Five Rashis a Week, Parshat Lech Lecha: Being Avraham

Periodically, the Orthodox world sees some brouhaha over whether we are speaking too disrespectfully of the giants of Jewish history, showing too many of their faults or humanizing them too much. The Rashis that jumped out at me this week show that Avraham’s life had many ordinary human complications, without touching on the question of whether he himself erred or was less than perfect.

Day to day, Avraham didn’t have the luxury of himself as Avraham Avinu, basking in his future glory. He had the challenge of meeting each situation as best he could. It was the way he met those challenges, one by one, that made him the founder of our people. Let’s see a few.

Religion as a Relationship with God

As Avraham and his family leave for Canaan, 12;5 notes they took with them הנפש אשר עשו בחרן, the souls they made in Charan.  Rashi first gives the Midrashic explanation that this means the people they brought under the wings of the Shechinah, Avraham converting the men, Sarah the women.

The imagery of a God with spread wings, ready to cover all those who come under them, reminds us that converting people to monotheism, at bedrock, is about showing them where they can find shelter from the storm of life. We get caught up in religion as a system, as a set of practices, as a culture, as a way of life, and there are both good and bad reasons for that. This phrase of Rashi’s reminds us that Avraham and Sarah focused on the fundamental point of all religion and religious activity—taking ourselves back to the sheltering Presence of our waiting Creator, the only source of true protection and true guidance as to how to live our best lives.

Separating Men and Women

The second piece of that half of the Rashi teaches what I have long found to be a powerful comment about the value of making certain activities gender-separate. Rashi doesn’t explain why, but it seems to me he is implying the complications of cross-gender relationships. Especially in something as sensitive as remaking one’s worldview, the fewer outside issues brought into play, the better. One way to do that is to take sexuality off the table in these processes.

I would like to leave it there, but for the fact that current events might make it seem like I am commenting on those events. I am not– I am making a more general point about gender separation, which many would see as a way to keep women in their place. But Rashi doesn’t say Avraham converted the important people and Sarah the women.  If the Queen of England wanted to convert to Judaism, Rashi’s system would have Sarah guide it.

On the other hand, Avraham would have handled any man’s conversion, even the most socially insignificant one. It’s not that men do the important work and women the less important, it’s that conversion (and other areas of life) were so sensitive, it was more productive to have the sexuality question removed from the start (this is one of the best arguments for yoatsot halachah, that they allow sensitive questions of halachah to be handled in a way that removes any gender discomfort).

But that’s not only a way to allow women to feel comfortable—it also suggests that there will be activities among men from which women should refrain, or set up their own activities that are all women. Nor does Rashi say here (he may have believed it, but it’s not a necessary corollary of what he says here) that all activities have to be gender-separate. Avraham and Sarah’s model (and their encounters with the Egyptians in this parsha) reminds us of how easily sexuality can become disproportionately present in our interactions, and the necessity of doing that which we can to avoid it. In some situations, that means having gender-separate activities.

Building a World

Rashi recognizes that that’s not the simple meaning of the words “the souls they made in Charan.” Where slavery exists, people acquire people, and that’s the most literal reading of the verse, that they took with them all the slaves they had purchased. Rashi then offers two verses to support the contention that עשה, to make, is used in Scripture to mean to acquire or gather.

We do that in English as well, speaking of how much a person makes a year, for example. But that’s not an obvious locution—why should earning be equated with making? I can’t prove it from here, nor do I have the time to bring sources to support this claim, but I suggest that the verb tells us that what we acquire in life, what we gather in our possession, is also a kind of making, is also a way in which we shape the world around us.

For some, it’s art or music recordings or books, for others it’s corporations or lawsuit or types of healing. In all of that, what we gather, what we put together, forms a sort of mini-world that we have made. The same is true for the slaves we buy, in such a world: we pick those slaves based on criteria that vary from slave owner to slave owner, and each owner treats his or her slaves differently, shaping the slaves, shaping themselves, and shaping their social circle.

Not that we should go back to slavery, but the lesson still applies: what we buy, what we “make,” is more than the collection of items we need in life. It’s one of the ways we show the world who we are and what we value. For Avraham and Sarah, it was people and how they treated those people.

We live in world that has decided slavery has no redeeming qualities, but that clearly wasn’t true of their world (as we see from Avraham’s relationship with Eliezer). In acquiring souls, even in the mundane sense, Avraham and Sarah built relationships, surrounded themselves with people rather than objects, human connection rather than materialist pleasure.

Famine and Infertility, the Life of a Patriarch

12;10 says there was a famine in the Land, and Rashi infers that it was in that land only, to test whether Avraham would complain about having to leave the land so soon after having been told to come there. Later in the parsha, the verse notes that Sarah offered Hagar to Avraham after ten years of their living in Israel. Rashi comments that ten years is the time period after which a couple must realize they have not merited having children together (that is a too-brief phrasing of a complex halachic issue, but it is not our issue; I am not pretending I have captured any of its nuances); the clock on Avraham and Sarah only started once they arrived in Israel, because that was where Hashem had promised Avraham children.

