The Torah is written in the language of humans, and storytelling is one of humanity’s most powerful tools.
Some parts of the Torah are communicated in the forms of laws, and others in the form of stories. Integral messages can be passed through the ages, each generation filtering it through its wisest minds, gleaning new insights in each telling.
Some authorities say that the stories of our tradition are not about ordinary people like you and me; they are about perfect saints who were qualitatively different to us.
This is not a universally held position, and with good reason. If the stories are about holy people who are different to us, how can their stories relevantly guide our lives?
R’ Jonathan Sacks suggests that power of the Torah is that unlike other cultures, our heroes are not gods or demigods, they are mortal men. God is God, and humans are human.
God promised Avraham family, fame, and fortune; yet had to fight for them his whole life. When famine struck his new home in Israel, he decided that he could take better care of his family in the fertile land of Egypt. While this was an eminently reasonable decision to have made based on his assessment of the facts; he placed Sarah in a highly compromising situation that required divine intervention after she was taken by Paroh.
The Ramban criticizes Avraham for leaving Israel and not waiting for God’s promises; and by abandoning Israel, he risked the promises and endangered the family he was trying to protect.
R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch notes that this very discussion is an essential feature of our rich heritage.
Our ancestors are the prototypes of what the ideal person looks like, but the Torah does not whitewash its heroes; they are still human.
Our role models cannot be idealized characters; because if they weren’t like us, they wouldn’t be relevant. What makes them great is precisely the fact that they weren’t so different from us. They faced the same kinds of problems we do: how best to protect and provide for their families; and how to maintain their beliefs and practices while trying to do the right thing.
Avraham is first and foremost in our pantheon of great figures because, throughout his struggles, he maintained his integrity and persevered – sometimes rightly and sometimes wrongly. He was not born holy, and he did not possess some innate characteristic that gave him a holiness advantage.
The Torah speaks in whole truths to give a three-dimensional view of the people we look up to. The Torah is for and about humans; it’s ok to be human.
The Maharitz Chajes notes that stories are the Torah’s medium for teaching us about morality because mature people understand that moral choices are often difficult, and rarely black and white. Only a story transmits the eternal turmoil of moral responsibility.
The Torah is replete with stories about how great people make mistakes. Perfection is ever-elusive, but greatness is not.
The perfect is the enemy of the good.