Uncovering the esoteric meaning
This is my Girardian reading of Abraham.
Abram said to Lot, “Let there be no strife between you and me, between my herdsmen and yours, for we are kinsmen. Is not the whole land before you? Let us separate. If you go north, I will go south; and if you go south, I will go north.” Lot looked about him and saw how well watered was the whole plain of the Jordan, all of it—this was before the LORD had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah—all the way to Zoar, like the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt. (Genesis 13:8-10)
Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. (John Locke, Second Treatise on Government, Sec. 27**)**
The Torah does not tell us why God chooses Abraham. It does not tell us what Abraham was thinking or feeling when he accepted God’s call, in this week’s parasha, Lech L’cha (Gen. 12:1-17:27), “to go from your land, your homeland, your father’s home, to the place that I will show you.”
But we can infer that whatever Abraham believed, he was highly disagreeable, deeply contrarian. It takes an unimaginable amount of self-confidence and conviction to leave one’s society behind and venture out towards a new one without anything but trust in the process. Yes, Abraham is promised tremendous upside (“I will bless you…and make of you a great nation”), but in the moment of his response, he has no social validation. The line between genius and self-deluded madman is always faint, especially at the beginning.
An armchair philosopher might come to the conclusion that there’s only one God who created the world, but only a faithful person can act on such a conclusion, can put real “skin in the game.” The crux of the Torah’s introduction of Abraham into the picture is not that Abraham is a person of theoretical wisdom or insight or understanding (though he might be, and though this is how medieval thinkers like Maimonides imagine him), but that he is a person who takes risks that most of us would not. Kierkegaard’s reading of Abraham in Fear and Trembling makes this point emphatic—Abraham goes so far at times that he appears monstrous to those who cannot walk with him. Abraham and his family pay a high price for being pioneers. And it would be selection bias to romanticize them too much when for every Abraham we hear about there are hundreds for whom it did not work out.
Despite being a contrarian, Kabbalistic thought surprisingly identifies Abraham with the attribute of Hesed, loving-kindness. Abraham and Sarah were known to epitomize an ethos of hospitality. When Abraham and Sarah leave Haran, they do so with “the souls that they made there,”—an allusion, says the Midrash, to all the people they taught and brought closer to God. That Abraham was iconoclastic did not mean that he was a misanthrope. On the contrary, his willingness to stand apart made him highly desirable, his example contagious. Or said differently, Abraham’s love of God and his recognition of his existence as fashioned in the divine image compelled him to be disagreeable, to shrug at the possibility of imitating those around him.
René Girard theorized that human conflict arises not from our differences, but from our similarities. Mimetic rivalry occurs when we take our cues for what desire from one another. In short, we envy people not for what they have, but because we want to be like them; and we want to be like them because we feel that we are them; they are just like us. A lack of a sense of self leads to endless competition over things we only value because others value them. Luke Burgis, in his book on Girard, Wanting, names this kind of reality Freshmanistan, for its evocation of the pettiness of high school feuds. Abraham, if you will, is commanded by God to leave Freshmanistan. He’s also able to do so because of his love. The love he has for God and that he feels God has for him allows him to see beyond the small-mindedness of his neighborhood in Ur Kasdim.
When Abraham arrives in Egypt, he tells Sarah to pretend that she’s his sister: