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Lech Lecha begins the great saga of Abraham that takes up a few parshot in our Torah. I want to ask you a question about this saga, at face value, when you look at the Abraham story, it just looks like a bunch of disconnected vignettes. God appears to Abraham, says leave your home behind, you are going to start a great nation. Okay, wonderful and then he hangs out on Egypt a little bit because there’s a famine, Sarah is almost taken, they get out of Egypt, they have a lot of wealth and then there is this fight that develops between the shepherds of Lot and the shepherds of Abraham and so Lot and Abraham split up. Meanwhile God comes back and reiterates a promise that we already knew, Abraham is going to have a land and he is going to have children and it all is going to be wonderful but if I was paying attention, I already knew that and then how interested are you in ancient Mesopotamian history and military conquest? There is this was between four kings and five kings and Abraham gets involved and God helps Abraham and then Abraham goes into a deep sleep and here is about Egypt, meanwhile he gets the promise again that he will get land and children, I mean what’s going on here? Some of the themes are repetitious but most of the themes are just, they are not even connected with each other, it is just a bunch of short stories. So, is there actually a story here, what’s the Abraham story is about?
So coupled with that question, I think you have to ask this, if it really is one story, might there be some sort of central issue that Abraham is struggling with, throughout all these little vignettes? Is there a thread that weaves through the whole saga? What might be Abraham’s central struggle?
And I think we can identify such struggle and once we have identified it I think we will find the common thread that works its way through these stories and mix them together, so such that it really is a saga and not just a bunch of disconnected stories. That thread is legacy. What will be Abraham’s legacy?
God comes to him in the very beginning and promises that he is going to be a father of a great nation. What exactly does it mean, he is 75 years old, his wife is infertile, both of them are well past child bearing age, what exactly does this mean? Who will be his children, where will this great nation come from but I want to argue with you that it is really even a little bit deeper than that. It is not just that God has promised Abraham this great nation and yet, it seems impossible. It actually goes to the very reason why Abraham was chosen at the first place.
Why was Abraham chosen? Who was he, what made him special? This is something I have addressed in detail in a series of videos about the book of Ruth. What I am going to do is summarize these central thesis of what I have said there, I really do recommend that you look at those videos though because the proof of everything really comes from there. Also I would like to refer you to an audio series in our site, that takes the themes that I am about to talk about and really, really elaborates them with all the textual evidences and all the nuances. The series is called ‘Abraham’s journey’ but let me cut to the chase and give you the central thesis of those videos and that audio series.
We revere Abraham as the first monotheist in the world, the discoverer of monotheism, the iconic smashes his father’s ideals but the Torah doesn’t tell us any of that. The Torah just tells us 6 verses before Lech Lecha, before God comes out from the cloud and says, ‘it is you, you are going to be the father of this great nation’. There are 6 introductory verses at the very end of Parshat Noach. If you look at those verses. At first glance they don’t seem to be telling you anything remarkable. They seems to be just a mix of travel, trivia and who married who and what happened but if you look at them carefully, something crucial happened. Abraham was one of the three brothers. Abraham, Haran and Nahor and then, Haran dies. Young and at the life time of his father and immediately after that Abraham seems to lead Nahor in a great act of kindness. He and Nahor take wives, the daughters of Haran. This evokes a law much later on in the Torah and the law of yibum marriage which says that when a man dies childless, it is a Mitzvah upon the brother to marry the widow of the deceased and have children and those children will perpetuate the name of the deceased. Here too, it seems like something like that is going on, not exactly the same but it seems like Abraham is engaging in an act of yibum. He is trying to keep alive to expand, to magnify the threatened legacy of Haran. So he and Nahor marry the daughters of Haran and the children that they have will continue the name of Haran. It is a kind of sacrifice that Abraham is making, to be concerned about the legacy of his brother, the shame, the name of his brother.
This is especially important because it comes right after the tower of Babel, the central scene of the tower of Babel also had to do with legacy. Naaseh lanu shem, the tower builders said, ‘let us make a name for ourselves’ but it was a narcissistic attempt to make a name for themselves. The tower is our name and it is all our legacy and when you build a name for yourself and that’s the only thing that you care about, it just crumbles in on itself. It is building name for another and that’s the magic. That’s what Abraham is about, perpetuating the name of his threatened brother Haran who died young. God, after the tower says that’s what I need, I can use somebody like that. And Abraham is chosen to build a nation that’s devoted to this great ideal, to worry about others deepest concerns, to worry about the shame of a brother, to bring God’s name into the world. Abraham’s greatness is that he has shown the ability to not being narcissistically self-focused. I like that, I am going to make your name great and there lies the central tension in Abraham’s life, ‘How do I balance this?’ his mission is devotion to the threatened name of another and yet, his promise is, I am going to make your name great and the question of legacy is now in front and center. Where will this nation come from? What does that even mean for me to be the father of a great nation?
