One of the questions commentators wrestle with is “why was Abraham chosen?” What leads God to command this particular individual, lekh l’kha, “go to yourself”? Expressing deep sensitivity to the text and Abraham’s own spiritual journey, one stream of thought believes that first, it was Abraham who chose God. Read contextually as part of the culture from which Abraham comes, that is to say, from the Chaldeans, we know that culture was immersed in astronomy — studying the heavens closely. They were a visually observant people. And so a midrash teaches: “Rabbi Isaac told the parable of a man who was traveling from place to place when he saw a mansion in flames. He wondered: is it possible that the mansion is without someone to look after it? At that moment the owner of the mansion peered out at him and said: I am the owner of this mansion! So too as Abraham was wondering. Is it possible that the world should be without someone to look after it? The Holy One peered down at him and said: I am the world’s Owner!” (Genesis Rabbah 39:1)
Abraham, as the patriarch of the Israelite nation, is a man, first and foremost, of sensitive vision. He sees things in a different way from those around him. Far from being seduced by the idolatrous culture in which he finds himself, he looks beyond toward a creator — he reaches out to God; indeed it is Abraham who chooses God before God chooses Abraham. Still, this point comes to life most dramatically as one continues reading in Genesis chapter 13. Once Abraham returns from a brief sojourn in Egypt we are told that both Abraham and Lot become wealthy — so wealthy that the Torah teaches: “The land could not support them to settle together, for their property was so great that they were not able to settle together.” Their herdsmen begin fighting with each other. Magnanimous peacemaker, Abraham turns to his nephew and urges the bickering to stop. He explains that the entire land is before them. And so he urges his nephew to take the first pick of real estate. Torah relates: “Lot lifted up his eyes and saw all the plain of Jordan, how well–watered was it all,… So Lot journeyed eastward, and they parted, each man from the other: Avram settled in the land of Canaan, while Lot settled in the cities of the plain, pitching his tent near Sdom.”
This episode is revealing. First, one notes the absolute selflessness of Abraham in giving his nephew the first choice of land. Second, how does Lot make his decision? The text reads explicitly “he lifted up his eyes and saw how well watered the plain was before him.” Lot judges by virtue of what he sees on the surface; he fails to probe deeper. And so, in one rabbinic reading of the text, it becomes not only a physical parting of the ways but a spiritual parting of the ways. Rashi, the prolific medieval commentator, quotes the midrash, “he wandered from the Originator of the Universe saying, ‘I want neither Avram nor his God.'”
We, in the modern age, are so taken by appearances — by height, slender build, dress, appurtenances; and we make judgments based on such externalities — often, like Lot, failing to look any deeper. What is it to look at a human being in a divine, Godly way? It is to look into a person’s heart — it is to look into the seat of her soul, his intellect and experience the fullness of the person. It is about turning inward and upward and eschewing the distractions of modern–day life. The Baal Shem Tov taught, “Replete is the world with a spiritual radiance, replete with sublime and marvelous secrets. But a small hand held against the face hides it all,” said the Baal Shem. “Just as a small coin held over the face can block out the site of the infinite light.”
May each of us learn to see ourselves and each other in a deeper, more meaningful way and like God and Abraham, to look into the heart and mind — not just the enticing surface.
With wishes for a good week and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Matthew L. Berkowitz
The publication and distribution of A Taste of Torah are made possible by a generous grant from Sam and Marilee Susi.