For the last few weeks, we have been learning in the weekly Torah portion about the life of the first Jew, Abraham. One of the children in our preschool asked me, “Why was Abraham chosen to be the first Jew?” Without much thought, I reflexively told him what I had learned when I was a child: that Abraham was the first to discover God on his own.
Afterward, I could not help but think that perhaps there was more to it than just that. The question kept pestering me. Why, indeed, was Abraham the first Jew? There were many others before him who seemingly were worthy to have been chosen.
For example, let us consider Adam. The Midrash tells us that God Himself formed Adam and blew the breath of life into him and, as such, Adam’s knowledge and awareness of God was greater than that of any other person in history. Indeed, we are told that Adam had greater knowledge of the nature of God than did the ministering angels! So why then was Adam not the first Jew?
Or let us consider Enoch, about whom the Torah tells us that he “walked with God”; or Methuselah, who was so righteous that God waited to bring the great flood until after Methuselah passed away at the ripe old age of 969 years, and then delayed the flood for another week, until after shiva for Methuselah; or Yakton an exceedingly humble person; or Noah, whom the Torah describes as “righteous” and “perfect”; or Noah’s son Shem or great-grandson Ever, the founders of the “Yeshiva of Shem and Ever.”
So why did God wait until nearly 2,000 years after Creation to choose Abraham to be the first Jew?
At our shul this past Sunday, we dedicated a newly completed Torah. To great fanfare, we penned in with a feather quill the very final letters of the Torah (which has more than 304,000 handwritten calligraphic letters). The shul was crowded and the atmosphere festive, as we danced with the new and old Torahs alike. It was truly a sight to behold.
As I stood there taking in this beautiful scene, I watched as a young mother lifted up her little daughter, who lovingly kissed the Torah. It was at that moment that I was struck with an answer to the child’s question that was still bothering me, “Why was Abraham the first Jew?”
I was also then struck with an answer to another question that was bothering me. In this week’s Torah portion we read that, when God decided to destroy Sodom, He said to Himself, “Shall I conceal from Abraham what I am about to do?” God decided to reveal His plans because “Abraham is to become a great and mighty nation . . . [and Abraham] commands his children and his household after him [to] preserve the way of God, doing charity and justice.” What I had been wondering was, “Why, simply because Abraham was educating his children to do God’s work, did God feel compelled to reveal to Abraham His plan to destroy Sodom?” Indeed, what connection is there between Abraham educating his children and God’s decision to reveal His plan to Abraham?
Many leaders, when leadership is thrust on them, take to the task with great zest, zeal, and devotion. They truly achieve greatness, and may be lauded by the masses even long after their passing. But if you were to ask the children of those leaders about their childhood, they would tell you of their serial disappointment at the absence of their father or mother from their life, because their parents were always busy helping others — how their father was not there for homework, how their mother missed the class play, how neither attended their sporting events, and so on. God chose Abraham to be the first Jew, and chose to thrust world leadership on Abraham (beginning with giving him the task of advocating for the doomed people of Sodom), because God knew that Abraham, while lifting his gaze to look afar, even to distant shores, to take on the world’s problems, would never forget to also look down to see whether there might be his little child standing right at his own feet who needs to be lifted to touch the Torah, to have a boo-boo kissed, or to help with homework. God chose Abraham to be the paradigmatic Jew, and the one to emulate.
God wants us to look around, like Abraham, to see how we might alleviate the misfortune of anyone in need, no matter how far — but, just as importantly, no matter how close; to teach the masses, but also to be available for for your child’s homework; to spread morality universally, but also to say prayers with your son and daughter at home.