“Abraham was willing to challenge conventional ideas and to defy his parents, the entire society in which he lived, and even risk the wrath of the powerful king Nimrod.” || cc: wikipedia
Rabbi Yehonatan Chipman is confused by Abraham’s figure. Is Abraham a unique figure with a special message to the Jewish people or is he a universal figure and what is Malchizedek’s roll in Abraham’s change/ Dvar Torah to Parashat “Lekh-Lekha”.
By: Yehonatan Chipman
This week’s parashah focuses upon Abraham, the father of the Jewish people and, conventionally, “the first Jew.” As such, Abraham is one of the two central, foundational figures of Judaism—if Moses was “father of the prophets” and the great lawgiver, the teacher of Torat Moshe, Abraham is called “God’s lover” or perhaps “God’s beloved” (Isa 41:8). Abraham is seen as the symbol of faith (Gen 15:6), of a direct, trusting, intimate relationship with God; of knowledge of God without the elaborate super-structure of laws and commandments governing every detail of life introduced by Moses at Sinai.
To Take a Risk for Monotheism
We are all familiar with the legends about how Abraham discovered God, whether as a young boy or youth or as a mature man, who pondered about the beliefs with which he had been raised and how the vast world in which he lived came into being, until he realized that the fetishes of wood or stone which is family and neighbors worshipped could not have possibly created the vast, overwhelmingly beautiful, varied and complex world in which we live. Once convinced of the truth of the one God, he was willing to challenge conventional ideas and to defy his parents, the entire society in which he lived, and even risk the wrath of the powerful king Nimrod. Abraham’s single-minded love and devotion to God—demonstrated further and with greater intensity in subsequent stages of his life, culminating in the Akedah—led him to become Avraham ha-Ivri—Abraham the Hebrew or, as the midrash reads “Abraham who stands on the other side, Abraham the contrarian. Hence the prophet Ezekiel declares “One was Abraham” or, better, “Abraham was unique”: Ezek 33:24—he was the only one who knew the true god in a pagan world, and it is as such that we celebrate him.
Did Abraham Work Alone?
Or was he? In this week’s parashah we are told the story—itself problematic from several perspectives—of a group four kings, led by Chedorlaomer, who waged was against a group of five kings. Abraham, initially a neutral observer, becomes involved when the former group captures his nephew Lot and seizes his property. He attacks the aggressors and emerges as the hero when he defeats them, freeing the king of Sodom and others from paying tribute to the others. In the middle of this story there is a brief passage, only three verses long, in which we encounter a mysterious figure called Malchizedek:
And Malchizedek king of Shalem, who was a priest of the Most High God (El Elyon) brought out bread and wine. And he blessed him and said: “Blessed is Abraham to the Most High God, Creator of Heaven and earth; and blessed is the Most High God, who has delivered your enemies into your hands.” And he gave him a tithe of all. (Gen 14:18–20)
Who was this mysterious man? We know nothing of him from anywhere else in the Bible, except for Psalm 110:4 (where, interestingly, the psalmist compares the righteous king to Malchizedek, as also being a priest of the Most High). Who was he? In Hebrew the name malki-tzedek means, literally, “my king of righteousness” or “the righteous king.” He is also described as the king of Shalem—a city identified with the future Jerusalem—and, most important, as a priest of El Elyon, “the supreme God,” the one God who created heaven and earth. Indeed, El Elyon is mentioned three times in as many verses: once in describing Malchizedek as his priest; once as He to whom Abraham is blessed; and once as He who delivered Abraham from his enemies.
There are two gifts mentioned here; Malchizedek brings brad and wine to Abraham – the simplest, most basic gift, food and drink for men returning from battle; a token of his gratitude, of his acknowledgment of Abraham’s sterling deed in entering the fray of a battle which was not really his concern at all, thereby protecting the other inhabitants from a tyrannical aggressor. And then, “he gave him a tithe of all”? Who gave this tithe—a tenth part of all he had —to whom: Abraham to Malchizedek, or Malchizedek to Abraham? The text is ambiguous; several of the traditional commentators say that Abraham responded in kind to Malchizedek’s gift by giving him tithe– perhaps thereby acknowledging him as a priest of the same God in which he believed. Or did Malchizedek give a tithe to Abraham, thereby acknowledging him, as a fellow holy manor even, perhaps, acknowledging him as standing on a higher spiritual level than himself. (Indeed, a bit later on, following a singularly awkward incident, Abraham is treated with a certain honor by Abimelekh, who describes him as “a prophet”: Gen 20:7.)
I tend towards the latter view. A Jewish-Sufi friend of mine mentioned to me recently that, in both the Koran and the Christian tradition, Malchizedek is portrayed as a kind of for bearer or harbinger of Abraham and is shown, at the crucial moment, paying fealty to Abraham as a superior spiritual type. In this view, we must seethe world in which Abraham lived as pagan—but not entirely so. There were pockets of faith in the true God. Knowledge of the one god has somehow filtered down. Malchizedek was, if you will, a kind of pre-Abrahmic Abraham.
There is a constant tension in Judaism between the universal and particular: are we primarily a tribe, “a people that dwells alone,” with a special covenant with God, our religious consciousness possibly even being transmitted genetically, in some mysterious manner (what R. Judah Halevi calls the “Divine matter” — עניין האלהי)? Or was Abraham the propagator of a message to the entire world (note Rambam’s picture of Abraham teaching his message about God to everyone he met, and setting up his descendants, not so much as a nation, but as a cadre of teachers or missionaries to spread this message far and wide throughout the world—Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim 1.3)? And the acceptance of this idea was not only a messianic hope, but one that was already realized in the distant past, in the person, among others, of Malchizedek—and hence it is one that can be realized in potential in our own world, in the here and now—and not only through Jew’s teaching others, but by us opening our eyes to see the core of true faith, and even of spiritual elevation and profundity, in others, in certain non-Jewish teachers.
If you found this story important/shocking/touching, and you want to help us to change the situation, please donate here and strengthen the Jewish voices that see in every human being the image of God.