motzei Shabbos: parashas Vayeira 5782
There is an added dimension of Judaism that can be learned from the example of Abraham, when he is not cast in the light as being the first Jew. Words have connotations that can sometimes be misleading when the word is applied in a more general manner than its normal usage. Case in point, in regard to Abraham, who led an exemplary life, about four hundred years, before the Torah was given. How was he able to live in a manner that exceeded the level of morality of that generation? One answer is found in the phrase, derech eretz (literally, “way of the land”), that connotes being a mentch (good person), inclusive of basic ethics, a sense of responsibility, and consideration of others. In fact, this is considered to be a prerequisite for the observance of mitzvoth (commandments, as per found in the Torah). So, the lives of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob serve as examples of derech eretz, whereof we can learn the basic positive character traits that G-d would expect of us, before we even place ourselves, figuratively speaking, of course, at the base of Mount Sinai, where the Torah was given.
Yet, if Abraham is cast in the framework of being the first Jew, as if being Jewish were synonymous with the observance of the mitzvoth, then we will totally miss the point of what the moral legacy of Abraham has to offer us. Furthermore, above all else, Abraham exemplified emunah in the form of his faithfulness towards H’Shem, as demonstrated by his obedience to H’Shem’s directive, when tested ten times throughout his life. Torah specifically states, about Abraham, “And he believed in the L-RD; and He counted it to him for righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). Therefore, let us not forget the primacy of emunah (faith) in our lives, when considering our own relationship to H’Shem. Is this faith also a prerequisite to the observance of Torah? If we consider the nature of the first commandment, then faith is primary, as stated, “I am the L-RD your G-d,” a declarative statement that according to commentary implies that the first commandment is the directive to believe in G-d; only then, to receive the mitzvoth based upon the authority of the One who gave us the commandments at Sinai.