Pinny Arnon

Avraham and Sarah and the answer to antisemitism

Throughout the first 99 years of his life, our first forefather was named Avram. At 99, God changed his name to Avraham, which is how he has been known throughout the ages. What is the significance of this change, and what does it teach us, his descendants, about our place in the world?

Avram is a compound of two words: “אב/Av,” which means father, and “רם/Ram,” which means lofty or elevated. For the first period of his life, Avram was in such an elevated spiritual space that it was as if he was beyond the world. This is a tremendously holy level, but one is unable to affect the world from such a removed, transcendent position. Hashem changed Avram’s name to Avraham, which means that he would become an “AV HAMon goyim/father of a multitude of nations” (Genesis 17:5).

The instruction inherent in this name change was that Avraham was no longer to dwell in the spiritual heights, but he was to descend into the depths of the world in order to elevate and illuminate it. He would do so by teaching the nations that there is one God, and that God is One.

Each of us, Avraham’s descendants, is here to engage with the world and to uplift it in this way. This is no easy task, and often the world seems to be unwelcoming of our efforts. Throughout history, there have been those who have battled against the morality of the Torah and the onus it places upon us to be civil and humane and to rise above our animalistic urges and tendencies. In response to such antagonism, we may therefore be inclined to seclude ourselves in our own spiritual retreat and leave the world to rise or fall as it will without us.

Yet in Avraham’s prior name we see an indication that this tactic of isolationism will never work. “רם/Ram,” the second half of Avram’s name is the same gematria  as “עמלק/Amalek” (the numerological value of both words equals 240). Therefore, when we remove ourselves in this way and thereby shirk our responsibility to the creation, we will find that the we are indeed “av ram”, the father of Amalek. That is, the only nation that is ‘fathered’ by such avoidant actions is the nation of Amalek, our sworn enemy who will always seek our destruction.

Seeing that we cannot succeed by avoiding the world, we may alternatively choose to abandon our ancestral ways and to assimilate with those who mistreat us in hopes that they will thereby accept us. But we are not here to merely fit in and to abandon ourselves to the currents and trends around us. We are children of Avraham and Sarah, and we are here with a purpose and mission.

Just as Avraham’s name was changed, so was there a change in the name of his wife, our first foremother, Sarah. Previously known as Sarai, which means “my princess,” she now became Sarah, which connotes the princess of all. No longer was her intense spiritual strength and vision to be reserved for her own family or her own people, but like her husband, she would now be charged with the responsibility to influence and inspire the world.

It is when we forget who we are and stray from our mission that the world resents us most. We are respected when we respect ourselves and our heritage. We are protected when we genuinely devote ourselves to the service that Hashem assigned us. We have nothing to fear when we share with the world the divine vision and wisdom with which we have been entrusted: we are all One, and there is Godliness buried in the core of each and every one of us.

From Pnei Hashem, an introduction to the deepest depths of the human experience based on the esoteric teachings of Torah.

About the Author
Pinny Arnon is an award-winning writer in the secular world who was introduced to the wellsprings of Torah as a young adult. After decades of study and frequent interaction with some of the most renowned Rabbis of the generation, Arnon has been encouraged to focus his clear and incisive writing style on the explication of the inner depths of Torah.
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