After the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness, (and before the sacrifice of Isaac, which we read on the following day, the second day of Rosh Hashanah), there is a brief interlude with which we end the narrative portion of the first day’s Torah reading. This is the story of Abraham and Avimelekh (B’reyshit 21:22-34).
It follows an earlier episode with Avimelekh, when Abraham (B’reyshit 20: 1-18) is in Gerar. He fears being killed because of Sarah’s beauty, and so claims that she is his sister. Thanks to a threatening dream from God, Avimelekh returns her unharmed, but remains aggrieved that Abraham lied to him about who Sarah was.
And now, in the portion we read on Rosh Hashanah, Avimelekh and his general speak with Abraham, announcing to him, “God is with you in all you do, so I want you to swear to me by God that you will not be false in dealing with me or my children or his children, but rather you will repay in kind to me and my land the kindness with which we have treated you.”
Abraham does swear to this. Then he brings up a squabble between himself and Avimelekh’s people over the ownership of a well that Abraham had dug and was being prevented from using. Avimelekh asserts that he was unaware of the problem, Abraham gives Avimelekh flocks and they make a covenant. Abraham then sets aside seven more sheep, which are to testify to his digging of the well. Then Avimelekh and his general return home, and Abraham stays there.
Why does this episode about Avimelekh end our reading for the first day of Rosh Hashanah? It is telling that the action begins with Avimelekh — a king much more powerful than Abraham, whom Abraham had previously acknowledged he feared. Avimelekh travels to Abraham and acknowledges, “God is with you in all you do.”
One could certainly read this in the most p’shat — plain-meaning — way: that Abraham is favored by God, and Avimelekh is thus in fear of Abraham. But I prefer to read it a different way: Avimelekh, in saying that he knows that God is with Abraham in all he does, means that because Abraham acknowledges God’s consistent presence, his word is to be trusted. So when Avimelekh demands an oath, he knows that Abraham will be true to his word, and his descendants will be, as well
Second, Avimelekh asserts his own narrative. It is actually somewhat unclear how kind Avimelekh has been to Abraham. Each side sees their earlier interactions from a non-congruent perspective. Avimelekh didn’t know Sarah was Abraham’s wife when he grabbed her. And Avimelekh certainly paid Abraham off well enough for the insult to the two of them. But from Abraham’s (and Sarah’s) perspective, his kindness was perhaps a bit suspect. Nevertheless, Abraham accepts this, and merely agrees to the terms so that he is able to get to the work they need to do.
Finally, what must have been the point of the exercise: The stranger in the land has a grievance against its ruler. Abraham’s work has been stolen, the land taken from him and his use of the most important possible resource — water — has been wrested from him. This could have been the source of an eternal feud or tribal war. But Avimelekh brought God into the picture. By recognizing Abraham’s integrity and awe for God, Avimelekh acknowledges that he and Abraham can speak to one another honestly, and that they can each believe that there will be a fair outcome. Abraham reports what the king’s people have done to him, and asks for redress. And it is given. Not freely; not without some exchange of valuables. But in the end, both parties get most of what they hope for: an agreement to live in peace with one another. The section closes: Abraham lived in the land of the P’lishtim for a long time (B’reyshit 21:34).
One of the most important themes of Rosh Hashanah is that the nations come before God to be judged. In this peculiar little episode, God is invoked both by Abraham and Avimelekh as a witness to the necessity of honesty in their speech, to the obligation to redress wrongs and to the resolution of their dispute, which they achieved despite the fact that their opposing views of what had happened are never reconciled. God stands as judge as two powerful families face off, and they are able to speak to one another, from their own perspective, and ultimately to resolve their differences without either having to give up their own story.
Just so for us today. The occupation is not a feature of the landscape, but a political dispute. Like Abraham and Avimelekh, there is a history together for which each side has its own narrative of being wronged. But also like Abraham and Avimelekh, a solution is achievable. First, each side would need to allow that “God is with you” — to trust that when a solution is reached, the other side will abide by it. Second, each side would have to set aside its perspective of being wronged, at least for the duration of working out a solution. Third, some sheep trading will be necessary: there will need to be exchanges of things each side values, and there will be wrongs to redress, in order to reach the desired outcome, which is better for everyone for the long haul, so that our children and our children’s children will be able to deal kindly with one another and live in peace.
Rabbi Alana Suskin is co-founder and co-director of The Pomegranate Initiative, which fights antisemitism and Islamophobia. She is co-chair of the Maryland Poor People’s Campaign and has previously served on the board of T’ruah.