Avraham was a powerful icon whose legacy has reverberated across the ages. The way the Torah sums up his life is that he had it all:
וְאַבְרָהָם זָקֵן בָּא בַּיָּמִים וַה’ בֵּרַךְ אֶת־אַבְרָהָם בַּכֹּל – Avraham was old, well advanced in years, and God had blessed Avraham with everything. (24:1)
The way the Torah characterizes his death is similar:
וַיִּגְוַע וַיָּמָת אַבְרָהָם בְּשֵׂיבָה טוֹבָה זָקֵן וְשָׂבֵעַ וַיֵּאָסֶף אֶל־עַמָּיו – Then Avraham breathed his last and died at a good old age, an elderly man and full of years; and he was gathered to his people. (25:8)
Along the same vein, Rashi notes that the Torah describes the years of Sarah’s life as equally good too – שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי שָׂרָה.
These serene descriptions have one flaw, however. They’re just not true!
To recap, God promised Avraham and Sarah land and children. Yet they had to fight tooth and nail to get anywhere! They were told to leave everything they had ever known to for some unknown foreign land, but as soon as they’d arrived, they were forced to leave because of a devastating famine. Then on their travels, Sarah was twice the target of some despotic leader’s unwanted sexual advances; and Avraham endangered himself to protect his family. They waited desperately for decades to have a child; then, when the child finally arrived, it caused a deep rift between Sarah and Hagar, resulting in Avraham removing Hagar and Ishmael from home. And after all that, Avraham was asked to murder his precious child, the one he had waited so long for.
One way or another, whether we think of the children or the land, the reality fell far short of what Avraham and Sarah might have felt entitled to expect of God’s promises. Why does the Torah sum up their lives with the feeling of satisfaction and fulfillment?
R’ Jonathan Sacks explains that to be happy does not mean that you have everything you want or everything you were promised.
R’ Yitzchak Berkowitz notes that Avraham’s life is the origin story for the Jewish people, and it doesn’t go how you might expect. Avraham’s story seems so trivial – it’s about his business ventures, his travels, and his family disputes. R’ Berkowitz teaches that if we had a story were about mighty heroes riding flying unicorns to vanquish their enemies and save the world, it couldn’t be more silly, and it couldn’t be less relevant. Avraham’s story matters because it teaches us that God’s mission has no fanfare, no red carpet, and no grand celebration – Avraham is our hero because God’s mission for us is in mundane things. It’s in trying to make a living, marrying off a child, and living in harmony. The thankless and mundane ought to be celebrated and sacred.
The Mishna in Pirkei Avos teaches that it is not for us to complete the work, but neither are we free to desist from it. We have a duty to do what we can to pave the way before passing the baton to the next generation.
Avraham did not need to see the entire land in Jewish hands, nor did he need to see the Jewish people become numerous; he had taken the first step. He had begun the task, and he knew that his descendants would continue it. He was able to die at peace because he had faith in God and faith that others would complete what he had begun. The same was surely true of Sarah.
As only Rabbi Jonathan Sacks can put it, God is waiting for us to act. We need God, and God needs us.
God can promise, but humans have to act. God may promise Avraham the land, but Avraham still had to buy his first field. God may promise Avraham countless descendants, but Avraham still had to identify a suitable partner for his son.
Despite all the promises, God does not and will not do it alone. Avraham did all he could, with the faith, trust, and hope that others would continue what he began. Living their entire lives with that belief, they were able to die with a sense of fulfillment.
It was enough for Abraham and Sarah, and it must be enough for us.
Just do your best, and hope for the rest.