Almost out of the blue, at the beginning of Parashat Lech Lecha, God appears to Abraham, commands him to travel to the “promised land”, blesses him and promises him that he will become a great nation. However, the Torah never tells us why Abraham was chosen for this great task.
Although one would expect the Torah itself to provide the answer to such a fundamental question, the Book of Bereshit seems to skirt the issue entirely. In contrast to Parashat Noach, which informs us right at the outset of the reason for Noah’s distinction — “for he was a righteous man” — Parashat Lech Lecha never reveals the reason why God singled out Abraham.
What initially do we learn about Abraham? He leaves his father’s house without so much as a by-your-leave; he lies to Pharaoh about his wife Sara, saying she is his sister, and puts her life in danger; he has a child by his wife’s servant Hagar, and then harshly banishes her to struggle in the desert soon after giving birth. Hardly moral choices that single him out to be the “father of many nations”.
What else do we learn about the personality of Abraham? He is a successful negotiator; he listens to the voice of his wife, he welcomes in guests, and we are told that he will teach his children “the way of righteousness and justice”. If we return to the example of Noah as a hint, we can look closely at our text and make an educated guess that Abraham is chosen for some as yet unrevealed characteristic — his righteousness – an assumption compounded by the number of times the word is used in connection to Abraham (see Genesis 15:6, 18:19; and seven more times in the exchange between Abraham and God over whether to spare Sodom and Gomorrah, in next week’s parashah).
What does it mean to be righteous? A righteous person is one who displays certain characteristics: integrity, equity, justice, uprightness. Someone who is just, true and sincere. Perhaps we could look at these seemingly negative stories about Abraham, cited above, through a different lens: Abraham is a human being who strives for righteousness, and that is why he is chosen.
Judaism has high expectations of humanity. Many of us strive to be moral, ethical people, but sometimes we make mistakes. We should not despair when we inevitably make them. Rather we should find the strength to pick up and continue on our quest for righteousness.