Universal and personal: Our obligations to the world and to ourselves

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Guest Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Lech Lecha (Genesis 12:1-17:27)                                       

“…and in you, all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Gen. (12:3)

Our biblical tradition seems to live in a constant paradox of tension between the universal and the particular; our obligations to the world at large and our obligations to our own nation and family.

This tension is evident from the opening sentence of the Torah:  ‘In the beginning G-d created the heavens and the earth.’ While it seems these words are a clear proclamation of universality, Rashi’s opening comment turns the verse on its head. He argues that the fact that the Torah begins with Creation has nothing to do with a grand universal vision, but rather everything to do with establishing Jewish rights to the land of Israel. He cites a midrash that says since G-d created the world, He can parcel out specific areas to ‘whomever is righteous in His eyes.’

This tension between the  particular  and  the  universal  also permeates the High Holy Day festival period. The universal dominates Rosh Hashanah when we crown G-d as the King of the entire universe, and Yom Kippur when we declare, …for My house (the Holy Temple) shall be called a house of prayer for all people.  Is. (56:7)

Further, the seventy sacrifices offered over the course of the festival of Sukkot symbolize our commitment to the welfare of all seventy nations. But in stark contrast, Shemini Atzeret signifies a more intimate and particularistic rendezvous between G-d and Israel, when the Almighty sends all the other nations home, wishing to enjoy a celebration with Israel alone. Simhat Torah, the added celebration of our having completed the yearly reading of the Pentateuch during this festival, merely emphasizes the unique and separatist significance of this holiday.

The tension is also apparent in G-d’s dealings with Abraham. At first G-d instructs Abraham,

‘Go out of your land, and from your kindred birthplace and your father’s house, unto the land that I will show you.’ Gen. (12:1) There are no introductions or apologies. It’s straight to the point: Abraham is to found a new family-nation in the specific location of the land of Israel. However, in the next verse, this ethnocentric fervor of going up to one’s own land is somewhat muted by the more universalistic message of G-d’s next mandate: ‘…And through you shall all families of the earth be blessed.’

From this moment onwards, both of these elements – a covenantal nation with a unique relationship to G-d and the universal vision of world peace and redemption – will vie for center stage in the soul of Abraham’s descendants.

But after all is said and done, in the case of Abraham himself, it is the universalistic aspect of his spirit which seems the most dominant. He quickly emerges in the historic arena as a war hero who rescues the five regional nations – including Sodom – from the stranglehold of four terrorizing kings. Even after Abraham’s nephew and adopted son, Lot, rejects Abraham’s teachings, he still wants to continue his relationship with Lot, and even bargains with G-d to save the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.

The Midrash magnificently captures Abraham’s concern with the world and world opinion in a trenchant elucidation of the opening verse in the portion of Vayera, where the Torah records the moment of G-d’s appearance to Abraham after the patriarch’s circumcision in the fields of the oak trees of Mamre. Why stress this particular location, including the owner of the parcel of trees, Mamre? The Midrash explains that when G-d commanded Abraham to circumcise himself, he went to seek the advice of his three allies – Aner, Eshkol, and Mamre.

Now Aner said to him, ‘You mean to say that you are one hundred years old and you want to maim yourself in such a way?’ Eshkol said to him, ‘How can you do this? You will be making yourself unique and identifiable, different from the other nations of the world.’ Mamre, however, said to Abraham, ‘How can you refuse to do what G-d asks you? After all, G-d saved all of your two hundred and forty-eight limbs when you were in the fiery furnace of Nimrod. If G-d asks you to sacrifice a small portion of only one of your limbs, how can you refuse?!’ Because Mamre was the only person who gave him positive advice, G-d chose to appear to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre. Gen. Raba (42:14)

What I believe is truly remarkable about this midrash is that it pictures Abraham as ‘checking out’ the advisability of circumcision with his three gentile friends and allies, in order to discover just how upset they would be by the introduction of this unique and nationalistic sign upon his flesh.  Abraham is concerned because Abraham is a universalist.

And Abram and Nahor took for themselves wives; the name of the wife of Abram was Sarai… Gen. (11:29) Until that time, the women are generally anonymous, with all the ‘ begetting’ seeming to take place because of the men alone [Gen. 5]! Hence when the Bible records: And Abram took his wife Sarai…and all their substance that they had gathered and the souls that they had gathered in Haran…. Gen. (12:5) Rashi hastens to explain based on the Midrash, that to ‘gather souls’ meant that ‘Abraham converted the men, and Sarah converted the women.’ At least our Sages believed that they truly worked together as consecrated partners to accomplish the work of the Lord.  And indeed throughout this Biblical position, Abraham is seen as a Jewish “Missionary” building altars to G-d and calling out to the local inhabitants to believe in the G-d of creation and love for every human being!

Abraham truly internalized this mission of Abraham Judaism, to bring the blessings of the G-d of love and lovingkindness to every human on earth.

Since Abraham’s vision wants to embrace all of humanity, how do we understand his willingness to cast his own flesh and blood to the desert? The Tosefta on Masekhet Sotah, commenting on the verse spoken by Sarah in Lekh Lekha: ‘…I was derided in her [Hagar’s] eyes. Let G-d judge between me and you,’ expands this theme and demonstrates how Abraham and Sarah held two very different world-views. the Sages in the Tosefta fill in the following dialogue between Sarah and Abraham: ‘I see Ishmael building an altar, capturing grasshoppers, and sacrificing them to idols. If he teaches this idolatry to my son Isaac, the name of heaven will be desecrated,’ says Sarah to Abraham.

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