This summary is adapted from this week’s main Covenant & Conversation essay by Rabbi Sacks.
What made Avraham so special? He has one of the most well-known names in history. But people usually become famous for ruling empires, performing amazing acts, or leading vast crowds of followers. Instead, Avraham’s legacy lives on through the billions of people alive on the planet who identify themselves as his heirs. How did he achieve this? The Torah tells us almost nothing about his early years. Avraham is first mentioned when God calls on him to leave his home and venture into the unknown. Yet there is no introduction, no explanation of why God chooses him. God’s promise – ‘I have made you the father of many nations’ has profoundly shaped the identity of our world, with over 80 Christian nations, 56 Islamic nations, and the singular Jewish state all calling Avraham their father. He truly became the father of many nations. But who and what was Avraham? Why was he chosen for this exemplary role?
Three stories of Avraham may help us to understand him. First, the Midrash we learn as children: as a young boy, Avraham challenged his father’s idol worship. He smashed all the little clay idols in his father’s shop, and blamed a large idol for the destruction, until his father Terach admitted this must be impossible, for idols are not gods. This story reveals Avraham as a person who questioned beliefs and taught great truths.
The second Midrash is more abstract: Avraham sees a palace in flames. He asks, who could have built it, and who will put out the fire? This story depicts a soul tormented by the world’s suffering. Avraham is acting as a role-model, encouraging us to confront injustices and repair the world.
Lastly, in a vision painted by Rambam, Avraham is shown as a deep thinker who went on a quest to prove God’s existence. He watched the sun rise and set, he watched the moon rise and set. But who created and controlled these sources of light? Avraham’s mind wouldn’t rest until he found the truth, that there is one – and only one – God: the one that created and continues to guide the world.
These stories are each powerful. There is just one problem. There is no evidence for them whatsoever in the Torah. However, what the Torah does say about Avraham is found in the very essence of his name, “Av” in Avram and Avraham, which translates to “father”. The Torah gives us one very clear explanation for God’s choice of Avraham: He was chosen because he would be a great father. The key scenes in Avraham’s life include waiting for a child, the birth of Yishmael, the tension between Sarah and Hagar, the birth of Yitzchak, and the Binding. These are all focused on his role as a father. This is what was special about Avraham.
Judaism elevates the role of parenthood to a sacred realm. On the first day of Rosh Hashanah – the anniversary of Creation – we read of two mothers, Sarah and Hannah, and their sons’ births, as if to say: Every life is a universe. If you wish to understand the creation of the universe, think about the birth of a child. Within Judaism, the proper understanding of Hashem is encapsulated in the intimate, miraculous experience of parenthood. With its raw power and beauty, childbirth becomes a mirror reflecting God’s creative love.
Parenthood, especially the dedication shown by Jewish parents, transforms ordinary life into a sanctified existence. Family is, within Judaism, high religious art, full of drama and beauty. Avraham, the father, and Sarah, the mother, are our enduring role models of parenthood as God’s gift and our highest vocation.
Around the Shabbat Table
- What do you see as the most challenging, and the most rewarding, aspects of parenting?
- What part of Avraham’s three identities do you identify with and why?
- How do you think the act of naming, like in the transformation of Avram to Avraham and Sarai to Sarah, shapes or redefines an individual’s destiny or purpose in life?
Parsha in Passing
This week God commands Avram (Avraham) to leave his homeland and journey to a land God will show him, and promises Avram that he will become the father of a great nation.
Avram, his wife Sarai, and his nephew Lot, travel to the land of Canaan (the future Israel) to create a new home. There, God repeats His promise. As famine strikes, they flee to Egypt, returning to Canaan as soon as they can.
Tensions then arise between Lot’s herders and Avram’s, leading them to part ways. After Lot is captured during the war of the kings, Avram rescues him. God then establishes a covenant with Avram, and tells him Bnei Yisrael’s future, which will include both slavery and redemption. Then we learn of Sarai’s inability to conceive a child. In a gracious move, she offers her maidservant Hagar to Avram, resulting in the birth of Yishmael. God changes Avram’s name to Avraham and Sarai’s to Sarah, repeating His promise that Avraham will one day be the father of a great nation. The parsha concludes with the covenant of Brit Milah.
Avraham: Breaker of all idols, pursuer of truth, trail-blazer, and religion-founder. Most importantly: Father.
Sarah: A steady presence, supportive of all religious endeavours, mother to the Jewish people. But she doesn’t know it yet.
Lot: Opportunist in the shadows, seeker of greener pastures, moral ambiguity is his compass.
Yishmael: Desert wanderer, firstborn with an independent streak. But not the official heir.
