Tuesday, July 25th, 2017

Parshat Vayera: Avraham the Gadfly by Yaakov Bieler

October 21, 2010 by  
Filed under New Posts, Tanach

Pirkei Avot contains not only portrait of the central character traits of Avraham, but also a subtle assumption regarding how we might also develop such qualities:

Avot 5:19

Whoever possesses these three qualities is one of the students of Avraham Avinu…A generous eye, a humble spirit and a self-disciplined soul…[1]

In contrast to those who contend that an individual’s personality is primarily influenced by nature—inherent genetic influences—and nurture—upbringing, the Mishna implies that one can proactively and consciously make himself into a “student” of individuals possessing distinct characteristics and thereby develop such traits in addition to, or perhaps even in spite of, one’s DNA and formative experience with family and peers. 

Additional Abrahamic traits in Beraishit:  “Speaking Truth to Power”

            Although the Mishna above limits itself to three outstanding qualities associated with Avraham, reading the many stories in Beraishit   would allow an expansion of the list of the characteristics to which a “student of Avraham” might aspire.  One such additional characteristic is the type of mindset, whereby an individual fearlessly confronts those wielding immense political power and challenges their behavior and leadership qualities on ethical, moral and spiritual grounds.  Avraham’s unceasing willingness and increasing boldness to “speak truth to power”[2] appears to evolve from confrontation to confrontation, and perhaps this personal quality contributed significantly to his being chosen by God in the first place to serve as founder of the Jewish people.[3]

The First Encounter:  Under the Radar

            According to the Tora text,[4] Avraham does not immediately engage in direct confrontation with political leaders. The first time that he has to decide what to do in the presence of a powerful ruler, when a famine forces him and his family to leave Canaan, and relocate to Egypt (12:10 ff.), Avraham attempts to remain “under the radar.” He is afraid of what will happen to him were it to become known that Sara is his wife, and so the couple decides to pass themselves off as brother and sister. Even after Pharoah concludes as a result of God’s protecting Sara’s virtue by means of supernatural plagues (12:17) that they were in fact married, and proceeds to remonstrate Avraham for his deception, the latter is mute, keeps Pharoah’s considerable financial settlement initially given to him as Sara’s marriage price (12:16), and leaves the country as soon as he is able (13:1).

The Second Encounter:  Greater Assertiveness After Military Victory

A much more self-assured stance is assumed by Avraham when he confronts the next king, the ruler of Sodom (14:17 ff.) After having rescued his nephew Lot, and liberated the monarch as well as regaining the spoils that had been taken from his city, Sodom’s king gives Avraham an  opportunity to further increase the considerable wealth (14:21) that he had begun accumulating when he was in Egypt. Although Avraham accepts some of the property on behalf of his allies, Aner, Eshkol and Mamre (14:24), he refuses to take anything for himself (14:23). Avraham’s demeanor is ostensibly polite, but one can detect an implied criticism of the king of Sodom and his city state, when Avraham swears his determination not to enrich himself by invoking the Name of HaShem (14:22), particularly in light of the Tora’s earlier assessment of Sodom and its inhabitants—“And the people of Sodom were evil and exceedingly sinful against God” (13:13). A second critical note is  implied by Avraham’s stating that he wishes to avoid being associated with this king even in terms of  the most insignificant material possessions (14:23). The subtle insult to the Sodomite culture is further highlighted by the Tora’s insertion[5] of a stark contrast to Sodom’s ruler and everything he represents—Avraham’s  meeting with Malki Tzedek, king of Shalem  (14:18-20).  From the words of Malki Tzedek’s blessings to Avraham, one gains the impression that not only is he not a sinner against God, but actually a fellow traveler of Avraham’s in terms of monotheism and belief in a Creator of the Universe.[6]  

 The Third Monarch:  Confrontation

Another famine, similar to the one that resulted in the temporary stay in Egypt,  forces Avraham and Sara to  relocate for a time to Gerar (20:1 ff.), where once again prudence convinces them to reassume the brother-sister pretense. Yet this time Avraham speaks extremely forthrightly “to power” when challenged by Gerar’s ruler regarding his and Sara’s subterfuge. When Avimelech self-righteously accuses the couple of lying to him, Avraham responds by not only claiming that in fact he and his wife are blood relatives and therefore no technical lie had been told, but also with a condemnation of the culture of the kingdom in which he and Sara find themselves. (20:11) “…There is no fear of God in this place, and I could be killed concerning my wife.” [7] And the same Avimelech, when he proposes to Avraham that the two of them enter into a mutual non-aggression pact (21:23), obtains Avraham’s agreement, but not without first having to receive a rebuke on his people’s unethical behavior concerning the destruction of wells that Avraham and his servants had dug (21:25).  While the Tora records Avimelech’s protestations of innocence (21:26), the Tora’s account of the king’s response appears to make this a case of “the lady doth protest too much.”

