Torah | Whats so special about this Abraham guy

Lech Lecha
Genesis 12:1–17:27
Isaiah 40:27–41:16­


Some people are baseball fanatics. You know the type — always talking about the game last night, rattling off statistics.

Some people are political junkies. Some are jazz freaks. We all have our obsessions.

I’m obsessed with the Torah. Specifically, with parshanut, the tradition of Torah commentary that forms a unique genre of Jewish literature. I can’t get enough of the stuff. I even write a blog on it ( and spend hours every week researching obscure commentaries. Just for fun!

So I couldn’t be more thrilled to be joining the rotation of Torah columnists here at J. This gives me a chance to do what every obsessed person loves to do with the subject of their affections — talk to everyone they know about it.

So what is parshanut, and what’s so great about it? Well, the first thing to say is that the text of the Torah is written in such a way that it’s just begging for commentary. The narrative of the Bible is often stark and terse, giving us only what is absolutely essential and leaving the rest to imagination. Did you know that the whole Tower of Babel story is only nine lines long?

This writing style gives the rabbis the opportunity to go wild — and boy do they take it! The tradition of parshanut contains some of the most fantastic stories ever recorded. And not just that: philosophy, law, ethics, linguistics, mysticism — even the occasional joke — all stored in the little crevices between the letters of the biblical text. You can find everything in there.

And there’s no better place to start looking than in the epic opening lines of this week’s Torah portion:

God said to Abram, “Lech lecha, Go out from your land, and from your birthplace, and from your father’s house, to the land I will show you. And I will make from you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great” (Genesis 12:1-2).

Thus begins a whole new religion, one that will change the world. Abraham has been chosen, the land of Israel awaits him and future greatness is foretold — all in two lines!

But wait a second. Who is this Abraham guy? Where did he come from? What did he do to get God’s attention? What makes him so special?

This is the classic kind of question that prompts Torah commentary. And indeed, one of the responses is probably the most famous piece of commentary ever — so often told that many assume it is in the Torah itself. But it is actually a midrash, a story of Abraham’s childhood.

“Abraham’s father, Terach, was an idol-manufacturer. Once he left Abraham to manage the shop. Abraham took a hammer and smashed all the idols to pieces. Then he put the hammer in the hand of the biggest idol among them” (Genesis Rabbah 38:13).

When Terach returns to the mess, Abraham blames it on the idol. But Terach won’t be fooled. “These things have no consciousness!” he exclaims. And with that, Abraham has proved his point — these idols are worthless.

So what is the answer to “Why Abraham?” Well, because he was special. He was a precocious spiritual genius, and long before God called on him, he saw what no one else around him could see. That’s why God chose Abraham!

That’s one answer. But the great thing about parshanut is that there is never just one answer. Fast-forward hundreds of years to the flourishing of Hassidic commentary in 19th-century Poland, and we get this amazing interpretation from the Sefat Emet: “The words ‘Lech lecha’ are spoken by God to all people, all the time … But this is what is so special about [Abraham]: that he was ready to receive the words.”  

In this version, God didn’t single out Abraham at all. God is calling out to all of us, if only we were listening. What made Abraham different is that he heard. And that changed everything.

This is the beauty of parshanut. Two completely different answers. Two stories embedded within one larger story. Each with its own unique message. And both are preserved in the tradition; both are glistening threads in the tapestry of Jewish narrative.

Rabbi David Kasher is the senior rabbinic educator at Berkeley-based Kevah. Follow his blog on the weekly Torah portion at