This weeks Torah Portion (named Lech Lecha) is from Genesis 12-17. There is so much here; so much to read; grasp and grapple with. From the founding of a new people in a new Land, to the incredible covenant and promises made to Abraham.
The covenant and promise in Genesis 17:4-5 is in my opinion, one of the most significant of all, as it speaks to a time when the Word of God is embraced by Gentiles. “…You will be the father of a multitude of nations.Neither will your name any more be called Abram, but your name will be Abraham; for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.”
Note that the Almighty declares a future promise as if it is already past, as if it has already been fulfilled. The Word of God cannot be stopped; it’s intent will always come to pass.
There is a lot, and I mean, an awful ‘lot of water to pass under the bridge’, looking forward from that day, before this promise fully comes to pass.
Before Abraham can be the Father of all who put their trust in the One True God, he must first become the Father of the Chosen People, and these people must separate themselves to God; become ‘holy’ (meaning separated), before they can become a ‘light to the Gentiles’ and ultimately lead many Gentiles, many peoples of many nations, into the family of Abraham, so that the promise to Abraham can be fulfilled.
When this promise is finally and totally fulfilled, ALL the children of Abraham will stand as equals before the Almighty, as demanded by their status as children of the father of the faithful, the man so specially chosen to announce, and proclaim the One True God to the world.
I love the way that Rabbi Ari Khan brings out the apparent contradictions that need to occur as a lead in to the ultimate fulfillment of his great promise. To quote just a little of his brilliant article (see link below for full article at Aish.com):
“ … The joyous, really incredible news that a nation will emerge from the loins of Avraham, is tempered by the knowledge that a certain tension will always surround this nation. As this nation emerges, we learn that others will never be indifferent….They will always elicit some sort of reaction from others, (they will) always serve as a source of blessing or a curse for others.
Furthermore, this blessing may be limiting: it is particular in nature, it is directed exclusively to the people who will become known as the Jewish People. In Avraham’s eyes, universal dreams may be challenged by particular nationalistic aspirations. Whereas Avraham has seen himself as a citizen of the world on a mission to help elevate all of mankind, his mission now becomes linked exclusively with this new entity, “the Children of Avraham.”
… in Shechem nationhood emerges. This is where Dina is abused, and where the local residents offer the family of Israel to join destinies, to join them and form one nation. This offer is rejected, and a process is set in motion:
A nation with its own unique history begins to chart its path, undertaking the long march to fulfill its particular, unique destiny. A nation, indeed; but at this point a small, vulnerable nation that rejects the benefits of assimilation into a strong, well-established local clan. This is a defining moment, a decision that crystallizes and forms the Nation of Israel.
… With the command to perform the Brit Milah (circumcision) Avraham’s life will change. There will now be a boundary between him and everyone else. He will now be viewed even more suspiciously by his neighbors. In fact, the rabbis express their sensitivity to Avraham’s conflict between universalism and nationhood as a “hesitation” on Avraham’s part when he was commanded to perform circumcision.
… Clearly, then, the Brit Milah (circumcision) is a test. The challenge may be heightened by the paradoxical nature of the command which he receives:
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless. I will confirm my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.” Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Avram ; your name will be Avraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. The whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.”
Then God said to Avraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner-those who are not your offspring. Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” (Bereishit 17:1-14)
Avram is told that from now on his name will be Avraham, signifying that he will be a father of many nations – Av Hamon Goyim. This would seem to be the ultimate universal message: Not only will Avraham be a part of the larger universal existence, he will bring nations toward God.
And in the next breath he is told to perform circumcision which creates boundaries and will forever separate Avraham and his descendents from all others. In one fell swoop, the universal vision and the narrow, parochial, particular approach.
Apparently, Avraham is confused. How can he impact the entire world when he must first perform an act of self-mutilation that people will view as grotesque?
… Apparently, what Avraham still lacks is “holiness” – kedusha – which is literally rendered as “set apart”. This separateness is a new phase for Avraham, and not one to which he would have come without God’s command. This separateness may be seen as that which contradicts Avraham’s innate attribute of chesed (loving kindness), the attribute through which he has served God up to this point in his life.
How is he to reconcile chesed with kedusha? How is he to be a part of the world – involved, engaged, interested, even responsible for the world – and live a life of kedusha, set apart, indelibly marked by “differentness”? How will he and his descendents reconcile living in a mundane world with their unique destiny and closeness to God?
The answer presents itself later on in the text, as Avraham finds himself enmeshed in his next paradoxical challenge: the Binding of Isaac. Here, too, logic is defeated. If Yitzchak is to be offered, how can he effectively be the living progeny destined to carry on the family line? Avraham and Yitzchak nonetheless set out to fulfill God’s command, and they bring two other people along. Our Sages identify them as Yishmael and Eliezer – Avraham’s first son, and the man who was like a son.
… Then on the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place far away. And Abraham said to his young men, ‘Stay here with the donkey; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come back to you.’(Genesis/Bereishit 22:4-5)
Those last words, “and come back to you,” cannot be ignored. Avraham encapsulates a unique religious experience in this short statement, and we should take note of every element: This awesome religious experience would not be complete until Avraham came down the mountain and shared with others his epiphany, his feelings and his enlightenment. Avraham would have the greatest impact on the two men he left behind only after parting ways, dedicating himself to the more particular religious experience at the summit, and then returning to their company.
Similarly, for the Jewish People to have an impact on the world, we must first disengage, separate ourselves, and fully explore our unique relationship with God.
There will be times when we must wrest ourselves away from our deep involvement, even our responsibility for the world. We must climb lofty mountains, even engage in divinely-mandated, though seemingly paradoxical, behavior. But we must always remember that eventually we must come down from the mountain, re-engage, return to the people that we left at the foot of the mountain. We must find the language and establish the relationship that will allow us to share with them what we learned at the summit.
Avraham learns to resolve the tension. Both the universal and the particular are important, but they are intertwined.
The way we can accomplish our universal responsibility is by first becoming separate, different – as holy as we can possibly become. Only this will enable us to fulfill our mission of tikkun olam, to enlighten, to educate, to heal and repair the world.
… Our world, then, is not so different from that of Avraham and Sarah after all. The world still lacks holiness. By observing the commandments, both those we understand and those that seem to us paradoxical, we add holiness to our lives. We set ourselves on a higher rung, as it were. And as holiness accrues, we will find our spiritual, ethical and social abilities exponentially increased, and thus our ability to effect change and fix a broken world.” – see http://www.aish.com/tp/i/moha/48952101.html
The Jewish people have spent their time in the desert and their time learning holiness. They ‘came back to us’ (Gen 22:5), to the Gentiles in a sense, when Yeshua lived the perfect example of true holiness and oneness with the Almighty.
His example, to the point of giving up his life for his friends, for his people, calls out across the divide to the Gentile people, to God-fearers throughout the world, that we too can separate ourselves to God and in having the some trust in the Almighty, the same faith(fullness) in God that Yeshua had and that Abraham had (Rom 3:22 & 4:16), we too can indeed become fully ‘children of Abraham’ and full members of the Commonwealth of Israel. The Resurrection was the Almighty’s stamp of approval on the witness of Yeshua; the ‘circumcision’ of Yeshua (his ‘separation’ to God), can then become the ‘circumcision’ of the Gentile God-fearers.
This is the mystery revealed in Yeshua’s day; the mystery of how Abraham was to become the father of many nations; the mystery revealed to Sha’ul, and to Peter through Cornelius.
In part 2 of our podcast on the Hebraic Mindset, we will speak more about ‘tikkun olam’ (repairing the world).