At the climax of the seven days of creation, God creates human beings--the first and only creatures endowed with freedom and agency. God could have chosen to create a world in which obedience was a given, in which the Creator decrees and creatures simply do as they are told. But God chooses instead to take a gamble, and to create as the pinnacle of creation a being endowed with the enduring possibility of flouting God's will.
Beings who do good because they have no other choice don't seem to interest God very much; beings who choose to serve God and do the right while fully conscious of their capacity (and even propensity) to do evil are divinely significant. God creates a world in which, God hopes, human beings will freely choose to do the right by loving each other--and God.
The first book of the Bible might well be titled, "Genesis, or the Book of Divine Disappointment." God creates Adam and Eve and gives them everything they could possibly want, except for permission to eat the fruit of one tree (Genesis 2:17). Adam and Eve disobey, and the consequences are well known. After departing Eden, they start a family. Soon, the very first nuclear family explodes into violence, as one brother kills another. The earth becomes more densely populated, but God's dismay only builds. Again and again, human beings disappoint God by pursuing pleasure on the one hand (Gen. 6:1-4) and power on the other (Gen. 11:1-9). What they fail to pursue is what God values--the good, the just, and the holy.
In this week's Torah portion, the story takes an interesting turn. God seems to decide that rather than work with humanity as a whole (He has not exactly met with resounding success up to this point), He will set aside one particular people--one particular person, actually--and assign him and his descendants the task of introducing goodness into the world. Enter Abram, who becomes the father of the eternal covenant between God and the Jewish people. Put simply, the covenant is about a group of human beings who agree to share God's dream of building a world in which human dignity is real and the presence of God is manifest. The world to which God and Israel aspire is a world in which human beings give highest priority to love and compassion rather than to hedonism and power.
God's first words to Abram are the first words of our Torah portion, and the key to what God expects of us is contained in these opening verses:
"The Lord said to Abram, 'Go forth from your land, your native land, from your father's house, to the land that I will show you" (12:1).
Abram is told first and foremost that he must be willing to go, to leave the places in his life that are safe and comfortable, and to question the status quo. Leaving the land of his father is both a literal obligation and a metaphor for the genuinely religious life. He must journey toward a place that is radically different from what he, and humanity as a whole, 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 is hard to imagine a more radical command: Give up everything and go toward the place that God will show you--again, both a metaphor and a concrete reality. The religious, covenantal life offers no guarantee of security, no promise of ease or convenience. Instead, it asks us to shatter the idols of security and settledness, and to aspire to a different kind of reality. The covenant is born in the moment when God calls for the courage to abandon complacency.
The opening Hebrew words Lekh Lekha, translated above as "go forth," are actually quite ambiguous. More literally, they suggest something like, "Go for yourself," or even "Go to yourself."
Rashi, the unparalleled giant of Jewish biblical exegesis, interprets them to mean that Abram's journey is for his own good, and his own benefit. Abram is told not merely that he has to give up everything and look for something better, richer, and more in tune with God's values, but that he must understand that the journey is for his own good. Abram can only be what he is intended to be (a man fully conscious that he, and all others, are created in the image of God) when his own wants, needs, and aspirations correspond to God's. There is no ultimate contradiction between pursuing my own good and God's: They are, in the covenantal understanding, one and the same.
This critical question--the critical covenantal question, if we take these verses seriously--is not answered explicitly, but perhaps we can find a hint in the verse that follows. There, God tells Abram that "all the families of the earth must bless themselves through you" (12:3). Note the paradox that lies at the very heart of the covenant: God enters into a particular relationship with a particular people, but that relationship must redound to the benefit of every last family (and person) on earth.
Biblical particularism thus has a universal horizon and a universal aspiration--from the relationship between God and the Jewish people, blessing must issue forth to the whole world. The more Jewish Abram wishes to be, the more universal his concerns must be. Authentic covenantal Judaism aspires to a world in which all human beings--and not just all Jews--live with full dignity (Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5), aware of and responsive to the love of God (Mishna Avot, 3:14).
According to the theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, what makes human beings truly unique is that they alone among all of creation are capable of being "self-surpassing." In other words, we are capable of valuing and responding to things that are greater than us. We can internalize the sense that life is not (or not just) about pursuing my own well-being, but about pursuing the well-being of the other. This is true of each of us as an individual--I strive to look out for more than "number one"--and of the Jewish people as a nation: Our work as a people will not be complete, and our covenant with God not fully realized, until blessing has come to all the earth.
God gives Abram another insight into this sense of "blessing" a few chapters later. Abram is ordered to look to the heavens and count the stars. He is then laconically told that "So shall your offspring be" (Gen. 15:5). On the face of it, this is a promise of fertility; Jews will abound in the world. But it is possible, I think, to read this verse as suggesting something much deeper.
A well-known Hasidic master tells us that the Bible's repeated comparison of the Jewish people to the stars in heaven is meant to teach us a core truth about our capabilities and responsibilities as Jews in the world: Like stars, we are obligated to bring a little bit of light to the dark places of the world. Wherever there is suffering, sadness, and heartbreak, there we are sent by God to bring love and amelioration. Again, we are called to see beyond ourselves. Perhaps that is why Abram is told to look to the heavens: He has learn to see beyond his own immediate concerns, to feel the needs of others as deeply as his own.
This, then, is the way covenant is born: We are told to leave what is safe and comfortable in search of a better place and a more authentic self, a self that is blessing at its very core. In order to achieve this, we have to know that God wants us to become godly in a very distinctive way--namely, to love and value the other as deeply as we love and value ourselves. The road to the Promised Land is often dark and painful, filled with human suffering and degradation. It is those very places to which God dispatches us, to bring blessing, and thus to become blessing. It is in the moments of truly surpassing ourselves that the covenant becomes genuinely embodied in our lives. And so we go, for God and for ourselves, toward the blessing that is the Promised Land, and toward the Promised Land that is blessing.