Staying Still to Serve
By Binyamin Ehrenkranz
When He finished speaking with Avraham, G-d left [him]. Avraham then returned to his place. — Gen. 18:33
Frank took me to the Oval Office (my first view of it) . Henry
Kissinger was also there, with Nixon, and when the exchange had gone on for about fifteen minutes Dwight Chapin (appointments secretary and dirty trickster) entered discreetly and handed the President a note.
I instantly inferred that this was the procedure by which guests were signalled to leave, and was therefore surprised when Nixon said to Chapin, “Tell him to wait just a minute,” and resumed his conversation with me. Upon the conclusion of the point he was making, I rose and said the usual thing about how busy the President was, we all shook hands, and I left. As Frank and I walked away from the White House, he told me that I had violated protocol. “The way it works is you never terminate a session with the President, he terminates it . As long as he says nothing abortive, it signifies that he wants things to continue as they are, and the tradition is that we are all there at the pleasure of the President.” — Overdrive: A Personal Documentary by William F. Buckley, Jr. (Doubleday, 1983)
After an extraordinary entreaty to save a most wicked community,
Avraham backs down. Sodom’s merits were too few and the hour too late for even the most righteous man’s intervening to succeed. The conversation ends and the Torah notes that G-d departs and Avraham goes home. Why the stage direction?
Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno (c. 1447-c.1550) writes that from the sequence of the pasuk, the reader can infer that Avraham waited, remaining ready and focused to listen to the Divine message. Once G-d “left,” the rendezvous had ended, and only then did Avraham take leave.
Sforno notes that the antithesis of this behavior – waiting for G-d to end the conversation – is typified by Kayin, whom the Torah records “went out from before G-d’s presence”(4:16). Unwilling to acknowledge responsibility for his recklessness, Kayin curtailed the discussion.
These divergent behaviors offer compelling insight into the range of the human psyche. On the one end is Avraham, a watershed figure in discovery, valor, and passion in spreading Monotheism, a doctrine of accountability and obligation. The characteristic with which he is most commonly associated, altruism, is perhaps nowhere more visible in the text of the Torah than in his pleas on Sodom’s behalf. His compassion and appreciation of the sheer potential of man, regardless of his status quo, allow us a glimpse of Avraham’s character. Even when he has exhausted the possible solutions, Avraham does not despair. Instead he remains concentrated on hearing the Divine word. And only when G-d ends the dialogue does he head homeward.
Avraham understood that human endeavor is futile without consideration of Providence. Nonetheless, his own travails demonstrate that to be righteous is also to be proactive, deliberate and diligent, and not to turn back or move on until one is signaled to do so.
At the other end of the spectrum is Kayin, indifferent and impulsive. He entertained no interest in responsibility or virtue altogether. This modus vivendi made it easy to walk away from G-d mid-sentence – to dally and drift off in the face of personal responsibility, let alone concern for others.
Sometimes we encounter those who act similarly, who discard their spiritual identity and walk away from faith. They forgo the lesson of Avraham, as discovered in perhaps a different way by William F. Buckley while visiting the White House: One does not terminate a session with the President.
Besides being the one who intuited and championed this understanding, Avraham also embodied it. He understood that G-d’s involvement in the world and the individuals who inhabit it is dynamic and unceasing. Even when he realized that the case for Sodom was all but closed, he stood by, intent with hope.
Throughout Tanach we meet characters who chose to trace the footprints either of Avraham or Kayin. It is this choice that separates the heroes from the washouts.
Even Lot, who witnessed up close Avraham’s triumphant courage, could not bring himself to subscribe to the Higher Way, instead throwing his hands up in the air, stating, “I care neither for Avraham nor for his G-d” (Gen. 13:11, Rashi ad loc). He, like Kayin before him and too many after, walked away from the conversation.
When events move in the opposite direction of our hopes, we too
sometimes are tempted to act likewise. Personal or communal challenges arise, the political landscape shifts in ways seemingly out of our favor, the very order of the world seems to slip away from our already uneasy grasp. We may not go so far as “walking away” from Hashem altogether, but we sometimes slacken and recoil a bit.
The legacy bequeathed to us by Avraham eschews giving up. It impels us to spring back and stay put as best we can, to observe our own noble protocol: staying at the ready to serve, recognizing we are all here at the pleasure of the munificent Author of the universe.
Binyamin Ehrenkranz is a member of Jewish Action magazine’s editorial committee. He is a graduate student in New York.