Service And Community, In The Desert, Among Strangers

In his covenant with Avimelech, Abraham provides us with an example of how to build peace, justice, and kindness where they seem to be absent.

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"Shall I hide from Abraham what I am doing?… For I have known him in order that he may command his children and his household after him, that they may keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice." So says God as God contemplates plans for the city of Sodom and its surroundings, whose reputation for evil and whose shrieks of corruption have become more than God can bear.

God knows that for Abraham and his descendents to become responsible for justice in the world, God must first apprentice Abraham, including him in a monumental decision about justice and human beings. (Abraham, of course, ends up challenging God to save the population of the cities if even ten righteous people can be found in the area.)

Justice & Familial Struggle

Parshat Vayera places this passage in the middle of a flow of events that somehow link the issue of justice in the wider world to Abraham's own family struggles. As the Torah reading begins, Abraham sprints from the door of his desert tent toward three travelers, who turn out to be divine messengers come to announce the birth of a son to elderly Sarah and Abraham.

As the reading ends, Ishmael and his mother Hagar are driven out, because of Sarah's jealousy and her urge to secure the inheritance of her own son Isaac. God saves the cast-out boy and his mother. God then tests Abraham, asking him to give up his remaining son Isaac as a sacrifice on Mt. Moriah. Yet again God intercedes and saves the boy.

This interplay between the discussion about Sodom and the struggle for peace and justice in Abraham's household resist an easy lesson.

Toward the end of this week's reading is an episode most of us don't remember. Between the banishment of Ishmael and the binding of Isaac, Abraham is approached by Avimelech, king of the neighboring Philistines. Avimelech proposes a treaty, in recognition of past friendship. After the covenant is made official, the Torah relates that "Abraham planted an eshel-tree in Be'er Sheva, and there he called the name of Adonai, Eternal God. And Abraham lived in the land of the Philistines a long time."

The peace treaty is jarring--it comes as Abraham's own family seems to be collapsing, and stands in counterpoint to the doom of Sodom and Gomorrah. The rabbis of the midrash (rabbinic exegetical narrative) try to make sense of the episode, and their point of entry is, of all things, the tree.

In one midrash, two rabbis offer their views on what exactly the eshel was. One says: an orchard. The other says: an inn, a waystation for desert travelers. Either way, Abraham marks his new bond with the Philistines by getting involved with them, providing and sharing food. For Abraham, the alliance isn't just with Avimelech, and it isn't just an agreement to insure against future conflicts. It has to create a new relationship of hesed, of covenantal kindness, between two peoples, starting now.

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Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett

Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett is the founder and director of MACHAR, a national project in the United States involving Jewish youth in service that promotes self-sufficiency and economic empowerment and in study of Jewish and American "texts" on wealth, success, and social responsibility.