Friday, November 6, 2009

Testing, Testing …. The Ongoing Lessons of Avraham Aveinu, Part One

Years ago, I was home in the middle of the day and watched one of the larger society’s “Gedolei HaDor,” Oprah Winfrey on television. She was engaged in a conversation with Scott Peck (Think Zelig Pliskin’s alter ego as a Protestant!) and told the following story about a recurring dream she had. She talked about how she would be flying close to the ground in these dreams and would fly by young children. As she passed each young child, she would ask “How are you today?” Each of these children responded in turn, “That is the wrong question to ask. You should ask me what I was sent here to teach you today.” I love this story, for the message is so powerful for each of us. We know so many stories, including the many we read in the Torah, Talmud and so many other places. We often worry about the credibility of the details – that is how the story came to be. I often think, as in the vignette above, we should be asking ourselves what the story comes to teach us. Here is the universal and timeless meaning of these stories, not the details of their plausibility but the largess of their lessons!

So it is with the stories and tests of Avraham Aveinu. So many experiences with so many lessons to teach us! Avraham Aveinu clearly has his rightful place in the history of the world as the first monotheist, according to so many. As Jews, we speak of him as our first father. As human beings, there are so many lessons of humanity that Avraham teaches us – it is these lessons that he comes to teach us that are the subject of this writing today and the next one to be posted. Today, we will focus on some of the lessons that Avraham teaches us with regard to family relationships and yielding to the desires and destinies of others.

In Chapter 13, we read of Avraham’s negotiations with Lot when they come with their abundant property and have to determine where they will dwell in the land to which they have come. Quickly enough, we note that there is a conflict, as will naturally happen amongst real people in the real world.

We read as follows in Bereshit 13: 6 – 11 as follows:

ו וְלֹֽא־נָשָׂ֥א אֹתָ֛ם הָאָ֖רֶץ לָשֶׁ֣בֶת יַחְדָּ֑ו כִּֽי־הָיָ֤ה רְכוּשָׁם֙ רָ֔ב וְלֹ֥א יָֽכְל֖וּ לָשֶׁ֥בֶת יַחְדָּֽו: ז וַֽיְהִי־רִ֗יב בֵּ֚ין רֹעֵ֣י מִקְנֵֽה־אַבְרָ֔ם וּבֵ֖ין רֹעֵ֣י מִקְנֵה־ל֑וֹט ...ח וַיֹּ֨אמֶר אַבְרָ֜ם אֶל־ל֗וֹט אַל־נָ֨א תְהִ֤י מְרִיבָה֙ בֵּינִ֣י וּבֵינֶ֔ךָ וּבֵ֥ין רֹעַ֖י וּבֵ֣ין רֹעֶ֑יךָ כִּֽי־אֲנָשִׁ֥ים אַחִ֖ים אֲנָֽחְנוּ: ט הֲלֹ֤א כָל־הָאָ֨רֶץ֙ לְפָנֶ֔יךָ הִפָּ֥רֶד נָ֖א מֵֽעָלָ֑י אִם־הַשְּׂמֹ֣אל וְאֵימִ֔נָה וְאִם־הַיָּמִ֖ין וְאַשְׂמְאִֽילָה: י וַיִּשָּׂא־ל֣וֹט אֶת־עֵינָ֗יו וַיַּרְא֙ אֶת־כָּל־כִּכַּ֣ר הַיַּרְדֵּ֔ן כִּ֥י כֻלָּ֖הּ מַשְׁקֶ֑ה לִפְנֵ֣י ׀ שַׁחֵ֣ת יְהֹוָ֗ה אֶת־סְדֹם֙ וְאֶת־עֲמֹרָ֔ה כְּגַן־יְהוָֹה֙ כְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם בֹּֽאֲכָ֖ה צֹֽעַר: יא וַיִּבְחַר־ל֣וֹ ל֗וֹט אֵ֚ת כָּל־כִּכַּ֣ר הַיַּרְדֵּ֔ן וַיִּסַּ֥ע ל֖וֹט מִקֶּ֑דֶם וַיִּפָּ֣רְד֔וּ אִ֖ישׁ מֵעַ֥ל אָחִֽיו:

The land could not support the shepherds, flocks and belongings of Lot and Avraham for they both had so much; they were not able to dwell together. There was a quarrel between Avram’s shepherds and Lot’s shepherds…. Avram said to Lot, “Let there be no fighting between our groups as we are related. Is not the whole land before you? Let us separate, if you go to the left, I will go to the right; if you go to the right, I will go to the left.” Lot raised his eyes and saw the Jordan valley; it looked like the garden of G-d, like the land of Mitzrayim. Lot chose for himself all of the plain of Jordan and he went eastward; they separated from each other. (Translations in these postings are inexact and reflect spirit of story for our purposes.)

