On his way out of the Land of Israel, fleeing from the murderous wrath of his brother Esav, our forefather Yaakov stopped in at the yeshivah of Ever, who in fact was his several-times-over great-grandfather, and studied there uninterruptedly for fourteen years.
In that, he was following something of a family tradition. Yaakov’s father Yitzchak had also spent a couple of years at this yeshivah, between the Akeidah and his marriage. (Back then Shem, the founder of the yeshivah, was still alive.) I don’t know if Avraham ever studied there, but we know that he did have a meeting with Shem — under his alternate name of Malki-Tzedek — at which they exchanged goods, blessings, and undoubtedly, Torah ideas (Bereishis 14:18ff).
(Incidentally, here‘s an interesting blog entry – apparently referring to this article (in Hebrew) – arguing that this yeshivah can be identified with archeological remnants found in the North Syrian city of Ebla. I don’t know what to make of it, but it’s an interesting idea, at least.)
Anyone who’s descended from Avraham is obviously descended from Shem and Ever too, since they were his ancestors. Furthermore, they knew and taught about Hashem and His Torah. So why indeed don’t we consider them the forefathers of the Jewish People, rather than starting de novo with Avraham?
One answer I’ve seen (I don’t recall the source, unfortunately — a common failing of mine) boils down to this: Shem and Ever were prepared to teach Torah to whoever showed up, but they didn’t go out to actively seek new students. Shem, for example, had his oasis of G-dliness in (Jeru)salem, where he was both king and “priest to the Most High G-d,” while the rest of the land of Canaan was sunk in paganism and gross immorality. Whereas Avraham (and Sarah) reached out, bringing to the masses knowledge of G-d’s existence and His expectations of us. (So important was this work, indeed, that the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 9a) dates a new epoch in world history — the “two thousand years of Torah” — from the beginning of Avraham’s work on “making souls in Charan,” in the year 2000 since Creation.) Yitzchak and Rivkah, Yaakov and Rachel and Leah, all continued this work of demonstrating G-d’s existence to an apathetic or even hostile world. And ultimately, this is why we describe Hashem as “the G-d of Avraham, the G-d of Yitzchak, and the G-d of Yaakov,” and ourselves as their children, rather than referring to Adam or Noach or Shem or Ever.
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This past Shabbos saw the population of my neighborhood, Crown Heights, swell with the influx of Shluchim from all over the world, coming to town for the annual Shluchim Convention. Among these was our gracious blog host, Reb Naftali; and I had the privilege of meeting him in person after Shabbos, at a Chassidic farbrengen (gathering) in my local shul. (And here’s an appropriate place to thank him for giving me a platform on his blog. I can only hope that I’ll live up to the Talmud’s characterization (Berachos 58a) of a good guest, who thoughtfully appreciates everything that his host does for him.)
In Brooklyn or any other major Jewish population center, it’s easy to be insular — to basically ignore the outside world, keep one’s contacts with it to a minimum, and focus on maintaining one’s own Jewish identity and that of his or her family and immediate circle. The Shluchim of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, on the contrary, follow the trail blazed by Avraham and his successors, carrying the torch of Torah to places remote geographically, mentally, and spiritually distant from G-dliness, and preparing the world for its ultimate goal, the “two thousand years of Moshiach” in which Hashem’s presence will be revealed to our fleshly eyes. They are the future of Lubavitch in particular, and the Jewish People in general; they are the Avrahams to our Shems, the Yaakovs to our Evers.