In preparing to read and talk about this week's portion, Lech L'cha, I often felt as excited as if I were embarking on a journey along with Abraham and Sarah. I kept wondering, though, why Abraham? (And Sarah--because although this is not acknowledged overtly in Torah, I must think of them together). Why were these people singled out to break the pattern--to go to a strange land and found a great nation. Were they such extraordinary people? About Abraham, there are many legends--most pointing to his great strength and might: that he walked, talked and cared for himself at 20 days old, and that, in adulthood, he was as tall as 70 men put together. About Sarah, there are fewer legends, although there are stories about her beauty--so dazzling that it nearly blinded an angel who had come to tell her that she was to give birth to a son--at age 90! Midrash attempts to show the young Abraham's steadfast belief in one God in the face of great obstacles: Most of us have heard about Abraham's father, the idol maker, and Abraham's clever attempts to persuade customers not to buy the idols.
However, my point of reference is the Torah, and Torah presents quite a different picture; in the Torah, we do not even meet Abraham until he is 75 years old. Sarah is 65. We have little information about Abraham's early life and none about Sarah's. The few bits of information we have do not show any specialness: Abraham's father was Terah; there were at least two brothers, one of whom died, leaving a son Lot, who lives with the family and travels with Abraham and Sarah. We do not know that Terah made or worshiped idols or, for that matter, that Abraham didn't.
Were they chosen because of their great virtue? Although that is the claim of some, I doubt it. In the story of Noah, the Torah states "Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age. Noah walked with God." Such an attribution about Abraham and Sarah is conspicuous in its absence. Abraham and Sarah were certainly not evil people, but it would be a stretch to call either one a paragon of virtue. When a famine in the land forces them to move to Egypt, Abraham becomes worried that others might covet his wife because of her great beauty. He says to her, "If the Egyptians see you and think ‘She is his wife,' they will kill me and let you live. Please say you are my sister, so that it may go well with me because of you and that I may remain alive thanks to you." Well, she is technically his sister (his half-sister) and he does thank her, but she's also his wife; Abraham surely knows that when Pharaoh wants her, it's not as a cribbage partner, and it's clear that he's doing this for his own gain and safety. This is hardly an altruistic act. Sarah herself is no model of sweet-tempered tolerance; when her maid, Hagar, who at Sarah's suggestion has become pregnant with Abraham's child, decides that her status should now change and she should no longer be treated as a slave, Sarah mistreats Hagar so badly that she runs away. Hagar returns at God's bidding, but later, after Isaac is born, Sarah sends Hagar and her son--who, of course is also Abraham's son-- into the wilderness to starve
There is also the theory that Abraham was chosen not because of any unique attributes, but because he was willing to go. God spoke--this story goes--and Abraham did not ask questions but simply said "Hineni," ("Here I am"). There is some support for this idea. After all, it is an undertaking so grueling that there probably weren't many other applicants. And Abraham and Sarah knew that God would be there to lend his help and unconditional support. But these two still seem to be unlikely volunteers. Think of where the journey takes them: They are ordered to leave their home and go to a new land; then, they must leave that land because of famine and move to Egypt, where fearsome dangers await them. They emerge with great riches and Sarah's honor unscathed, but only with a good deal of divine maneuvering. Then, in order to save Lot, Abraham must go to battle as an ally of the king of Sodom, whom he detests. No sooner does he finish with that, Abraham hears with dread the prophesy that his people will later be enslaved in Egypt. He and Sarah are childless, so Sarah urges Abraham to bed with Hagar and she has a son, Ishmael. Surely, Abraham must think that he's done his duty as far as founding a nation is concerned, and he hints at that but no! God delivers a triple whammy. He tells Abraham that he and all males must be circumcised; that he and Sarah must change their names from Abram and Sarai; and, mazel tov, he's to have another son. A brief intermission while Abraham once again tries to rescue Lot from the coming destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. This time he must negotiate with God. Then the couple become parents of Isaac, and some time later Abraham is asked to sacrifice this beloved son. Although God intervenes in time once again, the experience may be what causes Sarah's death. But Abraham journeys on, finds a wife for Isaac, remarries himself and has six more children before dying at 175.
So, while Abraham may have said, "Hineni," I think it unlikely that he did so with much enthusiasm. Besides the fact that he and Sarah are elderly and probably tired and somewhat hesitant to change, I doubt that Abraham's personality would have predisposed him to willingly seek this assignment at any time in his life. If there are some who seek greatness and others who have greatness thrust upon them, Abraham seems to be squarely in the latter category. We don't know whether Abraham welcomed conflict and change as a young man, but certainly at the point that we become acquainted with him, he seems to seek ease and pleasantness and eschew friction. After he and his family come back from Egypt, they have so much wealth in the form of cattle that there isn't room enough for his cattle and Lot's to graze, and their respective herdsmen begin to bicker, Abraham says to Lot "Let there be no strife between you and me. If you go north, I will go south, and if you go south, I will go north." Sarah is feistier, but she gets no help from Abraham. When she complains to him about Hagar's haughty ways, he isn't going to get himself in the middle: He says, "Your maid is in your hands. Deal with her as you think right." I'm fairly sure that when Abraham and Sarah discover that, at their respective ages of 100 and 90, they are about to be blessed with 2AM feedings ,the ancient equivalent of Pampers and the prospect of planning a Bar Mitzvah when they're 113 and 103, their laugh contains at least some part shock along with joy. When do they get to retire to the condo in Sun City?
So were Abraham and Sarah simply chosen at random--their names pulled out of some celestial hat? Perhaps. But I would like to suggest one other possibility. Maybe Abraham and Sarah were not chosen despite their age, ordinariness and imperfections but, at least in part, because of them. These are survivors who do the best they can with what skills they have, and one of their most important skills is their ability to stay the course. They are not dewy-eyed idealists, impetuous hotheads or single-issue zealots. They have faith in God, but don't assume that God will step in and solve their problems--though He often does. They do what they are chosen and have chosen to do even though they may not always do it graciously. When they cannot do a perfect job--and they often can't--they accept that they will do a good-enough job. They often blunder and stumble and--like the rest of us-- they do things that are thoughtless, cruel, uncaring or just plain stupid. They receive much help from God and need all of it. They wouldn't be very good sprinters, but in a marathon they might finish when others dropped out in sheer frustration.
I feel very close to Abraham and Sarah when I need to keep going and I'm exhausted and my kids are having their tenth battle in an hour; I sense them nearby when I need to be in three places at once and no matter which one I choose folks at the other two will be mad at me. I feel close to them tonight not only because I've been chanting and talking about them but because even though I've been thinking about this D'var for months, I couldn't quite get it to come out the way I wanted it and my Torah chanting still seems shaky. I don't think I'd feel comfortable even thinking about quasi-gods: A man who is as tall as 70 put together or (especially) a woman who blinds angels with her dazzling beauty. But Abraham and Sarah, our ancestors, were unabashedly human, and I find great comfort in that.