Avraham (Abraham), the founder of the Jewish People and arguably all of western civilization, hits the scene late. The first time we hear about him the man is 99 years old. His story in Torah begins when the Almighty speaks to him for the very first time, saying, “Go for yourself from your land, from your relatives, and from your father’s house…” (Beraishis-Genesis 12:1)
But 99 is a little late to get started. What was Avraham busy with up until then?
Growing Up in Inner-City Mesopotamia
Avraham’s childhood didn’t exactly gear him for greatness. The culture surrounding Avraham made inner-city Newark look like an Ivory Tower of innocence and purity. You might think idol worship was a bunch of interesting, mystical, new-age style practices, but real idol worship revolved around such terrifying cruelties as child sacrifice, ritual rape, and vicious torture. The only way it resembled today’s new-age movement was the self-absorption. Idol worship was all about getting the so-called gods to serve me.
That was what Ancient Mesopotamia was all about.
Worse still, Avraham’s father was akin to the biggest drug-dealer in the ‘hood. Terach ran the idol-carving industry in Avraham’s home country of Ur Kasdim and was heavily favored by the mafia-like monarchy. When you needed a new statue to sacrifice somebody to, you came to Avraham’s dad.
But somehow Avraham thought differently. Little Avraham was occasionally left to watch over the business when Terach had to step out. One famous midrash (Midrash Beraishis 38:13) describes young Avraham playing the high jinks with dad by smashing every idol in the lot, leaving only the largest standing with a weapon positioned on its clay hands.
“Who did this?,” Terach demanded when he returned.
Avraham pointed to the idol.
When Terach insisted that a statue made of clay could do no such thing, Avraham retorted, “If only your ears would hear what your mouth has said.” (This was the beginning of Jewish chutzpa.)
On a more serious note, this was also the beginning of a decades-long search that would take our hero through every form of idol worship that existed. Avraham tried every ritual, every occult practice, every chant and howl in the name of honest research. Clay idols were obviously ridiculous, but where was the truth? Remember, there was no monotheism. There was no inherent worth attributed to human life.
How did Avraham get out of the ghetto? How did he finally identify the Almighty?
Trial by Fire
Avraham’s greatness began with scientific method. Another midrash describes Avraham as a young adult. He observed fire being overpowered by water, water being carried by clouds, and clouds being driven by wind. Avraham recognized that everything was the effect of an earlier cause.
Avraham’s final conclusion was, “There must be a master to this lit palace.” His many years of seeking had revealed a revolutionary new way of looking at the world: Avraham recognized the First Cause behind and within everything. From that moment on Avraham dedicated his life to that First Cause alone.
Yet the Almighty only personally revealed Himself to Avraham after the idealistic seeker’s sincerity had been tested. Avraham was age forty when the tyrannical ruler of Ur Kasdim, Nimrod, summoned the young man to a trial by fire: deny the existence of a single, first cause or be thrown into a furnace wreathed in flame. Nimrod’s identity as deity-like fascist was threatened by Avraham’s revolutionary monotheism.
When Avraham refused to worship Nimrod, standing up for the Almighty instead, nature dictated that his fate was sealed. Nimrod had Avraham tossed into the fire. Only then did the Ruler of nature intervene for His sole advocate.
Go To Yourself
The moment that Avraham overruled his own nature in the name of the Almighty was the moment that the Almighty overruled nature in the name of Avraham. Avraham miraculously survived the Nimrod ordeal entirely unscathed.
At 99 years old, the founder of the Jewish People had shown his mettle against the false beliefs of his homeland, his family, and even his own childhood upbringing. He was finally ready to “go for himself,” or, as another commentator explains, “go to himself”, on every level.
Torah makes as dramatic a distinction as possible between Avraham before revelation and Avraham after revelation because that moment at 99 years old was when Avraham’s life finally truly began. The moment he had put in his absolute 100% was the moment the Almighty lifted him over the threshold of his own nature and nurture. Nothing could hold him back. The time had come for Avraham to enter into a partnership with the Almighty that changed, and is still changing, the world.
Based on Parasha U’Pishra by Rabbi Moshe Grylak
by Braha Bender