I’ve had a lot on my mind this week and it’s engendered a bit of insomnia, so I found myself channel surfing at three am. It never ceases to amaze me that with nine hundred channels of DirecTV and a dozen streaming services, sometimes it still seems as though there’s nothing on to watch. Finally, I land on the movie “Wild” based on Cheryl Strayed’s New York Times bestselling book of the same name. I read the book when it came out and figured Reese Witherspoon’s take on it might be interesting. For those who don’t know, the movie (and the book) is about Strayed’s quest to hike the Pacific Crest Trail alone for one hundred days.
It's a riveting story in part because she’s not an experienced hiker so it’s easy to see ourselves in her, imagining that we too might attempt something as audacious. It also strikes a chord because of the deep-rooted rugged individualism that is baked into our American psyche. After all, we are a nation founded by “do-it-alone” types—it’s the ethos of the American dream.
As a nation and as individuals, we’ve gotten to where we are by putting ourselves first; but the Torah has something to say about putting ourselves first.
This week, God offers Abraham, our first ancestor, a reward because of his devotion and Abraham responds by asking God, “What can you give me, seeing that I am old and will die childless?”
So God arranges for Abraham to have a child with Hagar with his wife Sarah’s permission and we all know how well that went. The tensions rise and the relationships become toxic. Sarah gets angry and blames Abraham, “This is all your fault!”
Abraham wasn’t the first or the last husband to get into trouble for doing something he thought his wife had said was ok—but for good reason. The rabbis agree with Sarah, Abraham is at fault because he didn’t speak out on his wife’s behalf. They compare it to the case of two prisoners.
One day the king passes their cells and one prisoner cries out “Spare me!” upon which the king orders that man to be released. As he leaves, the other prisoner shouts to him “This is all your fault! Had you just said ‘Spare us!' I would have been released too.”
When God offered Abraham a reward, he could have said “What can you give us, seeing that we are old and will die childless?” If he had, maybe God’s solution would have been for both Abraham and Sarah. But instead, Abraham, the wise, strong, patriarch of our tradition thinks only of himself.
I often stand at the open ark with the Cantor before a b’nei mitzvah and their family and tell them that the world they are going out into will often try to convince them that they only need to worry about themselves—that as long as they get what they need, accomplish with they want, achieve their goals—how they go about it doesn’t matter. But if they can remember that they are a part of a community, that their behavior has ripples beyond themselves, and they have a responsibility to the people around them, then their lives will be so much deeper, richer, and more meaningful.
Even Abraham, the compassionate and generous man that he was, succumb to thinking only of himself; of course, we all do the same from time to time, and yes, individualism has its place, but as the Torah reminds us this week, life cannot only be about us—it must be about all of us.