The prioritising of integrity over relationships plays out dramatically at the beginning and end of the story of Abraham.
God’s first call to Abraham is to move away from those closest to him. The sequence of the journeys Abraham is called on to make is instructive. He is first told to leave his land, then his birthplace and then his father’s house (1). This is because, in spiritual terms, the easiest shift is to leave one’s land and what it represents - familiar places and practices with which one has a relatively superficial connection. The hardest shift and “cruellest wrench” is the cutting off of one’s connection with one’s family (2).
God’s demand of Abraham to leave his past and parents is introduced with the words Lech Lcha, לך ,לך which is usually translated as “go for yourself” but literally means “go to yourself”; in other words, shift to be true to yourself (3), by breaking with your past. Abraham’s greatest test is introduced with the same words: “go to yourself to the land of Moria” (4); in this case, he is called to forgo his future (5) by killing his son, Isaac, again in the name of integrity in his service of God.
In the end, God does not demand the life of Isaac, which suggests that, in the end, we are called on to combine love of God with love of family. Managing both in the right proportion is a huge challenge. I remember how hard my father worked in the service of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s cause of promoting Judaism (6), when I was a young child. My father kept talking to many people in the Synagogue after the prayers about the Jewish outreach work he was doing, while I was impatiently waiting to go home. Today I have my own cause; I wonder how well I am doing in balancing my “mission” with doing the right thing by my family.
In Abraham’s life, this struggle plays out in various ways. According to commentary, Abraham was meant to have a clean break with his family when he was commanded to leave his “fathers house”; yet, in not wanting to embarrass his nephew Lot, Abraham prioritises his relationship with his nephew over God’s demand, and allows Lot to come with him (7). So we are told that Abraham went as God commanded him, and Lot went with him (8) on his own initiative (9). It might also have been useful for Lot to recognise what this journey wasreally about for Abraham (acting in accordance with God’s instruction), which was not Lot’s agenda (10). With both Abraham and Lot compromised, it does not surprise me that a little while later the relationship hits a rough patch and they go their separate ways eventually (11).
Abraham is faced with another challenge when Sarah, his first wife, runs into strife with his second wife Hagar. Sarah, who was childless, had offered her maid Hagar to Abraham as a second wife so that Abraham might have some children with her. When Hagar became pregnant she lost respect for her barren mistress (14). Sarah is very upset and says to Abraham: "I gave you my maid...now I have become cheapened in her eyes, may God judge between me and you.” According to commentary she rants: “All my embarrassment is from you, I trusted you for justice, I left my land and father’s house and travelled with you to a foreign land…now my humiliation is revealed before God, may he spread his peace on us and let the earth be filled with us and we won’t need the sons of Hagar, the daughter of Pharaoh, who is the son of Nimrod, who put you in a fiery furnace” (15).
Abraham replies with an absolute “yes dear, here is your maid in your hand, do to her what is good in your eyes”. Sarah's behaviour at this point is subject to many opinions; the text says “ותענה”; one translation is that Sarah abused her (16) and it is interpreted that she either enslaved her harshly (17), or hit her with a shoe (18). Hagar flees Sarah. One commentary states that “our mother sinned in this affliction and Abraham, too, by allowing her to do this” (19). I think it is fair to say that Abraham is concerned mostly with his relationship with Sarah, and does not give a great deal of priority to what would be ethical in this situation.
In some cases, it is certainly right to put family first and, even in less important relationships, it is sometimes appropriate to capitulate rather than to take a stand on principle, which is what I did in the situation referred to at the beginning of this post. Yet, there are times when, in order to live with integrity, we will be required to put truth, justice or God ahead of keeping our parents, children or spouse happy. May we all be blessed with the wisdom and courage to make the right choices while also enjoying the blessings of love.
Notes and sources:
1) Genesis 12:1, In the case of Abraham our tradition tells us that he has already rejected the religious worldview and practices of his father, but this is not sufficient; he must also physically move away, which, in a world without regular communication, must have been almost a complete end to the relationship.
2) Hakesav Vhakabala as discussed in Lebovitz, N. New Studies in Breshit Genesis p. 113, Ohr Hachayim makes a similar point
3) Schneerson, Rabbi M.M. Likutei Sichos
4) Genesis 22:2
5) Lebovitz New Studies in Breshit Genesis p. 114
6) The Rebbe has a teaching based on the Talmudic idea that all who went out in the wars of the house of (King) David would write a bill of divorce for their wives. (In case they went missing in action, their wives would be free to remarry). The Rebbe interpreted this as a call for sacrifice of family for the cause of promoting Judaism.
7) Ohr Hachayim
8) Genesis 12:4
9) Klei Yakar
10) Ohr Hachayim, Radak interprets this differently and sees Lot as “listening to Abraham” and being loyal to Abraham’s ideas.
11) Genesis 13:5-9
12) She is referred to as Sarai at this stage of her life before it was changed to Sarah
13) Genesis 12:11-19
14) Genesis 16:3-6
15) Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel
16) Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, in the Living Torah.
17) Rashi, Genesis 16:6.
18) Beresheet Rabba, 45