Torah from Around the World #138

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

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

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

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