October 27th: Lech Lecha
THIS WEEK IN THE TORAH
Rabbi David E. Ostrich
One of the most meaningful quotations I have ever read comes from Abraham Joshua Heschel’s essay, The Earth is the Lord’s:
“Our life is beset with difficulties, yet it is never devoid of meaning. Our existence is not in vain. There is a Divine earnestness about our life. This is our dignity. To be invested with dignity means to represent something more than oneself. The gravest sin for a Jew is to forget what he represents…We are God’s stake in human history. We are the dawn and the dusk, the challenge and the test. How strange to be a Jew and to go astray on God’s perilous errands. We have been offered as a pattern of worship and as a prey for scorn, but there is more still in our destiny. We carry the gold of God in our souls to forge the gate of the kingdom. The time for the kingdom may be far off, but the task is plain: to retain our share in God in spite of peril and contempt. There is a war to wage against the vulgar, against the glorification of the absurd, a war that is incessant, universal. Loyal to the presence of the ultimate in the common, we may be able to make it clear that man is more than man, that in doing the finite he may perceive the infinite.”
How strange to be a Jew and to go astray on God’s perilous errands! Could Heschel have been thinking, in crafting this metaphor, of God’s call 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; and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse him that curses you; and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.” (Genesis 12.1-3)
The Midrash elaborates on this simple instruction and has Abram preaching his new religion like a missionary. Indeed, the verse about the retinue that Abram brings with him to Canaan is said to reveal his successes as a proselytizer.
“Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the wealth that they had amassed, and the persons that they had acquired in Haran; and they set out for the land of Canaan.” (Genesis 12.5). The Hebrew word translated as “acquired” is actually the word for “make,” ‘asu. The Midrash uses this to teach that Abram converted lots of people in Haran—and that converting someone is like re-creating them.
Both converting people to Judaism and setting a moral example are parts of our Jewish mission: we are to bring the Torah way of thinking and way of life to the attention of the world. Exodus 19 describes our role as a “kingdom of priests and holy people,” and Isaiah 42 speaks of our intended role as “a light unto the nations.”
In the Pittsburgh Platform, a founding document of Reform Judaism in America, our mission was characterized like this: “We hold that Judaism presents the highest conception of the God-idea as taught in our Holy Scriptures and developed and spiritualized by the Jewish teachers, in accordance with the moral and philosophical progress of their respective ages. We maintain that Judaism preserved and defended midst continual struggles and trials and under enforced isolation, this God-idea as the central religious truth for the human race.” Though phrased in rather grandiloquent 19th Century prose, the message that comes through is that we brought this religious truth to the world, setting in motion its propagation through not only our religion but also the religions which we inspired!
Another understanding of role comes from the 20th Century philosopher Henry Slonimsky, of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. In an essay entitled, Judaism and the Religion of the Future, he writes:
"How can we view our long history of narrow escapes without becoming demoralized? We have to tell ourselves a story that makes sense out of being perennial refugees. Stephen Strauss describes our forced emigrations as holy acts. They fit into a divine plan for the amelioration of human civilization. He writes: ‘… the Kabalists [sic] tell [a tale] of God’s remorse after he destroyed Babel and the peoples of the world were sequestered in their own languages. It was good to chasten their pride, God mused, but perhaps humanity would lose as well the true notion that they were of one race. Each of their tribes will think humanity is limited to a certain set of customs and a certain sound they make with their mouths. So God decided to create a people who passed through all the others yet remained itself, and that, the Kabalists say, is the source of the long exile into the nations that the Jews have endured. Speaking any tongue, under any flag, and in whatever antic gowns, the Jew, as the messenger to mankind, remains.’ What the tale means is that the nations of the world can relearn the true notion of one humanity by having their humanitarianism tested in the treatment of the Jews. If they learn to live with differences instead of attacking those who are different, then the Jewish message is carried to mankind. But if the lesson is not learned, then we Jews must experience the same event that stands at the beginning of our history as a people—the flight from oppression
In other words, God’s agenda--the purpose of God’s perilous errands—is not restricted to the Jewish people. God’s goal is the moral perfection of all the world—and of all the inhabitants thereof. Thus are we Children of Abraham sent out to the world to become blessings, and thus do our Prophets speak in terms that are both Jewish and universalistic:
“It shall come to pass, in the end of days, that the Mountain of the Lord’s House shall be exalted above the hills. The nations shall flow unto it, and many peoples shall say: Come ye, and let us go up to the Mountain of the Lord, to the House of the God of Jacob. God will teach us holy ways—that we may walk in holy paths. For out of Zion shall go forth the Torah, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” (Isaiah 2.2-3 and Micah 4.1-2)