By Shlomo Riskin
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 God 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 God’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 God 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 that seems the most dominant. He quickly emerges as a world 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 God 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 God’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 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 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 God asks you? After all God saved all of your 248 limbs when you were in the fiery furnace of Nimrod. If God 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, God chose to appear to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre.” (Bereshit Rabbah 42)
This midrash 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. The two 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. 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.
Since Abraham’s vision wants to embrace all of humanity, how could he see his own flesh and blood exiled to the desert? An 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 God judge between men 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: ‘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 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. God 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.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.