Shabbat Shalom: Lech Lecha (Genesis 12:1-17:27)
By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Efrat, Israel – “And there came one that had escaped, and told Abram the Hebrew: now he dwelt by the oaks of Mamre, the Amorite, brother of Eshcol, and brother of Aner; and these were confederate with Abram.” (Genesis 14:13)
“Go away, for your own good, from your land, from your birthplace and from your father’s house to the land that I shall show you. “I will make you into a great nation… You shall become a blessing… All the families of the earth shall be blessed through you” (Gen. 12:1-3).
Our portion opens with the first Divine Commandment to the first Jew – the command to make aliya.
Why did God choose Abraham and why was it so important for him to move to the Land of Israel? Maimonides, basing himself on earlier midrashim, maintains that Abraham discovered the concept of ethical monotheism – a single Creator of the universe who demands justice, compassion and peace.
Abraham shattered the idols in Ur Kasdim, was chased to Haran where he continued to preach his newfound religion, was addressed by God and sent to the Land of Israel (Mishneh Torah, “Laws of Idolatry” 1,3).
It is the propagation of this new credo that is the source of the Abrahamic blessing for the world and is the essence of his election.
Not only does God stipulate that “through [Abraham] all the families of the earth shall be blessed,” but Maimonides also pictures the first Jew as an intellectually gifted forerunner of “Yonatan [Johnny] Appleseed,” planting seeds of ethical monotheism and plucking the human fruits of his labor wherever he went. This “missionary activity” on behalf of God which was established by Abraham is a model for all of his descendants, and even according to many authorities an actual commandment! The midrash interpreting the commandment “to love the Lord your God” teaches: “[We are commanded] to make Him [God] beloved to all creatures, as did Abraham your father, as our text states, ‘the souls which they [Abram and Sarai] made in Haran’ (Gen. 12:5). After all, if all the people of the world were to gather in order to create one mosquito and endow it with a soul, they would be incapable of accomplishing it, so what is the text saying in the words, ‘the souls which they make in Haran’? This teaches that Abraham and Sarah converted them and brought them under the wings of the Divine Presence.”
The midrash confirms that the propagation of ethical monotheism was Abraham’s major vocation and this is why he was commanded to move to Israel.
“Rabbi Berachia said… Abraham can be compared to a vial of sweet-smelling spices sealed tightly and locked away in a corner – so that the pleasant aroma could not spread. Once the vial began to be transported, its aroma radiated all around. So did the Holy One Blessed be He say to Abraham, ‘Move from your place, and your name [and message] will become great universally.’” This midrash flies in the face of the biblical text after all, it was in Ur Kasdim, and then in Haran – places in the Diaspora – that Abraham and Sarah won converts to their religion. And this is confirmed by a daring Talmudic statement, “Rabbi Elazar said the Holy One Blessed be He sent Israel into exile amongst the nations of the world only in order to win converts….”
So if propagating the faith is so essential to the Jewish election and mission, why did God command and send Abraham (and his descendants) to live in one place, Israel? It would seem that a large Diaspora would be far more efficacious in bringing multitudes of souls into our faith! The answer lies in the fact that we are a nation as well as a religion, a people imbued with a mission not only to serve God but also – and even principally – to perfect society. From our very inception, the Bible understood that nations are interdependent, and that an ethical and moral code of conduct is central to the survival of a free world, and it is only another nation that can be in the position to influence other nations. Our goal must be to influence others to strive to emulate us. We must be a nation, but not a nation like all nations, but rather “a light unto the nations.”
No one can influence another unless they know their self-definition.
A minority group dominated by a host-culture majority will expend so much energy merely attempting to survive that there will be little ability or will left over to develop a unique culture as a model for others. And unless one controls the society, there is no living laboratory to test one’s ethical and moral ideas, to see if they can be expressed in real-life situations.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of Great Britain, expressed it very well. There were three brilliant and disenfranchised Jews who developed unique world outlooks. Karl Marx argued that human beings are controlled by economic forces, Spinoza maintained that humanity is controlled by nature and natural instincts, Freud believed we are formed by our parents’ home, fraught with traumas of Oedipus and Electra complexes.
God commands Abraham: “Free yourself of Marxian, Spinozistic and Freudian determinism. All of these will have an influence, but human freedom as children of the God of love will empower us to transcend these limitations and create a more perfect society.”
Hence God tells Abraham that he must leave to forge a unique nation dedicated to the ultimate values of human life and freedom, societal justice and compassion, so that through his special nation the world will be blessed and humanity will be redeemed.