10/31/2006

Abraham and the Federal Witness Protection Program

When I taught the Abram stories of Bereishit in High School a few years back, my students and I developed this theory that we called the ‘Federal Witness Protection Program’, which basically highlighted a series of changes that Abram and Sarai undergo:
  • They are forced to relocate

  • Their names are changed

  • Sarai’s lineage is obscured (Chazal and most commentators agree that she is the Yiskah of the end of Noach, but as Sarai, we are never told who her father is)

  • They aren’t told initially where they will be relocated

  • Abraham’s father’s death is recorded prematurely (if you do the math, Terach didn’t die until 2 years before Sarah did), as if to emphasize his irrelevance to Abraham’s story after the relocation

  • Sarai’s barrenness is emphasized – they have no future, as of yet

  • The Torah emphasizes the break that they will undergo – ‘go forth from your land, your birthplace, your father’s house…’, which underscores the complete break with his past

  • The Torah (in the brit bein Ha-betarim) relates to Abraham’s journey from Ur as a ‘salvation’ – “I am God Who rescued you from Ur Kasdim” (and see Ramban at the end of Noach).

  • Eventually, Abram breaks contact with the only relative that accompanies him, his nephew Lot, and he is forced to break, on some level, with both of his older sons
Thus, we see a man who is forced to remain very, very alone. He has jettisoned his past, and his future is never really guaranteed until the very, very end of the story. He is a stranger in several strange lands, never really settling in a single place, again until the very, very end. What are we to make of this description?

There are several striking midrashim that seem to address this theme. One attempts to explain why Abraham was called ‘Ivri’, and suggests an image of the entire world standing on one riverbank, and the lonely Abraham standing on the other side, ‘be-ever ha-nahar’. Rivers, in chazal, will often denote barriers, obstacles few are willing to attempt overcoming. It’s much easier to ‘go with the flow’. Abraham alone on the outer bank suggests that there is an unbridgeable divide between Abraham and the rest of humanity (being God’s chosen can do that to a guy). The moment God chose him, he ceased to be a part of any community of men, any family, any nationality, any history. A brand new story starts at that moment.

The second midrash relates to when God ‘took Abram out’ to look at the stars. Rashi relates a midrash to the effect that Abram must look beyond his ‘stars’ – his fate that had been determined by that combination of factors that the ancient world knew as ‘the stars’ and recognize that he has a brand new identity which has not yet been determined in any way. Abram’s fate was determined, but he is now Abraham, a brand new entity (which identifies him as the progenitor of something brand new) unencumbered by fate. He may begin his own nation with its own new story, which is still being written.
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