This was largely based on Aviva Gottleib Zornberg’s chapter in The Murmuring Deep, In the Vale of Soul-Making.
We are introduced to Avraham in the beginning of this week’s parasha:
But we’re never told why ה׳ appeared to Avraham. There’s no backstory, or even a description (as with Noah: נח איש צדיק). If we look at the previous chapters (and take out all the genealogy that makes our eyes glaze over) we see some hints to a backstory:
And later, the text hints at what happened before לך לך:
But it never adds up to a complete story. We all know the aggadot that fill in the blanks, about Avraham as a literal iconoclast who is thrown into the furnace, but it’s not in the text. Here’s how Ramban and Rambam summarize it:
Note that Ramban takes the midrash “seriously but not literally”, and offers a reason why it’s not in the text, and that the Rambam emphasizes Avraham as a philosopher, who questions everything in order to arrive at the truth.
Rav Hutner connects this idea, of Avraham as the one who questions everything, to the nature of סיפור יציאת מצרים on Pesach:
What made Avraham special was כאשר התעו אתי אלקים מבית אבי. He was willing to accept the questions, even about his own mission, even after the point that he, in his philosophical greatness, had arrived at the truth.
Avraham moves to Canaan at the age of 75. The Sfas Emes points out that he already had a mission, had a huge following back in Haran, for over twenty years:
The backstory of Avraham’s philosophical journey is not in the text of the Torah because it is irrelevant. It was a failure. His disciples from Haran faded away and never had an influence on the world. Avraham’s strength was his ability to question everything that he had done, and to listen to the voice of ה׳ telling him: “This isn’t working. You need to leave מארצך וממולדתך ומבית אביך to somewhere else. Start your journey of seeking the truth all over again”.
The backstory of Avraham is in the Torah. We’re just reading the story wrong. The backstory is ויאמר ה׳ אל אברם לך לך, which really is a message that comes to all of us: שנאמר מהשי״ת לכל האנשים תמיד. It is only after he listens to לך לך that he is chosen with the real revelation of his mission: