Sand and Stars

An immediate question to be asked is why, when the weekly parshot are moving serenely through Deuteronomy, the last of the five books of the Torah, we roll the scroll all the way back to Genesis on these holy days to read, out of sequence, of the birth of Isaac and the binding of Isaac. After all, Deuteronomy speaks of general, overarching laws and precepts, applicable in all times and in all places to our people as they contemplate a move on to the world’s stage. By reversing to Genesis, we concentrate on the story of one lineage, a personal, very specific story, with God acting as friend and guide, talking to Abraham and even making a promise. The promise was that Abraham and Sarah’s son, Isaac, not yet then born, would found a great nation, a people so many that like sand or stars, they were beyond counting.

The family story continues with the struggle between Abraham’s wife, Sarah, who will bear Isaac, and Hagar, his concubine, who has already born a child, Ishmael. Here, the story breaks off and the text takes up the question of a disputed well and water rights to it, vital in that desert land. It’s a dispute between Abraham and Abimelech, king of Gerer. We wonder why so different a subject should interrupt the important personal narrative of Abraham waiting for the birth of a son and for a lineage into an unmeasurable future. Abraham and Abimelech decide on the use of the well and they make a covenant and swear to its provisions. Why the intrusion?

Reading the parsha again, I saw that what had seemed to be the introduction of another subject really turns into an example of the right way to make contracts. Both parties must promise to keep the stipulations of the contract and each must believe not only that he will keep his word but that the other party will do so as well.

Such a contract will be tested between Abraham and God. God has promised to make a great nation from Isaac’s posterity and Abraham has promised to continue the trust that made him leave Haran and go where God directed. This promise changes the meaning of the word test, which we will hear about in tomorrow’s reading, the binding of Isaac for sacrafice, when the parsha tells us that God puts Abraham to a test. If God never wished to destroy Isaac, but to make a great nation of his posterity, what was the test that He put to Abraham?

It seems to me that the test God gave Abraham wasn’t testing Abraham’s ability to slay his son. The promise was that God had not lied to Abraham and that God’s example was a prohibition of all human sacrafice. We forget how common that practice was in the ancient world and how deep a religious meaning it was given in those times. Nothing but such a forceful example could have ended it.

I believe that the Rabbis use the New Year to show us that we must keep the promises we make and keep them so consistently that people will always trust us not to break them. God made a promise to Abraham and kept it. Abraham trusted that he would. Abraham knew there would be a ram provided.