Avraham: The Paradigm of Rational Thought

Rabbi Dr. Darrel Ginsberg

In Parshas Lech Lecha, we are formally introduced to Avraham Avinu, the progenitor of monotheism. Much of the parsha is focused on his different exploits – leaving his home, journeying to Egypt, rescuing Lot, amongst others. In each of these, we gain insight into the greatness of Avraham, his behavior and mindset a timeless paradigm. However, one of the most important avenues to understanding Avraham, and how he serves as the model of thinking for us today, lies in his exchanges with God. One conversation in particular demonstrates not just the greatness of Avraham, but how Judaism differs from all other religions. 

After the conclusion of the raid to recover Lot, the Torah tells us as follows (Bereishis 15:1):

After these events, the word of God came to Avram in a vision, saying: "Fear not Avram, I am your shield, your reward is very great.”

Avraham then responds (ibid 2):

Avram said: "My Master, G-d, what will You give me since I continue to be childless (ariri), and the manager of my household is Eliezer of Damascus”.”

Avraham’s initial response clearly requires some elucidation. Why not just take God’s word for it? If God promises a great reward for Avraham, one can be sure it would be coming, right? One would then argue that Avraham was not questioning the veracity of God’s promise, chas ve’shalom. In that case, why not just say “Great!”, express appreciation, and move on? 

Rashi’s comments on this verse are quite intriguing. He first takes up the translation of the word “ariri,” which is not commonly used in Tanach (ibid):


Menachem ben Saruk explains it [ariri] as meaning "heir," comparable to “Err Ve’Onah” (Malachi 2:12)[would then mean] without an heir, as you would say (Iyov 31:12)  "It will ‘tesharesh’ all my crops," meaning, "it will tear up its roots." Similarly ‘ariri’ means childless--- in Old French desanfantez. [However,] it seems to me that ‘Err Ve’Onah’ is of the same derivation as (Shir HaShirim 5:2)”Ve’Libi Err” [meaning, "my heart is awake"], whereas “ariri” means "destruction" as in (Tehillim 137:7) "Destroy it, destroy it,"…”

What we see, then, are two possible explanations of “ariri”: either that Avraham was addressing his lack of an “heir,” or that he was “destroyed” without a son. At first glance, there is no real practical difference between these two translations. However, it would seem unlikely Rashi is just commenting on a grammatical discrepancy for academic purposes. Therefore, we must ask: what is the conceptual difference between these two definitions?

There is another, seemingly unnecessary addition in the verse, namely Avraham’s introduction of Eliezer as the “manager of my household” (ben meshek baisi). One would think Eliezer’s role was well known to God. Again, Rashi (ibid) steps forward to try and clarify this phrase:

As Onkelos translates it, [meaning:] "That my entire household is fed by his orders," as in (Bereishis 41:40), "According to your orders shall they be fed." [Avraham meant] "He is my steward. But, if I had a son then my son would be in charge of my possessions." ”

What is astonishing about this interpretation is Avraham’s concern regarding his potential son’s role in the future of Judaism. Rather than point to the need for a strong leader or powerful personality, he reasons that having a son would mean someone would be “in charge of my possessions.” Are we to believe Avraham was merely looking for a caretaker or was so materialistic as to only want a son to manage his belongings???

We first have to understand one crucial, fundamental concept regarding Avraham and the example he sets for our entire faith--and faith is the operative word here. There are those who look at religion as a system of blind faith, desiring merely the emotional satisfaction of “believing” at the expense of a clear, rational philosophy. This person, if faced with the promise made by God, would be gracious and thankful, never really interested in thinking into the nature of the gift. Not Avraham. To Avraham, there was a problem with this new promise by God, a troubling quandary. His concern was intellectual, his desire to understand how God’s plan would unfold. This is not to say Avraham’s discussion with God was simply an intellectual exercise. Instead, Avraham demonstrated that he wanted to understand the plan as much as he wanted to be a participant.

What was intellectually troubling to Avraham? God had promised Avraham (see ibid 12:2 and 13:15-16) that his “offspring” would be of great size. God was therefore explaining to Avraham that the ideology of Judaism, starting with him, would pass beyond him to future generations. How this would come about was the question. The most logical possibility would be through a son--yet at this point, due to his and Sarah’s age, there was no indication that this would be the method. Therefore, the only other rational possibility would be Eliezer, who had accepted the philosophy presented by Avraham. This is clearly reflected in verse 3, where Avraham concludes that Eliezer would have to be the person to continue this ideology.

According to Rashi, this is a crucial step in understanding Avraham’s response to God in verse 2. Avraham was expressing two fundamental reasons why Eliezer would not be the ideal choice for the future of the religion. The first reason had to do with the ability to properly transmit the ideas he had developed and been taught to the next generation of followers. The ideal means of transmission would be through a child of his own, someone raised from birth in this belief system. We see this today with our Torah, where the mechanism of transmission of mesora is from father to son – this ensures the best and clearest means of continuing the ideas. This is the concept of the heir. On the other hand, there is the reference to Avraham being “destroyed.” It could be that Avraham was concerned that without a child of his own, the perpetuation of the ideology would be in danger. The “destruction” refers to the future of the religion. People would relate to Eliezer as a devout follower of Avraham, rather than the spiritual leader of the Jewish faith. Eliezer would keep it alive for a period of time, but ultimately, the success of the spread of monotheism would be in jeopardy. 

Avraham, therefore, was first concerned with how the plan to continue the religion would work out. His second concern seems focused on Eliezer’s personality. Eliezer was, (as a friend of mine described him) the early equivalent of a personal assistant to Avraham. His psychological framework was that of someone always in a dependent role. He could handle responsibilities, function as the “steward,” but he could not be the one to run the empire, so to speak. On the other hand, a child of Avraham would be best suited to take over, someone who naturally could be in “charge of his possessions.” He would have the innate ability to inherit. So Avraham was expressing a different rationale for why Eliezer was not the ideal choice--the nature of his professional relationship with Avraham would be a defect in his ability to be the leader.

The example Avraham sets in his exchange with God serves as a model for one of the fundamental cornerstones of Judaism. Our religion is distinct in singling out the importance of rational thought and the drive for knowledge. Avraham, when faced with another promise from God, responds in a way that demonstrates a desire to comprehend, rather than express thoughtless appreciation. This overarching importance of chachma is what defines our religion, set forth right at the onset by Avraham Avinu.