November 2011


The story of Abraham contains many parallels within itself. His and Sarah’s encounter with Pharaoah in Parshat Lech-Lecha finds a recapitulation in their later encounter with Avimelech in Parshat Vayera. Hagar’s first banishment is paralleled by her second. And the covenant that is established through circumcision at the end of Lech-Lecha is echoed in the reaffirmation of the covenant at the end of Vayera, through the Akedah (Binding of Isaac).

The story also contains mirror images. The most famous of these comes at the beginning of the Akedah, when  God instructs Abraham to “take your son, your only one, the one whom you love, Isaac, and lech-lecha, go to the land of Moriah” (Gen. 22:1). This of course reflects back the opening lines of the story of Abraham, which begin with lech-lecha el ha-aretz asher areka: Go to the land that I will show you (Gen. 12:1).

A final recurrence of this type comes in this week’s parasha, when the Torah tells us v’avraham zaken ba-bayamim vadonai berach avraham bakol, “Abraham was old, advanced in years, and God blessed Abraham with everything” (Gen. 24:1). Rashi reminds us that bakol in Hebrew has the numerical value of 52, the same as the word ben, or son. Thus once Abraham had been blessed with a son, he was blessed with everything.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch offers a different approach on the entire verse. In his unique style, he finds philological linkages between the roots of the words zaken, old, and sakanah, danger. Hirsch does not say that old age is a time of danger. Rather, he uses the word sakanah, and its related words saken (risk) and sikui (chance) to reflect that a person who is described as a zaken partakes of the openness to possibility possessed by a person mature in experience.

Most usefully, he contrasts this with the word for adolescent youth, na’ar, which he reminds us also means to shake or shake off. Whereas during the period of adolescence we shake off that which has constrained us in the act of self-authorship, in ripe older age we sense what the developmental psychologist Erik Erikson called a period of “generativity,” when we are open to the world and able to give back to it.

Quoting the Talmud in Bava Batra (16b), Hirsch says that this aspect of Abraham was so pronounced that people from far and wide could readily recognize his wisdom. Abraham’s openness to the world, his sense of integrity of mission and purpose with his outward actions, shone like a jewel.

The haftarah for this parasha offers a useful contrast that further highlights Abraham’s achievement. Here we have the story of King David’s old age and death. And while David is similarly concerned with the future, he handles it far less elegantly than Abraham, focusing as he does on settling political scores and securing Solomon’s place on the throne among his feuding sons. Abraham had some of the same things to deal with–the future was not yet entirely secure, even though the line of succession had been established, since Isaac did not yet have a wife and children. But Abraham exudes a kind of grace and faith that things will work out which doesn’t come through in David’s story. Abraham is elegant, David is rough. Both are real.

Shabbat shalom.

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A tense dynamic haunts the relationship of Abraham and Sarah. They have a deep emotional struggle over Sarah’s inability to bear children, the birth of Ishmael by Sarah’s handmaid Hagar, and the status of Isaac vis-à-vis Ishmael once Isaac is born. But the first moment when we sense something is up comes early on in their story:

And it came to pass that when they approached Egypt, he said to Sarai his wife, “Now I know that you are a beautiful woman. And when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ They will slay me and let you live. Please, say you are my sister, so that good will come to me on your account, and I may live because of you.” (Gen. 12:11-13)

One reading of this passage is that Abraham simply fails to stick up for his wife. He allows Sarah to be taken into Pharaoh’s house, just as he will allow her to be taken by Avimelech in next week’s parasha. While he is right to be worried about the possibility of his own death at the hands of the Egyptians, his request to Sarah is of dubious moral standing. No wonder she has complex feelings about Hagar (the Egyptian, whom it seems may have come to their household only after this sojourn in Egypt), and a challenging relationship with her husband!

Rashi, quoting the Midrash, offers a few readings of this passage. “Until now,” he says, “Abraham did not recognize her, out of her modesty. But now the situation led him to recognize her.” In this, Rashi’s first reading, something fundamentally changes in the relationship of Abraham and Sarah at this moment: for the first time, Abraham sees Sarah as physically beautiful. The danger of the situation, for his own life and for hers, leads Abraham to a new realization about his wife. His perspective is changed, and he sees the world differently.

Rashi goes on to quote a second reading of the Midrash, which understands the passage to mean that, whereas most people look disheveled after a long journey, Sarah retained her beauty. Here the emphasis is not on transformation, but rather continuity: Sarah was unchanged. She was the same person entering Egypt as she had been all along the journey. “Now I know,” the linchpin of the possible interpretations here, is understood as Ramban understands it: “I know now, just as I have always known” (see Ramban on this passage).

What’s so wonderful is that the Midrash, and Rashi, bring both of these interpretive possibilities. The relationship of Abraham and Sarah, like all marriages, is a complex one, not easily understood by anyone outside, and often a mystery to the participants themselves. What can seem obvious and enduring one moment—“You have always been beautiful”—can become a revelation in the next: “I can see your beauty now, which I have never seen before.”

And of course this paradox of knowledge, understanding and recognition, extends beyond marriages or relationships. It informs our entire life. Plato said that education is the process of uncovering what one’s soul already knows to be true. Learning is simply an act of memory. And yet we also know that learning is discovery, the thrill of insight, the excitement of knowing what we never knew before.

The journey of Abraham and Sarah, a journey to the land of Israel and to the idea of Israel, is marked by this paradox, of discovering what is bold and new, and of recovering what is radically old. Their journey is our journey as well.

Shabbat shalom.