The tragedy we are experiencing as a people sadly was presaged in Abraham’s journey into the land of Israel. Abraham was promised the Land, but years later was still without a home, not even having a child to inherit him. At a moment of doubt, Abraham asks God, “How shall I know I shall inherit the land? (Gen. 15:8). Abraham’s question still resonates for us all, even and especially today. Despite the fact the Jewish people have survived thousands of years, Jewish peoplehood might be experienced as provisional, given our feelings of vulnerability and the vicissitudes of history. Despite God’s promises, Abraham felt insecure and uprooted. If we had imagined that the Zionist project was to overcome this deep anxiety, recent events have rudely and brutally proved that wrong.
One would have thought that at the moment Abraham turns to God for some certitude, God would have assured him. Instead, Abraham falls into a deep and terrifying slumber and is given a vision of a horrifying future. God does give him certitude, but not the type of certitude for which Abraham had hoped. “You will surely know that your offspring will be foreigners in a land not theirs, and they will enslave them and afflict them for four hundred years” (Gen. 15:13). The number is significant -a multiple of forty, representing a period of transformation. Putting aside the problem of Biblical chronology, the Torah is essentially telling us that Abraham’s immediate family will in fact not inherit the land, but only after a period of transformation in a land not their own. Only after, only then, will they finally possess the land, coming out with ‘great wealth’. Abrahams complete life and mission seems to hang by a thread, a promise of some distant future. Four hundred years for most of us might as well be four thousand years.
However, this section of the Torah, known as the Berit ben HaBetarim, the covenant of the pieces, becomes a foundational text in the Passover Haggadah, forged during another period of suffering and upheaval. The Haggadah assures us that the model of suffering and redemption, descent and ascent, destruction and rebirth is the paradigm for the Jewish people for all time. We live Abraham’s story again and again and again. “And it is this (the covenant of the pieces) that has stood by our ancestors and for us. For not only one (enemy) has risen up against us to destroy us, but in every generation they rise up to destroy us. But the Holy One, Blessed be He, delivers us from their hands.” In the context of the Haggadah, the message is to give us hope; the story of the Exodus tells us that the course of history can change on a dime, and that ultimately justice will prevail. Holding on to this hope, Hatikvah, has always been the key to Jewish survival. We need to hold on to this hope now, as it feels like the ground has collapsed from beneath us.
Yet, throughout the centuries commentators have considered the descent into Egypt itself. If Abraham was promised the land, why did he need to leave in the first place. On a more global level, why do we continue to suffer in what seems like this endless cycle. Many religious answers have been given over the centuries, but I would like to share one with you that is provocative and radical. I do not think I would have the gall to make such a claim, if not that the Talmud records this view.
To understand the rabbinic midrash, a little background is required. According to rabbinic legend, Abraham came to the knowledge of a God of justice and kindness in the fortieth year of his life. Wherever he went in his native land of Haran, he taught this new religion at great risk to himself. At the age of 70 he made the trip to the land of Israel. The Torah tells us he brought with him not only his family, but ‘the entourage of souls he made’ (12:5). While this probably refers to his many servants, the rabbis notice the semantic awkwardness of the phrase, and say that the ‘souls that were made’ refer to converts, those who ‘were brought under the canopy of the Divine’ (Rashi ibid.). The Hebrew root asah– to make- is invoked because to bring someone close to God is almost like creating a totally new personality with a new value system. The implication here is that Abraham was not merely involved in a private family religion but bringing his truth to the entire world. What happened to these people we do not know, but we do know that wherever he went, he would build an altar to God and dedicate the altar in God’s name. (See for example 12:7. 12:8, 13:4, 13:18.) If this is true, Abraham’s story was not initially about a family or a tribe, but a movement that began in his native Mesopotamia and continued into the land of Canaan. Indeed, when Abraham entered Canaan, the Torah underscores that Sarah (then Sarai) was barren. While God said he would become a great nation, how he would become that nation is not yet explained. Perhaps Abraham understood that the ‘great nation’ would be those who would follow his lead, as well as those who were in the land itself. It is in this sense that he saw his nephew Lot that accompanied him into the Land; his nephew would lead the next step in history.
Yet Lot disappoints Abraham deeply, by joining the corrupt and evil people of Sodom; the text is very clear that Lot was pursuing his own economic self-interest. Not only had Lot not followed in Abraham’s way, bringing others under his wing, but Lot was seduced by the immorality and materialism of those around him. Very soon after Lot’s separation from Abraham, God informs Abraham for the first time that he will have a child from his own loins, and the great nation promised will come from his descendants. How this will happen, given Sarah is barren is not revealed.
