Avraham, at the end of his life, is worried that Yitzchak find a proper wife, and sends his servant back to his homeland to find a wife from his country and his relatives. Thus, Parshat Chayei Sarah is, in a way, a reverse lekh lekha. In parshat Lekh Lekha, Avraham was told to leave his homeland, his relatives, and his father’s home, and in Chayei Sarah he sends his servant back to his homeland and his birthplace. While this cannot become a true reversal of that journey [“Beware that you do not return my son to that place.” (Gen. 24:6)], it is nevertheless demonstrating to us that Avraham has not divorced himself from his connection to his family. This was also the message at the end of parshat Vayeira. After the climax of the akeida, after having passed all his tests, Avraham comes back to Earth, comes back to the human world of relationships, and is informed about his family in Aram NaHarayim and their welfare.
One the one hand, these narratives are reminding us that no matter where we travel and where we roam, no matter how lofty our accomplishments, we can never forget our family and our birthplace. Even if we have physically distanced ourselves, even if we have rejected our family’s values and adopted a different religion or a different ideology, our family is still our family. They are our strongest human ties, and we must always in some form return to them. When we have established our independent identity, it is true that on some level “You can never go home again.” And at the same time, “There is no place like home.”
However, there is also a larger message about Jewish identity. We spoke last week about a universalist ethos – about the path of God being one of tzedakkah u’mishpat – about fighting for righteousness and justice for all people. And yet, at the same time, Judaism is a story about a family. The brit that God made with Avraham was with Avraham and his descendants, and all the promises focused around children and land. Judaism is not a universalist religion. God “realized” at the end of Parshat Noach that a message to all mankind soon got lost – 10 generations after Adam mankind needed to be destroyed, and 10 generations after Noach mankind was again becoming corrupted. God then chose Avraham – to start with one man, with his family, his descendants, with a nation that would be the bearers of the true message, and through them the message would spread throughout the world. For this to happen, it is a religion that must be built on the strong ties of family.
Avraham, as father of this religion, knows that while he has strong ties to the people of Canaan, and some of them are his followers, his strongest ties are with his family, and this is only natural. His son, thus, must marry someone who is part of this family. While this may sound offensive to some, this is really nothing more than the first example of a Jewish parent’s concern about intermarriage. Judaism is different than other religions in this way. Christians can marry people of others faiths, Jews may not. Christianity is only based on faith; Judaism is also based on family. Of course, it is possible for someone outside to join the family through conversion. Such a convert not only shares our faith, but is an equal member of our family, and can say “Lord who took my fathers out of Egypt,” just like any other Jew. Fellows Jews are not only co-religionists, they are also members of the family, part of the nation.
This particularism is hard for some Jews, let alone non-Jews, to accept. But it is central to Jewish survival and to Jewish identity. Because we have rejected intermarriage, we have protected ourselves against assimilation and loss of identity. Because of our strong bonds of commitment – bonds that come naturally through family ties – we have ensured that the Jewish people have survived even through terrible oppression. Indeed, some historians have noted that of all the religions, it is only among the Jews that there is an idea of “Peoplehood,” and that Jews feel an obligation to come to the aid of other Jews around the world. And, because we focus on the needs of our own family, we understand obligation and responsibility, and thus can also translate this to all people. To start as a universalist, to love everyone, can sometimes mean to love no one in particular. God is everywhere, but God must also be somewhere specific so that we can relate to Him. We must care for all humankind, but for care and love to mean something, we must start at home and then bring that care and concern to all. Because Avraham “will command his children and his household after him to follow the path of the Lord,” (Gen. 18:19) because of his focus on his family and its values, he has the sensitivity and the strength to argue with God for the defense of the people of Sodom.
Avraham’s concern for Yitzchak is his concern for family. He has never forgotten his family, he understands how strong those bonds are, and he understands how strong they must remain if his vision for the entire world is to succeed. By strengthening his family, he ensures the physical survival of the Jewish people, he ensures that his message is protected and sustained, and he ensures, ultimately, how this message will spread throughout the world.