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We Don’t Need Another Hero

Genesis 12:1-17:27: Abraham, the original ordinary Joe

Liel Leibovitz
November 07, 2008

The 2008 election is over, and we all—many ardent Republicans included—are awed by the historic moment. Men and women smarter than I have already written eloquently about the significance of Barack Obama’s election as our 44th president.

Instead of adding to the choir, let us pause for a moment to mourn the passing of a few staples of the electoral season. There will be no more morning consultations with the statistical svengalis of; no more frantic conversations about voter turnout, or absentee ballots, or bellwether counties in Indiana that have never before failed to presage the identity of the president.

And, worst of all, no more Joe the Plumber.

By now, any introduction of the bald-headed celebrity is unnecessary. The unwitting Joe, a man so inept at expressing his own thoughts he challenged television viewers to call in and help him decipher what he himself had meant by a recent inflammatory statement, was largely perceived as the embodiment of Republican folly, a purported Everyman who, upon light scrutiny, was revealed to be not just ignorant, but inane.

But as disastrous as John McCain’s eager affiliation with Joe the Plumber turned out to be, the senator’s political instincts may not have been as dull as we think. A candidate now famous for lurching from strategy to strategy, McCain might have hit on the oldest trick in the book: no one stands out more than an ordinary man.

This is especially true for us Jews. Ordinary, unremarkable men and women have been among our heroes since at least 1812 B.C., when the original regular Joe appeared on the scene: Abraham.

While any comments belittling the father of our nation and the ancestor, arguably, of a large swath of humanity may appear gratuitously blasphemous, there is a mystery at the heart of this week’s parasha that is too great to ignore: why was Abraham chosen?

Just last week, reading about Noah, another man singled out for a divine covenant, we were told that the builder of the ark was “a righteous man” who was “perfect in his generations” and who “walked with God.” Little wonder, then, that when the hard rain began to fall, Noah was selected as humanity’s last, best hope.

But Abraham? Nada. As this week’s parasha begins, we’re told that the Lord speaks to him and tells him to leave his home and embark on history’s longest commute. But the Bible never bothers, as it did with Noah, with anything by way of exposition: we know very little about Abraham (or Abram, as he’s called before God gives him an extreme, divine makeover), and even less about why he, of all men, was chosen.

Sure, Jewish theology later addresses this topic, inventing legend upon legend in an effort to portray Abraham as a prodigy, a singularly devoted smasher of idols and performer of miracles. But that came later, hundreds of years after the Bible was reportedly written. And as every novice television screenwriter will tell you, tacking a complicated back story on to a character so late in the show is often a sign of a ratings crisis.

Nor do we get to see Abraham’s heroic side as his story unfolds. Sure, there’s the whole business with the sacrifice of his son Isaac”who, in this parasha, is yet unborn”but overall, the man we meet is as ordinary as anyone we may see on TV. We might call him, I don’t know, Abe the Herder.

Throughout the parasha, Abraham falls into mishap after mishap. There is, for example, a hilarious case of mistaken identity involving him, his wife, and the King of Egypt. There’s some rowdy romance with the maidservant Hagar. And there’s even a bodily act as graphic as anything we’re likely to see on cable television these days, the cutting off of the tips of the…anyway.

But it’s in Abraham’s very ordinariness that his significance lies. Unlike in other religions, our main guy is nothing special. He’s not God, or the son of God, or even the dude who walks with God. He’s an average Joe. He’s just like us. And unlike contemporary politicians who claim a similar mantle, Abraham rises to the occasion, becoming the first Hebrew and the father of monotheism.

When we read his parasha this week, therefore, let us not seek Abraham’s flaws but sing his praise. Let us find inspiration in his story, and believe that if a man like him received the ultimate divine honor, so, perhaps, can we all. And let us go easy on the poor, hapless Joes, no matter their shortcomings. Who knows, one of them may surprise us some day.

Liel Leibovitz is the author, most recently, of Lili Marlene: The Soliders’ Song of World War II. To put it mildly, he lacks the temperament for the rabbinate.

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.

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