Onkelos, Rashi, and Ramban to Lekh-Lekha: Getting to Know Avraham and Sarah

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

This week, Onkelos, Rashi, and Ramban invites us to consider Avraham and Sarah, the first of the Patriarch/Matriarch couples to shape the Jewish People.

Ma’aseh Avot Siman le-Banim

Ramban took the idea the Avot and Imahot shaped the Jewish people more literally than we might realize. In 12;6, and elsewhere, he adopted the view of Tanhuma, ma’aseh avot siman le-banim; literally, the Midrash means the ancestors’ actions were a sign to the descendants, where Ramban thinks their lives prefigured later events. To him, it explains the Torah’s interest in seemingly insignificant incidents, such as Avraham’s stopping in Shekhem on his first trip through Israel.

Ramban holds the Torah tells us about it because it foreshadows the Jews’ conquering Shekhem before any other place in Israel. Rashi didn’t go that far, but did think the mention of Shekhem hints that Avraham prayed for Shimon and Levi. On the idea of Avraham praying, Onkelos reads the phrase “va-yikra be-Shem Hashem,” he called out in Gd’s Name, 12;8, as tzali, prayed.

(Rashi and Ramban do not address, that I know of and certainly not here, how the future can be both set enough for Avraham to know what would happen at Shekhem and people still have freewill, so neither will I.)

Avraham’s Elided Background

Ramban also picked up on how little the Torah tells us about Avraham. The parsha opens with Gd telling him to leave Haran and go to Canaan, without telling us much of who he was, why Gd wanted him to leave, and why Gd promised such great rewards for obedience. He makes two thought-stimulating claims in response: First, the Torah doesn’t tell us his history in Ur Kasdim–where he was born, discovered Gd, began to preach about Gd to others and was persecuted for it—because it would have forced the Torah to give airtime to the idolaters of Ur Kasdim. To give us Avraham’s life story, the Torah would have had to explain the nature of Ur Kasdim more fully, which it did not wish to do (sometimes we kill evil by ignoring it, not giving it any oxygen).

Avraham’s fleeing Ur Kasdim was practical, to get far from persecution. 11;31, in Noah, told us Terah already had the idea of going to Canaan, so Ramban thinks they ended up in Haran almost accidentally. Gd’s command told Avraham to finish what his father had started. It would reap rewards, Ramban thinks, because the people of Canaan, for all their many flaws (including idolatry), would not seek to suppress Avraham’s preaching (they were more tolerant idolaters), and would be able to see and appreciate Avraham as a source of blessing.

Whom Did Avraham and Sarah Bring With Them?

When Avraham and Sarah leave Haran, 12;5 says they took ha-nefesh asher asu be-Haran, the souls they made in Haran. Rashi offers two readings, the second of which he calls pershuto shel mikra, the simple reading, they took the slaves they acquired up until that point.

Onkelos has Rashi’s first reading, with a significant nuance. Rashi says it means the souls they brought under the wings of the Shekhina, meaning they had brought them to a realization of Gd’s existence, the value/necessity of serving Gd. Onkelos writes ve-yat nafshata di sha’abidu le-oraita, the souls they had brought to obedience of the Torah. While he may have intended the Torah literally—the Talmud does assume the Torah already existed in an accessible form by the time of Avraham—I think it more likely he thought “Torah” means the underlying ideas of Gd’s service.

Either way, Onkelos and Rashi envisioned Avraham and Sarah as spreading word of Gd’s existence and what it obligates. Rashi adds Sarah would do so with women, Avraham with men, what seems to me a way of reducing the likelihood of the process being contaminated by inappropriate attractions.

Ramban and Rashi on What Avraham Had the Right to Expect

In Canaan, Avraham’s life has more challenges than we might expect for one so beloved of Gd. Soon after he arrives, 12;10, famine leads him to go down to Egypt. Ramban thinks Avraham erred in so doing, was supposed to stay in Canaan until Gd told him otherwise, trust Gd to provide. Ditto with once he went; he was supposed to trust Gd to take care of Sarah, not put her at risk of being taken by Par’oh by declaring her his sister. Ramban thinks these failings doomed Avraham’s descendants to a time in Egypt with their wives be at the mercy of Egyptian taskmasters (I think again along the lines of ma’aseh avot siman le-banim, the dramas and challenges of one generation reverberate in later generations, perhaps for them to do it better).

Rashi thinks the famine tested only whether Avraham would doubt Gd, would complain about having to leave so soon after Gd brought him to Israel. For Rashi, Avraham was correct to handle life as it came to him, to do what was in his power to mitigate challenges, perhaps because Rashi was alert to how many struggles Avraham had in his life.

In 16;3, Sarah gives Hagar to Avraham ten years after they came to Canaan, and Rashi notes it was because the arrival in Canaan reset the clock on her infertility. After ten new years, Sarah had to concede it wasn’t happening for her. For all the promises of descendants, Rashi think Avraham and Sarah endured an infertility for which they saw no end in sight.

More, Rashi thinks Avraham lived much of his life with no assurance he would see peace before it ended. In 15;15, during the Berit bein ha-betarim, Gd told him he would pass away in peace. For Rashi, it told him Terah had repented (meaning, rejected idolatry), Yishmael would do so before Avraham passed away, and he would leave this world before Esav showed his eventual colors. Until then, Avraham had to accept the possibility he would end his life surrounded by those who held ideas and values he had spent his whole life combating.

Complicated Relationships

Yishmael may have repented, but Onkelos highlighted the challenges he would have presented as a son. Before he was born, the angel told Hagar, 16;12, he would be a pere adam, yado bakol ve-yad kol bo, a phrase Onkelos renders marod be-enasha, rebels against people, hu yehei tzarikh le-khola, he will need all, ve-af benei enasha yehon tzerikhin lei, all people will also need him. He would be a person necessarily intertwined with others, who would have trouble living with them.

Nor was Lot a picnic. Avraham and he had to part ways because Lot’s shepherds insisted on grazing their flocks where they should not, and when Avraham gave him the choice of where to live, Lot went with Sodom, an area Rashi (13;10 and 13;13) thought was soaked in sexual immorality, whose inhabitants did wrong with their bodies, with their money, in knowing rebellion against their Creator.

The place Lot chose, then needing Avraham to bail him out after the four kings blew though the area (and then again in next week’s parsha, when Sodom is destroyed).

The Picnic, or Not, of Being a Patriarch and Matriarch

These are not all of the comments we have studied in previous years, they are the ones I saw coalescing around a theme, the kind of life Avraham and Sarah led. For all we know they were giants of human history, Rashi and Ramban (with Onkelos mostly on Rashi’s side) split on what they could expect in terms of comfort and protection. Ramban thinks they were moved from Haran to a more hospitable environment for they and those they had brought to Gd’s service. Once there, he thought Avraham could and should have relied on Gd in the face of any other challenges that arose, unless and until Gd told him otherwise.

Rashi, on the other hand, thought the famine, infertility, and tense family relationships, all showed a life with troubles, concerns, and uncertainty, eventually brought to a relatively peaceful end, because Gd promised that much. Beyond that, it was for him to make his way as he could. And as he did, more successfully than most of us could hope to achieve.

About Gidon Rothstein

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