Between Humility and Grandeur
Judaism is a religion of polarities. An in-depth view of reality requires a stereoscope. No single lens can do justice to any aspect of the complexity of our experience of the world. Just one example of many: According to Rabbi Yochanan (third century Palestinian amora), “Wherever we find in Scripture a depiction of God’s grandeur, we always find in that same passage a depiction of God’s humility” (BT Megillah 31a). This pattern holds for all three sections of Scripture, though I will relate only one of R. Yochanan’s citations. In the Torah, Moses depicts the God of Israel as “God supreme and Lord supreme, the great, the mighty and the awesome God, ” But, then Moses immediately adds that this same God, “Upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing” (Deuteronomy 10:17-18).
The truth of R. Yochanan’s theological insight lies in its balance. God’s indisputable grandeur as creator of the cosmos still allows for a display of God’s empathy for the painful lot of each and every disadvantaged individual. We repeatedly experience both dimensions of God. God’s remoteness does not put the divine beyond our reach nor does God’s nearness breed disrespect. Intellectually, we bow before God’s incomprehensible awesomeness, yet emotionally, we are buoyed by the feeling of God’s solicitous presence, especially in times of tragedy. By never separating these contrasting faces of God, the Tanakh implicitly avers the proposition that God is both transcendent and immanent. R. Yochanan’s exegetical ingenuity formulates a bipolar theology that captures the full reality of God in our lives.
My interest at the moment, however, is to use this polarity of grandeur and humility to shed light on the character of Abraham. If imitatio dei (imitating the divine)is the loftiest standard of religious behavior, then the life of Abraham reveals a fairly consistent blend of power and restraint. Though not in all incidents, Abraham generally appears reluctant to invoke force, not out of passivity or weakness, but out of strength.
He and Sarah return from Egypt to the land of Canaan laden with worldly goods, “cattle, silver and gold” (13:2). They travel slowly because of the weight of their possessions. Still very much an outsider, Abraham is no longer powerless. Even his nephew and companion, Lot, has amassed considerable wealth. Indeed, together they exceed the capacity of the land to feed their flocks, and their stewards soon fall into bickering. Yet Abraham, the source of Lot’s good fortune, chooses not to pull rank. He suggests instead separating their families and magnanimously grants Lot first choice as to where he would like to settle: “If you go north, I will go south; and if you go south, I will go north” (13:9). When Lot grabs the most fertile land, Abraham still does not demur. At no point in this narrative does he assert authority to impose his will on his disrespectful and greedy nephew. For whatever reason, be it a desire to avoid conflict or because he is blinded by love, he refuses to resolve the dispute by force.
Abraham employs force only as a last resort. When four kings from the east overrun the region and plunder Sodom and Gomorrah, taking Lot and his wealth hostage, Abraham pursues them with his own troops, vanquishing them with a daring night assault. Not only does he rescue Lot and his household, but he also restores property to the king of Sodom. Despite the king’s urging, Abraham takes no more than the provisions consumed by his men and the share that rightfully belongs to his allies.
Again, what strikes me is the extraordinary display of restraint. After his stunning victory, Abraham could have seized dominion over the entire land, turning divine promise into political reality. Yet, victory is not entitlement. Abraham refuses to profit from his exploits. Moreover, in the very next episode, Abraham accepts without protest a grim divine promise: His progeny will not take possession of the land for another four hundred years, and then only after a brutal experience of slavery abroad (15:13). The assurance of prosperous offspring without number probably brought Abraham only the mildest of consolations. The juxtaposition of these stories in the narrative evinces a remarkable dialectic between might and modesty. The divine economy runs by its own rules.
A third episode amplifies yet again Abraham’s aversion to the use of violence. In this justly celebrated case, he tries to stay God’s hand from demolishing the sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. He derives no pleasure from the prospect of seeing the wicked get their just deserts. He tries to shame God for contemplating the destruction of a righteous remnant along with the wicked multitude. But how many good citizens will it take to spare an evil city? Starting at fifty, he stops at ten, the minimal number plausibly necessary to avert the devastation of the twin cities where Lot had hastened to make his home. To his credit, Abraham had curbed God’s freedom of action. His abhorrence of violence had extracted from God a benchmark of righteousness within reach of most urban populations.
In sum, Abraham’s compassion for his fellow humans sprang from a vigor and vitality firmly in tow. His virtue manifested itself in self-mastery rather than mastery of others. Bred in a world of many gods and much cruelty, Abraham embodied the heroic achievement of going beyond his natural endowment. In the ringing words of the German seer, Friedrich Nietzsche, the most sublime members of humanity are those who subdue and sublimate their unruly passions and evil impulses: “Verily, I have often laughed at the weaklings who thought themselves good because they had no claws” (The Portable Nietzsche, trans. by Walter Kaufmann, p. 230). Only one touched by grandeur can be truly humble.