So if you’re Avraham, we see from Rashi, you live through a famine directed at you, to test your reaction, you and your wife go through lengthy infertility struggles, and more. And the expected response is to take what Hashem gives and remain faithful to Hashem, continue to try to further Hashem’s Name in the world, to bring others under the sheltering wings of the Divine.

That’s what it means to be a Partriarch.

And What It Means Not to Be

When Avraham and Lot part company—because their shepherds could not get along, for reasons we can’t delve into here—Lot chooses the plain of the Jordan, 13;10. The Torah pauses to describe it as a garden of God, like Egypt, all the way to Tzoar. Rashi notes that it had trees, like the Garden of Eden, it had plants, like Egypt, but then adds a Midrash that the cities of this plain were like the Egyptians in that they were שטופי זמה, soaked in sexual immorality.

That’s a phrase Rashi uses only three times in his Chumash commentary, and always about the Egyptians. Rashi on 13;13 interprets the Torah’s saying that the people of Sodom were very bad and sinful to Hashem to mean they acted evilly with their bodies, with their money, and did it knowing what they were doing, intent on rebelling against God.

Lot chooses that as a place to live. Before we judge him too harshly, we should remember that the physical conditions were great. Yes, his neighbors were so evil they would eventually be destroyed in fire and brimstone raining down from heaven, but the weather and the view were unbelievable.

It sounds ridiculous when we read it like that, but it’s a set of choices we see people make all the time, choosing a city or neighborhood because they found the right house, or they have a few good friends there, or it’s close to work, reassuring themselves that they will be different, they will not be affected by their neighbors’ actions or morals.

The track record for success in that regard is not good. If we live in Sodom, we absorb some of the outlook of the people of Sodom, often without realizing it.

Og in Pshat and Og in Drash

When the four kings come to battle the five kings and take Lot captive, 14;13 tells us that a refugee from the battle came to tell Avraham what had happened. Rashi first quotes Tanchuma to Chukkat, which identifies the escapee as Og, since he is identified in Devarim 3;11 as the only leftover of the Refaim, a race whom these four kings had defeated before they took on the five kings.

Then Rashi adds that, midrashically, Bereshit Rabbah 42;8 says this was Og who was left from the generation of the Flood, reading the Nefilim of 6;4 as the Refaim. It’s Midrashic because it makes his lifespan hugely longer than we would otherwise suspect, and because the Torah doesn’t equate the Nefilim and the Refaim.

But if the answer is Og in both cases, why bother telling us the Midrashic version? I can imagine many answers to that question, which would build off of different pictures of the Refaim as opposed to the people of the Flood. For me, it’s enough to notice that Rashi is concerned with differentiating that which we know from the plain sense of the text, guided by other texts in Scripture (it is the plain sense of the text to identify Og as the refugee, since Scripture elsewhere identifies him as the lone survivor of the Refaim) and what we know more Midrashically.

This is even as Rashi often reminds us that he will only cite those Midrashim that accord with the words of the text. He’s walking a fine line, between literal and plain sense on the one side and readings disconnected from the text on the other, with text-sensitive Midrash in the middle. They all have their role, but Rashi wants to be sure to keep track of which is which.

What Allows Us to Be Happy

In 15;15, Hashem promises Avraham that the travails of the 400 years of exile will not touch him, that he will come to his forefathers in peace, will be buried בשיבה טובה, in a good old age.  Rashi wonders at the value of coming to his forefathers, since they were idol-worshippers, and answers that this shows that Terach repented (note that coming to monotheism is also teshuvah, repentance).  He’ll be buried in a good old age for a similar reason, that Yishmael will repent, and Esav will not yet abandon his heritage. (For Rashi, that explains why Avraham dies at 175, not reaching Yitzhak’s 180—Hashem took him five years early, so that he not have to see his grandson take the turn to be Esav).

Rashi assumes that being buried with forefathers who are idolaters is no pleasure, seeing his descendants move off the path of worship of Hashem (or fail to return to it) ruins the peace of his life. Others’ choices, over which Avraham has no control, will still disturb the peace of his life. We today hear people speak of how inappropriate it is to let what others do affect us that way, but Rashi disagrees.

He is reminding us that to care about Hashem’s Presence in the world is to be hurt by seeing others deny it. Whatever the culpability of the people involved, there would be no joy in being buried with an unrepentant idolater, with leaving a world when one’s own child having abandoned God. The comfort for Avraham is he will leave the world while none of that is true. He will be buried with a father who did return to God before dying, will have seen a son repent and return, and will miss the tragedy of Esav’s abandonment of his family tradition.

Being a Patriarch: building a world of faith even while suffering famine and exile; maintaining relationships with those who reject your ways, hoping for their return, unable to be at peace until and unless they return; knowing that you will pass away with only promises that it will get better, eventually.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.
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