Many of us grew up reading not only Bible stories but also classic myths. In the hero stories from the Greeks, Romans and other ancient cultures, a young man would be singled out for a challenge, a mission involving daring and impossible odds.
After struggle and setback, the hero would accomplish his goal and return home either to a tumultuous welcome or one final challenge to overcome. In either case, the hero would stand on a mountain of accomplishment and hard-won wisdom, ready to lead his people or confront new challenges.
In contrast, the Torah in this week’s parsha, Lech Lecha, gives us Abram — soon to be renamed Abraham. He defies all traditional conventions and expectations of mythic heroes. When he is called, he is not young, but in middle age. He is already married, so there is no fair heart of a maiden to woo and win. He is told to uproot himself from kith and kin and leave everything he knows — and never come back.
He does not question God, who commissions him, but responds “Hineini,” or “Here I am.” He submits to the will of the Holy One rather than counter with doubt or question. He leaves for the land of promise, Canaan, trusting in the protection and care of the Holy One.
Abraham is not your classic mythic champion. He will never receive a hero’s homecoming, never bask in the adulation of a crowd of family and friends. As a matter of fact, Abraham is told in this week’s parsha that his future progeny will know heartache and sorrow over the course of more than four centuries. He can’t save them. He barely believes that he will sire his own son with Sarah. He must rely on God’s promise with faith, as opposed to his own strength or cleverness.
Even when Abraham does engage in battle, it is to save his nephew Lot, not for glory or treasure.
Torah is unique in the way it challenges our expectations of the world around us. Torah heroes, with very few exceptions, don’t lead armies, exult in military victories or vow to crush their enemies. They neither expect nor even want memorials, statues or parades. Torah’s celebrities exemplify values very different from our culture of celebrity and hero worship.
Abraham teaches us that faith in the midst of doubt is itself heroic. By his example we learn that declaring “Hineini” can be an act of selfless courage. It is Abraham’s lesson to us and all generations of Jews — it is up to us to say “Hineini” when the Holy One calls us to our tasks in the world, to Torah, mitzvot and acts of chesed, rachmanut and tzedaka (kindness, compassion and righteousness).
To what part of our Jewish lives will we say “Hineini” this season? Abraham’s example is a clarion call to the moral and spiritual heroism we call faith. Not the faith of fanaticism, rather a belief that no matter how desperate things around us may seem, we are called to remain steadfast to God in thought and deed, in both our ritual and ethical acts.
If we do, we will not appear in People magazine, but we will be heroes in the mold of Abraham. And all it takes to start upon this path is to do as he did and respond to the challenges of our faith by saying, “Hineini.”
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)