Family and Community: Avraham Avinu as a Paradigm by Shmuel Bak


A closer analysis of the Pesukim found in Parashat Vayera and Chaya Sarah provides greater insight towards understanding the overall structure of a significant portion of Avraham Avinu’s life.  Overall, this structure consists of five seemingly haphazard events. However, upon closer inspection they all are connected and together express Avraham’s ultimate purpose.

          When Avraham Avinu descended to Egypt (20:2-18), he claimed that Sarah was his sister, in order to prevent his being killed and Sarah Imeinu from being taken to their king, Avimelech. Avimelech nevertheless took Sarah into his palace; Hashem subsequently came to Avimelech in a dream and told him he was going to die since Sarah was a married woman. In addition, the entire household was unable to give birth throughout the duration of Sarah’s stay in the palace. In response, Avimelech claimed that he was misled by Avraham’s claim that Sarah was his sister. Hashem responded to Avimelech, and told him to go return Sarah to her husband and ask Avraham to daven for him. Avimelech was successful in appeasing Avraham, and he convinced Avraham to pray on behalf of his entire household to rescind the punishment visited on them. This is the first of five connected events; when Avraham Avinu prayed on behalf of Avimelech’s household, he prayed for someone other than himself, and this was to have a major positive effect on his own life.

          Immediately following Avraham’s Tefillah for Avimelech’s household, the Torah recounts Yitzchak’s birth (21:1-8). Yitzchak’s birth, at first glance, was seemingly the result of countless years of Avraham’s beseeching Hashem to permit Sarah to conceive and give birth, and did not relate to the prior story in any way. However, on close inspection, we can see that Avimelech’s and Avraham’s households shared a common plight -- childlessness. And like Avimelech’s family during Sarah’s stay in the palace, Sarah too was unable to have children. Therefore, Avraham’s prayer for Avimelech’s household must have been largely connected with his Tefillah for his own household. As stated by Chazal (Bava Kama 92a), the moment when Avraham davened for an extra-familial cause, he not only affected Avimelech’s household, but his own as well. The Gemara understands that the juxtaposition of Avraham’s Tefillah for Avimelech’s household and Yitzchak’s birth teaches us that when one who asks for help on behalf of his friend and he himself is in similar need, he is answered first. We can further explain that as a result of this occurrence, Avraham Avinu experienced a stark realization about how his hopes and dreams connected to everything around him, and how everything was correlated, even when it might seem otherwise, and this can be seen in the subsequent story in BeReishit.

          After having navigated the Avimelech episode and the birth of Yitzchak successfully, Avraham found himself in a risky situation. Avraham Avinu, at the request of Avimelech, made a covenant with the Pelishtim to never deal with them harshly (BeReishit 21:23-24).  Chazal (cf. Gemara Sotah 10a) see this covenant as a terrible mistake perpetrated by Avraham, as it put himself and future generations in potential danger should the Pelishtim turn against him or his descendants, as they eventually would in the days of Shimshon, Sha’ul and David HaMelech. Having successfully dealt with Avimelech previously, Avraham thought only of the great possibilities that could emerge from such a deal, while unfortunately disregarding the negative potential outcomes of unfettered involvement with those around him.

           Rashbam (BeReishit 22:1 s.v. VaYehi Achar HaDevarim HaEileh) understands that Akeidat Yitzchak, which is found directly after the story of Avraham’s negotiations with Avimelech in Sefer BeReishit, was Hashem’s direct response to the prior story; Akeidat Yitzchak taught Avraham that such an action was a mistake, and that he should restrain his involvement with the outside world. Extending the Rashbam’s approach, Akeidat Yitzchak can be understood as a divine warning not to disregard one’s own family, even accidentally -- i.e., to not set up one’s descendants for failure by making far-reaching decisions such as forming a covenant with the Pelishtim. Yitzchak Avinu had to be put in mortal danger in order to teach Avraham that excessive involvement with the outside world can lead one into a very precarious situation. Hashem wanted to show Avraham that unchecked entanglement in the world’s affairs is not the proper path to take in life; a more balanced approach is necessary.

          Therefore, after all of these connected events, when Avraham requested burial land for Sarah from B’nei Cheit, he began to define himself in a seemingly contradictory fashion: as a “Ger VeToshav”, “a stranger and a dweller” (BeReishit 23:3). Avraham Avinu made it very clear from the description which he attached to himself that he had finally came to a full realization regarding his life goal and lifestyle; he was someone who dwelled in the midst of the B’nei Cheit, but at the same time he stayed apart from them, a stranger in their land. In doing so, Avraham modeled the kind of values the Jewish people aspired to attain in future years. Avraham Avinu’s experiences teach us that  we must always scale back our adopted national identity in light of our global identity as part of the Jewish people. At the same time, Avraham’s example teaches us that Jews should never forget that they are not meant to excessivelyly involve themselves with their surroundings, as he did with the Pelishtim, but rather should to a certain extent separate themselves. This is what is meant to be simultaneously a “stranger and a dweller”. Thus, in addition to teaching Avraham the valuable lesson of balance in regards to societal involvement, Avraham’s experiences serve as a beacon and an important lesson for all future generations of Jews as well.

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