The article below is from Rabbi Riskin’s book Bereishit: Confronting Life, Love and Family, part of his Torah Lights series of commentaries on the weekly parsha, published by Maggid and available for purchase here.
Parshat Lech Lecha: Nationalism vs. Universalism: The Struggle Within Abraham
Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin is the Founder and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone
“…and in you, all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:3)
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.
This tension is evident from the opening sentence of the Torah: ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.’ While it seems these words are a clear proclamation of universality, Rashi’s opening comment turns the verse on its head. He argues that the fact that the Torah begins with Creation has nothing to do with a grand universal vision, but rather everything to do with establishing Jewish rights to the land of Israel. He cites a midrash that says since God created the world, He can parcel out specific areas to ‘whomever is righteous in His eyes.’ This tension between the particular and the universal also permeates the High Holy Day festival period. The universal dominates Rosh Hashanah when we crown God as the King of the entire universe, and Yom Kippur when we declare,
…for My house (the Holy Temple) shall be called a house of prayer for all people. (Is. 56:7)
Further, the seventy sacrifices offered over the course of the festival of Sukkot symbolize our commitment to the welfare of all seventy nations. But in stark contrast, Shemini Atzeret signifies a more intimate and particularistic rendezvous between God and Israel, when the Almighty sends all the other nations home, wishing to enjoy a celebration with Israel alone. Simhat Torah, the added celebration of our having completed the yearly reading of the Pentateuch during this festival, merely emphasizes the unique and separatist significance of this holiday.
The tension is apparent in God’s dealings with Abraham. At first God instructs Abraham,
Go out of your land, and from your kindred birthplace and your father’s house, unto the land that I will show you. (Gen. 12:1)
There are no introductions or apologies. It’s 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, this ethnocentric fervor of going up to one’s own land is somewhat muted by the more universalistic message of God’s next mandate: ‘…And through you shall all families of the earth be blessed.’
From this moment onwards, both of these elements – a covenantal nation with a unique relationship to God and the universal 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 in the historic arena as a war hero who rescues the five regional nations – including Sodom – from the stranglehold of four terrorizing kings. Even after Abraham’s nephew and adopted son, Lot, rejects Abraham’s teachings, he still wants to continue his relationship with Lot, and even bargains with God to save the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. According to the Midrash, the ten righteous people for whom Abraham wishes to save these evil cities are none other than Lot and his family – even though Lot rejected Abraham (and presumably the Abrahamic way of life) for the greener and more permissive pastures of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham also initially opposed the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael – Hagar his Egyptian mistress whom Sarah gave her husband for the sake of enabling him to bear a child and who treated Sarah with derision, and Ishmael, who was the perennially mocking hedonist, interested only in immediate gratification (the metzaĥek) – apparently because this universalistic patriarch would have preferred a place for everyone 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 of Vayera, where the Torah records the moment of God’s appearance to Abraham after the patriarch’s circumcision in the fields of the oak trees of Mamre. Why stress this particular location, including the owner of the parcel of trees, Mamre? The Midrash explains that when God 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 one hundred 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 God asks you? After all, God saved all of your two hundred and forty-eight limbs when you were in the fiery furnace of Nimrod. If God asks you to sacrifice a small portion of only one of your limbs, how can you refuse?!’ Because Mamre was the only person who gave him positive advice, God chose to appear to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre. (Gen. Raba 42:14)
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 the introduction of this unique and nationalistic sign upon his flesh. The tension between the universal and the particular poses a serious threat to Abraham’s relationship with his wife, Sarah. It would seem that theirs is a union of love and genuine cooperation. After all, the very first time that the Bible mentions a husband choosing a wife
is in the case of Abraham:
And Abram and Nahor took for themselves wives; the name of the wife of Abram was Sarai…(Gen. 11:29)
Until that time, the women are generally anonymous, with all the ‘begetting’ seeming to take place because of the men alone [Gen. 5]! Hence when the Bible records:
And Abram took his wife Sarai…and all their substance that they had gathered and the souls that they had gathered in Haran…. (Gen. 12:5)
Rashi hastens to explain based on the Midrash, that to ‘gather souls’ meant that ‘Abraham converted the men, and Sarah converted the women.’ At least our Sages believed that they truly worked together as consecrated partners to accomplish the work of the Lord.
Indeed, Abraham is deeply committed to Sarah, and also 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 maid-servant Hagar, the text records ‘And Abraham hearkened to the voice of Sarah’ [Gen. 15:2] – suggesting that Abraham’s role in this matter was entirely subject to the will of Sarah. And if Sarah’s sug- gestion seems rather jarring and out-of-wifely-character to the modern ear, it is important to note that this was precisely the method of adop- tion practiced by the ancient Near Eastern world. The secondary wife would literally give birth ‘on the knees’ of the primary wife, causing the baby to be adopted by the primary wife ‘as if she had borne him.’
Moreover, Abraham assumes a purely passive role in the second marriage: ‘And Sarai the wife of Abram took Hagar her Egyptian maid- servant and she gave her to Abram her husband for a wife’ [Gen. 16:3]. This description belies the usual biblical formula for marriage: ‘When a man takes a woman….’ Yet despite Abraham’s total devotion to Sarah – all we have to do is consider the effort and expense he invests in the purchase of her permanent burial place in Hebron – they differ strongly in one area. Hagar may have been brought into the picture by Sarah, but when Sarah realizes that the behavior of Hagar’s son Ishmael constitutes a serious threat to her family, she is not willing to compromise: Hagar and her son must be banished.
Since Abraham’s vision wants to embrace all of humanity, how do we understand his willingness to cast his own flesh and blood to the desert? The Tosefta on Masekhet Sotah, commenting on the verse spoken by Sarah in Lekh Lekha: ‘…I was derided in her [Hagar’s] eyes. Let God judge between me and you,’ expands this theme and demonstrates how Abraham and Sarah held two very different world-views. The Sages in the Tosefta fill in the following dialogue between Sarah and Abraham:
‘I see Ishmael building an altar, capturing grasshoppers, and sacrificing them to idols. If he teaches this idolatry to my son Isaac, the name of heaven will be desecrated,’ says Sarah to Abraham. ‘After I gave her [Hagar] 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?,’ replies Abraham. (Tosefta Sotah 5:12)
Sarah’s position is crystal 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. She teaches us that our identity as a unique people must be forged and secure before we can engage in dialogue and redemption of the nations. God teaches Abraham that Sarah is right:
Whatever Sarah says to you, listen to her voice, for through Isaac shall your seed be called. (Gen. 21:12)
Indeed, one of the tragedies of life is that we often fail to appreciate what we have until we lose it – or almost lose it. It may well be argued that the subsequent trial of the binding of Isaac comes in no small measure to teach Abraham to properly appreciate – and be truly committed to – his only son and heir Isaac, who, in the final analysis, will carry on his traditions and life’s mission. And at the end of the day, nothing remained for Israel from ‘all of those souls whom they [Abraham and Sarah] made in Haran.’ The legacy of Abraham was carried on by one individual and he was Isaac!