Rabbi Israel Chait
Maimonides states in his Laws of Idolatry that Abraham was quite young (some suggest three years of age) when he started recognizing God, and pondering His existence. Having worshipped idols himself, but then realizing the contradictions in such practices, Abraham was yet a youth, considering these matters day and night. Over time, he realized the idolaters were gravely mistaken.
Then, Abraham wrote responses to the idolaters and debated with them, but not until he was 40. Although possessing far greater knowledge then they had possessed, for decades, Abraham abstained from entering into debates with others until he fully concluded his thinking process, and attained clarity on the issues he pondered. Maimonides teaches that a poor answer is worse than no answer at all. Influencing people thru truth requires the educator to give over an entire subject matter: a conclusive series of arguments. To effectively present a “system” of truths, an incomplete or poor presentation mars the appreciation intended for the student – the goal is forfeited, and even worse, the student assumes the teacher to possess a flawed system. This would greatly decrease or perhaps even remove the student’s ability to ever recognize this system at a later date. The student would thereby suffer the greatest loss: he would never come to an appreciation for the Creator, and His system of knowledge and providence over mankind. Therefore, Abraham patiently studied all matters until he attained crystallized concepts. Only then did he venture out into society, and take on the idolatrous cultures with well-formulated responses, only attained over decades of analysis driven by his yearning to know truth.
Two times in his life, did Abraham engage in debate: 1) in Ur Kasdim, and 2) in Charan. Charan was a major platform. He went from kingdom to kingdom, and called in God’s name in many cities. Abraham dealt with others on an individual basis, offering them arguments against their corrupt philosophies: each person according to his own, subjective level. He also wrote many books addressing the flawed views these cultures defended.
However, Abraham’s real success was not in Ur or even in Charan. He only succeeded in attracting his 10,000’s of followers once God’s providence stepped in. Abraham’s philosophy continued thru Isaac, until it was almost lost by the time the Jews left Egypt.
Each morning we recite the blessing of “Sanctifying God’s name”:
“You are the one (who existed) while the world was not yet created. You are the one from when the world was created. You are the one in this world, and You are the one in the world to come. Sanctify Your name by those who sanctify Your name, and sanctify Your name in Your world. And with Your salvation, raise up, and exalt our horn. Blessed are You, God, who sanctifies His name publicly.”
This blessing reiterates the truth, that the Jews are the people given the task to sanctify God’s great name. But it is only through His providence that we may do so. We learn this from the Torah’s omission of Abraham’s initial successes prior to God’s intervention, and we learn this from Revelation at Sinai. It was this Sinaic event where God’s providence intervened in human affairs, directing the descendants of Abraham to study and observe His Torah, and educate the world on His existence, His Oneness, and His truths.
Maimonides: Only Certain Individuals Knew God
Noah’s son Shem recognized and taught about God. Shem established a house of study in B’aire L’chai Roh-ee. We learn when the twins (Jacob and Esau) violently wrestled within Rebecca, that Rebecca went to the study hall of Shem to gain some insight as to why her pregnancy deviated from the norm. What was Rebecca intent on learning? Why did she go here specifically? Upon Eliezer’s successful return from locating a wife for Isaac, the Torah tells us that Isaac too was returning from B’aire L’chai Roh-ee. What Isaac was doing there?
Previously, when Hagar fled from before Sarah, she named the well where the angel appeared, “B’aire L’chai Roh-ee”. We now arrive at the initial event, from which we may derive the significance attributed to this place. What is this significance?
Rashi states that Hagar had witnessed God’s providence while in Abraham’s house. But now exiled, she never expected to see providence outside of Abraham’s house. Hagar, as an individual, no longer comprised Abraham’s mission and was surprised to witness an angel of God, i.e., God’s providence. (Gen. 16:7) Hagar named that God who spoke to her at the well, “The God Who sees.” (Gen. 16:13) The Torah explains why she gave this name, “ …for she said, ‘for also further I see, after I have seen’.  Therefore the well was named, ‘The Well of the Living One Who is Seen.” Hagar states that she saw God’s providence “again”. After having seen it Abraham’s house, Hagar again witnessed God’s providence via His angels. What is the lesson?
