In the Torah’s narrative we don’t learn much about Abraham himself. The Torah gives us brief glimpse and records small exchanges, but on the whole we are left to fill the gaps with the help of the Oral Tradition. The Midrash tells us much about Abraham, many stories that are not included in the verses, some stemming from allusions as slight as the name of a place. The portrayal of Abraham (initially Abram) depicts a man who is profoundly committed to the Lord he had discovered and to a life of serving Him. The legends of Abraham’s early life tell of intellectual searching and probing, culminating ultimately in discovery of monotheism as we know it. The stories tell of deep commitment and stubborn perseverance and self sacrifice. Later in life, the life recorded occasionally in the Torah, Abraham can be pictured in our minds as a man worn and weary, yet a sagacious man who deeply cares for others. His struggling and suffering through life only made him more steadfast in his faith and more sensitive to the suffering of others.
The Parsha begins by Abram’s journey from his extended family and acquaintances. His small household included his wife and his nephew Lot whom Abram had taken under his wing. He was already weathered by that time, having withstood enormous pressure over the years to conform to the pagan beliefs of greater society. He understood that in order to settle and raise a family with values and beliefs similar to his own he had to sever his ties to his birthplace and early home. He yearned more than anything else to establish descendants, a family who would continue this legacy he had started and follow the will of the Lord. G-d promised him that he would have many descendants in the new land he would come to.
This dream of Abraham wouldn’t materialize, it seemed. Years passed and he and his wife remained childless. He was tormented by trials and setbacks. Sara was abducted by the Pharaoh when they sought refuge from the drought in Egypt. Later, having established some wealth he had to part ways with his nephew Lot, the only member of his family he was still close to. We cannot help but picture Abraham as a very sad man. If we put ourselves into his shoes, experiencing the events of his life, we would be depressed. But Abraham was not a sad man. He was endlessly patient and loyal to the end. His namesake, Abraham Lincoln, suffered many setbacks in his life as well, and he was indeed a melancholy man for some of his life, but our forefather Abraham was not depressed as far as we know.
Abraham accepted his lot in life with no questions (for the most part). After his heroic campaign to save his nephew Lot from captivity, in which he salvaged also the nation and property of Sodom, G-d spoke to Abraham and told him not to fear and that his merit is very great. At this point Abraham noted to G-d that he had nothing. “What can you give me, my Lord, G-d, and I am childless. The inheritor of my household is my servant Eliezer. …You did not give me children…” (Genesis 15:2-3) G-d again assured Abraham that he would have descendants. Several times over the years Abraham is assured that he would have children. He grew older and older, the chances of this happening naturally ebbed away. In a valiant attempt to go the natural route Sara bid Abraham to take her maidservant as a mistress. They had a child, Yishmael, but he was not the seed that G-d had meant.
The Parsha concludes with Abraham almost 100 years old and still with no child. Again he is assured that he would have a child, and the child would come through his wife Sara.
Abraham had devoted the better part of his life to serving G-d and following His will. He overcame every obstacle and remained the battered but strong tree standing in the floodwater. His greatest desire, to bear children, was always just beyond his grasp but the carrot was always dangling in front of him as he was promised time and time again. Anybody else would have lost faith. Its simply not going to happen. All of the promises would have been in vain. The glorious future and the promised land, the multitude of descendants and their future success would have been a pipe dream for someone else. Ultimately the promise was fulfilled. We don’t read about it this Shabbat yet, but we’ve read the next chapter before. Abraham’s endurance paid off. His loyalty was rewarded and his greatest wish materialized.
Abraham is often referred to as the first Jew. If that is the case, his life and its tribulations are the prototype of the collective Jewish life experience. The Jew inherits the great struggles that Abraham contended with. The Jewish life, viewed both in its cosmic historic unfolding and its individual application, mirrors the life of Abraham. He chose that life, locking his descendants into a cycle of similar experiences. But the Jew also inherits from Abraham the great capacity to faithfully endure these same trials. The Jew’s ability to live one’s life dedicated to a cause with no immediate gratification stems from this great ancestor.
Many individual Jews, over the last millennium, but especially over the last century, have dropped off the bandwagon and have lost their association with their heritage. Nevertheless, the Jewish people as a body have demonstrated the Abrahamic tenacity of commitment, and we owe the setting of this pattern to our forefather Abraham. Just as Abraham had no give in him, never considered giving up his cause, we can be confident that whatever happens and whatever it takes, the Jewish people will remain committed as well. Every Jew today who considers oneself a Jew, every Jew today, having every opportunity and excuse for abandoning our heritage, and remains even loosely affiliated, is living testimony to Abraham’s strength of resolve. Especially in the Diaspora, where one can easily disappear into the wide melting pot of society, every person remaining affiliated is an Abraham.
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