Parashat Lekh-Lekha – Struggling with the Divine Ideal

וְאֶעֶשְׂךָ לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל

Parashat Lekh-Lekha is a seminal moment in Sefer Bereishit, and in the Torah as a whole, marking a narrowing of ‘א’s focus from a more universal approach to a much more particular one. Previously, ‘א was dealing with all of mankind, now he’s working with just one man and his family. The previous attempts to let humanity make something of itself had failed dramatically, always ending in punishment and exile. The punishment for mankind’s first failure was only relieved when ‘א concluded that mankind would not be able to merit the removal of the punishment on their own (Bereishit 8:21). Now ‘א has decided to do something new, to start over with an individual. The question this immediately obligates is why this particular individual. Of all the nations and all the people born since the flood (Bereishit 10, 11:10-26), why this particular individual? Why Avraham (then known as Avram)? Numerous answers have been given to this question throughout history, their great number resulting from the lack of any clear information in the text about it. Avraham’s story begins at the beginning of the twelfth chapter of Bereishit, the beginning of Parashat Lekh-Lekha, when ‘א simply begins to speak to Avraham, commanding him to leave his home and to go to the land of Canaan. Before this we only hear about Avraham as a member of his father’s house, as a character in Terah’s story. Due to this sudden command, most understandings of why Avraham was chosen build off the rich story and character that develop around Avraham in the ensuing chapters. However, Avraham presumably chosen due to being unique in some way, due to something special about him, and by looking at the details of his life in Terah’s house, we should be able to determine what this unique characteristic is, and in doing so determine something about what made Avraham right to be the new start of ‘א’s great project.

The story of the Tower of Bavel in the eleventh chapter of Bereishit is followed by a listing of the line of Shem, son of Noah, culminating in the household of Terah.

27 Now these are the generations of Terah. Terah begot Avram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran begot Lot. 28 And Haran died in the presence of his father Terah in the land of his birth, in Ur of the Chaldeans. 29 And Avram and Nahor took them wives: the name of Avram’s wife was Sarai; and the name of Nahor’s wife, Milcah, the daughter of Haran, the father of Milcah, and the father of Yiscah. 30 And Sarai was barren; she had no child. 31 And Terah took Avram his son, and Lot the son of Haran, his son’s son, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Avram’s wife; and they went forth with them from Ur of the Chaldeans, to go into the land of Canaan; and they came unto Haran, and dwelt there. 32 And the days of Terah were two hundred and five years; and Terah died in Haran.

There are numerous things that this depiction tells us about Avraham. We know from here that he was the son of Terah, that he left Ur Kasdim, that he was married, etc. However, none of these things are unique to him. Minimally, they are all shared by his brother, Nahor. What makes Avraham unique is one single characteristic: his wife, Sarai, is barren. The uniqueness of this situation is something that becomes even clearer when looked at in the broader context of the not just the genealogy of Shem at the end of Bereishit 11, but all of the genealogical tables that form the structure of the first 11 chapters of Bereishit, and of Sefer Bereishit as a whole[1].

The genealogical tables of Sefer Bereishit all share a basic structure, such as that which can be seen in the beginning of the line of Shem in Bereishit 11.

10 These are the generations of Shem. Shem was a hundred years old, and begot Arpachshad two years after the flood. 11 And Shem lived after he begot Arpachshad five hundred years, and begot sons and daughters. 12 And Arpachshad lived five and thirty years, and begot Shelah. 13 And Arpachshad lived after he begot Shelah four hundred and three years, and begot sons and daughters.

The genealogical tables are structured such that they introduce a person by way of how old they were when they gave birth to their primary successor, and then it says how many years they lived after that and that they had other sons and daughters. Then their primary successor is reintroduced by way of how old they were when they gave birth to their primary successor, and then it says how many years they lived after that and that they had other sons and daughters. With a few exceptions, this pattern repeats throughout the genealogical tables from Adam (Bereishit 5:1) through Terah (Bereishit 11:26). Then Avraham is introduced and the whole process seems to come to a screeching halt. There could not be a clearer message that Avraham represents a break with everything that came before him. Avraham is unique, he is something new, not because of something he has, but because of what he lacks.

