This week begins the saga of Avraham and Sara and the origin story of the Jewish people. It all begins with Avraham receiving and following a command from G-d to leave his homeland and to travel into to a land still unrevealed.
As we begin the section of the Torah that deals with our holy forebearers it is interesting to note that the great sages on whom we rely to pierce the holy cloud that surrounds the most sacred are split on how to discuss the biblical personalities. On the one hand, Ramban (Nachmanidies 1194-1270) uses very sharp language, saying that Avraham sinned when he left the Land of Canaan for Egypt. He says Avraham should have had more faith that G-d would save him from the hunger the land was experiencing. He says Avraham was wrong for asking Sarah to disguise the true nature of their relationship, and that Sarah sinned a great sin by the way she treated Hagar. The Ramban called it like he saw it, even if it was critical.
Rashi, (1040-1105) on the other hand, is never critical of our forefathers. He would rather use the midrash’s revelation of hidden meaning in the text, or assume some dialogue happened “off stage,” to justify their behavior. In keeping with the tradition of the Talmud and Midrash, Rashi is not critical of the great personalities unless the Torah itself reveals a negative judgement.
Though I can’t prove it, I wonder if the difference in approaching the text is based on a difference in approaching our spiritual heroes. On the one hand, if these were people who lived, and worked hard, and made mistakes, and were sill spiritual giants then they might just be relatable enough for you and me to glean something from their lives. On the other hand it seems almost inconceivable that the people describes as The Chariots of the Divine, and whose merit we invoke in times of crisis still today, and whose mystical impact is still present in our spiritual DNA, could be regular people.
I understand both perspectives and I tend to vacillate between them each year as I approach the text. But for right now, I want to imagine Avraham being asked to take The Road Less Traveled. His life has reached a place where two roads diverge. On the one hand, G-d has asked him to leave home and has promised him not just a legacy, but that he would be a great nation. On the other hand, everything. Safety, familiarity, security, family – whatever he had was going to be risked. There had to be doubt in his mind. Couldn’t he do much more if he stayed where he was, where some people knew him. Afterall, he had some followers already, and probably the movement would grow. But, even knowing how way leads to way, and even if he doubted he should ever come back, Avraham embarks on this journey.
He arrives uneventfully in the Land of Canaan and G-d appears to him (the first he only spoke to him! This is a promising sign!) and says that this is the land he will give to Avraham’s children. Everything is reassuring. It’s not just a promise of a nation, now it’s the promise of children! And land! He’s done the right thing and he knows it. Avraham starts preaching and teaching and bringing others into the Cult of Monotheism.
And then, suddenly everything goes dark. Famine. Despair. Everyone is leaving. Avraham is torn. Should he stay and keep pushing on or should he do what people were doing and go to Egypt? And maybe worst of all, G-d is silent. There is no guidance from above. No hint of what to do next.
If I were Avraham, I would start wondering if I had messed up. What did I do wrong to make the train go off the rails? Things were clicking and now there weren’t. Did I somehow do something that was unworthy? And if I did do something that caused a fall from grace, then maybe I don’t deserve to stay here and wait for a miracle. Maybe I need to conduct myself like the regular folk and migrate to where there is food. (Violence and immorality, sure. But also food.) But beyond that, I wonder if Avraham thought that perhaps this Road Less Traveled that he chose had just come to a dead end. Maybe it was all over. And then when Avraham feels compelled to compromise his integrity in explaining is relationship with Sarah, and when she is STILL taken captive despite his best effort to conceal her, his sense of not just loneliness, but alone-ness must have been profound.
Avraham is famous in rabbinic literature as being the Ba’al Chessed – the Master of Kindness, and that he certainly was. (As they say in improv – yes, and . . .) Yes he was the Master of Kindness and I think that his greatness is his ability to have faith when everything rational says to give up. The tests that Avraham faced were not like Yosef’s test to resist the sexual advances of Mrs. Potifar or David’s test with Batsheva. Avraham’s test were about his ability to have faith when common sense and logic demanded a different course. The test of leaving home, of this famine we discussed, of sending away Lot, of sending away Yishmael, of the Akeidah (the binding of Isaac) these were all situations where G-d’s own promises seemed to contradict what he was being asked to do. Everything seemed like darkness and confusion and he doubted himself and he doubted G-d but he had faith and he went forward.
Rabbi Lord Sacks describes Avraham as a leader who changed the word through influence not through power. What was the source of his influence then and now? Perhaps it’s too bold of me to say, but I don’t think it’s the kindness he showed. Those meals served and spirits uplifted have all faded from history. But the choice that Avraham made to have, the decision to trust, to feel loved and cared for by the Creator, that’s what impacted the people of his time and that’s what inspires me today.
Whether we understand Avraham as the Ramban, open to critique, or as Rashi, as far above criticism as the angels, I think has to do a lot more with us than it does with Avraham. But this year I can’t help but think that The Road Robert Frost chose made all the difference to him, but the Road that Avraham chose makes all the difference to me and maybe, to all of us.