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Making Space for Children to Find Their Way

The call to Abraham, with which Lech Lecha begins, seems to come from nowhere: “Leave your land, your birthplace and your father’s house, and go to a land that I will show you.”

Nothing has prepared us for this radical departure. We have not had a description of Abraham as we had in the case of Noah: “Noah was a righteous man, perfect in his generations; Noah walked with God.” Nor have we been given a series of glimpses into his childhood, as in the case of Moshe. It is as if Abraham’s call is a sudden break with all that went before. There seems to be no prelude, no context no background.

There is, however, the famous midrashic tradition that as a child, Abraham broke his father’s idols. When Terach (Abraham’s father) asked him who had done the damage, he replied, “The largest of the idols took a stick and broke the rest.” “Why are you deceiving me?” Terach asked, “Do idols have understanding?” “Let your ears hear what your mouth is saying,” replied the child. On this reading, Abraham was an iconoclast, a breaker of images, one who rebelled against his father’s faith (Bereishit Rabbah 38: 8).

Maimonides, the philosopher, put it somewhat differently. Originally, human beings believed in one God. Later, they began to offer sacrifices to the sun, the planets and stars, and other forces of nature, as creations or servants of the one God. Later still, they worshipped them as entities—gods —in their own right. It took Abraham, using logic alone, to realize the incoherence of idol worship.

After he was weaned, while still an infant, his mind began to reflect. Day and night, he thought and wondered, how is it possible that this celestial sphere should be continuously guiding the world, without something to guide it and cause it to revolve? For it cannot move of its own accord. He had no teacher or mentor, because he was immersed among foolish idolaters. His father and mother and the entire population worshipped idols, and he worshipped with them. He continued to speculate and reflect until he achieved the way of truth, understanding what was right through his own efforts. It was then that he knew that there is one God who guides the heavenly bodies, who created everything, and besides whom there is no other god. (Laws of Idolatry, 1:2)

Abraham represents a radical break with all that went before.

Yet there is another obvious possibility. Abraham’s spiritual insight did not come from nowhere. Terach had already made the first tentative move toward monotheism. Children complete what their parents begin.

Significantly, both the Bible and rabbinic tradition understood divine parenthood in this way. They contrasted the description of Noah (“Noah walked with God”) and that of Abraham (“The God before whom I have walked,” 24: 40). God himself says to Abraham, “Walk ahead of Me and be perfect” (17: 1). God signals the way, then challenges His children to walk on ahead.

Maimonides says: Although children are commanded to go to great lengths [in honouring parents], a father is forbidden to impose too heavy a yoke on them, or to be too exacting with them in matters relating to his honor, lest he cause them to stumble. He should forgive them and close his eyes, for a father has the right to forgo the honor due to him. (Hilchot Mamrim 6: 8)

Perhaps childhood itself has the same ambiguity. There are times, especially in adolescence, when we tell ourselves that we are breaking with our parents, charting a path that is completely new. Only in retrospect, many years later, do we realize how much we owe our parents—how, even at those moments when we felt most strongly that we were setting out on a journey uniquely our own, we were, in fact, living out the ideals and aspirations that we learned from them.

And it began with God Himself, who left, and continues to leave, space for us, His children, to walk on ahead.


Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks is the former chief rabbi of England.

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