In this week's Torah portion, Parashat Lech L'cha, we begin to read the stories of our patriarchs and matriarchs. Almost without any introduction, this chapter of our history begins when God tells Abram to take his entire family and to go to a foreign, unspecified land. In return, God will make Abram into a great nation, will bless Abram, and will make him famous ("make your name great"). God tells Abram, Veh'yei b'rachah, "And you shall be a blessing." (Genesis 12:1-3) What we don't really know is why Abram was "chosen."
In our tradition, we view Abraham as a hero. We learn and teach our children that he was the first Jew, the founder of our faith. We teach that he was the first monotheist or, at the very least, the first great monotheist. Abram was an iconoclast and pioneer, the trailblazer par excellence. And because the Torah really doesn't explain why Abr(ah)am was chosen for this monumental role, we are left to speculate about what made him so special (and up to the task).
Indeed, there are some who have called Abraham a sort of flower child, a free spirit. He gave up everything―a life of comfort, position, status―to wander off on a fertile crescent of imagination, to go off on a wild-goose chase, as it were. But this, in fact, is why Abram merits his special connection to God. He is willing to give up his good life for something greater. Abram somehow realizes that there must be something more meaningful than material possessions, and he is able to rise above the things he has amassed to seek a loftier goal.
One key to this interpretation lies in Rashi's comments on some of the verses in Genesis, chapter 13. Verse 2 tells us that Abram was "very rich, kaved, in cattle, silver, and gold." Rashi tells us that the word kaved that is used here to convey Abram's wealth usually means "heavy" or "honored" (think of the Yiddish word kovod,"respect"). Here it is used to mean that Abram was weighted down with many possessions because he was wealthy. But in the next verse, we learn that Abram went from the Negeb to Bethel "by stages," l'ma-asav. Rashi tells us that the use of this word means that upon Abram's return from Egypt, he took the same route back and stayed in the same places in which he had lodged on his way down to Egypt. Rashi points out that even though Abram is wealthier now than when he went down to Egypt, he has retained his humility and doesn't change the places in which he lodges. Hence we know that Abram has not been altered by his accumulation of greater wealth.
And then, just a few verses later in this chapter, we gain a further sense of Abram's unique quality. We read in verse 10 that Lot "raises up his eyes" and sees how lush (well watered) the plain of Jordan is. But when Abramlooks up, he sees stars. What finally distinguishes Abram from so many others that came before him is that while others (e.g., Lot) see only material things, Abram has visions of spiritual matters, namely, stars.
Abram is a dreamer in the best sense of the word: He looks beyond the world of things and possessions to a force greater than himself. That is why he is able to enter into a covenant with God. He senses the existence of something greater than himself, and he works to enter into a relationship with it. Abram wants to be involved in something greater than this world: He wants to commit himself to a connection that points to something beyond. This is why Abraham ends up becoming a "blessing"―because he looks beyond himself. The story of Abraham, like Judaism, constantly challenges us to do the same-to look beyond ourselves toward others and, ultimately, toward God.
Questions for Discussion
In today's world, there are many things that can "get in the way" of our "seeing the stars." What can we do to enable us to "see the stars"―to transcend ourselves, and look for something greater than ourselves?
What do you think "being a blessing" means? How can we "be a blessing"?
Abram took a major risk by doing what God told him to do and leaving his homeland. Are there risks that you might take in order to find God or something beyond yourself?
Could Abram have "left it all" without his belief in something greater than himself?
Zionism―the love of Eretz Yisrael and the desire to make it a Jewish homeland―did not begin in the nineteenth century, nor was it started by Pinsker or Herzl. Neither was it primarily about a piece of real estate in the Middle East. Actually, Zionism was established almost four thousand years ago, and its author was no less than God himself. Moreover, Zionism was just one part of a unique convergence of Ethical Monotheism around a people, a place, and a universal mission.
Consider this: It all started with this week's parashah, Lech L'cha: "And Adonai said to Abram: Lech l'cha, Go forth from your native land to the land that I will show you [Canaan]. I will make of you a great nation." (Genesis 12:1-2) But, God warns, this promise will not materialize immediately. Before it can happen, God says: "Your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs [for] four hundred years." (Genesis 15:13) Only then they shall return to claim Zion, their Promised Land.
In case Abram wondered why the long delay, God explains: "For the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete." (Genesis 15:16) In other words, God does not play favorites. Only after the Amorites have lost their rights to Canaan through their ethical failure will the Chosen People of Israel be allowed to make Eretz Yisrael their own. Even then, explains the Torah, the gift of Israel is a sacred trust that will be held and enjoyed only "if you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments. [Only then will I] be ever present in your midst: I will be your God, and you shall be My people." (Leviticus 26:3,12) On the other hand, "If you do not obey Me and do not observe all these commandments, you I will scatter among the nations. Your land shall become a desolation and your cities a ruin." (Leviticus 26:14, 33) This is ethical Zionism! Eretz Yisrael is a sacred trust given to the people of Israel only as long as they follow God's commandments. As it says in Isaiah 1:27: "Zion shall be saved by justice, her repentant ones by righteousness."
Ethical Monotheism, however, was never limited to one place or one people. The first step Abraham took toward Zion was meant to lead the human race into a new and ultimate reality, so magnificently envisioned in the words of the prophet Isaiah one thousand years later.
In the days to come,
The Mount of the Lord's House
Shall stand firm above the mountains
And tower above the hills:
And all the nations
Shall gaze on it with joy.
And the many peoples shall go and say:
Let us go up to the Mount of the Lord,
To the house of the God of Jacob;
That He may instruct us in His ways,
And that we may walk in His paths."
For instruction shall come forth from Zion,
The word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
Thus He will judge among the nations
And arbitrate for the many peoples,
And they shall beat their swords into plowshares
And their spears into pruning hooks:
Nation shall not take up
Sword against nation;
They shall never again know war. Isaiah 2: 2-4
With this vision, the covenant between God, the Jewish people, and the Land of Israel is extended to become a universal bond between God and all of God's Children. And ethical Zionism shall reign supreme.
For Further Reading
Ancient Zionism, Avi Erlich, New York: The Free Press, 1995
Questions for Discussion
Is the concept of ethical Zionism as relevant to modern Zionism as it was to our forefathers?
Does the concept of ethical Zionism have implications in the current peace process between Israel and the Palestinians? Between Israel and the Arab states?
Lech L’cha, Genesis 12:1-17:27
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 91-117; Revised Edition, pp. 88-117;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 59-84