Running from Genesis 12 to 25, the story of Abraham is, among many other things, a cliffhanger drama of Jewish continuity. It starts with God telling Abraham, when he’s still a Mesopotamian:
Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee:
And I will make of thee a great nation….
But even though Abraham goes to live in Israel as he’s bidden, serious complications arise. It turns out this putative father of a great nation and his wife are an infertile couple. God, miraculously, solves that problem for them only when Abraham is a hundred years old and Sarah ninety, evoking incredulous laughter from them both.
Their son Isaac is born; but some years later the troubles continue when God again comes to Abraham and says:
Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.
Since Abraham — whose identity, as I discussed last week, is based on obeying God — has no choice but to comply, it appears again that the future of the “great nation” has been lost, until God again intervenes and rescinds the terrible decree.
The next major event is Sarah’s death. Abraham, who is “old, and well stricken with age,” knows that the issue of Jewish continuity has still hardly been solved, since in all of Canaan there isn’t a single “Jewish” girl whom Isaac can marry.
Instead Abraham tells the “eldest servant of his house”:
I will make thee swear by the LORD, the God of heaven, and the God of the earth, that thou shalt not take a wife unto my son of the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell:
But thou shalt go unto my country, and to my kindred, and take a wife unto my son Isaac.
So begins one of the Bible’s loveliest tales.
The servant — a wonderfully drawn character, honest, earnest, and dedicated,
took ten camels of the camels of his master, and departed…and he arose, and went to Mesopotamia….
Arriving there, he stops with his men and camels by a well in the evening. Addressing God, the servant requests that he be able to identify the right girl by means of a test:
Behold, I stand here by the well of water; and the daughters of the men of the city come out to draw water:
And let it come to pass, that the damsel to whom I shall say, Let down thy pitcher, I pray thee, that I may drink; and she shall say, Drink, and I will give thy camels drink also: let the same be she that thou hast appointed for thy servant Isaac….
And indeed, in the dusk there, the girl materializes:
And the damsel was very fair to look upon, a virgin, neither had any man known her: and she went down to the well, and filled her pitcher, and came up.
At that point the servant approaches her with his test — which she passes decisively, showing nothing but kindness and hospitality. The girl, of course, is Rebekah, granddaughter of Abraham’s brother Nahor. She leads the servant to Abraham’s kinfolk; he stays the night there, explains his mission, and they realize that “The thing proceedeth from the Lord” and they have no choice but to send Rebekah back with him to Canaan.
…Isaac went out to meditate in the field at the eventide: and he lifted up his eyes, and saw, and, behold, the camels were coming.
And Rebekah lifted up her eyes, and when she saw Isaac, she lighted off the camel.
And the future of the great nation in the land of Canaan is — for now — secured.
I grew up in the land of upstate New York, in an area where there were almost no Jews. I first remember hearing about Jewish continuity sometime in my teens. My mother told me it was very important to my father that I and my sisters marry Jews. She said it in a way that implied it wasn’t so important to her. But my father was a person of depth and character, and her words couldn’t be taken lightly.
At that point, in my teens, I wasn’t too connected to Jewish matters. I thought of Israel as a distant, happy, admirable land — if I thought of it. I knew that in a few years I’d go to a university where there would be a lot more Jews. I was ambivalent about what my mother had told me; it seemed that marrying a Jewish girl would be nice, but how could I control whom I’d meet or fall in love with?
I also knew the matter was sensitive, and didn’t talk about it to my friends — except one, my best friend, himself a person of great depth, character, and intelligence. He didn’t like it and said it was a form of racism.
When I did go off to college, my first girlfriend was an Irish Catholic with flaming red hair. I didn’t write home about it.
Why should it matter? Why this hangup with continuity?
God, indeed, promises to make of Abraham a “great nation,” a “great and mighty nation,” several times—“I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore….” Yet, while millions are no doubt a much larger number than Abraham and his wife, the Jews have never been such a great nation demographically.
For the first century of the Common Era, before the catastrophic defeats at the hands of the Romans and the loss of the polity in Israel, the highest estimates run to about five million. During the Middle Ages there seem to have been no more than about a million Jews in the world at a time. At present there are about fourteen million, no more than 0.2 percent of the world population.
By far the largest centers are Israel, with over six million, and the United States, with 5.5 million. American Jewry, however, has high rates of assimilation and intermarriage. My impression is that—outside of the Orthodox community—there are by now few if any American Jewish parents like my father (or, for that matter, Abraham). That may be good for commonality and integration, but it’s not good for the “stars of the heaven.”
That leaves Israel. From about six hundred thousand in 1948, the year it was established, its Jewish population has grown tenfold. And it grows further every year; immigrants keep coming, and fertility rates are the highest in the Western world. From the time I left for college to the time I left for Israel twelve years later, hitching myself to this vessel of continuity became something I had to do.
And now it’s always around me, in a thousand manifestations, and I’m always exulting in it.
Case closed? No. Just as we reach and pass the semantically charged six-million mark, the main news coming out of the region concerns weapons of mass destruction—in Syria, in Iran. Does that mean survival itself is threatened? In my estimation, no. But it’s enough to give rise to scenarios, to undercurrents of anxiety.
Yet, looking back at Abraham’s story, one sees that continuity has been an issue since the very beginning. Abraham, despite daunting difficulties, persists at it to the elderly, widowed, last days of his life. He sends out his servant, who comes back at eventide with the fair damsel who promises the future.