Assuming that the lack of a child, particularly through his wife Sarai, is what makes Avraham unique and creates a common theme and background unifying many, if not all, of the events of Avraham’s life. Avraham twice travels to a kingdom where Sarai is threatened with a life married to the king. While this would be bad enough on its own, against the backdrop of Avraham’s childlessness, it takes on the added significance of a tangible threat to the woman who is supposed to give birth to the descendants that ‘א promised Avraham. Avraham’s nephew Lot serves as a surrogate child[2] filling this gap until Avraham is promised descendants of his own[3], surfacing and disappearing from the story, but always in the role of a potential inheritor. Then Avraham is visited by three messengers, and one of them tells them him that Sarai will give birth in one years time, a much more concrete promise than ever before. This is immediately followed by Avraham being told that ‘א is going to destroy Sedom and Gamorah, and it is up to him to decide if the fact that he does not need Lot as an heir will be a factor in whether or not he argues with ‘א to save Sedom. Avraham’s final narrative is Akedat Yitzchak, the Binding of Isaac. Avraham is commanded by ‘א to sacrifice the son he had finally received. An impossible task for any father, this test is heightened by the way it constitutes a rejection of everything Avraham had longed for all these years. These are just a few of the events of Avraham’s life that work off his being childless, a theme that is heightened dramatically by the counterpoint of ‘א’s promise.

Avraham’s story opens with ‘א promising that He will make Avraham a great nation (12:2). Then upon his arrival in the land of Canaan, Avraham is promised that his descendants will inherit the land (12:7). After Avraham and Lot part ways, ‘א again promises Avraham that his descendants will inherit the land(13:14-17). In Bereishit 15:4 Avraham is promised that his descendants will be more numerous than the stars of the sky. These promises and others highlight the constant tension of Avraham’s journeys, which start with the promise of giving birth to a nation (12:2) and finally ends when his son is married off (Bereishit 24) and when he gives birth to sons and daughters (Bereishit 25). Interwoven with these promises are tests that threaten the likelihood of these promises actually coming to fruition.

Avram is chosen because he feels a lack, a sense that things are not the way they ought to be[4]. Avraham’s journeys transform this into an extended experience of the tension between the reality of his daily life and the divine ideal of ‘א’s promise. It is this tension that brought Avraham to struggle with ‘א on numerous occasions. He challenged ‘א on the grounds that the only inheritor he had was the servant running his household (15:2), in clear contradiction to ‘א’s promise. Avraham was someone who was bothered by the disconnect between the way things are and they way they ought to be. This is further manifest when Avraham prays for Sedom, unable to comprehend how the “Judge of All Earth” could do such injustice (18:25). It is this inclination to struggle that made Avraham the right choice for the start of ‘א’s new project. Being in a relationship with ‘א means living with a constant awareness of the tension between ‘א’s ideal and the living reality, and struggling with that. However, being religious does not mean to give up on either half of this tension, but to embrace it in its entirety. This tension motivates us to try and do something to alleviate it, something to help reality along until it matches with the ideal. It should motivate us to “keep the way of the LORD, to do righteousness and justice” (Bereishit 18:19). To be religious is to be bothered, to struggle, to be dissatisfied with the imperfect nature of ‘א’s world. ‘א promised the forefathers children and yet their wives were barren, because ‘א wants the righteous to struggle with the fact that this world does not match up to what it could be[5]. The essence of faith is to remain dedicated to the divine ideal even when it seems like the real world remains stubbornly unchanged by our attempts at godliness[6].

[1] This is discussed by R’ Menachem Leibtag here. His arguments are not entirely compelling, but there is much he says that is undoubtedly correct.

[2] The idea that Lot would serve in place of Avraham’s children is raised in Bereishit Rabbah 41:5.

[3] Lot’s presence, which is almost painfully obvious when they are leaving Ur Kasdim (11:31) and Haran(12:4-5), is suddenly and mysteriously absent when they journey to Egypt (12:10), reappearing only after the threat to Sarai in Egypt.

[4] This is expressed by a famous midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 39:1) that depicts Avraham first discovering ‘א as a person who happens upon a burning city and is struck by the fact that the city must have a master who should be saving it and, when they voice this concern, the master (‘א) appears.

[5] Talmud Bavli, Masekhet Yevamot, 64a.

[6] Mishna Avot, 2:16

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