Chapter 24 of Genesisbegins with the announcement that Abraham is old and coming to the end of his days. His grief over Sarah's death mingles with awareness of his own mortality and fear for the end of his lineage, given Isaac's unmarried state. He calls for his faithful servant, (unnamed here, but identified by the rabbis as Eliezer), and makes him take an oath to arrange a marriage for Isaac. However, it cannot be with a Canaanite woman; only a woman from Abraham's homeland is permissible. This remarkable statement of tribalism (the servant is presumably a Canaanite—some midrashim have him fantasizing that Isaac will marry his own daughter and inherit Abraham’s riches) is paradoxically paired with a statement of theological universalism.
In verse 3, Abraham beseeches his servant in the name of "The God of the heaven and the God of the earth." Yet, in verse 7, referring back to his initial "Lech Lecha" journey, he states that "the God of heaven" had sent him forth. The rabbis note this difference. In Midrash Sifre Devarim (333) we are told that until Abraham arrived, God, as it were, ruled only over the heavens, but Abraham enthroned God on the earth as well. In Bereshit Rabba (59) Rabbi Pinhas puts it a bit less starkly—until I (Abraham) informed the people about God, God could not be known as "God of the earth." Rashi blends these traditions and clarifies that the issue is one of awareness—until Abraham, people were unaware of God's sovereignty, but God was there all along. Abraham's purpose, his mission, his covenant, is to spread awareness of God.
It is odd that this universal message is linked to the most particular of family episodes—the insistence that Isaac NOT marry a local person. Isn't this an internal contradiction? How can particularism serve a universal mission? This is one of the larger challenges to modern Jewish identity. We have survived for millennia because of the particularist covenant of Sinai, with all of the mitzvot that are specific to Jewish life. Our survival is in large measure because of our commitment to endogamy and other habits and beliefs, (i.e. kashrut, our unique calendar, brit milah, mikveh, mandated mourning practices, kippot, tallit, tefillin, and more) which frankly alienated Jews from their neighbors. And yet, at the same time, we carried this idealistic vision of carrying on Abraham's mission to spread knowledge of "the God of heaven and the God of earth" and to establish "tzeddek u-mishpat—righteousness and justice in the world." For many of us the command of "social justice" has become the core of religious mission. Can you have it both ways?
The world simply has too many problems for us to work in isolation. We need for God to be the God not only of the heavens but also of the earth. And for that to be true, we need to be able to work together with other peoples of faith. As we work on social justice issues and helping to repair the world, beginning with our blood drive this Sunday, we can feel progress toward the goal of Abraham's covenant. May each week bring us that much closer!
Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham