“Abraham complained to Avimelech about the water well that his servants had wrongfully seized. Avimelech responded, ‘I was unaware of this, you never told me of it, and I heard nothing about it until now’” (Gen. 21:25-26). His answer is unimpressive. It assumes no responsibility. It actually shifts blame to Abraham for failing to inform him earlier of the iniquity. Yet, Abraham immediately responds by making a covenant with Avimelech (Gen. 21:27-32). Why does Abraham overlook Avimelech’s unimpressive conduct in favor of establishing such a covenant?
Abraham is keeping faith with his larger project – establishing permanent roots in the land of promise. Ownership of land covenanted by God is geopolitically strengthened by a mutual commitment between Abraham and Avimelech. This is too important to be disrupted by miscommunication or irresponsible leadership. Note that they establish not a contract but a covenant.
Earlier this Fall the Head of New York’s Trinity School sent shockwaves through the city’s elite private school system by calling for a complete overhaul in how his school educates more responsibly. John Allman’s back-to-school letter drew heavily from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ juxtaposition between covenants and contracts. Contracts involve self-interest and mutual advantage. Covenants are about moral commitments and are held together not by legalese, but by loyalty and faithfulness. Contracts are about what we gain; covenants are about what we give.
Victimhood is contagious today. North Korea, Iran, Antifa, neo-Nazis all claim they are victims. Groups now self-define around common allegations more than around common dreams. This epidemic of group victimization – aside from degrading freedom’s responsibilities and beyond turning dark very quickly – actually devalues authentic victims. Importantly, the current #metoo exposing of sexual abuse and harassment will hopefully help real victims process their pain and diminish the objectification of women. And when we focus less on this week’s New York City terrorist, and more on the victims whose lives were ruthlessly cut short, we degrade the motive of the killer. Obsessing on a terrorist’s mindset can have the unintended effect of feeding an obsession with the claims of pathological victimhood.
Abraham specializes in covenants with God and with neighbors like Avimelech. Why? Because just as covenants establish commitments between partners they can also school partners for growth. Avimelech’s impressive conduct later in the Torah (Gen. 26) demonstrates moral maturity. May the covenants we embrace grow moral beauty and nourish faithfulness.