“And Abram heard that his kinsman was taken captive and he marshalled his retainers, natives of his household, 318 of them, and gave chase up to Dan” Genesis 15:14
Perhaps the most curious aspect of Abraham’s appointment as the first of our forefathers is the question why he was chosen in the first place. The Torah gives us no biographical sketch to indicate why he is asked to leave his home and begin a new religion in the Land of Israel.
Although the rabbis in the Midrash give a number of answers, the incident related in the verse above may also give us a clue as to why Abraham became the progenitor of our people.
Abraham’s nephew Lot was taken captive by an alliance of Canaanite kings. Rabbi Ya’akov Kamenetsky comments in the Emes L’Yakov that Abraham had no obligation to place himself in grave danger to mount a rescue attempt for Lot. His band of 318 men was unlikely to overcome the combined armies of four kingdoms.
It would have been easy for Abraham to ignore the bad news and rationalise that Lot’s fate was none of his concern. After all, Abraham and Lot had not parted in the friendliest of circumstances.
However, Abraham does not hesitate: he goes beyond his legal obligation and acts. Abraham hears and rejects rational justifications. He recognises that his moral obligation towards Lot goes beyond the strict letter of the law.
His conduct in this story reminds us that idealism and readiness to act are defining characteristics of what it means to be a Jewish leader. He instinctively understood Edmund Burke’s aphorism that “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”.