Perhaps you recall the story of the messenger who runs miles to deliver a critical message to the next village over. Practically collapsing as he hands the note over, it says – “start worrying, details to follow.”
In the part of our Parasha that we read this morning, God senses, it seems, that Abram is worried. God is about to bless Abram with the promise of great reward, not just or even mainly for him personally, but that he will be the ancestor of a great and numerous people. And he begins that blessing by saying “Al Tirah Avram” – Fear not, Abram – don’t worry, your and your people’s future, though there will be hard times, is very bright.
The great 20th century Bible commentator Nechama Leibowitz helps to answer this question: what was Abram so fearful of that God had to begin by telling him not to worry? Can you think of anything? Some look at the timing of the blessing. Abram had just participated in a successful military campaign, rescuing his nephew Lot who had been taken captive. He refused to claim any of the spoils of war, yet is still concerned that maybe during the battle an innocent life was taken. God assures him that either this was not the case or it was not his fault. Yet Abram’s concern – interpreted by rabbis who worked 2000 years ago – for what we today call collateral damage is instructive. It still happens every day around the world, and we can’t simply say “well, that’s the way it is”. Israel goes a long way to prevent it from happening and yet is not immune. Imagine what happens when armies that are not concerned with this mount a campaign.
Or perhaps Abram was afraid that this turn toward military engagement would be a new and unwelcome defining element of his life – maybe the kings he attacked would gang up on him for round two. Abram – al tirah – you won’t have to fight any more, and indeed the Torah does not report any more military campaigns in which Abram was involved. For some a war footing is desirable; for Abram, for Israelites, for Jews – it is supposed to be only a last resort.
If he was not afraid of having caused collateral damage, and not afraid that this engagement would lead to a life of war-making, maybe it was something else and it is to this that we can also relate. Abram, quite simply, is afraid that his luck has run out. The midrash teaches that he had been saved from a king named Nimrod, including being unaffected by the fiery furnace into which he was tossed. And now he wins this military battle. How much good fortune am I really entitled to? God reassures him that he and his descendants will continue to benefit from their connection to God and the developing Jewish tradition.
Luck does not seem to play a significant role in our biblical tradition. But later on you may know that the notion of the evil eye, and also of astrology, have and continue to play a role in our thinking as we are influenced by the places in which we live. Even at a bar or bat mitzvah or wedding what do we say? Mazal tov – which pretty much means, good luck! Or, good fate, fortune, or that the things in life that you can’t control should more often than not break your way.
In addition to everything else we know about Abraham, and the model extends to the other patriarchs and matriarchs, Abraham was a biblical example of the figure who does not rely on luck. He tries to do what he thinks is right in each set of circumstances that are presented to him. He maintains faith that God has in mind what is ultimately best for him and for a family he has not even met yet, and of which we are a part. And he is living both to get through a particular moment, and with a sense that he may very well be a part of something that will far outlast him.
We have all had our runs of bad luck – some of us might even consider ourselves “unlucky”, but I hope not. Are there “forces” in the world that can prevent you from, or cause you to, stub your toe or be the only one at your table to get food poisoning or drive through paint recently spilled on the street, or more profoundly to find and keep love, remain reasonably healthy, and most days to live with a sense of purpose and feelings of accomplishment, has been and will remain a source of debate. Whether due to luck or more likely to another four-letter word that begins with “l” which is life, most of us also have gratitude for what and especially who we have in our lives. And one thing we have today – and most every day – is to do what Abraham did, which is to face the challenge and opportunity of each day not as if its outcome is already completely decided, but by acknowledging that we can do something to try and make a positive impact almost no matter the circumstances.
In this room there are people who have faced the most difficult challenges there are, and I know that because that is true for any room full of people pretty much anywhere. While it might have been a little bit of “mazal” that carried you through, more likely it was your effort, your capacity to look beyond a hard moment to envision something better, and the support offered by family, friends, and community that carried you through. As it was in the past, so may it be in the future and for what it is worth I wish all of us Shabbat shalom and good luck!