“And Isaac went out to commune in the fields toward evening
and looking up, he saw camels approaching. (Genesis 24:63)
Parashat Chayei Sarah anticipates the lived experience of the Jewish people throughout most of its history in two small words. When Sarah dies, Abraham approaches the local community to purchase a burial plot for her. In the opening parley, he says, “I am a ger v’toshav, an alien and a resident among you…” (Gen. 23:4) Even after living in Canaan for thirty years, Abraham still feels he does not belong. The Torah doesn’t say why, but we can imagine, easily.
God sends Abraham into the world to be a blessing (Gen. 12:2). But God also expects Abraham’s descendants through Isaac (i.e., the Jewish people) to set themselves apart from the other nations through the observance of mitzvot, or commandments (Ex. 19:5-6). The responsibility of being or lagoyim, a light unto the nations (Isaiah 49:6) always exists in tension with the reality of being am l’vadad yishkon, a nation that will dwell in solitude (Num. 23:9).
Being Jewish has always been a counter-cultural act, one that Jews have often paid for dearly through the ages. Abraham is merely the first to experience and express the existential conflict: living in the world while also being a step removed from the world. Centuries later, Rabbi Yosef Soloveichik (1903 –1993; rabbi, philosopher, and seminal figure in modern Orthodox Judaism) captures this tension nicely in the title of his book, The Lonely Man of Faith. Despite this loneliness, Jews have always continued to work (and pray) for the welfare of the countries wherever they find themselves (Jer. 29:7). God creates Judaism not to be easy, but to be meaningful.
Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom