Parashat Vayera: Abraham's brother

Those who are the most capable leaders, chosen by God, must be ready for special tests to learn difficult lessons.

Jerusalem Parade 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Jerusalem Parade 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
“After this, Abraham received a message: Milcah has also had children from your brother Nahor: Uz, his first born; Buz, his brother, Kemuel, father of Aram, Chesed, Hazo, Pildash, Jidlaph and Bethuel. Bethuel had a daughter, Rebekah. Milcah bore the above eight sons to Abraham’s brother Nahor. [Additionally] Nahor’s concubine was named Reumah and she also had children: Tebah, Gaham, Tahash, and Ma’acah” (Genesis 22:20-24).
I would like to draw your attention to the strange biblical postscript to the akeda, describing the descendants of Abraham’s brother Nahor.
What could be the reason for this addendum? Abraham was clearly the most righteous man of his generation. He discovered the ideal of ethical monotheism, and taught compassion and justice to anyone who would listen. In a miraculously successful military maneuver, Abraham freed the five kings of the fertile crescent from four tyrants, and willingly left his ancestral home (his past) and bound his adored son (his future) to the altar because God asked him to do so.
Yet Abraham had tremendous difficulty in conceiving a son with his wife Sarah and once he did, he was commanded to sacrifice the young man. In contrast, Abraham’s only surviving brother, Nahor, about whose deeds the Bible records not one syllable, is blessed with eight sons by his wife Milcah, and has four more with his concubine, Reumah. The biblical report makes absolutely no mention of any difficulty his brother might have had with conceiving children.
In placing this message immediately after the traumatic events of the akeda, could the Bible be pouring salt on Abraham’s wounds? Why would it do that? I believe a clue to understanding this strange passage lies in the name of Nahor’s firstborn son, Uz. This can be connected with the first verse in the Book of Job: “There was a man who lived in the land of Uz and Job was his name; this man was wholehearted and righteous, one who feared God and kept far from evil.”
The book continues by telling us how God proclaimed the greatness of Job before Satan, who responded that it was no wonder Job was righteous after all the good fortune he had received. It is this dialogue that leads to God’s decision to “test” Job with misfortune.
The parallel to Abraham’s “test” is clear. Both stories emerge from the land of Uz, which symbolizes the unfair, incomplete and as-yet unredeemed world where God’s face remains hidden and the righteous continue to be tested.
It is just these tragic circumstances which cause R. Ya’acov to cry out, “There is no reward for commandments in this world,” (B.T. Kiddushin 39b), and the Talmud to declare “Life, children and sustenance are not dependent on merit but rather upon mazal [the luck of the draw]” (B.T. Moed Katan 28a).
And so perhaps the postscript to the akeda, reminiscent of a kind of synagogue bulletin announcing births within the community, reflects our own life experiences: the righteous Abraham has it hard while the nondescript Nahor has it easy.
There is, however, a totally antithetical way of looking at this conclusion to the akeda. Yes, Nahor received undeserved good fortune and Abraham underwent a traumatic experience. But remember that this world is merely a corridor to the Messianic Age and the spiritual world-to-come.
We live in a training ground wherein the Almighty is our Master Trainer.
From this perspective, God had to communicate a crucially important ideal to the first Hebrew, and the founder of ethical monotheism.
He wanted to teach him that our God is not Moloch; He will never accept child sacrifice as a legitimate religious ritual.
So any individual who sends out his child as a suicide bomber in the name of God is actually serving Satan. Hence, the first divine message asking the patriarch to bring Isaac as an ola – which can be taken to mean a “whole burnt offering” – is redefined by the second Divine message, unequivocally forbidding Abraham from committing such a sacrilege. Ola is an act of dedication in life (an uplifting), and our God sees Moloch as an abomination.
But why did God use such an ambiguous term as ola, which can also mean “whole burnt offering”? Perhaps because although God would never ask for human sacrifice, the gentile world of persecution and pogrom might well ask just that of us, as we have experienced throughout history.
Those who are the most capable leaders, chosen by God, must be ready for special tests to learn difficult lessons. And despite the challenges of one life versus the ease of the other, Abraham remains the father of a multitude of nations, while if Nahor is remembered at all, it is merely as Abraham’s brother.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.