As a child when I learned the stories of the Torah, the introduction of Abraham as the first monotheist always stuck with me. In particular, my teacher told this elaborate story of Abraham as a boy working in his father’s idol shop, and being really uncomfortable with the idea of people praying to all of these objects. Abraham tried to convince his father that idols were not necessary, that they shouldn’t be there, that there was only one God, but his father didn’t listen. So, one day while Abraham was minding his father’s shop, he took a stick and smashed all the idols except the largest one, and placed the stick in the hand of the largest idol. When his father returned, Abraham explained that it was the large idol that caused the damage, which his father said was impossible because it was just a statue. Thus, Abraham emerges a leader in this new way of thinking, and our narrative of monotheism is born.
What an insightful backstory the Torah gives us about Abraham’s family and his origin as an independent thinker and leader. Except, this story isn’t in the Torah, it’s a midrash written much later. The Torah, in fact, doesn’t give us much to go on at all. What we do know of Abraham’s backstory is from last week’s parshah, Noach. Terah begat Avram (his name before it was Avraham), Avram married Sarai, and she could not have children. Terah took his son, grandson, and their family on a journey from Ur to Canaan, but didn’t make it all the way. Terah died at 205 years old. That’s what we know.
Our Torah portion this week, Parshat Lech Lecha, begins when Avram is already about 75 years old. The text starts with Avram and Sarai leaving their land, the land that they knew and felt comfortable in, to follow God’s command and go to Egypt. The text continues with their ongoing problems in Egypt and ends with the changing of their names from Avram to Avraham (Abraham) and Sarai to Sarah.
When Abraham finally hears God’s voice and makes the choice to listen to it, he’s 75 years old. Abraham lives 75 years of his life before he leaves his home as the first Jewish patriarch, and yet we know very little about that life. Since his past is so void of details, the rabbis of old made up stories to fill in the gaps so we might understand a little bit more about his character, why he made the choices he did, and why he was the one chosen as the leader.
There are countless true stories of artists, writers, actors, teachers, even rabbis, who have chosen a new direction much later in life. Whether it’s a career change or another major life decision that leads you on a new path, sometimes “life” begins well into the years we’ve lived. Parshat Lech Lecha jumps into Abraham’s life much later than you’d expect, but it’s because his story really begins in the moment he made a choice to follow God and step into the role that changed the course of history.