How Abraham Could Change the World

One of the most puzzling stories involves Abraham's journey to Egypt with Sarah. They were traveling there in search of food, as a famine was raging in the land of Canaan. Abraham, conscious of Sarah's beauty, is concerned that the Egyptians might kill him in order to take Sarah for one of their own men. He urges her to, "Please say that you are my sister, so that I will benefit for you, and my life will be spared for your sake."

That, in and of itself, is difficult to comprehend. Was Abraham OK with abandoning Sarah to some Egyptian man? What is even more difficult to comprehend is Rashi's commentary on this verse. Rashi quotes the interpretation of the sages who say that when Abraham said "that I may benefit for you," he meant that the Egyptians would give him gifts. Gifts! Is that what Abraham wants? For this he is willing to abandon his wife to her fate? Impossible!

Some sages explain that Abraham told Sarah to tell whichever Egyptian threatened her that Abraham was her brother, but she was married to another man. She didn't know where he was, and she and her brother had come to Egypt to search for him. Thus, the Egyptians know she's a married woman, and, hopefully, will not take her. Well, it didn't work. And it does not explain Rashi's statement about Abraham wanting gifts.

I believe that this action of Abraham's is key to understanding his greatness. I believe that Abraham knew exactly what was going to happen, and he had a good reason for wanting it to happen. He knew that Sarah would be saved, and he knew that Pharaoh would reward him with great wealth. This fit into his overall plan for life.

Think about it. Abraham, until this point, was a nobody. He had just arrived in the land of Canaan, unknown and unrooted. And yet, his soul thirsted to spread the word about the One God. The problem was, nobody would listen to him. There are people in every train station claiming to be the Messiah. And even if Abraham had become a celebrity in his homeland (for having survived a fiery furnace -- according to a rabbinical legend), nobody knew him in Canaan. This was before instantaneous world communication was possible. He had no chance of being a YouTube phenomenon.

What gives a person influence? Wealth, and political connections. Sarah, by being taken to Pharaoh's palace, provided Abraham with both. Pharaoh compensated him with great wealth, and with the prestige of having a personal connection. Abraham can now boast that the ruler of Egypt is a supporter and an acquaintance. When Abraham returns to the land of Canaan, he is already a celebrity. People will listen to him, and that is exactly what he needs in order to spread his message.

His reputation will grow even further when he becomes a world player on the military stage. His defeat of the five kings who had kidnapped his nephew, Lot, made all of the rulers of Canaan eager to win his favor.

Abraham and Noah were, in a sense, direct opposite. I believe that Noah sought to preserve the world's childlike innocence. He himself sought to remain a child, as evidenced by his getting drunk and taking off his clothes in his tent shortly after the flood. Abraham, on the other hand, was the quintessential father. In fact, God gives him the name Abraham, "For I have made you the father of many nations."

There is nothing more important to a father than the welfare and future of his children. Abraham felt a deep responsibility for all of God's children, and saw his role as an assistant father. The name God gave him reflects his self chosen role in life. That explains everything he did throughout his career.

And that explains what he says to Sarah as they approach Egypt. "That I may benefit on your account," means that I may gain wealth and influence. "And my life will be spared for your sake," can also be translated as: "And my soul shall live because of you." In other words, my soul's purpose will be fulfilled and I shall live the life I was intended to because of you and your actions in dealing with the Egyptians.

Noah was a righteous man. Some sages, however, claim that had he lived in Abraham's time, he would not have been considered anything special. I agree, but don't see that as criticism. Noah wanted to be living in a pure world, the world of innocence and childhood. If he saw a leader like Abraham, fulfilling the role of civilization's father, they would happily live in the shadows. Abraham's righteousness was in dealing with even the most cynical aspects of the world, and turning them towards God and spirituality. It is spirituality that is the source of eternal youth. Both men thirsted for it, but pursued it in different ways.

It is Abraham's approach, however, that has withstood the test of time. We cannot run away from evil, but we can strive to enlighten every dark corner of the world. By doing that, we are faithful to Abraham's purpose and fulfill the deepest needs of our spirituality. That's how we can change the world.