The story of Genesis is the story of brothers. Specifically, it is the story of the struggle of successive generations to recognize one another as brothers—people who are same and different, common and unique. Beginning with Cain and Abel, and continuing with Shem, Ham and Yapheth, Abraham and Nachor, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, the sons of Leah and the sons of Rachel—all of these relationships and the stories that surround them prompt us to ask: how can brothers live together?
Parshat Lech-Lecha marks a pivotal moment in this narrative. Abraham’s nephew, Lot, is taken captive during a war, and Abraham organizes a militia to rescue him, which ultimately results in the defeat of the kidnapping kings’ armies and victory for the opposing side. Abraham here engages in a bold and risky maneuver, bearing arms for the sake of his nephew. His decision to do so, to put his life on the line on behalf of someone who is not his own son but the son of his brother, is a turning point. The Torah draws our attention to it in its account: “And Abram heard that his brother had been captured” (Gen. 14:14). Lot is not literally his brother—the text should have read, “the son of his brother.” Yet Abraham hears—either through his own volition or through the force of his persona—that his brother has been captured. And he immediately springs to action, acting out of a sense of duty.
It is immediately after this incident (ch. 15) that God appears to Abraham to establish a covenant with him. That covenant will provide security to Abraham’s descendents by creating bonds between members of the covenant. But it will simultaneously challenge all of Abraham’s descendents with profound questions: Who is your brother? To whom are we obligated? For whom would we risk our physical well-being? For whom would we sacrifice? Who is welcome in our land? With whom will we share it? The covenant seems to spring from Abraham’s recognition of Lot as his brother, as one towards whom he has a duty—and it raises the rich questions of membership and obligation that animate so much of Jewish life today.
This past week many of us watched as the Chilean miners were rescued. The entire story was moving. The country spared no expense to undertake a risky operation. The president put his prestige and reputation at stake. And the entire country seemed to become a family in the process. In many ways, the story of Chile and the miners reminds us of the story of Abraham and the captive Lot. From where did the sense of duty to rescue them come? Somehow, the president and the people of Chile heard not that anonymous people were trapped, but that their brothers were captives. And in hearing that their brothers needed help, they took great risks on their behalf.
The story of Abraham and Lot reminds us that the roots of the covenant lie in the consciousness of fellowship, the consciousness of brotherhood. To be a member of the covenant is fundamentally less a question of creed or doctrine than one of family and peoplehood. Do we see other Jews as our people, as those on whose behalf we would risk our money, our time, our prestige, our lives? That is the challenge of the covenant, the challenge that Abraham bequeathed to us all.