He Didn’t Even Have His Name Straight
Here is the call to Abraham:
This call is of universal applicability, as we might expect of a call that was the starting point of the three monotheisms.
The call is in three parts, the most general description of which would be: an imperative; a characterization of the physical and emotional situation the subject is now in, and a promise concerning the situation the subject is to go toward.
So the call to Abraham can be restated as: Your current situation is not satisfactory; move, with urgency, to another situation, the nature of which cannot be specified as yet but which will be made evident to you some time after you have started to obey the imperative to move.
More specifically, move from the familiar, the familial, to what will appear to you to be the unknown but which, if you have faith in the source of this revelation, will be made known to you and will prove an enlargement of yourself and a blessing.
The call to Abraham is unique among the calls in the Hebrew Bible in two ways: (a) it is to a person in normal human circumstances; and (b) it does not specify the content of the vocation to which the subject is called.
Contrast this with the calls to other great figures in the Hebrew Bible, such as the call to Moses out of the Burning Bush:
In paraphrase, “You, Moses, are standing on holy ground, but the rest of the Children of Israel are slaves, knee deep in mud, trying to make bricks. I, the Lord, intend to bring them out of captivity and lead them to their Promised Land. This is My task. You will be My agent in this task, which of course you have no capacity to accomplish yourself.”
The calls to the other prophets are briefer but of the same character: “The Word of the Lord came to X saying….” The content of the message and usually the time, place and manner in which it is to be conveyed are given. Consequently, these prophets have been deprived of the human experience of freedom, which consists of adventuring toward situations of promise, the nature of which will only be revealed as the unknowable future unfolds.
In Abraham’s case, not only was the content of his vocation not given to him at the time of his call, but the vocation itself, apart from the need to make a move, was unclear. He didn’t even have his name straight. The call to Abraham is unique in the Hebrew Bible since, as we might expect of the founding revelation, it is a revelation given to someone who is foundering. It is the only call that could be to one of us, the only call to go toward a promised land that can’t be revealed until you get there, the only call that can be a model for those of us not standing on holy ground. And it is the only call that those who don’t want to give up their humanity would want to receive.
The first time we receive such a call, according to a well-known midrash, is in heaven, and the second time is in the womb:
An Old Story
(from the Bet Ha-Midrash)
In Heaven, at the hour before conception,
the Holy One commands a chosen soul,
“Enter that ovum!” But the soul protests,
“I’m pure and satisfied, don’t push me to
pollute myself for that disgusting drop.”
Then the Master of the Universe says, “Soul!
the filth you must be joined with is
good, you were created to be there”
and places it inside against its will.
And after the gestation time is over
the soul again complains it is content
and again God says to it, “The world
is good, and not this womb you’re in, and you,
against your will, crying, must emerge.”
Of course, as the Midrash points out, we don’t remember either of these calls. But if we, nonetheless, use an old rabbinic technique and apply this “verse from afar” to the call to Abraham, we get this interpretation of it: Go! Go from the familiar, even if it feels like heaven itself, even if it is a womb from which you do not want to depart, even if all you can see of what is beyond the familiar appears to be much less comforting than where you are now. It was for this adventure, and not the comfort of some heaven or womb, that you were created.
David Curzon is a contributing editor of the Forward and the author of a number of books, the first of which was “Midrashim” (Cross-Cultural Communications).