Sometimes life has a habit of kicking you just where it hurts most. Just when you have come through a bad experience, maybe a horrifying one that partially weakened you, maybe even partially strengthened you, the next blow comes. The section at the very end of this week’s sidra ‘Vayera’ is one of those moments. Because it’s at the end it may be read or gabbled through as ‘Maftir’ in congregations that have this custom, but otherwise tends to get overlooked.
There is much high drama in this sidra. It starts with the invitation to three passing travellers who are – unbeknown to Abraham – actually angels in disguise, on a mission to check out what is really happening in Sodom. Then comes the well-known bargaining between Abraham and God in which Abraham manages to negotiate God down to just Ten good men in the city – at which point God runs off before he is forced to make any further concessions. Then the melodramatic Chapter 19 in which the angels encounter Abraham’s nephew and adopted heir Lot, the son of his deceased brother Haran, see 11:27-30) and Lot encounters the worst side of his fellow citizens, fire falls from heaven and only some escape…. but ironically Lot, despite being traumatised and alcoholised, is still able to father two sons incestuously without even knowing what he is doing. This is such a contrast to the efforts and the heartbreak that Abraham and his wife Sarah have had to contend with so far. In Chapter 20 Abraham has to go to Gerar, is exceedingly afraid of being murdered so that others can enjoy his wife and resorts to a lie. In a strange scene God appears to Avimelech the King of Gerar in the night and says ‘Hands Off! In 20:17 & 18 God relents of his punishment of infertility on Gerar and suddenly everyone is having children.
In Chapter 21 – finally – the elderly Sarah has a son and now pressurises Abraham into expelling – effectively murdering – Hagar and Ishmael. Avimelech turns up to resolve a border dispute man-to-man; In Chapter 22 God suddenly tells Abraham to bind and sacrifice his remaining son – I trust we know the story, also used as a Rosh Hashanah reading – and after the unexpected anticlimactic climax Abraham returns – seemingly without Isaac, but at least without having killed him – back to Beer Sheva.
It has been a fairly traumatic set of incidents; he assumes he has lost his nephew Lot; he assumes he has lost his first son Ishmael and his mother; he has gone through hell and back just now, deceiving both his wife and his son and probably ruining the relationship to both. (Sarah will die at the beginning of the next chapter, there is no mention of any reconciliation between them, of any conversation at all.) And then – just when things could hardly be worse – ”It was told to Abraham that his surviving brother Nahor and his wife Milka have produced eight sons and a granddaughter, just like that, and another four sons through the concubine!” We don’t know who tells him but the news has come through, davka, right now. Abraham, the failed father, has suddenly become a twelve-fold uncle.
Is this ‘good news’? Well, it is for Nahor who is now a grandfather and of course some of these family members will become important for the patriarchal story – Abraham will in due course marry his son to his great-niece Rebecca (spoiler alert!) – but it throws his own failure as a man, as a husband, as a father into stark relief. Or maybe – and note carefully the wording, it is told that ”Milka the wife of Nahor had borne him eight sons” – by stressing the role of the wife as mother this throws the sharp light onto Sarah, his own wife, who has remained childless until the age of 90 and has never had more than the one son.
Is it just ‘luck’ or is it some form of divine plan? Terach (like Noach) had had three sons: One of them had a son, Lot, and died young; One had no sons, adopted his nephew, went off and – went through the adventures described; One stayed at home and became a real patriarch. We are not told that Nahor was especially good or deserving of such domestic happiness and high social status – it ‘just happened.’ And Abraham, who had been promised by God ”I will make you into a great nation” (12:2) and ”Your seed will be as numerous as the stars in the night sky” (15:5) is entitled to feel by now that God has made rather a fool of him, has not fulfilled those prophecies.
Abraham is of course no longer a young man. This makes it even more surprising that, once he has been widowed at age 137, and has – described as ‘elderly’ in 24:1 – arranged to procure a wife for his son, he remarries and (in 25:1-4) has six more sons, who grow and leave, before he dies thirty-eight years later aged 175. Another unexpected snippet and this time the sons will NOT play any further role in the patriarchal narrative. They will not inherit the covenant. What should we learn from this? That there’s life in the old man yet? That a dry tree can still be full of sap? That one should never give up hope? That it is not good to remain alone after being widowed?
But to return to the end of our sidra: How is Abraham meant to react? With joy? With gratitude to God for his brother’s good fortune? With a quick message of ‘Mazal Tov!‘ sent by courier? Once more the Torah plays its usual trick on us of saying – absolutely Nothing. It is clearly considered important that we have the names of all the boys, of both the mothers, and the granddaughter – but we do not ‘need’ to know how the news came or what impact it had. Or better said – if we DO want to know, we have to fill the gap for ourselves and write a midrash.
Ishmael has also had twelve sons – seemingly all from the same mother – but Abraham will never learn this, because even we are only told in 25:12-16 immediately after Abraham has been buried. And later of course Abraham’s grandson Jacob will also have twelve sons, though only after much anguish and through four different mothers. Twelve seems to be a magic number here. Why twelve? Enough for a football team plus one reserve? Jacob’s twin Esau incidentally will marry two Hittite women (just to annoy his parents) and then his cousin the daughter of Ishmael, and between them have five sons (36:1-4); through Adah one son and six grandsons; through Oholiab three sons; from Basemat one son and four grandsons (Genesis 36:1-19). (If it helps, King Ibn Sa’ud who founded Saudi Arabia in 1932 is said to have had 22 consorts and around 100 children including 45 sons, 36 of whom lived to maturity; but to establish himself he had to depose his father and disempower his five brothers.)
Are we keeping score? The Torah is.
To make matters even more complex it seems that the Covenant, the Brit that God has made with Abraham may only be passed down to One person in each generation. Why, we do not know. Abraham faces the choice of the first-born son from the concubine, or the second son from the wife? Isaac faces the difficult choice of one twin over another, a choice then taken from him by trickery in his old age; Jacob will want to pass it to his eleventh son who happens to be the first son from the favourite wife – but circumstances conspire to prevent this and in the end the covenant will skip a generation and be given instead to Joseph’s second-born.
Is there anything to be learned from these statistics and genealogies? Are they important for any moral lesson? I think it helps to be reminded from time to time that these major biblical characters were really human, that they had issues with their children and their siblings, their nieces and nephews, their cousins, over policy, over inheritances, over succession just like modern potentates; that they had domestic issues and strains which could not always be wiped away by some foreign policy success. We read often of national leaders and we see brief film clips but, unless some smiling glamour-puss is waving in the background, we learn little of these people’s domestic relationships and what else is driving them apart from political ambition and greed. Were they influenced by parents or aunts, are they in rivalry with their siblings, are they carrying crippling worries about their children who do not seem interested in or capable of taking over the reins of power?
By the time this sermon, written on 2nd. November, has been translated and published online a major election will have taken place – I won’t even mention which! – but in fact there have been several in the past weeks in different countries, together with struggles to retain power in places like Belarus, Chechnya, Ukraine, Turkey, Cambodia and elsewhere. Who are these people, who seek to rule? What is going on in their minds, what do they know, what do they not know, under whose influences do they stand? One needs a broader picture. About Abraham we read much, but he remains largely a figure of mystery. And one of the questions, for me, is what he really thought when ”it was told to him” how successful his brother had been.
Rabbi Dr Walter Rothschild 2th November 2020