This week Rabbi Sacks highlights the fundamental qualities that Avraham embodied as a leader of the Jewish people and, in turn, connects them to parents and leaders in our own homes and communities. Avraham encapsulated three traits as represented in three different sketches of Avraham. First and foremost, he was an iconoclast, the breaker of many idols, and the rebel against polytheism. Next, Avraham was a fighter for human rights – as seen in the parable of Avraham and the palace in flames.
And lastly, in line with the Rambam, Avraham was a philosopher and, ultimately, a teacher to others. However, besides these three images of Avraham – iconoclast, human rights warrior, and philosopher – the Torah leads us to a fourth, more fundamental identity: father.
Avraham is considered the “father” of the Jewish people. And rightfully so. All his major life events revolve around parenthood. With these lessons of Avraham, we can emphasise the traits of standing up for what is right, caring for those around us, and teaching the next generation – all attributes fundamental to the Jewish people as a nation of teachers and parents.
Let’s play “What’s in a Name?”
In this week’s parsha, Avraham and Sarah received new names which represented their unique identities. So let’s find out what’s really in a name.
Each player must take turns selecting everyday household objects and renaming them. New names should be descriptive and imaginative. Everyone must use these new names throughout the day when referring to these items.
The game tests memory and creativity, encouraging family members to view everyday items in a fresh and meaningful light (I mean, “flame-giver”).
How can we take these lessons of “parenthood” from Avraham and apply them to our everyday lives – especially if we’re not yet parents? Let’s take a closer look at one story in this week’s parsha: the story of Avraham’s separation from and – ultimately – rescue of Lot.
Avraham and his nephew parted ways early in Avraham’s journey in Canaan. Not seeing eye to eye can be a good enough reason to separate.
But later on, when Lot is captured during the war between the four kings and the five kings, Avraham bravely saves his nephew. This reflects the underlying values of standing up for what is right and helping others when they are down. In our everyday lives, we can do the same.
- Avraham’s actions with Lot showcase the importance of maintaining relationships, even when differences arise. How can this be applied to your friendships and family relationships?
- Given Avraham’s legacy of standing up for what is right and helping others, what are some situations in your life or school where you can make a positive impact?
This is the story of a heroic soldier named Tzvi, who made the courageous decision to move to Israel and join the Israeli army.
Tzvi’s story begins not in the arid landscapes of Israel but in sunny Florida.
Growing up without strong ties to his Jewish roots or Israel, it wasn’t until a trip to Israel as a student that Tzvi felt a deep connection to a land thousands of miles away. The moment he landed in Israel, he was captivated.
A spark ignited within him, a sense of belonging.
Returning to the US, Tzvi pursued a degree in finance from a top prestigious university. Upon graduating, Tzvi soon found himself in the high-stakes world of investment banking. Yet the echoes of Israel never faded. With each passing day, a voice within grew louder, reminding him of an unfulfilled purpose.
He often caught himself thinking, “I’m not serving others the way I should. I’m not fulfilling my true potential. I don’t want to live my life stuck in a routine, letting the years slip by without making a meaningful impact. We each only have one life to live. Where should I live mine?”
Tzvi heeded this voice and made a bold decision. He embarked on a one-way trip to Israel, leaving behind the comforts of home and the security of a lucrative career.
It was a journey reminiscent of Avraham’s departure from his homeland. For Avraham, the journey was about unwavering faith in God. For Tzvi, it was about safeguarding the Jewish people.
In Israel, Tzvi didn’t just settle; he soared. Today, he is rigorously training to join the elite Unit 669 of the Israeli Air Force. Every challenge he faces, no matter how daunting, is met with the determination of purpose, much like Avraham’s unwavering dedication. In their respective eras, both stood up for their beliefs and their people. And in Tzvi’s heart and actions, Avraham’s legacy lives on.
Question: What am I? I am a tremendous honour, but I cannot receive this honour twice from the same donor. What honour am I?
Answer: The honour of being a sandek (one who holds the baby boy during a brit milah ceremony). Jewish parents cannot bestow this role upon the same person for two brothers (Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 265:11).
This question has been adapted from Torah IQ by David Woolf, a collection of 1,500 Torah riddles, available on Amazon.
The Covenant & Conversation Family Edition is written by Sara Lamm
Written as an accompaniment to Rabbi Sacks’ weekly Covenant & Conversation essay, the Family Edition is aimed at connecting teenagers with his ideas and thoughts on the parsha.
With thanks to the Schimmel Family for their generous sponsorship of Covenant & Conversation, dedicated in loving memory of Harry (Chaim) Schimmel.
“I have loved the Torah of R’ Chaim Schimmel ever since I first encountered it. It strives to be not just about truth on the surface but also its connection to a deeper truth beneath. Together with Anna, his remarkable wife of 60 years, they built a life dedicated to love of family, community, and Torah. An extraordinary couple who have moved me beyond measure by the example of their lives.” — Rabbi Sacks