After returning from Egypt, Avraham settles in Elonei Mamre; a place that is to become deeply significant to him throughout his life. It is from there he strikes out and triumphantly defeats a mighty force of four kings and then receives God’s promise for eternal protection. He is visited by God there and experiences one of the most important episodes in our national history: the Brit Ben Habtarim. It is also in Elonei Mamre where God appears to Avraham to tell him of the future miraculous birth of a child who will continue his legacy; and it is also where this significant child is born. It is from this location, too, that he pleads to God to rethink His decision to raze the cities of Sedom and Amora.
And then, after having experienced all of these milestones in this one specific place, the Torah reports:
וַיִּסַּ֨ע מִשָּׁ֤ם אַבְרָהָם֙ אַ֣רְצָה הַנֶּ֔גֶב וַיֵּ֥שֶׁב בֵּין־קָדֵ֖שׁ וּבֵ֣ין שׁ֑וּר וַיָּ֖גָר בִּגְרָֽר׃
“And Avraham traveled from there towards the South, and settled between Kadesh and Shur; and sojourned in Grar” (Breishit 20:1)
Why did Avraham leave Elonei Mamre?! What prompted him to depart from one of the most significant locations of his life? The Torah offers no explanation for this move: God doesn’t command it and there wasn’t a famine or enemy which would have logically motivated a departure from such a life-defining place.
Rav Hirsch offers a unique approach. He first points out that while the pasuk relates that Avraham settled (וישב) in this ‘in-between’ area, he simultaneously sojourned (ויגר) in Grar. According to Rav Hirsch, this relays that Avraham didn’t want to actually settle in the Plishti region of Grar, but would often ‘visit’ temporarily (“sojourn”) there. Why? With Yitzchak on the way, Avraham wanted to create a context where his son – the progenitor of God’s Legacy – could be exposed to ‘the outside world’. If Yitzchak was to become a forefather of the nation that would inspire the world, he needed to be worldly, appreciating a greater world view beyond a narrow Jewish one. And this would be why Avraham left Elonei Mamre: there was perhaps too much ‘one-sided’ history there and as an essential educational decision for the next generation, Avraham left.
However, this explanation seems difficult. The next scene describes how Avimelekh, after kidnapping Sarah, is told by God to return her to Avraham. Upon confronting Avraham, Avimelekh challenges him, asking why he would lie so deeply, thereby placing he and his nation in such Divine peril. Avraham answers that he felt he needed to lie because he hadn’t believed there was any “יראת אלוקים” in Grar; that Avimelekh’s kingdom lacked the basic moral and ethical code which would have prevented Avraham being killed and his wife being kidnapped. Is this a place, therefore, that Avraham would have consciously chosen to educate his son?! Did Avraham truly believe that this (supposed) deeply amoral and unethical place could serve as a proper classroom for a constructive worldly exposure for the next generation?!
Perhaps, instead, a different explanation for this ‘sudden’ departure can be found, and is specifically motivated because Avraham believed Grar was such an amoral and unethical place. For, the episode immediately preceding this unexpected departure is Avraham fighting to save Sedom and its neighboring cities. Avraham argues to save the cities due to the deservedness of the righteous who dwell within – but each time he queries whether there are enough righteous to actualize this salvation, God informs him that there are, in fact, not enough to warrant the requested stay of execution. Avraham famously continues his argument, unwilling to capitulate, continually accepting the lack of the greater number of righteous and then challenging whether perhaps there was yet a smaller number, still deserving of reprieve. Every time he is denied, he attempts yet again with a smaller number. Finally, he asks whether there are at least ten righteous in the city –and God once again tells him there are not. But, before Avraham can continue his pleas (perhaps asking whether there is at least one righteous in all the cities?) God abruptly leaves, having decided that His side of the conversation was now concluded – “וילך ה’ כאשר כלה לדבר אל אברהם” (Breishit 18:33), leaving Avraham literally ‘put in his place’ – “ואברהם שב למקומו” (ibid).
This abrupt and disappointing conclusion to such an elongated heart-felt plea, for a man God Himself described in this very scene as one ‘who would command his children…to observe the way of God, and perform righteousness and justice’ (Breishit 18:19), could only be described as crushingly disheartening: “Could I have tried harder?” “Did I not present the correct arguments?” “Did I fail where success was possible?” And from the opposite perspective: In the introduction to his challenge to God to stay His hand, Avraham described God as ‘the Judge of the entire land’ (ibid 25) and called Him out on His seeming injustice at being ready to wipe out the righteous with the wicked: “Could God truly just end the conversation like this?” “Has He merely decided to ignore my arguments?” “Is He perhaps not the just and righteous judge I assumed He was?”
It is on this wave of deep disappointment and new-found doubt, that Avraham ‘suddenly’ journeys on and settles outside of Grar. For, believing this Plishti capital was deeply amoral and unethical, Avraham, the teacher of God’s ways, the man who represented the values of righteousness and justice, wanted, nay needed, another chance to save another iniquitous city! A man like Avraham understood that if the previous failure was due to his own inabilities, he needed to proactively create another opportunity to do it right the second time! He therefore immediately settles outside of Grar, setting up a more prolonged, directed, personally-invested opportunity to succeed where previously he may have failed.
And what of his/our doubt in God’s justice and righteousness? How did Avraham (and how do we) reconcile the seemingly dismissive nature of God’s conclusion to Avraham’s arguments at Sedom?
When Avraham enters Grar and Avimelekh kidnaps Sarah, God immediately appears to him in a dream and tells Avimelekh that he will be killed because he took the wife of another. Avimelekh quickly responds, “I did not come close to her…will a righteous nation be killed?” – brilliantly echoing (and recreating) the arguments of Avraham to God at Sedom! And then God answers, ‘I know that you in fact took her innocently, and therefore I am holding back [from imposing consequences] for this sin…go and return this married woman…and [Avraham] will pray for you and you will live’. Avraham’s ‘second opportunity’ to save an iniquitous city plays out from God’s perspective too; and it turns out, that, in fact, if there is one righteous person in a city, and that God is righteously and justly willing to stay its destruction.