At the climax of the seven days of creation, God createshuman beings--the first and only creatures endowedwith freedom and agency. God could have chosen tocreate a world in which obedience was a given, inwhich the Creator decrees and creatures simply do asthey are told. But God chooses instead to take agamble, and to create as the pinnacle of creation abeing endowed with the enduring possibility offlouting God's will.
Beings who do good because theyhave no other choice don't seem to interest God verymuch; beings who choose to serve God and do the rightwhile fully conscious of their capacity (and evenpropensity) to do evil are divinely significant. Godcreates a world in which, God hopes, human beings willfreely choose to do the right by loving each other--andGod.
The first book of the Bible might well be titled,"Genesis, or the Book of Divine Disappointment." Godcreates Adam and Eve and gives them everything they couldpossibly want, except for permission to eat the fruitof one tree (Genesis 2:17). Adam and Eve disobey, andthe consequences are well known. After departingEden, they start a family. Soon, the very first nuclear family explodesinto violence, as one brother kills another. Theearth becomes more densely populated, but God's dismayonly builds. Again and again, human beings disappointGod by pursuing pleasure on the one hand (Gen. 6:1-4)and power on the other (Gen. 11:1-9). What they failto pursue is what God values--the good, the just, andthe holy.
In this week's Torah portion, the story takes aninteresting turn. God seems to decide that ratherthan work with humanity as a whole (He has not exactlymet with resounding success up to this point), He willset aside one particular people--one particularperson, actually--and assign him and his descendants the task ofintroducing goodness into the world. Enter Abram, whobecomes the father of the eternal covenant between Godand the Jewish people. Put simply, the covenant isabout a group of human beings who agree to share God'sdream of building a world in which human dignity isreal and the presence of God is manifest. The worldto which God and Israel aspire is a world in whichhuman beings give highest priority to love and compassion rather thanto hedonism and power.
God's first words to Abram are the first words of our Torahportion, and the key to what God expects of us iscontained in these opening verses:
"The Lord said to Abram, 'Go forth from your land,your native land, from your father's house, to theland that I will show you" (12:1).
Abram is told first and foremost that he must bewilling to go, to leave the places in his life thatare safe and comfortable, and to question the statusquo. Leaving the land of his father is both a literalobligation and a metaphor for the genuinely religiouslife. He must journey toward a place that isradically different from what he, and humanity as awhole, have known until now.
God does not inform him of his destination in advance, but asks him for trust and a willingness to head toward the unknown. It ishard to imagine a more radical command: Give upeverything and go toward the place that God will showyou--again, both a metaphor and a concrete reality. The religious, covenantal life offers no guarantee of security, no promise of ease orconvenience. Instead, it asks us to shatter the idolsof security and settledness, and to aspire to adifferent kind of reality. The covenant is born inthe moment when God calls for the courage to abandoncomplacency.
The opening Hebrew words Lekh Lekha, translatedabove as "go forth," are actually quite ambiguous. More literally, they suggest something like, "Go foryourself," or even "Go to yourself."
Rashi, the unparalleled giant of Jewish biblical exegesis,interprets them to mean that Abram's journey is forhis own good, and his own benefit. Abram is told notmerely that he has to give up everything and look forsomething better, richer, and more in tune with God'svalues, but that he must understand that the journeyis for his own good. Abram can only be what he isintended to be (a man fully conscious that he, and allothers, are created in the image of God) when his ownwants, needs, and aspirations correspond to God's. There is no ultimate contradiction between pursuing myown good and God's: They are, in the covenantalunderstanding, one and the same.
This critical question--the critical covenantalquestion, if we take these verses seriously--is notanswered explicitly, but perhaps we can find a hint inthe verse that follows. There, God tells Abram that"all the families of the earth must blessthemselves through you" (12:3). Note the paradoxthat lies at the very heart of the covenant: Godenters into a particular relationship with aparticular people, but that relationship must redoundto the benefit of every last family (and person) onearth.