November 10th: Chayeh Sarah
THIS WEEK (AND LAST WEEK) IN THE TORAH
Rabbi David E. Ostrich
Abraham and his family are semi-nomadic shepherds, and the stories of their sojourning—i.e. moving periodically from one camp site to another—mention many places in the ancient Middle East, all the way from Mesopotamia to Egypt. Of particular note in Genesis are their experiences in Shechem, Beth El, Hebron, Moriah/Salem, and Beersheba. As they lead their flocks to different pastures, no place seems particularly permanent. God moves with them, and they call on God wherever they happen to be.
This all changes when Sarah dies, and Abraham wants to own the spot where she will be buried. Though the Lord has given the whole Land of Canaan to Abraham and his descendants, the purchase of the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron is Abraham’s first real estate transaction and the first sense of permanent place in the Land. Though Abraham continues sojourning, his permanent place is at the Cave of Machpelah, and he returns (is returned) there when he is gathered to his people. It is the same for Isaac and Rebecca, and for Jacob and Leah. Machpelah in Hebron in Canaan becomes their place.
In last week’s portion, when Abraham discusses with God the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, we have a similar idea as the story’s conclusion. “When the Lord had finished speaking to Abraham, He departed; and Abraham returned to his place.” (Genesis 18.33) This seems to be a simple notation of movement. Just as Abraham has walked his guests (The Lord and two angels) out along their way, Abraham simply returns to his encampment—his place—after the conversation.
However, Jacob Weiner, our recent Bar Mitzvah, sees in this phrase something more significant, and it is my pleasure to share with you Jacob’s teaching on “And Abraham returned to his place.” The following is from Jacob’s Bar Mitzvah D’var Torah:
“There are three other possible interpretations. The first considers a recent transition in Abraham’s life. Previously, he has had a more compliant attitude. He has agreed with all of God’s decisions, though they were sometimes difficult for him. Now, he has adopted a more realistic attitude. At the time this story takes place, Abraham is still adjusting to his newfound realism, and this is his first time seriously challenging God. It’s a leap for Abraham, and it may be making him a bit uncomfortable. After confronting God, he needs to return to a more comfortable level. In other words, he has to ‘return to his place.’
A second interpretation begins with a problem, a koshi, in the text: Why does Abraham not try to go lower than ten, say five? I have my own Midrash, which is a story meant to resolve such difficulties, to answer this question. Perhaps after God says that he would save for the sake of ten, Abraham is about to ask if God would save for the sake of five. God knows that the answer was no. To avoid any disappointment on Abraham’s part, God says sharply ‘Abraham! Go no further! For if there is not ten there is not hope for Sodom! If there is no holy community, I can do nothing but evacuate the righteous. I will not sweep away the innocent with the guilty; nor will I preserve the myriads of guilty for a handful of innocent. Go no further!’ Abraham is taken aback by this harsh rebuke and backs down immediately – returning to his place.
The last interpretation involves an idea of moral debit. Whenever you do a good act or make a sacrifice for God, you get some moral cash put in your account. Whenever you commit a bad deed, your account is charged. Whenever you need a little help, you can draw on your account. Abraham has accumulated a large sum, most recently through hospitality to the angels and for going through circumcision willingly. Abraham, being the good person that he is, doesn’t use his surplus for himself. Instead, he petitions God for the lives of the Sodomites. However, his supply of moral cash is not unlimited. By the time he gets to ten, he has all but run out of bargaining power, and thus has to back down, and return to his place.
So, which interpretation is correct? In my opinion, the final interpretation - the moral cash - is the most powerful and most true for me. That interpretation teaches us an important lesson. Abraham the prophet, the father of Judaism, chooses to use his leverage with God to try to save those he didn’t even know. He could ask God to double the size of his flocks, and God would do it. But the fact that he chooses to use it for the sake of total strangers who may not even be good people teaches us about Tikkun Olam - fixing the world. Just like Abraham’s charitable use of his moral cash, we too should be charitable: to feed the hungry, to shelter the homeless, to free the captives, to help the helpless. As Abraham is willing to spend his entire supply of leverage with God to give the gift of potential salvation to multiple cities, so too should we give the most we can to help those less fortunate than us.”
Thanks, Jacob. This is a beautiful lesson and one we should all appreciate.