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Rabbi Michael Rosensweig
Rabbi Michael Rosensweig

Avraham Avinu: A New Paradigm

The mishneh (Avot 5:2) notes that there were 10 generations from Adam to Noach, and the same number of generations separate Noach from Avraham. The parallel implicitly compares the pivotal transitions that occurred during these critical eras of human history and draws attention to the leadership and impact of the three important leaders of these successive epochs.

However, a subtle discrepancy in the composition of these lists, noted by some commentators, also may underscore a critical contrast between the leadership paradigms of Noach and Avraham. The first list enumerates the generations beginning with Adam and culminating with Noach, implying a sense of continuity notwithstanding a myriad of upheavals and transformations in the physical and spiritual worlds of that time period. The parallel second list records the ten generations that separate Noach from Avraham, conveying, especially by contrast with the previous enumeration, an unbridgeable gap between them and a sense of discontinuity.

Some mefarshim (see Chidushei ha-Grim al ha-Torah, end of Noach) posit that the Torah itself hints at Noach's prevailing link to the pre-mabul world by the manner in which it records age, births, longevity, and deaths. Prior to the mabul, the Torah typically registers the ages of fathers at the birth of their heir as a milestone, then counts the individual's subsequent years, followed by a combination of both periods, and concluding with a death announcement. After the mabul, the Torah no longer combines the years or records the individual's death. Yet, Noach's personal history (Bereishit 9:29) is formulated in pre-mabul style! Presumably, this subtle clue underscores that although he presided over the destruction of the world and its rebirth after the mabul, Noach is fundamentally still associated with the pre-mabul world, or at least reflects a meaningful continuity with that world.

The fact that Noach, the de-facto father of a new world, as well as the survivor of a vanished pre-mabul past, receives this type of obituary also reinforces our assessment of his survivalist leadership persona, particularly in contrast to Avraham Avinu, as we shall note (see Avraham Avinu and the Concept of Emunah). Indeed, the very effect of this method of assessment is to accentuate continuity and the bridging of generations and eras as important values. Thus, the birth of an heir and death constitute milestones that integrate the various diverse phases of history, while specific accomplishments are deemphasized.

It is particularly noteworthy that Noach and Adam are perceived in terms of continuity notwithstanding the cataclysmic physical and spiritual changes that occurred in these ten generations. Neither Creation, the expulsion from Gan Eden, the first fratricide, nor even the mabul were transformative enough to disrupt the continuity reflected by the count of generations that included both Adam and Noach. However, Avraham Avinu, though linked with no obvious external cataclysmic transition, evidently constitutes a different paradigm of leadership.

Upon further reflection, this irony is unsurprising and reinforces other evidence that supports a sharp contrast between the spiritual leadership of Noach and Avraham. As developed elsewhere (see Avraham Avinu and the Concept of Emunah), even the praiseworthy assessment of Noach's accomplishments ("yeish dorshin oto le-shevach") perceives his stature in relative terms: he would have been greater in a more spiritual generation. Noach always responds; he never dictates or shapes his broader environment. According to Chazal, his emunah and his responsiveness to direct Divine imperatives even in the framework of his leadership in the mabul, is ambivalent. After his initial gesture of korbonot, he completely disappears as a spiritual force, even as a leader. His drunken binge and general behavior in the aftermath of the mabul attests to his leadership flaws and limitations. He immediately lapses into a pre-mabul mode of conduct, failing to seize the opportunity to set an intense tone and ambitious course in the newly constituted world. The shevah mizvot benei Noach with which his name is associated characterize a survivalist religious orientation: they promote continuity, cohesion, harmony, and basic religious values. While Noach's beginnings draw attention and promise, as his very birth (5:29) is heralded, and his stature as "ish tam yoshev ohalim" precedes his selection to execute Hashem's will, his accomplishments and impact simply fade away toward the end of his life.

By contrast, Avraham's birth draws no attention or fanfare (11:26-27). His early accomplishments- rediscovering monotheism, defying the prevailing culture of idol worship, his willingness to suffer, even to perish for principle in the kivshan ha-eish, though heroic and spiritually monumental, are all but ignored or perhaps encrypted in the Torah's narrative. His spiritual qualifications do not precede his first tzivui of lech lechah, but are articulated in light of his evident track record of spiritual accomplishment. The contrast between the wide-ranging and idealistic taryag mizvot and the Noachide seven symbolize the different orientations of Noach and Avraham, as well.

Avraham's first challenge, lech lecha (which remarkably and significantly Chazal compare in difficulty and importance with the lech lecha of the akeidah, in which his yirat Hashem and ahavat Hashem are unequivocally demonstrated), establishes, and elegantly encapsulates, the singular character of his leadership and mission- and, by extension, highlights the objective of Klal Yisrael - to embrace a unique destiny by demanding that he distance himself from country, culture and even family. The revolution of restoring awareness of "Elokei ha-shamayim" and especially the ambitious innovation that Hashem is also "Elokei ha-aretz", was truly transformative, notwithstanding its subtlety. The concept of "Elokei Avraham", which would subsequently produce "Elokei Yitzhak" and "Elokei Yaakov", "Torat Moshe" was authentically impactful, transformative, and truly distinctive, defying any continuity with previous leaders or movements.

Avraham's low-key, subtle, but totally comprehensive (bein adam lamakom, bein adam lechavero - amud chesed) and substantive approach to spiritual leadership qualifies him to be depicted as av hamon goyim, the father of a nation, a truly revolutionary leadership paradigm that would forever change the spiritual destiny of Klal Yisrael and the world.

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