Torah Lights on Lekh Lekha

Torah thoughts from Efrat, Gush Etzion, in the Judean hills.

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Rabbi Shlomo Riskin,

Go out of your land, and from your kindred, and your birthplace and your father's house, to the land that I will show you."(Genesis 12:1)

Our Biblical tradition seems to live in a paradox between the universal and the particular, our obligations to the world at large and our obligations to our own nation and family. Is there a final resolution to the tension between these two polarities?

With Abraham, the paradox takes on an especially poignant human and familial dimension. At first G-d instructs Abraham, "Go out of your land, and from your kindred, and your birthplace and your father's house, to the land that I will show you" (Genesis 12:1). No introductions, no apologies, straight to the point: Abraham is to found a new family-nation in the specific location of the Land of Israel.

However, in the next verse the nationalistic fervor of going up to one's own land is somewhat muted by the more universalistic message of G-d's next charge: "...And in you shall all families of the earth be blessed" (Genesis 12:3). From this moment on, both of these elements - a particular nation guaranteed by G-d and the broader vision of world peace and redemption will vie for center stage in the soul of Abraham's descendants.

In the case of Abraham himself, it is the universalistic aspect of his spirit which seems the most dominant. He quickly emerges as a World War hero who rescues the five regional nations - including Sodom - from the stranglehold of four terrorizing kings.

Abraham is likewise desirous of continuing his relationship with Lot - even after this nephew and adopted son rejects the Abrahamic teachings and the Land of Israel in favor of Sodom - and even remonstrates with G-d to save the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Abraham is even initially against banishing Hagar and Ishmael, wishing everyone to find shelter under the Abrahamic umbrella.

The Midrash magnificently captures Abraham's concern with the world and world opinion in a trenchant elucidation of the opening verse in the portion Vayera, where the Torah records the moment of G-d's appearance to Abraham after his circumcision in the fields of the oak trees of Mamre (Genesis 18:1). Why stress this particular location, including the owner of the parcel of trees Mamre? The Midrash explains that when G-d commanded Abraham to circumcise himself he went to seek the advice of his three allies, Aner, Eshkol, and Mamre. "Now Aner said to him, 'You mean to say that you are a 100 years old and you want to maim yourself in such a way?' Eshkol said to him, 'How can you do this? You will be making yourself unique and identifiable, different from the other nations of the world.' Mamre, however, said to Abraham, 'How can you refuse to do what G-d asks you? After all G-d saved all of your 248 limbs when you were in the fiery furnace of Nimrod. If G-d asks you to sacrifice a small portion of just one of your limbs, how can you refuse?'"

Because Mamre was the only person who gave him positive advice, G-d chose to appear to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre" (Bereshit Rabbah 42).

What I believe is truly remarkable about this midrash is that it pictures Abraham as "checking out" the advisability of circumcision with his three Gentile friends and allies, in order to discover just how upset they would be by his unique and nationalistic sign on his flesh.

The paradox of the universal - inclusivistic versus the national - exclusivistic takes on the most serious threat to Abraham's equanimity in terms of his relationship to Sarah. We must remember that theirs is a union of love and genuine cooperation. Commenting on the verse,  ..." (Genesis 12:5), Rashi explains what it means to 'gather souls': "Abraham converted the men, and Sarah converted the women." They truly worked together as consecrated partners to accomplish the work of the Lord.

Indeed, Abraham is not only committed to Sarah, but seems to be aware of her higher gift of prophecy. When she, tragically barren after many years of marriage, suggests to her husband that he father a child with her maidservant Hagar, the text records "And Abraham hearkened to the voice of Sarah" - (Genesis 15:2) - suggesting that Abraham's role in this matter is entirely subject to the will of Sarah.

Yet despite Abraham's total devotion to Sarah in one area they differed strongly. Hagar may have been brought into the picture by Sarah, but when Sarah realizes that the behavior of her son Ishmael constitutes a serious threat to her family, Sarah is not willing to compromise: Hagar and her son must be banished.

Now since Abraham's vision wants to embrace all of humanity, how could he see his own flesh and blood exiled to the desert? An expansion of this theme and a quintessential expression of the dual world view held by Abraham and Sarah respectively, is found in the Tosefta of Tractate Sotah, (chapter 5), on the verse spoken by Sarah in this week's Torah portion: "...I was slighted in her (Hagar) eyes. Let G-d judge between me and you" (Genesis 16:5).

Our Sages in the Tosefta provide the following dialogue between Sarah and Abraham: "I see Yishmael building an altar, capturing grasshoppers, and sacrificing them to idols. If he teaches this idolatry to my son Yitzchak, the name of heaven will be desecrated, says Sarah. Abraham said to her: 'After I gave her such advantages, how can I demote her? Now that we have made her a mistress (of our house), how can we send her away? What will the other people say about us?" ('Habriyot mah omrot alainu?').

Sarah's position is indubitably clear. She is more than willing to work together with Abraham to save the world - but not at the expense of her own son and family. There is room to be concerned about the world - but not at the price of losing one's son and future identity.

Our identity as a unique people must first be forged and secured - and then the dialogue with and the redemption of the nations will follow in due course. G-d teaches Abraham that Sarah is right: "Whatever Sarah says to you, listen to her voice, for through Isaac shall your seed be called" (Genesis 21:12). Indeed, it is even possible that the subsequent trial of the binding of Isaac comes in no small measure to teach Abraham to properly appreciate - be truly committed to - his only son and heir Isaac