Parashat Vayera 5778
Rabbi Ari Kahn
The concept of “a chosen people” evinces different reactions from different people; in fact, many consider it a double-edged sword. For some, it is a source of pride, mission, and responsibility; others believe it to be a divisive and damaging concept that leads to an inflated sense of self-importance and false superiority. Perhaps a better understanding of the “chosenness” of Avraham and Sarah will help resolve this quandary.
Why were Avraham, Sarah, and their descendants chosen? While some claim that it was in fact Avraham who chose God, and not God who chose Avraham, the text of the Torah does not support this contention. In a fascinating and unusual passage in this week’s parashah, the Torah reveals God’s “thinking”:
And God said, “Shall I conceal from Avraham what I do, now that Avraham is surely to become a great and mighty nation and all the nations of the earth will be blessed through him? For I know him (fondly), because he instructs his children and his household after him, keeping the way of God by behaving with charity and justice (tzedaka and mishpat), in order that God may bestow upon Avraham [the blessings] He has articulated regarding him.” (Bereishit 18:17-19)
Avraham lived according to his own finely-tuned spiritual and moral compass; moreover, he dedicated his life to teaching those around him, to inspiring others, and to passing on his insights to the people around him and those who would follow in his footsteps. God chose Avraham “because he instructs his children and his household after him, to keep the way of God” by doing what is just and right. In the dark ages in which he lived, Avraham was a beacon of light – a light that did not shine only for its own sake, but shared its illumination and warmth with others, igniting other lights through acts of tzedaka and mishpat. We find virtually no moral instruction and no intergenerational dialogue in the generations before Avraham. Avraham was different precisely because he was not an island; he touched the lives, the minds, and the hearts of everyone who met him – and beyond.
How did Avraham create this tremendous impact? How did his message overcome the darkness around him and reach across space and time? Simply put, Avraham taught not only with words, but with deeds. His behavior might be called extreme: Whatever he did, he did with all his strength, with a sense of purpose and immediacy. Whether the task at hand was going to war, arguing with God and begging for justice, or energetically welcoming guests, Avraham acted with enthusiasm and conviction, with all of his heart and all of his soul.
His life was multifaceted; to an outside observer, it might seem full of contradictions. Was he a resolute man of war, or a benevolent humanitarian? The answer to both questions is – yes. Avraham embodied both tzedaka – acts of kindness, charity and giving - and mishpat – a keen sense of justice and the ability to take decisive action in defense of truth.
Avraham could welcome guests with unparalleled hospitality, and yet beg God to spare the hostile, xenophobic city of Sodom and its misanthropic, malevolent citizens. For Avraham, this was not a contradiction; there was no dissonance between the charitable acts he demanded of himself and those around him, and his unique sense of justice and heightened sense of fairness. He created and lived by a personal standard that was, and remains, extremely uncommon: Avraham expected and demanded decency. He was aware that his standards were his own (hence his caution when dealing with Pharaoh, Avimelech, the king of Sodom, and even his nephew Lot), but he lived his life as a model of personal decency. Even God could not escape Avraham’s demand for a just world.
It seems that Avraham - and his wife and partner, Sarah - were blessed with a son precisely because of the way they lived their lives and the light they spread to the world around them: Although barren by nature, their prayer for progeny was not motivated by ego or narcissism, and was not answered by God as a personal gift. The world needed Avraham and Sarah, just as the world needed – and still needs - their offspring. The world needs people who can live by and disseminate the values of tzedaka and mishpat. The world needs the Jewish People – and we must live up to and embody the values that Avraham and Sarah imparted to us. We must never lose sight of tzedaka and mishpat - charity and justice. We must live these values, and in so doing, inspire our neighbors, our students, and our children. Then, and only then, will we truly be a “Chosen People.”
© Rabbi Ari Kahn 2017
For more Essays and Lectures on Vayera: