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Illustration: Peter Paul Rubens, The Meeting of Abraham and Mechizedek (1617)

Abraham is our first father. We begin our main daily prayer by calling upon God, “God of Abraham, God of Isaac and God of Jacob.” In the Ethics of the Fathers, we are taught to emulate Abraham, and not the wicked Balaam.

But how are we to do that? When we examine the biblical record of Abraham, we see a wide variety of actions. In chapter 12 of Genesis, we see him, obeying the Divine Call and leaving behind the settled life he had known. In chapter 13, he is self-effacing and diplomatic, negotiating a separation from his nephew Lot so that they will not fall to quarreling over resources and giving Lot the right to make the first choice in dividing their common patrimony. (Estate planning professionals would be out of work if all surviving children approached inheritance in that fashion!) In chapter 14, on the other hand, Abraham is the man of action, rallying his retainers and conducting a lightning attack upon the foreign troop that had kidnapped Lot. In chapter 15, Abraham is the man who is able to talk back to God, and yet who trusts God implicitly. In chapter 16, Abraham is the husband of a wife struggling with infertility. He tries to do the right thing, but the situation was one where all the choices were compromising. In chapter 17, he is again, as he was at the beginning of the parashah, the man whose communication with God led to a radical change in his life. He circumcised his son, all his male retainers, and himself.

So which Abraham do we emulate?

That, in fact, is the point. Life can not be reduced to a simple to-do-list. Good advice in one situation is not the best advice in another situation. Standing tall and proudly independent, as Abraham did in his dealings with the king of Sodom – that was the right move for that encounter. But one verse before, Abraham had accepted in silence the blessing of the pagan priest Malkitsedek. Did Abraham think that the “El most High” of the priest’s invocation was the same as Abraham’s own God? Or did he think that is was “close enough for government work”?

Wisdom is knowing which of the many maxims one could bring to bear, one should in fact apply.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Michael Panitz