Avraham, the Lifelong Learner

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Lech Lecha

In this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, Avraham (who started
out as Avram, but that’s a different discussion) gets the call from
God to leave his homeland and head out west, to the land of
Canaan. Various adventures ensue, including having a child
with his wife’s servant Hagar, but what fascinates me is that it
isn’t until the end of the Torah portion, after years of travels and
struggles and family problems, that Avraham receives the
commandment of circumcision.

In fact, we learn in Genesis 17 that Avraham was 99 years old
when he circumcised himself and his household, as a sign of
his covenant with God. So, nu, couldn’t the Almighty have chosen
a less drastic way of asking for Avraham’s commitment, or at the
very least, asked this a bit sooner in the story? Was it really
necessary to tell an old man to perform surgery on himself?

To me, the power of this story is not in Avraham’s physical
bravery- after all, in chapter 14 he was fighting a minor war- nor
is it in Avraham’s obedience. After all, what’s a little flesh wound
when you’ve already obeyed the command to travel halfway
across the continent? Rather, I find the meaning of this story in
the Torah’s clarity (it’s mentioned twice) that Avraham was an
man. (Let’s assume that “99 years” is not to be taken literally, but
as a poetic rendering of advanced age.)

I see in Avraham’s act a spiritual model of lifelong openness, of
being willing to undergo growth and transformation long after
some people become set in their ways. Avraham was willing to
make radical religious commitments, even one which required
pain and sacrifice, late in his life. He was open to the demands
of a lifelong spirituality- not just doing what he already knew, but
going past the “comfort zone” (quite literally) to become
something new.

Heck, there are days when I don’t even want to try a new kind of
breakfast cereal, let alone take on new religious ideas and
moral commitments- but returning every year to the story of the
“founding father” of the Jewish people, I have to ask myself
whether I’m as open to the evolution of faith over a lifetime as
ancestors were. Avraham’s example thus becomes not a fact of
history, but an persistent challenge to all of us, right now.

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