This study is presented as an overview. Some of the sections that we have already examined will now be briefly reviewed as part of a cohesive textual flow. For greater detail on these sections please reference Vayeira 4, Chayei Sara 1 and Chayei Sara 2.
A series of five seemingly unconnected events towards the end of Avraham’s life actually establish a pattern designed to teach the patriarch the parameters and boundaries of his involvement with an outside world:
1. Avraham prays on behalf of the Philistine king, Avimelech. The king had been punished with illness after abducting Sara (see Lech Lecha 2 for a discussion of a similar event).
2. Yitzchak is born.
3. Avraham and Avimelech contract a covenant.
4. The Akeida takes place.
5. Avraham defines himself as a ger v’toshav in his negotiations with the Hittites for the Cave of Machpeila. The patriarch then sends Eliezer to Aram Naharaim to find a wife for Yitzchak.
A careful look at events 1–4 reveals an alternating pattern between connecting “external” and “internal” events in the patriarch’s life. One step forward, one step back, these events create a tension that helps Avraham arrive at a critical moment of self-definition.
Event 1 – External: Avraham prays on behalf of Avimelech after Sara is released from the king’s palace.
Event 2 – Internal: Yitzchak is born.
Avrahams’ prayers on behalf of Avimelech, according to the rabbis, affect not only the foreign king’s destiny but the patriarch’s own. The Talmud perceives a fundamental link between Avraham’s supplications and the subsequent birth of Yitzchak: “The Torah records the birth of Yitzchak immediately after Avraham’s prayers on behalf of Avimelech to teach us that if one asks for mercy for his friend and is himself in similar need, he is answered first.”
Avraham thus learns that his prayers on behalf of another allow his own dreams to be fulfilled. The intertwining of the patriarch’s personal fate with his global mission to the world is underscored.
Avraham and his family cannot live in a vacuum. Their personal success depends on their active involvement in the lives of those around them.
Event 3 – External: At Avimelech’s request, Avraham and the king of the Philistines contract a covenant.
This covenant is viewed within rabbinic thought as a dangerous error on Avraham’s part (see Vayeira 4, Approaches C).
Emboldened, perhaps, by the positive results of his previous encounter with Avimelech, Avraham oversteps his bounds in his desire to interface with the outside world. He fails to recognize the dangers of unfettered involvement with those around him.
Event 4 – Internal: The Akeida takes place.
We have already noted the approach of the Rashbam who views the Akeida as God’s direct response to Avraham’s covenant with Avimelech (see Vayeira 4, Approaches C).
In effect, God delivers a wakeup call to the patriarch concerning the preciousness of Avraham’s own family and the balance that must be struck in his dealings with an outside world. He must pull back. Involvement is certainly essential, but it must have its boundaries.
Event 5 – The Result: Ger v’toshav.
Armed with the knowledge conveyed by the events outlined above, Avraham is able to define himself as a ger v’toshav, “a stranger and a citizen” in his negotiations with the Hittites. This self-definition not only succinctly outlines Avraham’s place within society but the place that his descendents will occupy in the world community across the ages (see Chayei Sara 1, Approaches E).
Bitter experience has taught the patriarch the delicate balance that must be struck in his dealings with an outside world.
Proper study of the Torah text requires that we back up enough to view the flow of events. Nothing is ever random in the Torah and seemingly unrelated episodes often combine to create significant patterns.
In this case, God teaches Avraham through a series of seesawing episodes that his involvement with the outside world will have to be marked by the tension captured in the patriarch’s own words: ger v’toshav, “a stranger and a citizen.”