Our first glimpse of Abraham is as a new Oleh who didn’t complain.
“The Lord said to Abram, “Go forth from your county, from your birthplace, from your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1)
Midrash Tanchuma noted that this ambiguity of where to go made it an even harder test.
“Unto the land that I will show you (Genesis 12:1). The Holy One, Blessed Be He, did not mention any specific place. This indicates that this was a trial within a trial”
The Promised Land did not start out so promising
When Sarah, Abraham, and his nephew Lot finally get there they encounter a severe famine. Abraham could have said “there was nothing in the glossy brochure from the Jewish Agency about famines” But he said nothing. They headed down to Egypt, only to face an even more horrific incident.
At the Egyptian border the tax collectors were taken by Sarah’s beauty and had her taken to Pharaoh. Midrash Tanchuma provides a striking insight into Egyptian culture based on the proclamation of the tax collectors
“Truly, she is not meant for a commoner.”
It seems that beauty was not the right of every citizen. All the more so a beautiful woman who was seen as an object that is only befitting of royalty. For such a society, with so little regard for human dignity, it should come as no surprise that they embraced slavery.
What happened to Abraham happened to the Jewish people
Indeed, the Midrash lists all the similarities between Abraham’s travails and those of the Jewish People. Abraham goes down to Egypt because of a famine, and so does Jacob and his sons. The kidnaping of Sarah is seen as a foreshadowing of our enslavement in Egypt.
G-d protects Sarah and they are asked to leave the country. Abraham and Sarah returned to the Land of Israel but his nephew settled in an even more unscrupulous country – Sodom. When Sodom is on the losing side of a world war Abraham’s nephew is taken prisoner. Abraham rescues Lot by defeating the victors of the war which, according to Midrash Tanchuma, made Abraham the de facto ruler of the world.
Abraham – A lottery winner who discarded the winning ticket
When Abraham is offered great wealth, he declines. He publicly declares that he wanted his wealth to be seen as a blessing from G-d and not from the spoils of war:
I will not take so much as a thread or a shoelace of what is yours; you shall not say, ‘It is I who made Abram rich.’ (Genesis 14:23)
The obvious question is – why can’t the spoils of war be G-d’s way of blessing Abraham with wealth?
G-d acquiesced to Abraham’s free choice
In fact, Midrash Tanchuma says that G-d concentrated all the world’s wealth in the hands of a few rulers so Abraham, as the victor, could collect this great wealth. Yet once Abraham turned down the money and sanctified G-d’s name, the Midrash lists many rewards that the Jewish People enjoyed from this selfless act. So, in a theological paradox, it seems that although G-d wanted to enrich Abraham through his military victory, G-d was pleased with Abraham’s choice to put the sanctification of G-d over the accumulation of wealth.
Among the rewards that the Jewish People received for Abraham’s selfless act are two laws that relate – in a literal sense – to Abraham’s use of the term “shoelace.” (“I will not take so much as a thread or a shoelace”)
These 2 laws in the Torah that the Midrash lists (Yebamah and Halitzah) are related to a Levirate Marriage. When a man dies childless, his brother is encouraged to marry the widow. He can decline to marry her in a ceremony that involves the widow removing her brother in law’s shoe. (She can also decline).
Why are these particular commandments considered a reward for Abraham’s action? Perhaps because The Torah asks the deceased man’s brother to act selflessly for the sake of his brother and raise a child that would continue his brother’s legacy:
“…that his (brother’s) name may not be blotted out in Israel” (Deuteronomy 25:6)
This is exactly the kind of selfless act that Abraham did for someone he considered like a brother – his nephew Lot.
“When Abram heard that his brother had been taken captive, he rallied his followers, born into his household, numbering three hundred and eighteen, and went in pursuit as far as Dan.(Genesis 14:14)
A huge sanctification of G-d or a colossal missed opportunity
While Abraham is praised for refusing the spoils of war, one opinion in the Talmud criticizes him for not seizing the moment and becoming a powerful ruler who could spread his spiritual message of Monotheism to the masses. After all, this was the offer that the King of Sodom made to Abraham:
“Give me the people, and take the spoils for yourself.” (Genesis 14;21)
Abraham could have replied “No, you keep the spoils and I’ll take the people.” The Talmud goes so far as to say that because of Abraham’s misjudgment, the Jews had to be enslaved in Egypt:
“Rabbi Abbahu said in the name of Rabbi Elazar: For what reason was Abraham our Patriarch punished and his children enslaved to Egypt for 210 years?…Rabbi Yoḥanan said: He was punished because he prevented people from entering under the Divine Presence…” (Talmud Nedarim 32A)
Great people make mistakes
The Talmud does not offer any excuse for Abraham’s choice because the Talmud is committed to the unrelenting pursuit of truth. It does not play politics or favoritism. Nobody gets a break. Even our forefather Abraham.
Whatever the case may be, in this Parsha and the two that follow, a portrait emerges of an extraordinary human being. Our Forefather Abraham, the father of many nations and faiths, discovered on his own that there was only one G-d. A feat almost too immense to fathom. Perhaps this Midrash sums it up best. Although this statement describes every convert to Judaism, it is all the more true of the very first one:
Simeon the son of Lakish declared: A convert is more precious to the Holy One, Blessed Be He, than those who stood at the foot of Mount Sinai. Why is this so? If those who stood at the foot of Mount Sinai had not experienced the thunder, the flames, the lightning, the quaking of the mountain, and the sound of the shofarot (rams’ horns) , they would not have accepted the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven upon themselves, whereas the convert, who witnessed none of these things, takes upon himself all the obligations required by the Holy One, blessed be He, and takes upon himself the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven. Is there anyone more precious than this!