Here is where you cannot read the story with the end in mind. One of the things that messes us up sometimes when we read the Bible is that you already know what’s going to happen, you know he is going to have this child, Isaac and it is going to be miraculous and all that but God didn’t tell Abraham that in the beginning, all he said was, ‘You are going to be the father of a great nation’. So what does that mean to you? The truth is, it doesn’t necessarily mean that Abraham is going to be the biological father of the nation, he never said you are going to have a child, in the beginning. George Washington was the father of a nation too. Not the biological father of the nation. We refer him as one of the forefathers, his vision of the nation. So, if you are Abraham maybe it’s just the…. you are going to be a charismatic person and if you actually look that explains something because in the very beginning what does Abraham do when he leaves? Vayikach Avram Sarai ishto, ‘He takes Sarah as his wife’, ve'et-Lot ben-achiv. ‘Ahhh, he does have somebody who can carry on his legacy’. That somebody is not actually a biological child but it is his brother’s child and Lot grows up in his households. Plus, ve'et-kol-rechusham asher rachashu, ‘He’s got stuffs for beginning of a nation’, there are human resources, there are also capital resources. You need to have a nascent economy. So, he takes all of his stuff with him. ve'et-hanefesh asher-asu veCharan, ’Plus, he’s got other people too, who traveled with him’. So he’s got the beginnings of a nation. That’s his picture, we know it is not going to happen that way but does he know it’s not going to happen that way?
Now, let’s fast forward a little bit. There is a famine in thee land, Abraham goes down to Egypt, he comes out with great wealth. Kaved me’od bamikneh bakesef uvazahav, ‘He is really a rich guy now’. So stop, if you are Abraham now, what do you think? Well, it is really going well, you know? God promised that I am going to be this nation and then I got all these wealth, I have got my trustee Lot with me, we are good. What happens next?
Trouble on the horizon. Vegam l’Lot haholech et-Avram hayah tzon uvakar v’ohalim. Lot is also kind of wealthy and then? A dispute erupts between the shepherds of Lot and the shepherds of Abraham. Velo-nasa otam ha’aretz lashevet yachdav, ‘they couldn’t dwell together’, hayah rechusham rav velo yachlu lashevet yachdav, ‘they had so much stuff, they couldn’t sit together in the land’. A dispute erupts and at that point Abraham tells Lot, ‘we got to go separate ways. You go your way, I will go my way’. Vayivchar- lo Lot, Lot chooses, et kol-kikar haYarden, ‘the Jordan valley’, Vaye’ehal ad-Sedom, he pitches his tents on stone. Ve’anshei Sedom ra’im vechataim l’Hashem meod, ‘the people of stone were terribly wicked in the God’s eye’. Why do I need to know that now?
Whole chapters later that becomes relevant, when the city of stone is in fact destroyed but why do I need to know now that the people of stone were wicked? Because that’s telling you something about the story now. It is important for you to understand that Lot chose to go to a place where there were terribly wicked people.
What does this do to the plan that Lot is going to carry on Abraham’s legacy, ‘The nation is going to come through him’. Not only are these men not together but where is Lot now? He is on the most wicked place on earth. Interestingly, at this very moment, va’Hashem amar el-Avram, and God said to Abraham, acharei hipared-Lot meimo, after Lot left. Notice the emphasis on the text ‘After Lot left’, after Abraham was willing to let go of Lot, sa na einecha, lift up your eyes, ure'eh min-hamakom asher-atah sham, ‘and look where you are’, tzafonah vanegbah vakedmah vayamah , ‘north, south east and west’. Et-kol-ha'aretz asher-atah ro'eh lecha etenenah ulezar'acha ad-olam, ‘The whole land that I am going to give you, I am going to give it to all of your children, forever.’ A deepening of the promise. North, south, east and west as far as the eye can see to the horizon, expansion in the space, expansion in time. I am going to give it to all of your children, forever. The promise has been deepened. Why – Abraham has acted with great faith. God has promised him that he is going to be the father of a nation but where is it going to happen? His plan isn’t working out, it is not going to be through Lot, right? He is just trusting God. So God says I love you, you are really trusting me but don’t worry, we are on this great magical journey together, it is going to work out and then, we get to the war of the four kings and the five kings.
It is not about ancient Mesopotamian history. It is about the story, the development of Abraham’s nation because if you are Abraham, word gets to you. Lot has been taken as part of this war. Abraham through the help of God, succeeds in vanquishing the opposing armies and plucking Lot out of Armageddon itself. And at that moment, if you are Abraham, what are you saying to yourself now?
Remember, you do not know the end of the story. You say, ‘Baruch Hashem! Look at the provenance, by let go of Lot but really it was only because I was going to have Lot back. I see the hand of God, he helped me win this war. God thank you so much for giving Lot back, now I get how we are going to get this great nation’. And then, what happens? Lot makes a choice and he willing goes to the king of stone and that’s it. Lot is out of Abraham’s life.
