58_Abraham meets Melchizedek.
(photo credit: Loggia di Raffaello)
The lives of Abraham and Sarah, loaded with problems, setbacks and great
achievements, stand as a stark example for Jewish life and general human life.
Miracles intervene for them, but they never quite bring final and lasting
security or solutions to the problems of life. Sarah’s miraculous giving birth
to Isaac is almost eclipsed by his being nearly sacrificed on the altar at Mount
In fact midrash attributes her death to the shock caused by her
learning of that event.
Ishmael remains an issue for Abraham and his
descendants throughout human history. The vast number of “converts” to
monotheism created by Abraham and Sarah – Rabbi Menahem Meiri (14thcentury
Provence) counts them as being a majority of the then population of the area –
apparently backslide into paganism once more after the deaths of Abraham and
Midrash teaches us that Abraham lives to see Esau and Jacob, the
twins of Isaac and Rebekah, and already senses that something has gone awry in
the genealogical chain of his descendants. In short, we can characterize the
lives of the founders of our people and faith as being bittersweet.
fact, any analysis of the lives of any of our biblical fathers and mothers,
Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah, Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah
will produce a feeling of empathy if not even sadness for the lives they led and
the experiences that they endured. People tend to glorify and exaggerate past
lives and to build a much more rosy picture of past accomplishments. Not so the
Torah in its description of the lives of the founders of Judaism and the Jewish
A well known axiom in Jewish tradition is that the lives of our
ancestors, the history of the Jewish past, serve as the guidepost for all
present and future Jewish life. Therefore the most that we can apparently expect
in the overall scheme of life and events is that it will be bittersweet. This is
not a pessimistic observation, for Judaism of all faiths is optimistic and
forward looking to the core. Yet it is a realistic assessment of human beings
and human and national life.
There are many distractions and
blandishments in life that eventually lead nowhere. Whatever hard-won victories
and accomplishments the Jewish people have achieved against all odds, akin to
the miraculous birth of Isaac, are nevertheless constantly endangered.
it isn’t Hitler, it is Stalin, and if it is not Stalin then it is Yasser Arafat
and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The list is never ending and the dangers are
There are people who recoil and even die (Jewishly speaking)
at the realization that this is a permanent factor in Jewish national life. They
wish to pretend that this is not so and that we can have all the sweet we desire
without having to encounter the bitter. Would that this be so, but realistically
speaking it just is not possible. So the example of our biblical ancestors
serves us as a model for perseverance, faith and commitment in the face of all
challenges and enemies.
Abraham is recorded in the Torah as having died
“filled and satiated with his days.” This phrase can be taken in different ways.
One can look at it with a jaundiced eye and say that Abraham was fed up already.
He had had enough troubles and disappointments.
In a moment of despair,
the prophet Jonah tells God that He should take his soul from him for “my death
is a better option than my continued life.”
There have been many who have
said that very thing in human and Jewish history and there are many more who
have thought it without expressing it verbally. Yet Abraham, according to all
traditional commentaries, is not pessimistic or despairing at the end of his
life. He is confident that God’s promises to him will all prove valid – that the
world will be blessed through his progeny and that the Land of Israel will be
the home and property of the Jewish nation.
He is confident that his
descendants will learn to live productively and morally in a world that is at
best bittersweet and not succumb to the temptations of pure hedonism and
materialism and also be able to survive and grow amid crushing poverty and
bigotry directed against them. He is satisfied with his days, with what has been
accomplished, and that a halffilled glass is always better than an empty one.
That is the guidepost for life that is his legacy for all of us in our difficult