At the heart of the story of Abraham is a particularly Jewish conundrum. On the one hand, Abraham is the paradigm of breaking from the past, as the opening lines of his story suggest: “And God said to Abram, Go, get yourself from your land, your birthplace, your father’s house, and go the land I will show you.” (Gen. 12:1) The story of Abraham, and the story of the Jewish people, could not happen without this moment of shattering individualism. Abraham leaves behind everything he knows in order to found something new.

And yet God’s promise to Abraham is that his biological descendants will inherit the land God will give him. Heaven forbid that one of Abraham’s progeny would choose to leave the fold, to go from his own promised land, his own father’s house! If the beginning of Abraham’s story is marked by a radical break with the past, his children’s story will be marked by a deep engagement, and formation by, their history. Thus the conundrum.

This paradox exists in every generation, of course. But it is particularly pronounced in the American setting. One of the central narratives of the American story is that of the rugged individual who comes from a distant land, boldly breaking with the past, often taking a new name. Yet these same immigrants also often want to perpetuate the traditions of their ancestors, they want their children to walk in their ways. And the working out of each generation’s engagement with the traditions of its forebears becomes the stuff of psychology and literature (see ‘The House of Ramon Iglesia’ being produced by the Jewish Theater Ensemble this weekend, for one example).

Of course the American story is on all our minds this week. (If you’re interested, see this letter of mine to my kids about how Election Day moved me to tears.) We can plainly see that we have broken with the past, and boldly set out on a new chapter in the story of our nation and the world. We sense that we are entering a moment in which new challenges and possibilities of identity–conversations and intersections of races, ethnicities, and religions; and, we hope, a new dynamic in the relationship of religious and secular culture–these possibilities are tantalizing and challenging, even threatening, at the same time.

It is this dynamic sense of possibility that Abraham represents. Yet we must remember that as much as Abraham sets a new course, he does so in a way that demonstrates integrity and a deep understanding of who he is. Abraham’s tent is open to all–it is symbolized today in the huppah, the Jewish marriage canopy, which has four open walls. But even when packed with hundreds of guests, there is no question that it is Abraham’s tent. Though Abraham is a man who leaves home, he is our paradigmatic host. And as my own Hillel Rabbi, Jim Ponet, taught me, one of the definitions of feeling at home is being able to invite guests. Abraham leaves one home, but he creates another.  That challenge is a human one, and Abraham’s example speaks to us all.

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