The Many Qualities of Abram
Abram in the light; Abram in the dark. Abram with men at war; Abram with women at war. Like a picaresque novel, Parashat Lekh L’kha follows our patriarch from scene to scene, with places and people shifting in and out of the shadows. As Abram moves from Mesopotamia to Canaan to Egypt and back again, conflict surrounds him, yet he seems serene. For all of his astonishing actions, Abram utters only a few words in this entire portion. Who is this man, this founding father of our nation? We have no inkling of his appearance, but we can clearly observe his qualities.
Resolute. When God commands him to uproot for a new land, Abram journeys forth without question. When told that his nephew Lot has been taken hostage, Abram races to the battlefield, defeats four kings, and rescues his wayward kin. He never hesitates to argue with kings or even with God.
Selfless. Abram shrugs off promises of reward, whether from the unctuous king of Sodom, or from the exalted God of heaven. He casually offers Lot whichever land he prefers. It is not riches or even land that Abram seeks. When told to circumcise himself and the males of his household, the ninety-nine-year-old Abram quickly complies. His only stated desire is for an heir.
Faithful. When God appears in chapter fifteen and promises him great reward, Abram bitterly replies, “O Lord, God, what can You give me, seeing that I shall die childless and the one in charge of my household is Dammesek Eliezer!” Yet all it takes for God to defuse this anger is to promise him an heir. Abram trusts in God, and God rewards that trust (Genesis 15:6).
Complex. It is odd, however, that the same trusting Abram demands proof just two lines later when God offers him the land (15:8). This reversal has stunned readers for many centuries. Rashi plausibly claims that Abram does not doubt God here. Rather, he is curious to know by what merit he and his descendants deserve the land. The covenant of the split animals hints at the future Temple cult, which secures Israel’s claim to the land. Perhaps Rashi is right, but we can’t really know. Something strange is going on in chapter fifteen.
Through his actions we think we get Abram. But do we really? Is he full of faith or fury? Just as we are puzzling over these assessments, the lights dim, and Abram falls into the dread of a deep sleep called tardemah. Abram slips back into shadow. What type of darkness is this?
We have heard about tardemah before. Adam fell into a tardemah when God removed his rib and built him a wife. Adam was lonely and needed a mate, but what could be done? Mid-conversation, could God yank out his rib and make Eve? The rabbis rightly note that this would have horrified and even disgusted Adam. His tardemah allows Adam to end a fruitless stage of life and enter the next. It is a pregnant darkness, a fertile sleep that allows Adam to reboot and fulfill his destiny.
Now Abram falls into a tardemah so that a prophecy can be extracted from him. He sees a troubling future for his progeny—four centuries of enslavement and suffering followed by freedom and wealth. Why must Abram be anesthetized to receive this prophecy? His other conversations with God have been conscious. What links Abram’s tardemah to that of Adam?
It seems to me that in both cases, our patriarchs have reached a dead end. Life with God is a lovely adventure, but it seems to offer no future. The tardemah comes like a coda, ending one stage of life and starting the next. Darkness is a stage in renewal. When your computer freezes, what do you do? At some point, there is no choice but to power cycle—turn it off and reboot. Perhaps Abram’s tardemah can be understood this way. It is a spiritual reboot for a stymied patriarch.
Darkness is a dramatic effect that precedes other great transitions in the Torah. Darkness falls upon Egypt before the final plague (Exodus 10:22) and again, darkness divides Israel from Egypt before the splitting of the sea (14:20). Darkness falls on Mt. Sinai prior to the bright light of revelation (Deuteronomy 5:19). Each blackout ends one stage and announces the birth of a new beginning. Isaiah repeatedly summons images of dark and light to highlight Israel’s role in the great redemption: “The people walking in darkness saw great light; they who dwelled in gloom were brilliantly illumined” (Isaiah 9:1).
Similarly, Abram needs to reboot. It is one thing to get up and migrate to a new land. It is fine to be promised descendants as numerous as the stars. But this isn’t working. Abram needs to go into a trance to hear about a difficult future. His children will be slaves. This darkness is terrifying. Yet it is a necessary stage for Abram to become Abraham, a father of many nations, the patriarch of Israel.
Sixty-two years ago the Jewish people emerged from a tardemah—a deep and dreadful darkness. Objectively, it would have been easy to abandon hope in the face of the unprecedented destruction. And yet, the clouds shifted, new light was found, and new life was created. Holocaust survivors in Displaced Person camps married and bore children. Jews in Israel created life, culture, and democracy; they vigorously defended their freedom. They mourned but then rebounded with breathtaking resilience.
From the gloom to the light, the Jewish people pushed relentlessly on. Like Avraham Avinu, modern Israel refused to despair. Reading Parashat Lekh L’kha, let us claim this model once again. Let us face our existential challenges with clarity, courage, and creativity. May new light shine on Zion, and may we all merit to share in its glow.
Rabbi Daniel Nevins
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.