Parshat Lech Lecha: Genesis 12:1-17:27; Isaiah 40:27-41:16.
The Jews know the dangers of extreme nationalism, which has led to anti-Semitism and fascism, and the dangers of the rejection of all nationalism, which has led to Soviet communism and to anti-Zionism.
In Lech Lecha, Abraham, Sarah and God search for a way of balancing the creation of a proud Hebrew people and the need to impact the entire world beyond our nation.
In Chapter 14, we read of a war of the great powers, the Four against the Five. The Four powers are on the verge of defeating the Five powers (verses 10-11) until Abram comes to the rescue (verse 15). Yet the only reason Abram saves Sedom and the other Five powers is that he heard that his nephew Lot was taken hostage (verse 14). Were it not for that, Abram would have no interest in this war, which did not concern him.
Yet, after his circumcision (Chapter 17:23), representing the unique national covenant between Abraham and God, Abraham is transformed. The next time Sedom is threatened (next week), Abraham prays for them regardless of Lot. Abraham is transformed by the national act of circumcision into a universal citizen, concerned for suffering far beyond his tent.
The seeming contradiction grows: On the one hand, the law of circumcision is limited to “those born in your house” (verse 13). The covenant is about the children and the households of Abraham; in fact, God promises that the covenant will pass down exclusively through Sarah and Abraham’s son Isaac and no one else. At the same time the national covenant is given, Abram’s name changes to Abraham (verses 4-5) – “I am making My covenant with you (exclusively) while (at the same time) you are becoming the father of many nations.”
Maimonides uses this verse to prove that a convert has the most prestigious lineage because he is the child of Abraham; Abraham is the father of all nations. In fact, the nation that comes from Yishma’el is blessed in this chapter (verse 20) even though the covenant is destined exclusively to continue through the Jewish people, through Isaac.
Our parshah is making an important argument about nationalism and universalism: They do not contradict. The nationalism of the covenant, the bris, the Land of Israel and the universalism of Abraham’s new name and new sensitivity to Sedom must go hand in hand. Our own Jewish pride, our love for the State of Israel and our commitment to our Jewish brothers and sisters, if understood properly, should only increase our concern for the world.
God’s message to Abraham and Sarah then, as it is today, is that as important as it is for Jewish nationalism to be intense and eternal; it must always drive us to be caring and sensitive to the needs and suffering of those who dwell inside our “tents” and outside our community, who desperately need our help and our love.
Rabbi Asher Lopatin is rabbi of Congregation Etz Chaim in Huntington Woods.