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Abraham: He's Brave, Selfish, Haughty, Loving

November 13, 2008 By:
Rabbi Joyce Newmark
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This week's parshah, Va-Yera, continues the story of Abraham and Sarah that we began reading last week. Abraham welcomes three travelers, not realizing that they are, in fact, angels. They tell Abraham that his 90-year-old wife, Sarah, will bear him a son, and we also read about the birth of that son, Isaac.

Abraham attempts to bargain with God to save Sodom and Gomorrah, and we read about the destruction of those wicked cities and the rescue of Abraham's nephew, Lot, and his family. At Sarah's behest, Abraham banishes Hagar and their son, Ishmael. And, of course, we read about the Akedah, God's command to Abraham that he offer his son, Isaac, as a sacrifice.

His Full Character
In these episodes, and the ones found in last week's parshah, we see many aspects of Abraham's character. We discover that Abraham obeys God faithfully and also questions God's promises. Abraham goes to war to rescue his nephew and, yet, is willing to risk his wife's virtue to save his own skin. Abraham fearlessly challenges God Himself to save Sodom and, yet, does not offer a word of protest when commanded to sacrifice his son.

Taken together, the Torah's stories about Abraham portray a highly complex human being who is, at different times, brave, selfish, generous, haughty, loving, heartless, calculating and humble. But over time, the commentators reimagined Abraham as the great and noble patriarch whose every act was, if not absolutely righteous and inspiring, certainly without any negative aspects.

Who Cooked Up This Menu?
When Abraham welcomed the three angels and offered his hospitality, the Torah tells us that Abraham hurried into the tent to ask Sarah to prepare bread and then to the herd where he chose a calf to be prepared for the meal.

Then we read: "He took curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared and set these before them."

But wait a second: Since when do we serve milk and cottage cheese along with veal chops? That's absolutely not kosher. Of course, Abraham lived several hundred years before the giving of Torah, before the commandment "You shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk," which is the basis for the prohibition of mixing meat and dairy products. There was absolutely no reason for him to avoid serving these items together.

However, later commentators have great difficulty with it. The Artscroll Stone Edition of the Chumash quotes the 13th-century work, Daas Zekeinim, as follows: "First Abraham served the dairy items, for they required little preparation. Only after his guests had slaked their thirst and hunger did he bring out the full meal that consisted of calves' meat."

These commentators even insist that, centuries before the Torah was given, the patriarchs and matriarchs observed all 613 mitzvot. After all, they were righteous people -- and how could we call them righteous if, for example, they didn't keep kosher? Every action that contradicts later law, every character flaw, is explained away. Surely, the founding mothers and fathers of the Jewish people were perfect or, if not perfect, much better than we are today.

Don't Whitewash Them
To my mind, though, whitewashing our ancestors' less-than-stellar qualities is a mistake. The word Torah means "teaching," and these stories are intended as lessons for the generations. But we are not perfect, so how can we be expected to learn from the lives of perfect people?

No, Abraham and Sarah were not perfect. They had weaknesses and strengths. Sometimes, we are inspired by their nobility and, at other times, we are shocked by their selfishness.

In other words, they were no different from you and me -- or anybody else, for that matter. And the Torah comes to teach us that, even so, God chose these people and blessed them, warts and all.

Rabbi Joyce Newmark is a former religious leader of congregations in Leonia and Lancaster, Pa.


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