Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
Parashat Va-era 5759
November 7, 1998 18 Heshvan 5759
Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.
It was during my sabbatical in Israel in 1974-75 that I first began to sense the political thrust of the book of Genesis. The messianic order of Gush Emunim, the radical young nationalists destined to take over the National Religious Party, had not been dimmed by the near debacle of the Yom Kippur War. The melancholy and self-doubt that pervaded Israeli society did not dilute their resolve to settle the West Bank. The effort to mobilize the sacred texts of Judaism to reinforce the ideal of a Greater Israel was well underway. Where we live undeniedly impacts on the way we see things. Only in America, with its worship of the self, would we ever come to regard the biblical saga of our ancestors as the mirror of our own dysfunctional families.
In their political reading of Genesis, the ultra-nationalists are not entirely wrong. As Rashi, quoting the midrash, already realized, Genesis does lay claim to the land of Canaan for the descendants of Abraham. That is why it precedes the book that recounts the formation of Israelite nationhood in Egypt and at Sinai. Its function is to assert God's right as Creator to dispossess the original inhabitants of a land if they degrade it with decadence (Rashi on Genesis 1:1). But what the ultra-nationalists utterly ignore (at the peril of Judaism) is the universal aspect of Genesis. Like Judaism itself, Genesis aspires to a universal end through means that are particular. On this third anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin's assassination, I wish to share with you how I read the political message of Genesis as the authentic statement of Jewish nationalism.
There can be no doubt that God's recurring promise of the land is absolutely central to the lives of the patriarchs. God's first intrusion into Abraham's consciousness comes in the form of a ringing command to abandon the world he knows forever (12:1). This time the quest for a more auspicious fresh start does not lead to the annihilation of humankind, just the relocation of a single family. God quickly identifies Canaan as the land of destiny for his offspring (12:7) and reiterates the promise to Abraham three more times at critical points in his life (13:14-17, 15:7, 17:8).
The pattern continues in the lives of Isaac and Jacob, especially at moments when they are about to leave the country. God deters Isaac from taking flight to Egypt to escape a famine because Canaan is his assigned homeland (26:3-6). Similarly, each time Jacob departs Canaan, God reassures him of his eventual return (28:14, 46:4, also 35:12). Moreover, Joseph buries Jacob in the family tomb in the field of Machpelah, as instructed by his father (48:21, 49:29), and requests of his family at his death not to leave him buried in Egypt when God will deliver them (50:25).
Other themes reinforce indirectly this overtly sustained claim to the land. Native women are deemed to be unsuitable for marriage (24:3, 27:46). Both Isaac and Jacob find their spouses from among Abraham's clan left behind. According to one tradition, Esau marries two native Hittite women, much to the dismay of his parents (26:34-35). And Dina's brothers are unwilling to adopt a marriage policy born of coercion if the male inhabitants of Schechem remain uncircumcised (34:14-17). A fragile monotheism needs to be guarded against contamination.
The pervasive repudiation of the dominant status of the firstborn likewise makes the argument that there is nothing sacred about the natural order. Time and again from Abel through the sons of Joseph, Genesis weaves a story in which a younger son displaces his firstborn brother. Analogously, the narrative suggests that the engine of the divine economy is morality, and when a nation stumbles morally it forfeits its geographic birthright.
In fact, Abraham's family is not alone in its search for a permanent home. For Genesis, exile is a fundamental aspect of the human condition, symbolized by the pathetic figure of Cain wandering the face of the earth aimlessly (4:14). To inhabit the earth with humans necessitates their expulsion from Eden (3:23-24), and their dispersion from "a valley in the land of Shinar" where they sought to erect a city and tower to live in but a single spot (11:1-9). When Abraham and Sarah are forced to find refuge in Egypt from famine in Canaan they learn that the need to conceal their true identity out of fear is the very essence of exile (12:10-20). In short, the anxious claim to the land in Genesis is delivered against the backdrop of a common fate of constant dislocation.
Yet for all its centrality, the land is not an end in itself. God singles out a chosen people and a promised land for universal purpose. In one corner of the globe, the nation that would emerge from Abraham was to create a new social order founded on the principles of justice and righteousness that would serve as a beacon to humanity. Nor is it an accident that God articulates that mission at the moment that Sodom and Gomorrah, the repulsive epitome of the old order, are about to be obliterated. As we read in this week's parasha: "Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, since Abraham is to become a great and populous nation and all the nations of the earth are to bless themselves by him? For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right, in order that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what He has promised him (18:18-19)." This verse is the crux of the whole book. The promise to Abraham is conditional. Only if his progeny achieves a luminous society that is the polar opposite of these two dens of iniquity will they be heirs to Canaan in perpetuity and a blessing for the world.
And this verse would reverberate through the ages. In the late 8th century B.C.E. the Prophet Micah would recast it when reproving his contemporaries in Judah for imagining that all God wanted of them was a steady escalation of sacrifices: "He has told you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do justice, and to love goodness and to walk modestly with your God (Micah 6:8)." A thousand years later the Talmud would invoke it again as one of the proof texts for its proud assertion that the Jewish people as a whole are distinguished for being merciful, modest and purveyors of good deeds (B.T. Yevamot 79a).
Hence the need for a detour to experience the pain of injustice and oppression. Despite vanquishing the four kings from the East, Abraham the warrior, at the height of his power, makes no move to assume control of Canaan. Power is not entitlement. On the contrary, God informs him that his children will first have to endure a prolonged sojourn as "strangers in a land not theirs (15:13)," the quintessential definition of homelessness. A taste of slavery may temper the exercise of sovereignty and perhaps ensure that Israel will generate the oft promised universal blessing (12:2-3, 18:18, 26:4, 28:14).
In consequence, an extraordinary concern for the welfare of the stranger becomes the hallmark of biblical legislation. Justice and righteousness are to be measured by our treatment of the other. Each time the Torah takes up the subject it intensifies the demand. The first time that the command not to wrong or oppress the stranger is enunciated it is grounded historically: "For you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Exodus 22:20)." Later the Torah elaborates psychologically: "For you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt (Exodus 23:9)." And finally, the Torah dares to equalize the stranger with our neighbor whom we are bidden to love (Leviticus 19:18). "The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Lord am your God (Leviticus 19:34)."
In this commanding epiphany, history has been mobilized to ennoble us to reach beyond ourselves. Every human being, no matter how different from us or downtrodden, bears the image of God and deserves our respect and compassion. To make this ideal the bedrock of a Jewish polity remains the supreme mission of Abraham's descendants. Above all, ultra-nationalism must not be allowed to shred the ancient tapestry of Judaism with its inextricable strands of universalism and particularism.
Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,