshiped them as entities – gods – in their own right. It took Abraham, using logic alone, to realize the incoherence of polytheism:
After he was weaned, while still an infant, his mind began to reflect. Day and night, he thought and wondered, how is it possible that this celestial sphere should be continuously guiding the world, without something to guide it and cause it to revolve? For it cannot move of its own accord. He had no teacher or mentor, because he was immersed in Ur of the Chaldees among foolish idolaters. His father and mother and the entire population worshiped idols, and he worshiped with them. He continued to speculate and reflect until he achieved the way of truth, understanding what was right through his own efforts. It was then that he knew that there is one G-d who guides the heavenly bodies, who created everything, and besides whom there is no other god. (Laws of Idolatry, 1: 2)
What is common to Maimonides and the midrash is discontinuity. Abraham represents a radical break with all that went before.
Remarkably however, the previous chapter gives us a quite different perspective:
These are the generations of Terach. Terach fathered Abram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran fathered Lot . . . Terach took Abram his son and Lot the son of Haran, his grandson, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram’s wife, and they went forth together from Ur of the Chaldeans to go into the land of Canaan, but when they came to Haran, they settled there. The days of Terach were 205 years, and Terach died in Haran. (Gen 11: 31)
The implication seems to be that far from breaking with his father, Abraham was continuing a journey Terach had already begun.
How are we to reconcile these two passages? The simplest way, taken by most commentators, is that they are not in chronological sequence. The call to Abraham (in Gen. 12) happened first. Abraham heard the Divine summons, and communicated it to his father. The family set out together, but Terach stopped halfway, in Haran. The passage recording Terach’s death is placed before Abraham’s call, though it happened later, to guard Abraham from the accusation that he failed to honor his father by leaving him in his old age (Rashi, Midrash).
Yet there is another obvious possibility. Abraham’s spiritual insight did not come from nowhere. Terach had already made the first tentative move toward monotheism. Children complete what their parents begin.
Significantly, both the Bible and rabbinic tradition understood divine parenthood in this way. They contrasted the description of Noah (“Noah walked with G-d”) and that of Abraham (“The G-d before whom I have walked”, 24: 40). G-d himself says to Abraham “Walk ahead of Me and be perfect” (17: 1). G-d signals the way, then challenges His children to walk on ahead.
In one of the most famous of all Talmudic passages, the Babylonian Talmud (Baba Metzia 59b) describes how the sages outvoted Rabbi Eliezer despite the fact that his view was supported by a heavenly voice. It continues by describing an encounter between Rabbi Natan and the prophet Elijah. Rabbi Natan asks the prophet: What was G-d’s reaction to that moment, when the law was decided by majority vote rather than heavenly voice? Elijah replies, “He smiled and said, ‘My children have defeated me! My children have defeated me!'”
To be a parent in Judaism is to make space within which a child can grow. Astonishingly, this applies even when the parent is G-d (avinu, “our Father”) himself. In the words of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, “The Creator of the world diminished the image and stature of creation in order to leave something for man, the work of His hands, to do, in order to adorn man with the crown of creator and maker” (Halakhic Man, p 107).
This idea finds expression in halakhah, Jewish law. Despite the emphasis in the Torah on honoring and revering parents, Maimonides rules:
Although children are commanded to go to great lengths [in honoring parents], a father is forbidden to impose too heavy a yoke on them, or to be too exacting with them in matters relating to his honor, lest he cause them to stumble. He should forgive them and close his eyes, for a father has the right to forgo the honor due to him. (Hilkhot Mamrim 6:8)
The story of Abraham can be read in two ways, depending on how we reconcile the end of chapter 11 with the beginning of chapter 12. One reading emphasizes discontinuity. Abraham broke with all that went before. The other emphasizes continuity. Terach, his father, had already begun to wrestle with idolatry. He had set out on the long walk to the land which would eventually become holy, but stopped half way. Abraham completed the journey his father began.
Perhaps childhood itself has the same ambiguity. There are times, especially in adolescence, when we tell ourselves that we are breaking with our parents, charting a path that is completely new. Only in retrospect, many years later, do we realize how much we owe our parents – how, even at those moments when we felt most strongly that we were setting out on a journey uniquely our own, we were, in fact, living out the ideals and aspirations that we learned from them.
And it began with G-d himself, who left, and continues to leave, space for us, His children, to walk on ahead.
To read more writings and teachings from the Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, please visit www.chiefrabbi.org.