Thoughts on parashat Lech Lecha.

Have faith in humanity! – some people say. Humanity is the cancer of planet earth – say some others. Obviously the people from the second group don’t literally mean that when they say it, it’s just hyperbolic, right? Anyway, without a little faith in humanity life becomes unbearable, if not impossible. Everyone needs it, including God, who lost his faith in humankind at least a few times, according to the Torah and the entire Hebrew Bible. Whenever God decides to call or choose a human individual or a group of people to be his servants, that is when God’s faith in humanity is renewed.

This week’s Torah portion begins with God’s act of choosing Abram as the Divine servant:

יהוה said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 

I will make of you a great nation, 

And I will bless you; 

I will make your name great, 

And you shall be a blessing.

(Genesis 12:1-2) 

Why was Abram chosen by God and for what reason? There are two answers to this question in our tradition. The first says that we cannot know God’s reasons, which may appear arbitrary by human standards and that is why the Torah says nothing about it. Frankly, this answer does not tell us anything besides the idea that God can do whatever He wants and there is no human merit involved in it (this reasoning has been favored by Christiant theologians and had some Jewish supporters as well.) The second view, favored by our tradition, says that Abram, like Noah before him, deserved to be chosen. Just as Noah stood out as a uniquely righteous man in his generation, Abram demonstrated qualities that caused God to single him out as well. To put it differently: Abram found God because of his original intuition and he was searching Him from his young age. Thus, when God addressed the adult Abram, it was in fact in response to his earlier dedication and searching; God reacted to the man’s merits.

The Torah seems to sometimes support the former and sometimes the latter view. But both approaches together appear to offer the best answer: we need to be addressed by God, and God needs us to be capable of responding. It is a mutual relationship.  

Now that we have briefly answered the question why God chose Abram (who later makes a covenant with God and becomes Abraham), we still need to answer the question for what purpose God chose him? Midrash gives us the following answer:

“Get thee out of thy country” – R. Azariah cited in this connection the following verse: “We would have healed Babylon, but she is not healed: forsake her, and let us go every one into his own country.” “We would have healed Babylon” refers to the generation of Enosh; “but she is not healed’ – to the generation of the flood; “forsake her” in the generation of the dispersion; “and let us go every one into his own country”  – “And the Lord said unto Abram: Get thee out of thy country. (Bereshit Rabbah 39:5)

This Midrash traces the failures of mankind in three stages. The Healer of all Flesh tried to heal humanity, but it would not be healed. The descendants of Adam failed; therefore a new start was made with Noach and his descendants. But then again, after the Tower of Babel it became clear that mankind, fractured into tribes and nations, would not return to its pristine unity and brotherhood. That is why God decided to start a third time with Abraham, to fulfill the promise made to him at the very beginning of his journey:

I will bless those who bless you

And curse the one who curses you;

And all the families of the earth

Shall bless themselves by you.

(Genesis 12:3) 

Yet humanity failed again and again, as we know both from the Hebrew Bible as well as the entire human history up to the 20th century. The process is continuous and looks like this: God reaches out to humanity multiple times, always with an intent to improve human life, to bring blessing and peace in it. However, humanity either keeps turning away from God or wants to take His place. In both cases they ultimately fail, and when their defeat is truly spectacular, then they cry out to God for help.

We, Jews, have a particular share in this entire historical process. As we see in the process I just described – the history of human failures before the experience of Mount Sinai – the group of people God decides to choose constantly shrinks. God completely lost his faith in humanity, regretted the creation of humankind and decided to obliterate them from the face of the earth. Then God lost his faith in the descendants of Noah; this time he had to act differently because He promised not to destroy humankind again. That’s why He chose Abraham, who chose God as well. 

But not all the descendants of Abraham become so-called ‘covenantal’ people – only those that came into the world through Icchak – a man whom He ordered to sacrifice for Himself. Both Abraham and Icchak passed this terrifying test but it also means that the covenant with Abraham and the future of the entire humanity was on the ropes again. We were chosen after many divine disappointments, in the time when God’s faith in humanity was very fragile. Abraham was the first who truly did not disappoint God, and that’s why, because of this Abraham’s (and Icchak, and Jacob’s) merit God remembered us and brought us out of Egypt. Because of the patriarchs God had, and still has, faith in us. 

But that’s obviously not the end of the story. Our ancestors constantly disappointed God during our wanderings through the desert (and later on as well). God wanted to abandon and destroy us at least a few times. The road to freedom goes through the desert: that is the general message of the wanderings of our ancestors. It took them 40 years to get to the promised land but it seems that it took them much longer to understand and internalize this message. And that is still not the entire message, it is just the beginning. Freedom requires independence, in thinking and action as well as responsibility. It requires the ability of self-determination and self-definition as free people. Without these necessary conditions freedom may be turned into a self-destructive force or completely lost in submission to tyranny.  

We were chosen to get this message accross to the world, to other peoples, as well as many other messages, like the one of universal ethical standards. And it is challenging because we need to stand united conveying this message, despite our internal divisions and disagreements, despite the fact that whenever there are two jews, there are three opinions. 

This is also an intergenerational venture, it is not a mission that can be done once in the history. We received the message from our ancestors and we need to pass it down to the people that will come after us. We should keep that in mind while doing everything we do, implementing every political project or change we want to bring to the world – we should always think how it will affect future generations.  

Our task is difficult also because of other reasons, including the centuries of deliberate and organized hostility towards us. But as the Mishnah says: 

It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it. 

(Pirke Avot 2:16) 

Why do we need to do all of that, what is the goal of it? The goal of this entire process is the spiritual elevation of humankind. It is aimed at making us Jews and humankind as a whole independent (to the greater possible extent) masters of the world, and masters created in God’s image (and certainly not disconnected from the Divine image). It means that we are partners in creation. Our destiny is to be grateful for its existence, to help it flourish and to live in harmony with it. It is not an easy task, it requires constant attention and constant effort. 

The historical process of the Divine chosenness and the Divine abandonment, of the Divine faith in humanity and the Divine disappointment has its micro-version in the lives of human individuals: God is looking for us and constantly tries to reach us, to repair our lives, to give us His blessing and peace of mind. However, for our relationship with God to exist, two conditions must be met: we must be relatively decent, morally minded (like Noah), and we must take the first step. Some people need to experience some kind of spectacular defeat themselves, in a micro-scale, to make this first step, some will never take this step. Some people call it “a leap of faith”; here I would prefer to use a more descriptive and “a little less lofty language”: this step can described simply as a tentative assumption that the laws and wisdom of religion make sense and that they will make our lives better if we put them into practice. This was also my case, when I finally abandoned atheism and decided to “test the God hypothesis in practice”. Within a few months, my life began to dramatically change for the better, and it remained so for years. Was God and my faith behind all this? I do not know and cannot know; to prove that it was the case, I would have to live my life again and make a different choice at that time. I can’t do that, and to be honest, I don’t need it. What matters for me is that since then I have never abandoned the “God hypothesis”, although I have modified it a bit in the course of my life. This, however, is normal and actually necessary for our spiritual development.

Shabbat shalom!

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