20/929 The Birth of Jewish Continuity

This is a hopefully daily series of short reflections in English on the daily chapter of Tanach in the (wonderful, wonderful) 929 Project. The initiative, and the ideas and opinions expressed here, are my own. If you haven’t heard of 929, you can learn more at 929.org.il

A mundane story of misunderstandings mysteriously¬†holds the key to Jewish continuity. God promised Avraham the child who will continue his mission a full five chapters ago. So what’s the hold up? The rabbis have a fascinating insight.

The birth of Yitzchak is immediately preceded by chapter 20’s story of the encounter with Avimelech, reminiscent of the story with Pharaoh in chapter 12, but with some significant differences. Most striking, perhaps, is that in chapter 12, people speak to, but no one speaks with. Avraham speaks to Sarah, Pharoah to Avraham, but we never hear any response. In Chapter 20, on the other hand, there is real dialogue. God warns Avimelech, Avimelech responds with his own criticism, and God explains Himself. Avimelech criticizes Avraham, but also questions him, and Avraham responds. The dialogue begins harshly, but gradually softens, culminating with Avraham turning in prayer to God on behalf of Avimelech and his family. The midrash teaches suggests that it was this prayer, this ability to empathize with the suffering of an Other, and even one who caused great anguish, is what opens to door for Avraham and Sarah’s own prayers for a child to be answered. We often feel that the key to Jewish continuity needs to be a turn inwards, and even a certain closing off from the outside, and certainly there is truth and wisdom in this stance. But Avraham teaches us that, paradoxically, Jewish continuity can also be ensured by the confidence and faith that it takes to transcend our own needs and to turn outwards and beyond ourselves in prayer and action.

About the Author
Avidan Freedman is the rabbi of the Shalom Hartman Institute's Hevruta program, an educator Hartman Boys High School in Jerusalem, and an activist against Israeli weapons sales to human rights violators.