Friday, October 19, 2007

Who Was Abraham?

After Creation and the Flood, the Torah quickly gets down to business. With spellbinding detail, the Torah tells us the life story of an exalted and sensitive soul. It is a story of a poor refugee transformed into a prince among men; a story of power and honor; a story of dreams fulfilled, but yet, a story of trials, tragedy, and war. A man who changed the world and serves as a role model and a source of inspiration for Jews to this very day.

It is the life story of God’s beloved Avraham, the exemplar of kindness, the champion of monotheism, and the father of the Jewish People.

Avraham was the first of our three famous forefathers. His son, Yitzchok (Isaac), and Yitchok’s son, Yaakov (Jacob), complete the chain. Each of the Avot has a unique message, and together these messages form the ethical philosophy on which Judaism is founded. But the Avot do not lecture. Actually, they don’t say very much at all. It is only by studying their lives and their behavior as described by the Torah and the Midrash that we discover the principles they lived by. They communicate their message by personifying it.

The first message of the Avot, the guiding principle of our father Avraham, comes across loud and clear. Avraham stood for chesed, selfless giving and kindness. Apparently, the base of the foundation, the bedrock itself, is chesed. It is on chesed that all of Judaism must rest.

Chesed is the extraordinary idea of giving to others even that which they have not earned or do not deserve. This may be “unjust” in the strict sense of the word, but it is still divine. Creating and sustaining the world was a manifestation of God’s benevolence that Avraham recognized, appreciated, and taught, and he made it his mission to internalize and emulate that divine characteristic.

God knew this, but God was not satisfied.

No matter how righteous and spiritually conscious a person may be, as long as you are alive, God will prod you higher. God is always challenging man, and God’s challenges are custom designed. If Avraham recognizes God simply as the Giver, well, what will happen to Avraham’s faith when that perception is thrown into doubt? What if God tells you to go to Israel and when you finally get there, after traveling hundreds of miles, you find that you have arrived just in time for a severe famine (12:10)? What if your barren wife is kidnapped (12:15)? What if your orphaned nephew is taken captive (14:12)? And what if the supposedly loving God commands you to slaughter your own son (22:2)? What if, after everything you have done to educate the world about God’s love, the principle that you stand for is proven false? What do you think of God now?

God tested Avraham’s faith ten times (Mishnah, Avot 5:3), and our father Avraham passed every trial with flying colors. At the end of it all, God declares, “Now I know that you are a God-fearing man” (22:12). Avraham may have connected with the divine attribute of chesed, but He knew that, ultimately, man must submit before the unknowable, infinite God.

Avraham was on a mission to fix the world, and he waged a war against paganism and self-centeredness. He taught people about God (12:8,13:4) and succeeded in gaining a dedicated following (12:5). His open home (18:3-5), his unconditional love for every human being (18:23-33), and his unshakable faith inspired the masses, but there were pockets of resistance. Regimes of cruelty and terror existed, and their dictators were not exactly receptive to Avraham’s message.

The capital of corruption, the ultimate society of evil, was the infamous city of Sodom. “The people of Sodom were very wicked, and they sinned against God” (13:13). We’re not talking about human rights violations; we’re talking about institutionalized evil. Raping visitors was officially mandated (19:5-9; Bereishit Rabba 50) and kindness and charity to the needy was a capital offense, punishable by torture and death (18:21; Talmud, Sanhedrin 109b). Apparently, tourism and welfare were not high on the municipal agenda.

Throughout the twenty-four books of Scripture, Sodom is held up as the archetype society of cruelty, oppression, and sin (cf. Ezekiel 16:48-50; Lamentations 4:6; Isaiah 3:9). Sodom is the absolute antithesis of Avraham.

Avraham’s nephew, Lot, was a citizen of Sodom, and when Sodom was overrun and captured by invading armies, Lot was taken prisoner. Avraham responded immediately. He assembled an armed band of his followers and, with a surprise attack in the dead of night, succeeded in repelling the invaders and rescuing Lot. Sodom is now an occupied city in Avraham’s hands! (14:12-16).

The stage is set for a delightful Divine comedy. The Emperor of Evil, the exiled King of Sodom, who had somehow managed to survive the multiple invasions of his city, now has to face his nemesis. The poor fellow wants his city back. Irony of ironies! The tyrant who was so invested in the philosophy of self-centeredness, the man who believed charity to be a crime, now comes to Avraham asking for chesed! What a moment!

Expecting the worst, the King attempts to negotiate with Avraham: “Give me the people. You can keep the goods” (14:21). Avraham’s response is startling: “I have lifted my hand [in an oath] to God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth! Not a thread or a shoelace! I will not take anything that was yours. You should not be able to say, ‘It was I who made Avraham rich’” (14:22-23).

It is not wealth that Avraham is after. What Avraham wants is to make the most of this opportunity to educate the King of Sodom about the nature of chesed. Chesed can, unfortunately, be distorted by man into a tool for inflating a depressed ego. Man can give charity and then arrogantly claim that he has enriched the poor and saved the world. This is not selflessness; this is self-serving. The matrix of genuine chesed is the awareness that heaven and earth belong to God and everything we have was given to us by God as a free gift. We should recognize and emulate this Divine trait of chesed by selflessly sharing our God-given possessions and our time with others. That was the message of our great father Avraham.


  1. Awesome as usual!!
    Yashar Koach.

  2. This comment comes from Barry:

    thank you for your inspiring portrait of Avraham Avinu. The Malbim has an intersting interpretation of 14:23 which you cited, that I think beautifully emphasizes your point:

    The “IT”, according to Malbim, is Avram’s hand: “The word tomar (shall say) is third person feminine gender because the verse intends it to allude to the hand (hand, in Hebrew, being of the feminine gender)—as if to say, if I take any part of the spoils, it will be as if my hand had been victorious and achieved all this success—and it will say to me, ‘I have made Avram rich’…But this would not be true, since it was not my weak hand, but Hashem who had done all this…”

    Malbim links Avraham’s humility to Moses’ warning in parsha Ekev:

    “Beware that you do not forget Hashem, your G-d…lest you eat and be sated, and build goodly houses and dwell therein…and your silver and gold increase, and all that you have increases, and your heart grows haughty…and you will say to yourself, ‘My strength and the might of my HAND has accumulated this wealth for me.’ But you must remember Hashem your G-d, for it is He that gives you strength to make wealth…” (Devarim 8:11-18)

  3. In reading this commentary, I am reminded of a short story I wrote about two incidents in my life, with the characters being the same; myself and a friend.

    Late one night, we were leaving her house in San Francisco when she slammed the door, screaming "there's someone in the door way!". She bolted pasted me, up the stairs and tripped, and I crawled right over her, trying to get away from the perceived danger at the door.

    Another time, we were hiking and it was *very* hot. She left her water in the car and was as thirsty as I was, I'm sure. Though I only hesitated for a second, I felt surprised and a bit ashamed that I had hesitated at all. I had recently read a book about a man, hiking in the desert, who's hand was stuck under a bolder that had fallen on him. He had nearly died of dehydration, so I was conscious of the little water we had. In the end, I knew how, in my mind, I had car, with more water, was just a few short miles away.

    In the first scenario, I was acting on instinct, the second, I had time to think.

    How do you suppose Abraham would have reacted, how G-d would have judged him, and how he would reconcile his actions?