This week we are introduced to Abraham. Abraham is the forefather of the three “Abrahamic religions” – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (in historical order). And reading the stories about Abraham, it indeed seems pretty clear that he’s more than just the forefather of the Jewish people. I’ll expand on this next week, since Vayera has some great passages that help tell a compelling story of Abraham has a pre-Jewish community/religious leader.
This parasha is full of juicy episodes which bring up many questions, but I want to focus on a relatively easy story from the opening of the parasha: “And the Lord said to Abram, “Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. And I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will aggrandize your name, and [you shall] be a blessing. And I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse, and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you.” And Abram went, as the Lord had spoken to him, and Lot went with him, and Abram was seventy five years old when he left Haran. And Abram took Sarai his wife and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had acquired, and the souls they had acquired in Haran, and they went to go to the land of Canaan, and they came to the land of Canaan.” (Genesis 12:1-5).
Growing up in an orthodox environment, I was always taught that these verses show us Abraham’s dedication to God — God tells Abraham to leave everything familiar to him behind – his land, his birthplace, his father’s house – and go into the unknown; Abraham, God’s loyal servant, acquiesces without protest.
As I was reading these familiar verses again this week, I was struck by the discrepancy between the actual text and this traditional interpretation of it. First, Abraham doesn’t leave everything behind; rather he takes “his wife and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had acquired, and the souls they had acquired in Haran.” Second, God promises Abraham some pretty desirable rewards: “And I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will aggrandize your name, and [you shall] be a blessing. And I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse, and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you.”
I think that we are sometimes given impossible standards of faith by our teachers and spiritual leaders, and that this is very harmful. We grow up thinking of Abraham’s faithful and selfless cleaving to God, and when we examine our own spiritual state we come up short. It is important to remember that Abraham also made a somewhat rational decision based on the options he had before him. He had faith in God’s promises, but he also left accompanied by whatever people and with whatever possessions he could to ease the transition. We shouldn’t learn from Abraham blind irrational faith, because that is not what he practiced, and that is not what we should strive for. As we are told in Parashat Nitzavim:
“For this commandment which I command you this day, is not concealed from you, nor is it far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us and fetch it for us, to tell [it] to us, so that we can fulfill it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us and fetch it for us, to tell [it] to us, so that we can fulfill it?” Rather,[this] thing is very close to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can fulfill it.” (Devarim 30:11-14)