Who Came first?

Christopher Columbus “discovered” America, right? Wrong. Native Americans lived here for thousands of years before Columbus arrived. China knew about America, as did the Russians and Vikings. Only Europe was in the dark. So when they finally joined the party, they got to host it? What a hoot!

The assertion that Columbus “discovered” America highlights a curious claim made by the very first Jew, Abraham. Abraham instructed his servant to seek a wife for Isaac among Abraham’s family in Ur Kasdim. Eliezer asked what to do in case the woman was unwilling to come back with him to Israel. Abraham replied, “The L‑rd, G‑d of heavens, who took me from my father's house … will send His angel before you.”1

Rashi, the eleventh century commentator, wondered why Abraham described G‑d as the G‑d of heaven, rather than the G‑d of earth. According to Rashi, Abraham said to Eliezer, “Now G‑d is indeed the G‑d of earth, because I popularized him among the people, but when I left my father’s home, G‑d was not yet the G‑d of earth, because back then, the people didn’t know Him and His name was uncommon.”

Abraham was vigorously opposed to idol worship and traveled widely to teach the masses about G‑d. It was not without reason that Abraham took credit for popularizing G‑d’s name in the region. But hold on just a minute, Abraham. What of the scholars that came before you? Noah studied the Torah, as did his descendants Shem and Eber. You knew this, Abraham, because you studied in their academy! How could you claim that G‑d’s name was unknown on earth until you “discovered” Him?

However, we can’t judge Abraham as we do Columbus, because we know him to be an upright, G‑d fearing, righteous and truthful man. Abraham’s claim did not negate the scholarship of his predecessors, but it did highlight the uniqueness of his approach.

To Seek or Not to Seek

The key difference between Noah and Abraham was that Abraham prayed on behalf of the people of Sodom, and Noah was content to save himself; he never prayed for the people of his generation. This difference also played out in the way they taught Torah. Noah wanted to study Torah, and also felt it was his duty to teach Torah. He established an academy to welcome eager, sincere students. He welcomed them, but he didn’t seek them out. He welcomed them, but only accepted the sincere students.

Abraham didn’t set up an academy, and he didn’t have a screening process to weed out the insincere. Abraham traveled from village to village, hamlet to hamlet, to find his students. Abraham and Sarah taught Torah to anyone who would listen. Those who were interested, learned a lot, and even converted to monotheism. Those who were not as interested learned a little. But all learned something.

This approach gave Abraham a broad base of students, and though the majority knew only a little, they knew enough to teach their children, and their children had the option of learning more.

Abraham never claimed to be the first to know G‑d. Many knew G‑d before Abraham. But he was the first to teach about G‑d to the masses. Knowledge known to only a few cannot survive. Knowledge made available to many has the best chance of survival. In this, Abraham was the pioneer.2

In America

This weekend, thousands of Chabad rabbis from across the world will gather in Brooklyn, New York, to share, study and inspire. This conference was the initiative of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessed memory, who sent these rabbis to the far flung posts where they serve today.

When the Rebbe came to America, there were centers of Torah study where young and old absorbed a great deal of Torah. Though America’s Jewish community paled in comparison to the European community, there were Torah giants in America. Torah was taught and studied.

The Rebbe did not bring Torah to America, but the Rebbe brought America to Torah. He brought Torah out of the academies and into the streets. The Rebbe’s idea was to reach out and teach people what they wanted to learn. Some learned about Passover, others about prayer. Some learned about Chanukah, others about the shofar. Everyone was to learn something. The broader the base of students, the more entrenched the learning became. And then the Rebbe said, what you learn, you should teach to others.

Many of these students became fully observant and joined the Torah academies. Many still follow that path. But many didn’t. They continued living their lives, as they were, but stamped with the indelible imprint of the Rebbe’s reach. Rabbinic students on busy street corners offering to help Jews put on tefillin, study Torah or learn how to light Shabbat candles became a common sight in almost every metropolis. For many years the Rebbe ensured that the New York Times printed the time for Shabbat candle lighting on its front page every Friday.

The Rebbe never stopped. If there was a Jew in an unknown corner of the world, the Rebbe wanted to know. He sent his emissaries to every location, popular and remote, in America and across the globe.

If you tune in on Sunday night, you will be able to join a live telecast of the gala banquet with nearly 5,000 rabbis and lay leaders. It is the Rebbe’s legacy. His emissaries continue his mission, and today it has spread even further afield.

What was once a pioneering effort of a revolutionary few is now the hallmark of every Jewish organization and community. We have all adopted the Rebbe’s vision of embracing our fellow Jew and teaching what little or much we can. If all we know is alef, then alef is what we teach. But the moment we learn bet, we embark on teaching bet.

The Rebbe followed the model of Abraham, and today the Jewish world has adopted it too. Abraham called out in the name of G‑d. Our sages explained that Abraham did not do the calling himself, he rallied others to do it with him. In his inaugural address in 1950, the Rebbe put his unique spin on this teaching.3 If you want to succeed in calling for G‑d, you must see to it that others call along with you.

This is how the Torah will survive. This is how Judaism will thrive. Not with the model of Noah. Only with the model of Abraham.