Yonasan ben Uzziel explained the name of this place as, “One Who sees, but is not seen.” What does this name mean? Hagar’s naming of this place on account of a new providential event teach this: “You are the One who has true existence. Here was revealed the providence of God.” Hagar praised God. She admitted of the idea that no human knows when providence will take place. She assumed providence was limited to Abraham’s mission. But now, Hagar recognized that His providence provides for every “individual”. She experienced God’s intervention, His providence, even away from Abraham’s house. Providence for God’s mission for Abraham to establish the Jewish nation was not the only type of providence. Thus, Hagar identified two distinct roles in which God’s providence relates to man, 1) providence for mankind (Abraham establishing a nation, and 2) providence for individuals. The idea Hagar spoke of, “He sees but isn’t seen”, refers to providence outside Abraham’s mission, that is, “How God’s providence extends to every individual.”
Simultaneously, Hagar demonstrated through her very surprise at God’s intervention that man cannot know when and where God’s providence will step in. In contrast, most people incorrectly feel they “know” when God is in their lives. But as Yonasan ben Uzziel explained, the name means “One Who sees, but is not seen.” “Is not seen” means that man cannot predict God’s methods of providence.
Isaac too came from B’aire L’chai Roh-ee, where Shem was. Shem’s house of study was established precisely in this location, as this was the goal of Shem’s study hall: to study God’s providence for individuals. Shem’s study hall embodied the truth uttered by Hagar. Therefore he established his study hall in the very place where Hagar had expressed this very truth.
Why did Rebecca go to Shem’s study hall? As we stated, Shem taught about God’s providence for individuals. Rebecca didn’t think her pregnancy was anything more than a personal crisis, not on par with God’s mission for Abraham and Isaac to establish the Jewish nation. Therefore she sought understanding about her “individual” case: she felt it was a personal and private problem. However, it was then revealed to her through prophecy that her pregnancy was not a personal matter. Her abnormal pregnancy was an act of God’s providence over the nation, not the individual.
Both Isaac and Jacob learned at Shem’s study hall. Why? To fulfill their roles as forefathers of the Jewish nation, they required knowledge of God’s providence for the individual. To pass on to Israel the traditions and teachings of Abraham, this “individual providence” was required learning. Abraham’s knowledge concerned providence for mankind, while Shem’s knowledge centered on individual providence.
We learn that on his journey from his home to his uncle Laban, Jacob lodged at Shem’s study hall for 14 years. This teaches that Jacob required 14 years of knowledge of God’s providence over individuals, so as to become the establisher of the tribes. This level of knowledge was acquired at Shem. Only then, did the providence relate to Jacob to establish the tribes. Such a long duration of study teaches that God’s methods of providence require long and deep study. The patriarchs all required a level of in-depth study, in order to accomplish their goals: this study was “God’s Providence to individuals.”
It was asked, “Why did Isaac have to spend so many years in blindness?” The answer was “to give the blessing to Jacob” So why could he not be temporarily blind? We must appreciate that God’s providence is not a simple matter. For some reason, Isaac required this degree of blindness. If Isaac had a condition that led to his blindness, and God did not remove it, it was necessary for God’s plan. It was not a punishment, as it says, “To give the blessing to Jacob”. But we may investigate this mater further.
Moses did not lose his vision. (Deut. 34:7) He knew that beyond a certain point, he could not know. This is the meaning of “…and Moses hid his face” (Exod. 3:6) stated in connection with his encounter with the burning bush. Because of this, Moses merited to attain the highest level of prophecy ever experienced. Moses understood when a matter that was greater than his abilities. However, Isaac tried to understand that which was beyond his abilities. When Abraham was about to sacrifice Isaac, Isaac pondered how God could first tell Abraham “For in Isaac will your seed be called”, and then Abraham should be commanded to kill Isaac. Isaac sought an understanding for this contradiction in God’s words.
The Medrash states that Isaac’s blindness was due to the angel’s tears falling into Isaac’s eyes as he was bound on the altar. How do we understand this Medrash? The angels represent “ultimate knowledge”. Their “tears falling into Isaac’s eyes” metaphorically alludes to something greater than Isaac (angels) causing a negative (blindness) in Isaac. Thus, Isaac’s very attempt to overextend his inquiry into areas greater than his abilities had a negative effect on him. He became blinded. God’s initial promise of Isaac being a successor would not come to be. This knowledge affected Isaac, i.e., blindness. However, this very blindness helped direct Isaac to review his act, and repent from trying to gain knowledge, which surpassed his abilities. Another Medrash also teaches that Isaac lacked the knowledge concerning how the providence over Abraham works.
We learn that God designed two types of providence, 1) providence over mankind, and 2) providence over the individual. Hagar understood that God granted His providence over Abraham for the sake of mankind. But Hagar was then exiled from Abraham’s house. She did not assume she would experience providence, unless connected somehow with God’s influence over mankind. After experiencing God’s intervention at the well, Hagar now learned of this second type of providence.