The Legacy of Abraham

Often times, when we would expect or need the Torah to explain why something happened or the basis for a commandment, the Torah is silent.  We are then forced to figure it out on our own or consult a commentary when available.  When the Torah is straightforward and  provides the reason behind something, it must be important.  One such case is that of the accomplishments of Abraham.  In the days of Abraham, the Almighty established a covenant that signifies the Jewish nation’s special relationship with Him.  When the destruction of Sodom became imminent, God incidentally but clearly revealed the basis for this unique honor.  The Torah explains that the Almighty could not withhold His plan to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah from Abraham due to his great virtue, with one particular emphasis:  “Abraham is surely to become a great and mighty nation…for I have loved him, because he commands his children and his household after him that they keep the way of the Lord, doing charity and justice” (Bereishis 18).  This declaration, that the basis for God’s love towards Abraham is due to how he educates his descendants and household, serves as a fundamental, inspiring – and important – lesson.

What can Jews be proud of as a nation?  Throughout their long and often adverse history, the Jewish people have demonstrated many unique qualities and attributes.  They have studied the Torah, observed the commandments, been loyal bearers of the Torah traditions and a light unto nations for many, many centuries.  These factors on their own, however, were apparently insufficient basis to merit God’s eternal love and become the chosen people.  Abraham’s philosophical prowess, innovative piety, and religious genius were evidently also of insufficient merit.  “…that they keep the way of the Lord, doing charity and justice” was the decisive factor that catalyzed their special bond with the Almighty.

What is special about Chesed (kindness) that gives it such central importance?  There is on-going debate regarding the value of ethical systems that are not based on divine revelation.  No one questions, however, that even if it is assumed that these systems are valuable, they don’t purport to do more than inform us of how people should act as ideal human beings.  The Torah system of ethical behavior goes further.  The commandment of v’halacta bidrachav, “you shall walk in His ways,” is the commandment of imitatio Dei: imitating God’s kindness and mercy.  According to the Torah, it’s not enough to act as decent human beings.  We must become Godly.  Every time we act kindly, we come closer to that ideal.

A biographical anecdote about Rabbi Chaim Ickovits (1749 – 1821, popularly known as Reb Chaim Volozhiner), the chief disciple of the Vilna Gaon and founder of the innovative yeshiva of Volozhin that launched the modern-day yeshiva movement, beautifully reinforces this lesson.  R. Ickovits’ writings carry much weight and are considered a highly authoritative source in the Rabbinic canon until today.  His son R. Itzele, who assumed leadership of the yeshiva upon his father’s demise in 1821, testifies that one of the cornerstones of the way his father educated him was to emphasize the importance of caring about others.  He writes:  “He would constantly rebuke me when he perceived that I was apathetic about someone else’s pain or problem.  He would always tell me:  “This is a person’s entire purpose; we were not created [to worry only about] ourselves, rather to help and benefit others – to the greatest extent that we are able!”  R. Ickovits was a deeply and extremely religious person, and we would therefore expect to read about his father stressing the importance of prayer, Torah study, or Shabbat observance.  Yet his son makes no comparable mention of his father’s stress on ritual, piety, or any other aspects of Jewish life.  To R. Ickovits, like Abraham, although living a committed Jewish life has many important aspects, the need to be a caring and kind person was an idea that couldn’t be emphasized enough.

Us Jews stand for something big.  We should certainly feel good about all of our religious involvement – whether it is of the educational, ritual, or devotional type.  But it’s only when we are charitable, however, that we can consider our actions as one of our crowning religious achievements.  It is impossible to live up to our great-grandfather Abraham’s legacy without a preoccupation with always finding some type of kindness or assistance to give someone that needs it.

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