5768 - #06


In Nishma Insight 5768-05: Knowing What is Right, I made mention of the fascinating comments of Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky, Emet L’Yaakov, Bereishit 6:9 who stated that Noach’s weakness related to his inability to reach out to the people of his generation and, at least, save some of them from the Flood. According to Rav Yaakov, one should not think that Noach did not try; of course he attempted to correct the evil of his day and bring the people back to God.1 Noach’s failure, according to Rav Yaakov, was, though, at least in part, due to Noach’s mistaken approach in instructing the people to mend their ways. Noach straightforwardly challenged their idolatry, describing the foolishness of their beliefs – but the people already, in their hearts, knew this. The people chose idolatry, not because they were driven to adopt this belief structure theologically but, rather, because it allowed them to be licentious. To affect change in the people, Noach had to challenge their drive for immorality, not their belief in idols. This was Noach’s mistake; he was mistaken in his method of reaching out to the people.

             In that Noach is often compared to Avraham Avinu -- who had greater success with his teachings about God2 -- these words of Rav Yaakov led me to wonder about the advisable approach that Avraham Avinu undertook in his method to affect change within his generation. What, specifically, did Avraham do right?

             Ramban, Bereishit 12:2 mentions that, in fact, we know little of how Avraham Avinu confronted, theologically, the non-monotheistic populace that surrounded him. We do know that the people of Ur treated Avraham in an abusive manner, yet Avraham still attempted to teach the people the truth of Monotheism, and did have some success. Ramban, though, states that the Torah did not wish to dwell at length on the views of these idolaters, and the debates Avraham entered into with them. This fact could actually be somewhat supportive of Rav Yaakov’s theory, which we could perhaps extend to the time of Avraham, that the battle with idolatry was not really a theological one. Avraham, thus, met with success not because of his powerful theological arguments for Monotheism but, rather, because he knew the real motivations for why the people were embracing idolatry – and challenged them. But the Torah seems to also be quiet in describing this line of reasoning as well.  

             Torah Shelaima, Bereishit 12:5, note 95 presents many midrashim that expand upon this issue of Avraham Avinu’s interaction with his surrounding communities. While none truly offer a full description of how Avraham was able to influence the people in the positive manner in which he did, some do give some insight into Avraham’s method of initiating the desire for Monotheism within the people. Perhaps the most famous explanation of how Avraham was able to affect the people is built upon Avraham’s open and welcoming nature. Avraham would welcome people into his home and when they would wish to thank him for his hospitality, Avraham would respond by stating that there was no need to really thank him but Whom they should thank is the One God Who is the True Provider. This would open the door for Avraham to speak about God to individuals who, because of their gratitude to their host, would be open to hearing these words. Although this may give some insight into how we are to approach others – through first being warm and generous – this explanation still does not present a full explanation of Avraham’s success. In fact, this story, taken solely at face value, may actually create more questions. Is it possible that Avraham’s acts of kindness were intended solely to meet his objective of spreading the Word of God? Would not people be offended that this host, thought to be so gracious, really had a theological agenda with his kindness? Knowledge of God, we must understand, is the greatest gift that we can give anyone – and so we must understand that Avraham’s theological direction to his guests was simply a further continuation of his chesed, his caring and giving. He began with food because that was the immediate need; then he continued with knowledge. While we may not have any further indication of how Avraham was successful, what this midrash possibly does teach us is that the only chance for success is built upon the correct motivation. And that motivation must be that you care; in the same way you wish to give food to someone lacking food, so must we desire to give knowledge of God to someone lacking this.

             This understanding of the proper motivation for wishing to share the knowledge of God, though, with the assistance of the words of Resh Lakish in T.B. Sanhedrin 99b, may actually also give further insight into Avraham’s methodology. We are taught that one who teaches his friend’s son Torah is deemed to have formed him, for this is how the verse describes the people that Avraham taught and converted in Charan. So Avraham taught them Torah.3 Maharsha explains that this powerful description -- comparing the teaching of Torah to the formation of a person – is reflective of the unique influence of Torah on the individual. The teaching of Torah should not be compared to the imposition of one’s ideas, i.e. the teacher, upon the other, i.e. the student. Rather Torah ultimately is a catalyst for new ideas. Torah, taught properly, leads to the development of a person as a unique individual. This gives us insight into the unique value of Torah and into how Avraham influenced his generation. He did not teach Torah in a dogmatic manner, imposing his thoughts upon others. He gave them the gift of Torah – of Torah study and Torah knowledge – and the tools by which they, each in their own way, could mine for themselves their personal insights of Torah. He led them to themselves – and so he can be describing as forming them – and that is the greatest gift we can give another.

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Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail



1 There is a mistaken perception, amongst many people, that Jews do not proselytize or, stated differently, that Judaism does not encourage proselytizing. While a full discussion of this topic, including the distinction between encouraging the observance of the Noachide Code and encouraging people to become Jews, cannot be undertaken in this Insight, it is important to state that indeed Judaism clearly does believe in advancing the truth of God in the world. Indeed, it was, in many ways, Avraham’s efforts to reach out to the people of his generation that made him distinct and distinguished him as the father of the Jewish People. How could it be otherwise? If the truth of God is beneficial to humanity, would it not be the greatest act of selfishness to not share this knowledge and wisdom with others? Was it not the greatest of tragedies that Noach was unable to properly teach the people of his generation about God so that they would act correctly? Avraham Avinu must be our model and that is why it is important to understand his successes.

2 See, for example, Rashi, Bereishit 12:5, d.h. asher assu.

2 A discussion of what is meant by Torah before Sinai is beyond the parameters of this Insight, but suffice to say that it represents a concept similar to our Torah.

Nishma, 2007


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