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.

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.




One of the questions that comes up a lot when I teach Parshat Vayera is this: Why doesn’t Abraham protest when God commands him to sacrifice Isaac, when he speaks up on behalf of the people of Sodom? The assumption behind the question seems to be that it is right for Abraham to speak up for the Sodomites, and that his failure to object to God on behalf of his own son is a moral failure. But I’d like to see what happens when we reverse the question: If Abraham doesn’t speak up when God commands him to sacrifice Isaac, why does he speak up for the people of Sodom?

First we should take notice of a remarkable internal monologue ascribed to God, which reveals God’s thinking in telling Abraham about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah: “Then the LORD said, ‘Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is right and just (tzedek u’mishpat), so that the LORD will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.'”(Gen. 18:17-19)

What is God’s motivation for telling Abraham about God’s plans? Rashi comments here that, since God had indicated that Sodom would be part of Abraham’s inheritance, God was now changing the terms of their arrangement, so God needed to tell Abraham about it. But we can glean a further understanding by looking at the highpoint of Abraham’s objection to God:

Abraham remained standing before the LORD. Then Abraham approached him and said: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”(Gen. 18:22-25)

The keywords in this passage are tzedek and mishpat, righteousness and justice. Abraham’s objection seems to be this: If you punish the wicked along with the just, you will be subverting the very meaning of the words righteousness and justice! By implication back to God’s opening monologue, the problem becomes: how can I instruct my descendents to do justice and righteousness if you’re going to change the meaning of those words! It is analagous to the problem Rashi sees: how are we to make a covenant with God if God is going to change the terms of the Covenant? God needs to be a reliable partner, and Abraham’s objection challenges God to keep God’s word.

This doesn’t necessarily help us to understand Abraham’s silence later on at the Akedah. Perhaps we can draw a distinction between Isaac’s potential offering-up as a sacrifice–which the ancients would have seen as an honor–and the fate of Sodom, which was clearly a punishment. Perhaps the issue that drives Abraham at Sodom–the loss of meaning of the central words of his mission–is not present at the Akedah, since the Akedah is not about justice and righteousness, but about emunah, faith and fidelity.

These explanations may work for some, and they may ring hollow for others. The Akedah is one of the most challenging texts in the Torah, and it does not make for easy explanations. But my point in looking at Sodom this way is to help us see that it is not enough simply to ask why someone speaks up in one case but not in another. We have to look at each case individually. And when we look at the case of Sodom, we see that Abraham’s concern is to make sure that certain values remain timeless and not open to renegotiation, the values of tzedek and mishpat, of righteousness and justice, which are to be the core of our people’s covenant with God.

Shabbat shalom.

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.

Shabbat shalom.

We got a thoroughly amazing piece of news yesterday at Northwestern Hillel: A hate group that has previously picketed us plans to do so again as Rosh Hashanah services begin on Wednesday night. This is part of a tour of theirs around the Chicago area today and tomorrow, visiting synagogues, the Israeli Consulate, and the Illinois Holocaust Museum. (I am not identifying them by name—not only because doing so would generate automatic internet spam from their supporters, but also because it would give them exactly the attention they don’t wish to have. But their name rhymes with Shmestboro Shmaptist Church.)

Yes, this news was amazing because it complicated an already very busy day in our office. But what’s even more impeccable about the timing of this incident is how it coincides with the mainstreaming of hateful religious rhetoric in American public conversation. The New York Times this morning reports on an emergency interfaith summit of religious leaders to respond to the rise in hate speech. The epidemic is epitomized in the planned burning of the Koran by a church in Florida this weekend. As Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism put it, As Jews we know religious persecution. We know book burnings. Now is a time to speak up.

Rosh Hashanah is our most universal holiday. Unlike Yom Kippur, which emphasizes the unique covenant between God and the Jewish people, Rosh Hashanah focuses on God’s general covenant with humanity. The liturgy implores God to remember Noah—the father of all of humanity that remains after the flood. It refers to today as the birthday of the world. It is the anniversary of Adam’s creation, the creation of all humankind. The themes of Rosh Hashanah are general, and focus on what it means to be human, and only secondarily on what it means to be Jewish.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has written eloquently over the last decade about what he terms the ‘dignity of difference,’ the capacity to hold, acknowledge, and celebrate our deepest differences. In one of my favorite passages from his book of the same name, Sacks asks, what would the experience of faith be like in a world in which the dignity of difference was truly enacted? ““It would be like being secure in one’s home,” he writes, “yet moved by the beauty of foreign places, knowing that they are someone else’s home, not mine, but still part of the glory of the world that is ours.” Emphatically, Sacks rejects the notion that pluralism involves surrendering our uniqueness. Adaraba—just the opposite: in order to live together, we need to do with and through what makes us different, not by erasing it. We need to be secure in our own homes—our familial homes, our communal homes, our national homes and simultaneously concerned for and engaged with the homes of others.

That is the challenge of brotherhood, which forms one of the themes of the Torah reading of Rosh Hashanah. The question asked by the story of Ishmael and Isaac, of Hagar and Sarah, is this: how can brothers get along? It is the question of Genesis, and the question of the Bible more generally: how can we recognize that we share a common ancestor while simultaneously acknowledging and accommodating each individual’s uniqueness? How can we reconcile the tension implicit in the idea that human beings are created b’tzelem elokim, in God’s image: one the one hand we are all equal, on the other we are each unique?

