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Chancellor's Parashah Commentary

Parashat Lekh L'kha 5756
Genesis 12:1 - 17:27
November 4, 1995    11 Heshvan 5756

This week's commentary was written by Ismar Schorsch, the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.

The Torah does not give us a complete biography of Abraham, only a series of striking vignettes. The question is whether they add up to a coherent view of the man, or are they just fragments of memory preserved by different traditions and assembled by the Torah out of filial piety, irrespective of coherence? I raise the question because of the portrait of Abraham sketched for us by chapter 14 in this week's parasha.

More than a decade ago, Yochanan Muffs, professor of Bible at the Seminary, wrote a brilliant study of the chapter entitled "Abraham the Noble Warrior." The piquant title meant to stress the picture of an unconventional Abraham, a tribal chieftain of commanding power. Whereas in chapter 12 of Genesis, Abraham enters Egypt (to escape the famine in Canaan) fearfully and survives by cunning, in chapter 14, back in Canaan, he responds to the news of his nephew Lot's abduction with a swift display of military might. He is unintimidated by the prospect of taking on the combined armies of four foreign kings who had dominated Canaan for more than a decade.

The story has a distinctly secular ring to it. When Abraham (at this point still Abram) learns of the defeat of Sodom and Gomorrah and the deportation of Lot and his family who reside there, he does not seek God's counsel nor pray for God's help. He instantly and self-confidently musters a retinue of 318 soldiers already in his command and sets off in hot pursuit of victorious invaders. He overtakes them up north at the city of Dan, inflicts a decisive defeat by means of a bold night attack and then pursues the survivors all the way north, beyond Damascus.

Upon his return, Abraham's magnanimity matches his military prowess. He turns over all the spoils of war to the king of Sodom, forgoing his half, and asks only for the rations of his men and a share for his allies. Virtue, and not profit, is what dictates Abraham's conduct. God plays no role for Abraham in this narrative other than a passing reference in his oath not to let the king of Sodom enrich him.

How utterly different is the spirit that pervades chapter 15 where Abraham is again depicted as entirely dependent on divine largess. God assures Abraham: "Fear not, Abram, I am a shield to you; your reward shall be very great (Genesis 15:1)." The Hebrew word for shield is magen (as in the phrase "magen david") and was taken from here by the Rabbis to coin the final phrase of the first berakha of the Amidah - "magen Avraham - the shield of Abraham." A homeless, vulnerable family or nation, the Amidah tells us, relies on the ever protecting care of God.

It is true that Abraham demurs: protection without progeny is not much solace. God counters that you will have both: your offspring will be as numerous as the stars in the sky. And the promise restores the aging Abraham's faith: it is not too late for God to enable Sarah and Abraham to have children. Significantly, the Torah adds "And because he put his trust in the Lord, He reckoned it to his merit (Genesis 15:4)," a verse that Paul, the founder of Christianity, would later use to argue that faith in Jesus alone (without need of any mitzvot) was sufficient to gain eternal salvation.

In short, the two chapters are a study in contrasts. Chapter 14 portrays a formidable warlord at home in the arts and etiquette of ancient warfare, who could easily have seized Canaan militarily after having vanquished its foreign conquerors. Chapter 15 reaffirms the more conventional image of Abraham as a paragon of faith, for whom the inner life is the ultimate arena of human action and glory. As such, Abraham is cast in a more reactive and submissive role. In the final scene of the chapter, he accepts without protest the news that his descendants will not inherit the land he had come from afar to possess until a sojourn of 400 years in a foreign land, marked by much suffering.

I would like to contend that the two portraits of Abraham are not as incoherent and contradictory as they seem. We should be wary of thinking about Judaism in polar opposites that are mutually exclusive: secular vs. spiritual, this-worldly vs. other-worldly, integrationist vs. separatist. In all these pairs we tend to define being religious with the second alternative.

But there are many instances in Jewish history where piety expressed itself by bridging the gap, by achieving a measure of unity while living in two worlds. The key to such cultural synthesis is the strength of the inner life. Where it exists, artificial, external barriers became unnecessary. Maimonides, with his superb command of Arabic and deep knowledge of medieval culture, is merely the best known example. But the Jewish poets of the Golden Age in Spain, who wrote both exquisite secular and religious poetry in Hebrew, using the meter and rhyme at which Arabic poetry excelled, testify to the same symbiosis. As in fact, do the Rabbis in Palestine in the centuries after the destruction of the Temple, whose knowledge of the Greek language and the Hellenistic world pervade their reconstruction of Judaism.

I imagine Abraham as such a multifaceted religious revolutionary. The faith he acquired on his own in adulthood did not demand of him a total repudiation of the world from which he came. It fortified him to act intelligently, decisively and morally when the need arose. Instinctively, he strove for balance and integration, what the Rabbis sought to enunciate in their picturesque language when they cautioned that we "should not make the fence larger than what is inside and essential, lest it collapse one day and crush the shoots." Deep faith has the capacity to interact with the world, because its self-restraint comes from within. Thus the Seminary has long had a penchant for the integrated Judaism that flourished on the Iberian Peninsula.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch


The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch's commentary on Parashat Lekh L'kha are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.