Taking the Journey with Abraham

Lekh Lekha By :  Arnold M. Eisen Chancellor Emeritus; Professor of Jewish Thought Posted On Nov 7, 2008 / 5769 | Torah Commentary | Interreligious Israel

Abraham makes his momentous entry into the Land of Israel at the start of this week’s Torah portion, having been directed there at God’s command, and he remains in the Land for exactly five action-packed verses of text before the plot takes him (and us) elsewhere. After setting out from his native country with family in tow, arriving in Canaan, journeying through a portion of the Land, and remarking so on the presence there of Canaanites, Abraham receives the promise from God that his descendants will one day possess the Land he is now wandering, whereupon he builds an altar, journeys further inside the Land, builds another altar (at which, we are told, he “invoked the Lord by name”), and journeys yet again, this time toward the Negev. And then he leaves for Egypt! Five short verses after he (and we) first encounter that Land on which the Jewish future will turn ever after, a famine sends Abraham down to the place where he (and we) spend the remainder of chapter 12 of Genesis, a foreign land where he gets embroiled in a complex interaction with the Pharaoh that foreshadows a great deal of the text and history to come.

What’s going on here? What is the Torah teaching in these chapters of Genesis? Or, more precisely, what lessons can we learn from this portion as we read it here and now about the journeys that we Jews should be taking in our time and place and the commitments we should be making wherever those journeys take us? I will focus on three such lessons.

First, by taking Abraham into Canaan, God thrusts him and his descendants onto the stage of history. The Torah that Abraham will learn and transmit is not meant to guide the behavior of angels in heaven. It is for human beings who live on earth face to face with reality as we humans know and struggle with it: complex family dynamics that feature parental favoritism, sibling rivalry, and moral ambiguity, as well as great love, a political order of warring chieftains, all-powerful rulers, conflicts over scarce resources, and still more moral ambiguity. Abraham quickly learns that, whether at home or in exile (even at home he is a stranger, a minority, who must negotiate for a gravesite and fear for his life), he is part of a human landscape rendered infinitely more complicated by his new covenant with God.

Second, that covenant changes everything. We readers of Genesis know, as we read the story not for the first time, what Abraham first hears from God in their very first encounter. Lekh L’kha is far more than a chapter in his personal family saga. Indeed, it sets in motion far more than the series of patriarchal narratives that will culminate with Abraham’s great-grandson, Joseph, and all of his descendants in Egypt once again, facing trials and afflictions more severe than those we read about this week. Abraham’s life has a meaning that transcends the normal course of a personal biography. He is on earth (ha-aretz), on this piece of earth, this Land (eretz) to do something. He and his seed after him are meant to be a blessing. The covenant with God endows individual and collective life with meaning, purpose, responsibility, joy, and, often enough travail and pain. God is not disposing of the world’s territories on a whim as a person shuffles cards. A covenant is established here. God wants Jews in this land, sends Jews out of the Land, and sets them into relationships with non-Jews in both places in order to teach us something and through us the world.

That is the third lesson: these dynamics of Jew and Gentile, and of Jewish life inside the Land of Israel alternating with or coexisting with Jewish life outside of the Land, whether the latter be exile or Diaspora, remain in force throughout the generations. They are a built-in feature of covenant, portrayed with remarkable prescience in these early narratives of Genesis. Jewish-Gentile relations, like Diaspora-Israel relations, are not an annoying distraction from the main business at hand, or a mere obstacle to be overcome and set aside. The Torah sees them as an integral part of the plot that God first lays out and gets moving in Lekh L’kha and carries on by means of us.

The matter is not simple. There is, of course, a directional vector to the Jewish narrative. Abraham moves southwest from Mesopotamia to Canaan and then further southwest to Egypt—and then moves back to Canaan—and for a time he and Isaac after him sojourn in the land of Gerar, or stranger-ness, that lies on the border between Egypt and Canaan. The Children of Israel will make a similar circuitous journey through the wilderness on their way back from Egypt to Canaan. One day in the future, according to our master narrative, Messiah will ingather the entire Jewish people from the four corners of the earth to be reunited in the Land of Israel. Jewish geography has a sacred center. You and I may well be living through the initial stage in that process of return to the center. May it be so.

God very much wants Abraham and his descendants to live in the Land set aside for them, according to Torah, because God wants a certain kind of social and political order instituted there, and aims to transform and bless all humanity by means of the example the Israelites set. The patriarchal narratives make this divine intention clear. Yet God seems to delight in plot turns that keep Israelites always on the move, inside and outside the Land. The Land of Israel is not the only place that God’s covenant partners—the children of Israel—will pitch their tents. They—we—learn about home not only by being at home but by not being there. We don’t learn about covenant by talking only to God or other partners to our covenant. The whole world is involved. Abraham is the first student and teacher of these truths.

We approach the reading of Lekh L’kha in 5769 with about half the world’s Jews living in the Land of Israel, and the other half living outside it. The two parts of our people are linked, in Rabbi Soloveitchik’s words, not only by a covenant of fate—the history that imposes itself upon us and the world with which we must deal as we strive to transform it—but by a covenant of destiny and purpose: the life of Torah, the task of building communities of justice and compassion with God in their midst, whether in Israel or the Diaspora. Jews around the world are divided by language, situation, outlook, ideology. Some call themselves secular. Others call themselves religious. What unites us? I believe it is this story. Our foundation is this text and our anchor is the Land of Israel to which the text directs Abraham and every Jew after him. We dare not weaken the connection to either or reduce either tie to trivial cliché or consign the connection to history.

If we are to read Lekh L’kha the way it wants to be read, I think, we take the journey with Abraham, figure out anew how we make his narrative live in and through us, and set to work building Jewish communities of justice and compassion with God in their midst, both in Israel and the Diaspora. None of us can serve the covenant we inherit from Abraham by sitting still. The point is to do blessing, to be blessing, and so to help the world toward greater blessing, precisely as God announces to Abraham in the words that send Israel on its way.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant by Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.