In the title of another of his books, Sacks puts forward his answer: The Home We Build Together. When we build a home together—not simply live next to one another as guests in someone else’s home, nor rent a home that belongs to a common landlord, but actually build a shared home—we forge a covenant. His model is the mishkan, the Tabernacle built by the ancient Israelites. Every member of the community contributed to its construction. Everyone had a stake in it. And thus it created a physical, psychological, and spiritual center for a people. And today it continues to provide a model for what a society can be. “Society is made out of the contributions of many individuals,” Sacks writes. “What they give is unimportant. That they give is essential.” The home we build together is society.

The Rosh Hashanah liturgy famously refers to three essential acts of the High Holiday season: teshuva, tefilla, u-tzedakah – repentance, prayer, and charity. Central to each of these acts is a spirit of openness. Teshuva is not possible unless we are open to critique of ourselves. We can only engage in tefilla if we are open to the presence of God in our lives. And tzedakah requires an openness, awareness, and concern for lives beyond our own, and an actual, tangible act of giving and generosity.

These are the acts of restoring and renewing our covenant—between God and Jewish people, but, particularly on Rosh Hashanah, between God and the world. Today is the birthday of the world—the whole world, and all its inhabitants. Today, and every day, our spirit of generosity begins with ourselves, our families and our communities, but ultimately extends to all of God’s creation.

It’s hard to write these words without sounding almost a little trite. But let me be clear: the challenge here is to both liberals and conservatives, to those who would reject religion altogether and those who would retreat into narrow and exclusionary religious perspectives. As Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core (and a friend and colleague) has powerfully argued, this is the moment for a new approach to interfaith understanding and cooperation to emerge. We have a choice between producing a generation of religious extremists rooted in hatred, or a generation of religious peace-makers, rooted in the dignity of difference.

On this Rosh Hashanah, on this Shabbat Shuva, our choice is clear: u’vacharta ba-chayim, Let us choose good. Let us choose life. Let us drown out the hatred of the few with the openness and brotherhood of the many.

Hayei Sarah tells two stories. The first is Abraham’s purchase of the Machpela Cave to bury Sarah. The second is the mission of his servant to find a wife for Isaac. There are comparisons we could make between them, such as the role that money plays in formalizing commitments, or the idea of promises and continuity at the heart of both stories.

But what I find most striking is a small detail the story of Abraham’s servant (traditionally referred to as Eliezer of Damascus):

And [food] was set before him to eat, but he said, “I will not eat until I have spoken my words.” And he said, “Speak.” (Gen. 24:33)

Eliezer proceeds to recount the story which was told by the narrator up until this point: his charge from Abraham, his prayer to God, the appearance of Rebecca. At the conclusion of his story, the Torah states:

And the servant took out silver articles and golden articles and garments, and he gave [them] to Rebecca, and he gave delicacies to her brother and to her mother. (24:53).

On this verse, Rashi comments:

“and… delicacies: Heb. וּמִגְדָּנוֹת. An expression of sweet fruits (מְגָדִים), for he had brought with him various kinds of fruits of the Land of Israel.”

After this, “they ate and drank, he and the men who were with him.” (v. 54)

Eliezer is held up as a model of virtue, someone who Abraham trusts completely with one of the things about which he cares most in the world. And in this tiny detail–waiting to eat until he fulfills his mission–he reminds us that virtuous behavior begins with the basics. How and when we eat is reflective of our character. It is not simply about being polite; it is about demonstrating the most elemental aspect of humanity, our ability to fulfill commitments even when our animal instincts would tell us to do something else.

One of the things we must reclaim as we awaken from the slumbers of modernity is a relationship with our food–not only in what we eat and how it comes to us, but in the very act of eating itself. In a culture of abundance, eating has become a casual thing. Yet Eliezer reminds us that the act of limitation in eating is basic to our humanity and our religiosity, and it is part of his overall makeup–a person conscious about their food is a person who takes life seriously, someone who can be trusted, someone who will deliver on their word. We need more of his ethic in the world.

Shabbat shalom.

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.

The story of the Binding of Isaac is one of the most difficult in the Torah. Yet it is a central part of our people’s story–recited every year on Rosh Hashanah and by some every day as part of morning services. And it is the final dramatic episode in this week’s Torah reading, Vayera.

Theologians and philosophers often look at the story from the point of view of Abraham. The Binding of Isaac is Abraham’s big test. As the angel at the end of the story tells him, God now sees that he has not withheld anything. Abraham would go the distance, would sacrifice that which is most precious to him, in order to serve God. In this usual view of the story, the question we ask ourselves is “Would we do the same thing?”

But we can also look at the story from the point of view of Isaac. And when we do, we see something different. From Isaac’s point of view, the question becomes how to make sense of the fact that his father has done this. Isaac is passive and accepting. He goes along, and he becomes literally and figuratively bound by his father’s decisions. His father has formed him, and this event will resonate throughout the history of their family for generations to come. When we identify with Isaac, the question we ask ourselves is, “How do we accept this inheritance?” 

In my work with students, it is the Issac view that seems most salient. For many young adults, the big question is how how to come to terms with the decisions their parents have made for them. How do they accept–or reject–their inheritance: their parents’ financial support, their parents’ dreams of their careers or spouse, and, frequently, their parents’ religious and ethnic identities. Particularly in a world in which we so value individual choice and self-authorship, the image of a passive Isaac who blindly accepts his father’s actions, seems jarring.

Yet as we grow older, we often discover a bit of Isaac in ourselves. As we will see next week, Isaac recapitulates his father’s story in multiple ways. Like Isaac, we frequently find ourselves reliving parts of our parents’ lives. When they have children of their own, young adults often find comfort and strength in the traditions of their ancestors, traditions which only a few years earlier they found anathema. 

It is important to take this longer view, especially in the heat of young adulthood. Development and maturation takes time, as evidenced by Abraham himself, who goes from being the iconoclastic son of Terach to becoming the father of many nations.

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.