Like many names in the Torah, Abraham’s has a meaning that intersects with his biography and legacy. Before he was renamed Abraham, he was simply Avram – a combination of the two Hebrew words Av and Rahm.
Rahm has connotations of preeminence, loudness, prominence, primacy, assertion and height. Av is usually translated as “father” or “patriarch”. But is that the word’s root meaning?
The gemara states that there are four Avot of damages. There are similarly 39 Avot of forbidden labor on the Sabbath. Certainly neither torts nor creative labors have fathers. An av isn’t a literal “father” but a model, a prototype, an archetype – an idenity partially captured by the English-language term “progenitor”.
While there are many types of property destruction and injury, the gemara claims that each one can find its place under one of four overarching categories of damage. The scope of creative human labor is infinitely varied in its scale, goals and technique – but the gemara asserts that this grand field of endeavor (at least that part of it that’s forbidden on the Sabbath) can be subsumed underneath 39 fundamental categories of proto-labors that encompass everything else.
There are three Avot in the Torah: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They are not just forefathers or patriarchs – they are each unique archetypes of what a member of the Jewish nation can be. And of those three, Abraham is the av rahm – the preeminent prototype who molded the framework for the other avot.
What made Avraham the reigning archetype of the Jewish nation? I suggest that it ultimately came down to one critical element: his recognition that human beings aren’t supposed to be anywhere but this physical earth, and aren’t supposed to be anything other than the conflicted, mortal and physical beings that we are.
The perennial problem of ‘the religious quest’ – the human drive to figure out why we seem to experience so many things that don’t derive from the constituent elements of this world – is the unavoidable sense that is ultimately reached: perhaps this world is a mirage, or a cruel trick or sly test. Maybe it’s all a Divine experiment, a moral game and artistic mask.
Maybe the road to eternal life is to get beyond our petty and localized worries, our fears, loves and desires, and elevate ourselves into the pure and rarefied spiritual beings that we are sure (we think) constitute the “real” us…