That Avraham Avinu had disciples goes without saying. From our early youth, we have probably all heard the understanding of Chazal of the pasuk (Bereishis 12:5) “ve’es hanefesh asher asu veCharan,” meaning those people Avram and Sarai had converted to monotheism. This understanding appears in standard Chumashim in Onkelus and Rashi, and is also present in numerous other sources. (Radak attributes Onkelus’s understanding to Bereishis Rabbah 39:21, and Chizkuni quotes a Gemara in Avodah Zarah (9a) which says that this pasuk marks the first stage of Mattan Torah. This understanding appears also in the midrashim of Pesikta Zutresa and Yalkut Shimoni.)
The peculiarity with this idea is the complete lack of reference to these disciples later on. If indeed Avraham had a crowd of ‘chassidim,’ we would expect to see them in future generations as well. Why do they appear only here? What happened to them?
It is perhaps precisely this issue that encouraged Rabbeinu Bachya here to add that we indeed see similar keiruv-like activity performed by Yitzchak and Ya’akov. He writes: “We similarly find that Yitzchak did this, in the midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 84:2) on the pasuk (37:1) ‘And Ya’akov settled in the land of his father’s ‘migurei,’’ [meaning] his father’s ‘giyurei’ [his converts]. This teaches you that Yitzchak would convert the nations. And similarly we find regarding Ya’akov (35:2) ‘And Ya’akov said to his household and all who were with him: ‘Remove all foreign entities which are in your midst.’’ Behold you’ve learned that all of the Avos followed this way, making irrelevant foreign worships and publicizing the faith [in] and the unity [of G-d].” (Approximate translation)
But our problem remains unsolved; what happened to Avraham’s followers? It is perhaps the case that the later Avos too assembled monotheistic groups, but where did Avraham’s crowd go?
One of the early rebbes of the Alexander dynasty, Rav Chayim Henoch, provided the following answer based on a theme we see consistently throughout the words of Chazal about Avraham Avinu. The worlds of Nistar and Chassidus focus extensively on the middos that characterize the different Avos. Avraham epitomizes chesed, Yitzchak gevurah, and Ya’akov tif’eres. Indeed, even in the more mainstream areas of Torah thought, Avraham is seen as being primarily a personality of chesed. Bereishis Rabbah (78:3) says that the Forefather called the “rachaman,” the compassionate one, is Avraham. The Gemara in Beitzah (32b) says that anyone who displays mercy toward others must certainly be of Abrahamic descent, and vice versa. Later on Hashem Himself states (Bereishis 18:19, particularly following the understanding of Seforno) that His reason for choosing Avraham is because of Avraham’s kind personality.
Perhaps it is the case, Rav Chayim Henoch suggests, that Avraham’s followers were not so much attracted to his message because of his ideas but because of his character. This thought pattern is not foreign to us – we hear variations of this story from ba’alei teshuvah frequently, and see it even in contemporary American politics. So often what we say means little compared to how we act and who we are.
As such, Avraham’s death left his followers not only bereft of their leader, but also of the very thing that attracted them to monotheism. Yitzchak was left to find followers of his own, because his father’s group had disbanded.