B’reishit, Chapter 17-20: Avraham and Sarah

Chapter 17: God made a covenant with Avram.  He then changed Avram’s name to Avraham.  God further commanded that as a sign of the covenant, every male shall be circumcised on the eighth day of his life.  God changed Sarai’s name to Sarah and promised that she, too, will bear a child.  On that day, both Avraham and Ishmael were circumcised.

Chapter 18: As Avraham was sitting at his tent on a hot day in the desert, he saw three men.  He immediately offered them to wash up and gives them food to eat.  One of the men told Avraham that in one year, Sarah will have a child; Sarah overheared this and laughed since she was very old.  Then, God revealed to Avraham his plan to destroy the evil city of S’dom.  Avraham pleaded with God not to destory S’dom if there were even a few righteous men there; “Will you destroy the righteous with the wicked?”

Chapter 19: Two angels went to S’dom and warned Lot of what is about to happen.  Lot took his family out, and S’dom was destroyed by fire.  When Lot’s wife looked back at the city, she turned into a pillar of salt.  Lot and his two daughters then lived in a cave.  Since there were no men there, Lot’s daughters gave their father wine to drink and conceived from him.  One bore the father of the people of Mo’av and the other bore the father of the people of Ammon.

Chapter 20: Avraham and Sarah move to Gerar, and Avraham tells Sarah once again to pose as his sister.  Avimelekh took Sarah, and God came to him in a dream to tell him not to touch Sarah as she is a married woman.  When Avimelekh questioned Avraham’s actions, Avraham responded that he feared for his life.  Avimelekh gave Sarah back to Avraham along with animals, servants, silver, and land.

These chapters represent some of the more famous stories about Avraham.  What we can learn from them is so clear: the covenant with God, circumcision as an active sign of God’s covenant and belonging to His people, the important Jewish value of hospitality (hakhnasat or’chim) which Avraham expresses so greatly to his three guests, and arguing with God on behalf of the righteous people of S’dom.

The last of our chapters offers a difficult and strange story.  For the second time, Avraham tries to pass off his wife as his sister in order to save his own life (Sarah was so beautiful that surely the king would kill Avraham in order to take her).  What are we supposed to take from these stories?  The Ramban makes a fascinating comment in chapter 12, the first time Avraham passes his wife off as his sister:

Know that Abraham our father unintentionally committed a great sin by bringing his righteous wife to a stumbling-block of sin on account of his fear for his life.  He should have trusted that God would save him and his wife and all his belongings for God surely has the power to help and to save.  

For all of Avraham’s amazing qualities and good deeds, he can sometimes seem superhuman rather than an ideal that we ought to aspire to emulate.  It’s stories like these that show us that Avraham was indeed human; when he feared for his life, he also did drastic things as is human nature even though they might not be right.  It reminds us that Avraham was a great human being, but a human being, and someone from whom we can truly and realistically learn middot tovot, positive character traits.

Rabbi Roy Feldman

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B’reishit, Chapter 17-20: Avraham and Sarah

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