October 25, 2001
A New Nation
Parshat Lech Lecha (Genesis 12:1-17:27)
Jewish history begins with 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." This call resonates through the millennia in two important ways. It connects our earliest beginnings and very identity as a people to the Promised Land, Israel. And it roots being Jewish in renunciation, deviation from the natural flow of events and radical independence.
God's subsequent words suggest divine awareness of just how radical and wrenching this call has been. By way of compensation, Abram is assured that separation from his natural milieu will enlarge his standing, as he becomes the founding father of an influential new nation. The root of "blessed," b-r-ch, repeats five times: not only will Abram and his progeny be blessed, but also all the families of the earth shall bless themselves through them.
For adult American Jews, the pattern traced here accords with our experience on several planes. First, we are citizens of a country that split away from its fatherland and established itself on another continent. Second, we Americans like to think of ourselves as independent-minded, individualistic and entrepreneurial. Third, even more than adults of other nations, we grow up under pressure to "find ourselves" and "be our own person." And finally, we continually struggle to turn our differences from other Americans and our special connection to the Land of Israel into a blessing -- for us, our country and the world.
On Sept. 11, Americans were reminded that individualism, self-development and entrepreneurial achievement carry people only so far. In the end, even the most secure among us is vulnerable, and we are all in it together. The English fatherland is once again our closest ally. People at all economic and social levels lost their lives in the World Trade Center. On the Jewish front, we find ourselves doubly vulnerable and destabilized, as the Israel-Palestinian conflict gets swept up in larger currents.
At this difficult time, we descendants of Abram and Sarai -- who become Abraham and Sarah -- need to call upon our resources if we are indeed to be blessed and convey blessing beyond ourselves. It will not suffice to remain in your native land and father's house as the world changes. More than ever before in Jewish history, each generation and person needs to acquire Judaism for himself or herself. In this regard, American individualism and Jewish self-determination line up. Finally, though, both Americans and Jews need to connect to the larger world -- to all the other "families of the earth."
With Sept. 11 having focused attention on Islam, American Muslims are teaching others about their religion, and explaining how it is meant to be a source of blessing, rather than destruction. Although the spotlight has not yet come to rest on Israel and on us, we do well to ready ourselves for our doubly demanding role. We are American Jews, whose welfare is bound up with that of our multireligious, multiethnic nation. But we also have a special tie to the country toward which God impelled Abraham and Sarah.
Now is a time of testing whether these two ties can hold fast, whether we can be both blessed and the source of blessing. Much is not in our hands. But neither are we helpless. We need to strengthen our desire and work for peace between the children of Isaac and those of Ishmael, the firstborn son of Abraham. We need to remember that God's summoning of Abraham doesn't mean that the divine call didn't also come to other religious leaders, and so we redouble our efforts toward interfaith cooperation. We also need to hold Israel and ourselves to the highest standards, even when these seem impossible to meet. Only thus will the particularism of Jewish peoplehood and the universal possibility of creation arrive at their common fulfillment, so that "God is one and God's name is one."