 “Fear of God” and a Proper Social Structure

Avraham’s articulation of what he perceives as the absence of “Yirat Elokim” in Gerar as the basis for his and Sara’s misrepresentations, could actually serve as the informing principle for each of these cases, i.e., Egypt, Sodom and Gerar, as well as Avraham’s general approach to his role in life. The Tora remarks repeatedly how Avraham, in various places, proclaims the Name of HaShem: 12:8; 13:4; 21:33. While these phrases could be interpreted as Avraham attempting to spread monotheism, they could simultaneously be understood as the patriarch’s publicizing the need for ethical and moral behavior as well. In 17:1, when God instructs Avraham “…Hithalech Lifanei VeHeyeh Tamim” (Cause yourself to walk before Me and be whole), this could refer not only to beliefs regarding the existence of God and the symbolic striving for physical perfection via circumcision (the ensuing verses in Chapt. 17 present Avraham with this commandment for himself, his offspring, and the members of his household), but also the need to make the public case for ethical inter-personal behavior. It would appear from the instances cited above, that Avraham was not only concerned with others forsaking their belief in idolatry, but also their immoral behaviors resulting from their lack of belief in one overarching deity Who demanded from them honesty, respect for others and their property, justice, and a proper social order. Understanding Avraham from this perspective makes him into not only a religious revolutionary, but also a gadfly for social improvement and equity.[8]    

Transmission to Avraham’s Descendents

Furthermore, when HaShem says about Avraham that He recognizes that he will “command his children and his household after him and they will keep the Way of HaShem to do righteousness and justice” (18:19), it could be understood that the Divine expectation is not only that these principles will inform the internal workings of Avraham’s and his descendents’ households, but that members of Avraham’s extended family will advance these principles in whatever society they may find themselves.

Finally, it should be noted that Avraham even “speaks truth to the Ultimate Power,” when he responds critically to the Divine Plan concerning Sodom and Amora (18:17 ff.)  Particularly with respect to one of Avraham’s side comments, whereby he pleads with HaShem to spare the residents of these cities, however evil the majority of them may be, and says, “…Chalila Lach, HaShofet Kol HaAretz Lo Ya’aseh Mishpat?” (this would be a profanation for You. Can the Judge of the entire world fail to carry out justice?) (18:25). Avraham demonstrates that he was not ready to only confront this-worldly rulers, however powerful and threatening to him; his passion for justice and fair play carried over into his dealings with HaShem. If it was Avraham’s monotheism that informed this concern for social reform, then he could hardly tolerate what he perceived as inconsistency and insensitivity on the part of the very Source of his strongly held beliefs in this regard.

While Avraham is clearly associated with hospitality to strangers (18:1 ff.; 21:33) and he is designated in Pirkei Avot (5:19) as possessing the qualities of generosity, humility, and readiness to forgive, Avraham’s courage to advocate for justice and fairness even in the face of royalty, should be another quality that those of us who strive to become “students of Avraham” should keep very much in mind.


[1] These characteristics are listed in accordance with the interpretation of R. Ovadia MiBartenura.

[2] “Speaking truth to power” was a specific charge given to the Quakers or “Society of Friends” in order to define one of the principles by which members of this movement were expected to conduct themselves. Over time, the phrase has been applied to many different contexts, even serving as the title of the autobiography of Anita Hill, who in 1991 accused the then nominee for the Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas, of sexual harassment.

[3] Strikingly, the Tora is silent with regard to why specifically Avraham was chosen for this profound task. Beraishit 11, the chapter that precedes the Divine Revelation ordering him and his family to travel to Canaan, does not tell us anything about Avraham’s qualifications. Even 18:19, in which God discloses that Avraham can be counted upon to pass on his traditions to his offspring, does not appear to identify a quality that is so profoundly unique that would single him out as an eminently qualified  nation builder. Perhaps, only by reflecting upon Avraham’s style as he goes through his life, can one infer the potential personal qualities that attracted God to choosing this man to be the father of the Jewish people, as well as a multitude of nations (17:5). His readiness to speak “truth to power” might have been one of those distinguishing qualities.

[4] The Rabbis in the Midrash posit confrontations between first Avraham and Terach, and then Avraham and Nimrod.

[5] Commentators note that the interchange between Avraham and Malki Tzedek (14:18-20) interrupts the incomplete story of his dealings with the king of Sodom (14:17, 21-4,) and speculate that this is deliberately done to force the reader to contrast the two kings.

[6] The contrast between how Avraham reacts to each of these kings is made even starker according to the interpretations of RaDaK and his father, R. Shmuel Kimchi, who contend that it was Malki Tzedek who gives the tithe to Avraham in 14:20, as opposed to the opinion of most commentators who claim that the reverse was the case. Such an approach demonstrates that from one type of ruler whom he respected spiritually, he is prepared to receive a gift, but not from a leader who he deems as corrupt. While political protocol may have required Avraham to politely accept both gifts, he apparently is not prepared to do so, and is indifferent how this snubbing of the King of Sodom might be perceived.

[7] ”Yirat Elokim” (the fear of God), if used by the Tora even in the context of Gerar, a Philistine city, is a universal religious and moral quality obviously not expected only of Jews. This point is reinforced in light of 42:18 and Shemot 1:17, the latter in accordance with the Midrash that the midwives were actual Egyptians rather than Yocheved and Miriam.

[8] The Midrashic account of Nimrod’s attempt to execute Avraham (Beraishit Rabba 38:13) as well as  Maimonides’ presentation (Mishneh Tora, Hilchot Avoda Zora 1:3 of Avraham’s youthful years leading him to be exiled from Ur Kasdim) could be understood as reflecting not only the concern of the ruler that a religious revolution would destabilize his kingdom, but also that religious ferment could lead to citizens challenging his authority as well as the laws that govern the kingdom.

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