Notice the nature of the conflict resolution that Avraham uses. He puts the decision to be made in front of Lot in order to preserve whatever he can in the relationship. According to the text, their relationship is clearly not close and does not seem to be amenable to healing, but nonetheless, Avraham does not want to do anything to exacerbate what is probably not a comfortable situation. He acquiesces to what Lot chooses and this is a gift that Avraham gives to Lot. How many of us find that there are opportunities in our own lives to act in such a way? It is difficult to be sure, and while we are not told how Avraham must have felt in this situation, we can probably imagine, one human being to another, one Jew to another, one monotheist to another.

Later in the story of Avraham’s life, we read about his and Sarah’s attempts to have a child and the need for Avraham to have a son to inherit the legacy of his father. An earlier stage of this odyssey is reported in Chapter 15: 1-5:

א אַחַ֣ר ׀ הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֗לֶּה הָיָ֤ה דְבַר־יְהוָֹה֙ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם בַּֽמַּֽחֲזֶ֖ה לֵאמֹ֑ר אַל־תִּירָ֣א אַבְרָ֗ם אָֽנֹכִי֙ מָגֵ֣ן לָ֔ךְ שְׂכָֽרְךָ֖ הַרְבֵּ֥ה מְאֹֽד: ב וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אַבְרָ֗ם אֲדֹנָ֤י יֱהוִֹה֙ מַה־תִּתֶּן־לִ֔י וְאָֽנֹכִ֖י הוֹלֵ֣ךְ עֲרִירִ֑י וּבֶן־מֶ֣שֶׁק בֵּיתִ֔י ה֖וּא דַּמֶּ֥שֶׂק אֱלִיעֶֽזֶר: ג וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אַבְרָ֔ם הֵ֣ן לִ֔י לֹ֥א נָתַ֖תָּה זָ֑רַע וְהִנֵּ֥ה בֶן־בֵּיתִ֖י יוֹרֵ֥שׁ אֹתִֽי: ד וְהִנֵּ֨ה דְבַר־יְהוָֹ֤ה אֵלָיו֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר לֹ֥א יִירָֽשְׁךָ֖ זֶ֑ה כִּי־אִם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יֵצֵ֣א מִמֵּעֶ֔יךָ ה֖וּא יִֽירָשֶֽׁךָ: ה וַיּוֹצֵ֨א אֹת֜וֹ הַח֗וּצָה וַיֹּ֨אמֶר֙ הַבֶּט־נָ֣א הַשָּׁמַ֔יְמָה וּסְפֹר֙ הַכּ֣וֹכָבִ֔ים אִם־תּוּכַ֖ל לִסְפֹּ֣ר אֹתָ֑ם וַיֹּ֣אמֶר ל֔וֹ כֹּ֥ה יִֽהְיֶ֖ה זַרְעֶֽךָ:

Afterwards, the word of G-d came to Avram in a vision saying, “Don’t be afraid, Avram, I will guard you and your reward will be great. Avram says, “My Lord, what can you give me as I will die without children? I guess my steward will be my heir.” G-d replies, “No, that one will not inherit from you but it will be a child that comes from you who will inherit your legacy.” G-d takes Avram outside and says, “Look at the heavens and count the stars; just as you can’t count them, you will not be able to count all those that come from you.”

At this point, G-d promises Avram (he is not yet Avraham) a great deal! Now as the story unfolds, the words of the promise become more plausible. First Avram has a son, Yishmael through his wife’s handmaid Hagar, and then a son, Yitzchak, through Sarah, his wife. As we know all too well, there is contention in this household (which I suspect we can understand as well – now that’s a blended family!) and Avraham will have to use his skills of negotiation to keep whatever semblance of peace possible in his family. Here again, he will yield to others – To Sarah in decisions she will make regarding Hagar, to his faith in G-d regarding how the members of his family will carry on and certainly in the unfolding of Akedat Yitzchak.

In these instances, Avraham may not come across as the strongest advocate for those for whom we might think he should advocate. Why is that? Many people have a problem with this. I think it goes back to the promise that G-d makes to Avraham and the resulting faith that Avraham will have in G-d that will lead him to an understanding that different people – even those of his household – will have different destinies, some of which may be connected to his life experience and some of which may not. Allow us to imagine the pain that Avram the man must have felt regarding having to say goodbye to a son and his mother, and then to be ready to sacrifice another son, as well as understand the potential ramifications this event may have for his wife and her well being.

Again, the details of what happened may not be as much the point as is the lesson that these things happen and yielding to the destiny and goals of others may sometimes be the best we can do. In drivers’ education, new drivers are taught that when one skids in a car, the natural inclination is to turn the wheel against the skid – to fight it with everything you have. Yet, in reality the safest thing to do is to go in the direction of the skid – to accept it and work through it. This is one of the lessons that Avraham may come to teach us today. And there are others…… to be continued!

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