Lech-Lecha opens the story of Abraham. I have argued before that Abraham represents a sort of proto-American character: iconoclastic, willing to break with the molds of the past, setting out for a new land and leaving behind family and tradition. At the same time, the life of Abraham, like his descendants, is about family–specifically brothers. Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers–these brotherly narratives form the basis of most of the book of Genesis, emphasizing the illusory nature of brotherly love.

Abraham too deals with a brother, Nachor, whose story is continued in his son Lot in this week’s Torah reading. At a crucial point in the story, Lot is taken captive during the war of the kings (ch. 14). Abraham organizes a posse to rescue Lot, and in the process helps to win the war for the King of Sodom, which leads to a blessing from Malkitzedek and ultimately frames the Covenant of the Pieces in chapter 15.

Looking more closely at the story, we find that the way that Abraham hears of Lot’s capture: “And Abram heard that his brother was taken captive.” (14:14) While the term ach, or brother, is used to denote a more general sense of “kinsman” (see Lev. 25:39, for instance), here the Torah could just as easily have referred to Lot as simply “Lot,” or “Lot the son of his brother.” Instead, Abraham hears that his brother has been taken captive, and this leads him to immediately put together a rescue operation.

Vladimir Jankelevitch once referred to brotherhood as “the hatred of the almost-same.” Siblings share chromosomes, facial features, upbringings. They are united in a common bond. And yet they are also individuals, with their own aspirations and personalities, as the earlier narrative of Lot and Abraham’s division of the land reminds us. What distinguishes Abraham in this moment is that he hears–whether by choice or by habit–not that Lot, some distant person unconnected to him, was taken captive, but that Lot his brother–to whom he has an obligation–was taken captive.

We talk a lot today in the Jewish world about meeting people–particularly young adults–where they are, playing to their individual interests, customizing Jewish life to respond to their tastes and desires. And we do need to do this, because we need to engage people in Jewish life. But as I told a good friend who gives away millions of dollars for a Jewish philanthropic foundation, I view part of my charge as a rabbi in the world of Jewish communal institutions as making sure we never let go of words like responsibility, duty, and calling.

We cannot make Israel, or service, or Shabbat or Jewish holidays simply an expression of our “authentic selves.” These cornerstones of Jewish life need to be expressive, but they also need to remind us of our place in the world, of the smallness and finitude of our existence, of the ways we depend on one another. In hearing that his brother was taken captive, Abraham reminds us all that we feel responsibility towards those who are not ‘other,’ but to those in whom we see–by choice or by habit–kinship and sameness. Abraham had a generous view, he saw kinship with many, and he thus felt responsibility to many. That tradition of hesed is something we should never lose.

Shabbat shalom.

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