By: Rabbi Jeffrey Kamins, Emanuel Synagogue Sydney
“Lech lecha”, go forth, comes the call from God to Avram, and with that begins a journey that, to paraphrase Neil Armstrong thousands of years later, was “one small step for a man, one giant leap for humanity”. Even more than humanity’s conquest of space and landing on the moon, the journey of Avraham Avinu, Avraham our ancestor, has influenced the subsequent course of human events. From Avraham comes not only the understanding that there is one God of the universe, but that human beings have a direct relationship with that God and a commitment to justice and compassion that derives from that relationship. So much that we take for granted now, so much assumed by society in general (since Christians and Muslims also look to Avraham as their spiritual founder), stems from the first step of this journey “to the land that I will show you”. Avraham’s journey challenges us thousands of years later to ponder how we, his descendants, maintain our covenantal relationship with God.
To follow in Avraham’s footsteps, we must understand what is the nature of Avraham who first forges this covenant with God and what is the nature of the covenant itself. We encounter Avram in the Torah as a man already in his seventies; a man who can be a man of peace and compromise, as in his dividing the land with his nephew Lot (Genesis 13:1-13), or a man of courage and action, as in his rescuing captives held hostage in war (Genesis 14: 13-16). Other stories told of him in the following parashah demonstrate his compassion, pursuit of justice and abounding faith. A well-known midrash later suggests that as a youth he smashed his father’s idols to demonstrate the Jewish principles of faith that the one, unique and singular God has no corporeal form (Genesis Rabbah 38:13). Indeed, Avraham is credited by all monotheistic traditions as the one who first taught about there being one God. From the time of Avraham, the Jewish people have had a covenantal relationship with God.
That covenantal relationship with God continues to evolve over time. Our tradition speaks of the “patriarchal covenant” and the “national covenant”. The patriarchal covenant is the subject of the book of Genesis, consisting of the promise from God to our patriarchal ancestors Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov that God will provide them progeny, a nation, who will inherit the land (of Israel); in exchange, their male descendants have been obligated to berit milah, the covenant of circumcision commanded at the end of this parashah (in which Avram is renamed Avraham).
The national covenant is described in the remaining four books of Torah, in which God promises the land of Israel to the people of Israel on the condition that we fulfill the mitzvot detailed in the Torah. Since Torah time, the rabbinic tradition has enumerated the mitzvot and interpreted them through the halakha, the path we walk as Jews. Over the last couple of hundred years, with the enlightenment and emancipation, the Shoah and the establishment of the State of Israel, Jews have had to grapple with how we remain faithful to the journey begun by our ancestor nearly 4,000 years ago.
In the 21st century, a major question in front of us Jews is how we can connect with God and how we can continue both to live by and develop the national covenant, which includes our relationship with Israel. While some among our people are certain of the covenant and their place within it, there are far more struggling yet wanting to find their place within the tradition, living rich with context and meaning. How do we understand or experience God? How can we pursue justice and compassion when the two are often in tension? As the rabbis of old developed the terms of the covenant, should we also? There are far too many understandings about God, covenant and Israel for those questions to be answered in a short comment; rather, those issues must be on the table for forthright, reasoned, articulate and considerate communal conversation.
Avraham himself, as we know him through received tradition, establishes parameters for that conversation. In our parashah, Avraham is called the “Hebrew”, the one who comes from the other side of the river (or tracks so to speak). Before we were Jews, before we were the children of Israel, first we were Hebrews. In his time, Avraham was willing to stand apart from conventional thinking. Who of us would be willing to leave our country, birthplace and family home to pursue an ideal contrary to every assumption held by our general society? Yet it may be precisely that kind of faith, that kind of action, first demonstrated by Avraham thousands of years ago, that we need to emulate to regenerate our covenantal relationship with God.