Stories of Our Ancestors

The midrash rounds out the biblical figures Abraham and Sarah

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"Rabbi Hiyya… said thatTerah was a maker of idols. One time, he went out, and he left Abraham to sell [the idols] in his place. A person came and asked to buy one, and [Abraham] asked him, 'How old are you?' And the man said to him, '50 or 60 [years].' And [Abraham] said, 'Oy to the man who is 60 years old and needs to worship [an idol] that is a day old!' [The man] was embarrassed, and he went [on his way]" (Genesis Rabbah 38:13).

In these midrashim, Abraham is an intelligent, rational boy (and, later, man) who is unafraid to challenge authorities regarding the most basic religious claims of his society. Abraham does not believe in God because God spoke to him or proved it. Instead, the midrash shows that Abraham “discovered” God for himself.

Abraham's Mission

These outstanding characteristics made Abraham a leader even before God spoke to him. In Genesis 12:5, we learn that Abraham went to Canaan with “the people [nefesh] they made [asu] in Haran.” “Nefesh” essentially means “soul,” but is also used to refer to human beings (i.e. those possessing souls). However, how could the text be saying that Abraham “made” souls?

Contemporary scholar Everett Fox suggests the translation “people they made-their-own” (The Five Books of Moses)--a sort of adoption. This translation seems to draw on earlier commentators and the midrashim to which they refer. In the opinion of Rashi, the medieval exegete, the plain meaning of the text is that this phrase refers to the servants and household members whom Abraham acquired while in Haran, reading “asu” as “acquire” rather than as “made.”

Rashi also mentions a classical midrash that offers a different perspective. In this story, we see that Abraham had taken upon himself an evangelical mission, preaching about the One God without receiving a command from God to do so:

"'And the people that they made in Haran.' Rabbi Elazar ben Zimra said [the text should read] ...”these are the converts that they converted.” And if it is that they converted them, why does it say “make”? Only to teach you that all those who bring a worshipper of stars [i.e. a pagan] close [to God] and converts him, it is as if [the one who converts the other] created [the one who converts]" (Genesis Rabbah 39:14).

By the time God calls upon Avram, these conversions had already taken place. These midrashim let us know that God chooses Avram after Avram has already chosen God. Abraham is a revolutionary distinguished not by blind acceptance of God’s command, but by wisdom, insight, and leadership.

Sarah's Stories

The Torah often is especially silent regarding female characters. Rabbinic tradition, however, emphasizes the merit and important work of our female ancestors. Midrashim illuminate the life and works of the Imahot (Matriarchs).

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Rabbi Rachel Miller Solomin is an educator living and working in the San Francisco Bay Area. She was ordained from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University) in 2001.