Can you imagine a more devastating thing, you saw the provenance only to have the door slam on your face and at that moment, God speaks to Abraham one more time. Achar hadevarim ha'eleh, after these things and the Torah points out that Abraham is still trusting God, he is still holding on to this promise and he has no idea how it is going to happen. Look at this man of faith! After these things, hayah dvar-Hashem el-Avram, God comes out of the clouds and tells him, al-tira Avram, ‘don’t be afraid, it is all going to work out fine’. Anochi magen lach scharecha harbeh meod, ‘your reward is beyond measure’ but now, Abraham is like reached a breaking point. Listen to the words he says, Hashem Elokeicha, ‘My lord,’ mah-titen-li, ‘what can you possibly give me?’ Anochi holech ariri, ‘I don’t have any children’. Ben-meshek beiti hu Dammesek Eli'ezer, ‘The only one I have left is what, my servant Eliezer from Damascus like this is it, we are down to Eliezer’ And then, look what happens.
Vayomer Avram, and then Abraham said but stop right there. Abraham was the last one talking. God didn’t say anything but that’s the whole point. There was just long silence. God wasn’t really ready to say anything and then, Abraham speaks again and says the same thing as before. Hen li lo natatah zara, ‘you didn’t give me any children, God!’ you say I am going to have this reward, what’s it going to be? Vehineh ven-beiti yoresh oti, ‘it is down to my servant, is it really where we are at?’ and then God comes to him and says for the very first time, lo yirashecha, ‘it is not going to be him’, asher yetze mime'echa hu yirashecha, ‘those who come from you biologically, they are going to be the ones who inherit. You, you old man, you are going to have a child.
It is the first time, Abraham gets this news, that realization that they will have a biological child, is a turning point in the story. It sets up the next great series of chapters in Abraham’s life, the next great challenge in Abraham’s life, a challenge legitimized by the birth of Ishmael and by Ishmael’s ultimate expulsion, we will talk about that when we come back next week.
1. Bereishit: Thank You, God...For Not Making Me A Woman?
2. Noach: Why Aren't Dinosaurs In the Torah?
3. Lech Lecha: The Battle For Abraham's Legacy
4. Vayeira: Abram, Sarai, Hagar, Ishmael and...Exodus?
5. Vayeira: Epilogue
6. Chayei Sarah: Eliezer and Samuel's Surprising Connection
7. Toldot: What Is Isaac's Legacy?
8. Vayeitzei: Understanding Rachel's World
9. Vayishlach: From Jacob to Israel
10. Vayeishev: Does God Speak To Us Today?
11. Miketz: Reversing the Sale of Joseph
12. Vayigash: Understanding Pharaoh's Dream
13. Shmot: Does God Really "Love" Us?
14. Va'era: Seeing God in Science
15. Bo: God's Justice In Action
16. Beshalach: Fruit Trees In the Sea?
17. Beshalach: Epilogue
18. Yitro: Seeing Ten Commandments in the Burning Bush
19. Mishpatim: Does Our History Become Laws?
20. Mishpatim: Epilogue
21. Terumah: Angels In the Tabernacle? Part I/2
22. Tetzaveh: Angels In the Tabernacle?- Part 2/2
23. Ki Tisa: A Closer Look At Kiddush
24. Vayakhel-Pekudei: God In Space, God In Time
25. Pekudei: A Giant Chiasm In Sefer Shmot
26. Vayikra: How Can We Relate To Sacrifices Today?
27. Tzav: A Deeper Look At The Priestly Role
28. Tzav: Epilogue
29. Shemini: What Does Aaron Teach Us About Loss?
30. Tazria-Metzora: Rejoining the Community
31. Acharei Mot-Kedoshim: Social Justice...and Sacrifices?
32. Emor: An Epic View of Jewish Holidays
33. Behar-Bechukotai: Walking With God
34. Bamidbar: Why We Count
35. Beha'alotecha: Where It All Went Wrong
36. Shelach: How Can We Relate To Such a Vengeful God?
37. Korach: Why Did Korach Rebel?
38. Chukat: Why Did Moses Hit The Rock?
39. Balak: What Is Israel's Purpose In The World?
40. Pinchas: What Is True Leadership?
41. Matot-Masei: The Art of Negotiation
42. Devarim: What Did Moses Do Wrong?- Part 1/2
43. Va'etchanan: What Did Moses Do Wrong?- Part 2/2
44. Eikev: Why Does The Nation Of Israel Merit The Land?
45. Re'eh: Why Do We Need Both Oral and Written Law?
46. Shoftim: The Significance of Saving Private Ryan
47. Ki Teitzei: How To Merit Long Life
48. Ki Tavo: The Pursuit of Happiness- Part 1
49. Nitzavim: The Pursuit of Happiness- Part 2/2
50. Vayeilech: Moses' Farewell To Israel, Part 1/3
51. Ha'azinu: Moses' Farewell To Israel, Part 2/3
52. V'Zot Habracha: Moses' Farewell To Israel, Part 3/3
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