J.F. Powers, a Roman Catholic American novelist, once wrote to a friend, Robert Lowell: “Ah, well, let me be a lesson to you. Stay single. That way you can afford to be yourself.” Powers felt that he was often forced to sacrifice his art to the “secondary things” required of a husband and father, like a job that would put food on the table, and the time required to help children with homework. He referred to this sacrifice of artistic ambition on the altar of parental responsibility as the “the American Tragedy.”
There is, without question, a tension that exists between the ideals of parental responsibility, on the one hand, and the absolute, single minded dedication that is a prerequisite for achieving greatness in any field of endeavor. History is littered with examples of famous people who sacrificed their family lives for a “higher cause.” The Broadway show, “Golda’s Balcony,” told the story of Golda Meir’s sacrifice of her marriage and family life as she devoted more than five decades of her life to establishing a homeland for the Jewish people, and creating and safeguarding the state of Israel.
Sometimes, however, the choice between greatness and familial responsibility is not quite as clear as it may seem.
When Avraham first arrived in the Land of Canaan, the Torah tells us that he came to Beit-El, built an altar, and “called on the name of God.” The Midrash explains: “This teaches us that he taught all creatures to call on the name of God. Another explanation: “He called” – he began to convert proselytes and bring them under the wings of the Divine Presence.”
Avraham believed that it was his life’s mission to teach the peoples of the world about the existence of the one, all powerful and almighty God, and so his first act upon reaching the Holy Land was to dedicate himself to converting the inhabitants of the land to monotheism. And as Maimonides explains, Avraham was extraordinarily successful in his mission; his followers numbered in the thousands.
But what is Avraham’s lasting legacy? As Sefer Bereishit moves on to the stories of Yitzchak and Yaakov, the Torah makes no mention of Avraham’s many followers. While we cannot know the fate of these monotheistic communities with any certainty, it seems that the children of Avraham’s converts to monotheism did not keep the faith, sliding back, instead, towards the idolatry and polytheism that was prevalent at the time. And so Avraham’s life mission – to bring belief in the one God to the masses – would appear to be a failure.
But not exactly. As we well know, Avraham’s son, Yitzchak, faithfully lived a life that followed in the footsteps of his father. And Yaakov, after him, would pass on Avraham’s legacy and teachings first to a family, and then to an entire nation, that would one day become a light unto all other nations. And so Avraham’s immortal legacy was assured – not in spite of, but rather because of, his children.