I have recently begun learning Midrash Tanchuma weekly with Rabbi Avi Weiss, and this week, I share some reflections on the two opening passages of Midrash Tanhuma to parashat Lekh Lekha.
In the middle of the first passage, the Midrash portrays a classic rabbinic image of Avraham as a devout Jew who kept every detail of the halakha:
We find with Avraham, that he was punctilious in observing the mitzvot and therefore he was called the beloved of God, as it is written, “The seed of Avraham my beloved.”… Even eruv tavshilin was observed in the household of Avraham our father… God said to him, “You are punctilious regarding my mitzvot and you are sitting among the idolaters?! Get out from their midst, “Lekh lekha mei’artzekha…,” Go out from your land…
In this telling, Avraham kept not only the laws but did what was necessary to safeguard them, even adopting the practice of eruv tavshilin to protect the honor of Shabbat and Yom Tov. Avraham must leave his place of birth not to bring God’s message to the world, but to extract himself from the corrosive influence of his surroundings so that he can fully observe the mitzvot.
Midrash Tanchuma precedes this description of Avraham with the following halakhic discussion:
Let our Master teach us: May a person accept the yoke of the kingdom of heaven (i.e. recite the Shema) when he is walking? … It is forbidden for a person to accept upon himself the yoke of the kingdom of heaven when he is walking. Rather, he must stand in one place… with fear, dread, trembling and sweating…and recite “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One,” … and when he begins “And you shall love [the Lord your God…], if he wishes he may stand, or walk or sit…
The first verse of Shema expresses recognition of God as king and is rooted in fear of God – submission to God’s will, awe and trembling of being in God’s presence, and fear of transgressing God’s commands. It is an act of standing still. Fear paralyzes; it roots you to your spot terrified of doing something wrong. When submission to God’s will requires action, you take meticulous care to get everything exactly right.
This, says the Midrash, must be the starting point. Only after reaching this state may a person move on to vi’ahavta. Loving God propels movement; it drives a person to seek God at every moment, to find God in every mundane action, whether standing, sitting, walking, or driving a car. This is the love of God that Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev chose to see demonstrated by the wagon driver who davened mincha while changing the wheel of his wagon. “Master of the Universe,” he said, “See how much your children love you! Even when their hands are filled with grease, they are thinking of you!”
These two components – awe of God and love of God – complement each other. Love of God is nurturing, inspiring, and motivating. Love leads to grand gestures but not to a punctilious care of details. Fear of God brings about dikduk bi’mitzvot but it can freeze a person in place.
Avraham is the figure we identify most often with love of God, with movement – lekh lekha – with finding God everywhere and calling out in the name of God – va’yikra bi’shem HaShem (12:8, 13:4, 21:33, 22:14). This midrash reminds us of Avraham’s other essential quality; it was fear of God, not love, that compelled Avraham to bind his son to the altar, “For now I know that you fear God, seeing that you did not withhold your son, your only son, from Me.” (22:12).
The greatness of Avraham was found in the combination of these two traits. Love of God gave Avraham the confidence to argue with God in defense of the people of Sodom; fear of God made it acceptable for him to do so: “Behold I have begun to speak to God, and I am yet dust and ashes” (18:27). Fear of God brought about scrupulous observance of mitzvot; love of God names this scrupulousness an act of love, not slavish obedience. “You find that Avraham was a punctilious in observing the mitzvot and therefore he was called the beloved of God…” While Avraham exemplifies both traits, for this midrash it is fear of God that comprises his core characteristic and identity.
The second passage in Tanchuma draws a different picture:
Rav Berakhya opened, “We have a little sister…” (Shir HaShirim 8:8). To whom is the verse referring? To Avraham. For when Nimrod cast him into the furnace, he was little; God had not yet performed miracles on his behalf. And why is he called a sister (achot)? Because he stitched / united (eecha) the world before God, like a person who rends a garment and then stitches it…
You find that Terach, Avraham’s father, fashioned idols and would worship them. God said to Avraham, “Lekh lekha mei’artzekha,” Get out of your land [and your birthplace and your father’s house].”
In this passage, Avraham is one who is driven by love of God and seeks to spread the word of God throughout the world. As Rambam writes: The mitzvah to love God includes the directive to call to all people to serve God and to believe in God. For when someone loves another, he will sing the other person’s praises and call others to love him as well… as we find by Avraham… as it says, ‘The souls that they made (the people that they converted) in Haran’ (Book of Mitzvot, Positive Mitzvah 3).
Here Avraham is called achot, a sister, midrashically, a weaver. This echoes what we find in the Torah, where Avraham is described and describes himself frequently as an ach, a brother: “Behold we are brothers” (13:8), “And they separated one man from his brother” (13:11), “Avraham heard that his brother was taken captive” (14:14) and, of course, “Please say that you are my sister” (12:13).
Avraham is not out to conquer the world with the belief in a single God. In this midrash, he is not Avraham ha’Ivri, standing on one side with the rest of the world on the other. To see those who act or think differently as enemies to be vanquished is to be driven by fear. Rather, he is portrayed as Avraham ha’Ach, a person who sees everyone as members of his family, as potential partners, as people with whom to share his passion and whom to inspire. Avraham the brother dreams to unite people, to stitch them together with his love of God.
It was this love of God that drove Avraham to preach in the land of Nimrod and to be prepared to martyr himself for the God he believed in. But this love could not succeed in the land of his father. He could not form a new family built on love of God, when his own father rejected all that he stood for, when his message was undercut from within his own house. Hence, God instructs, lekh lekha, go to a new place where your message can be heard and you can truly transform the world.
These two portraits of Avraham present two different aspects of a Jew’s mission in this world: the first Avraham is the frum Jew, committed to his own practices and way of life; the second Avraham is the visionary seeking to create a universal Godly community. Both models are essential. In the aftermath of this election, we all need Avraham the weaver to unite us during these divisive days. If we continue to invoke an “us/them” narrative, to see those with whom we disagree as evil, we will only deepen the divide. At the same time, we cannot pretend and act as if we all are, or should be, the same. We need to also be the first Avraham, to value and deepen our own particularistic commitments and identity. And we need to respect this in others, even when those others have identities, commitments and values that differ significantly from our own. Our own rootedness, and that of others, will give us all the confidence and the strength to build a more global, universal community, seeking not to conquer one another, but to cherish our differences and to find the common ground that weaves us together, brothers and sisters before God.