Implied therefore are at least two models as to how Abraham’s promise of a great nation will be materialized. One would be through his progeny, which we might expect, but the other would be through the transformation of the native population.
The Torah continues with describing a great battle between two alliances of Canaanite kings, one being led by the king of Sodom and Gomorrah, Bera and Birsha (both names derived from ra and rasha, meaning evil). The town of Sodom is conquered and the people taken hostage and the riches plundered. Upon hearing his kinsman Lot is among the hostages, Abraham takes actions and is able to rescue Lot along with the city of Sodom. Abraham amasses plunder and people. At this stage, the King of Sodom comes to Abraham, and bargains with him. “Give me back the people and you take the plunder,” he says. Abraham, disgusted by the king, refuses to keep the plunder lest people say that he benefited from this corrupt ruler. In essence, he does not want to be sullied by the corruption around him. He returns everything- people and plunder- to the King of Sodom. Each go their separate ways.
Immediately after this narrative the Torah introduces the narrative under consideration, wherein Abraham has a vision he will descend into a land not his own. Noticing the juxtaposition between the two narratives, the Talmud makes a radical and striking claim. “And Rabbi Yohanan said: He [Abraham] was punished [with the descent into Egypt] because he distanced people from entering under the wings of the Divine Presence, as it is stated that the king of Sodom said to him: ‘Give me the people and take the goods to yourself’ (Genesis 14:21) [and Abraham agreed to return the people.]”
How exactly is the future slavery in Egypt a punishment for Abraham’s failure to bring the Sodomites closer to God?! It is a perplexing claim, but only if we fail to notice the common denominator. Abraham was punished by becoming the perpetual outsider, the object of persecution. Being the outsider, he will eventually go down to Egypt as a stranger and will ultimately and be required to conquer the land. However, perhaps the Rabbi Yochanan is staking a different claim, that there was another way. Perhaps if Abraham had ultimately embraced the Sodomites and ‘brought them under the Divine Presence’, he would have never been an outsider in the first place. On the contrary, the entire city would have also embraced the values of Abraham, which would have in turn influenced other cities, until all the peoples accepted Abraham’s values. As mentioned above, in this way Abraham would have become the great nation, by transforming the very spiritual and moral fabric of the people around him. However, fearing their corruption, seeing the impact it had on his own family, and skeptical of the potential for change, Abraham allowed these people to return to a kingdom defined by Godlessness, corruption and immorality.
If my reading of Rabbi Yochanan is correct, he is suggesting that history could have unfolded in a very different way. Abraham was true to his beliefs, but not true enough. He doubted whether they were compelling enough to change the hearts of Sodomites, or alternatively doubted their capacity to change at all. At least in the eyes of Rabbi Yochanan, Abraham failed to complete the revolution he began, the revolution of changing the heart of humanity. For this reason, Abraham continued to be an outsider in a world indifferent to his values. For this reason, his descendants were to suffer, just as any vulnerable population suffers at the hands of those with the values of Sodom, a culture that consolidated power unto themselves and despised the stranger- a culture very much like their future Egyptian oppressors.
The standard of Rabbi Yochanan is very high, perhaps even impossible to achieve, for the ultimate revolution of the Jewish people is not a will to power, but ultimately to effect a revolution of the heart, to bring all people’s under the sovereignty of the Divine, to collectively become a ‘great nation’. Recent events awaken us in the most terrifying of ways how far we are from this realization. Indeed, there are people who continue to see us as strangers in a strange land. This is certainly true in the State of Israel, but it is also true in the diaspora, where we are the objects of anti-Semitism. Jews remain the ultimate outsiders. It is hard at the moment to even imagine that the heart of evil could ever change, that Sodomites could ‘enter under the canopy of the Divine’. Nonetheless, at the same time as we battle evil, this rabbinic reading reminds us that there will be a stage in human history where the collective hearts of humanity can change. We may not believe this claim at this particular historical moment, but to be a people of hope, we need to continue to believe in the capacity for civilizations and peoples to change, including our own. We need to hold on to the convictions that not only Jewish values can change the world, but also that someday people will change.
At the end of the prayer Aleinu we say “on that day (the messianic age) God will be one and God’s name will be one. Even in the midst of battling the forces of darkness which we must destroy, let us continue to hold on to the faith in that day, the day in which we all realize we are children of the same God.