8 Cheshvan 5774 / October 11-12, 2013
In this week’s portion, we begin to learn a bit about Abraham (at the time, still called Abram). When introduced, Abram is already 75 years old -- granted the years might have been a calculated a bit differently back then, given that biblical characters were often cited as living very long lives (Noah, for example, is said to have lived to the ripe old of age of 950!). This little bit of information alone leaves me with so many questions, such as:
What were Abram’s first 75 years like?
Why did God wait so long to give him instructions?
After 75 years, wouldn’t Abram have been such a creature of habit that he would’ve protested somehow when asked to leave his home?
Fortunately, we have a vast rabbinic tradition of trying to answer such questions.
For example, the Midrash helps shed some light on what Abram might have been like as a younger man, and why God might have chosen him:
Terach, Abram’s father, worshipped and sold carved idols. Once when he was away, he left Abram in charge. An old man came to make a purchase. Abram asked him his age, and the man said he was between fifty and sixty years old. Abram mocked him, questioning how he could view the carvings of another man’s hands, produced perhaps only a few hours ago, as his god. The man was convinced and gave up idol worship. Later that day, a woman came with a handful of choice flour as an offering to the idols. Abram took a stick and broke all the idols except the largest one, and placed the stick in its hand. When his father returned and saw the damage, he demanded an explanation. Abram explained that when the flour offering was brought, the idols fought with one another as to which should be the recipient; and that in the end, the biggest of them took up a stick and destroyed the others. Terach was not convinced…
[Paraphrased from Genesis Rabbah 38]
For millennia, Jews have tried to fill in the gaps in our sacred texts, and to answer the questions that don’t seem to have readily apparent answers. While predictably frustrating at first, this has created an incredible opportunity for creativity. There is now a genre being referred to as “contemporary midrash” (the hyperlink shares quite a bit about www.BibleRaps.com, which is awesome), allowing for us today to fill in those gaps we perceive in the text.
This Shabbat, reflect on the questions you have about the Torah that are unanswered. Seek out those potential answers offered by our ancestors. If you don’t find them satisfying (or even if you do), get creative and compose your own midrash. And then share it with me! In this way, we can all engage with the Torah's narratives (even the tricky ones), and continue the millennia-old Jewish tradition of exegesis.