Parshat Lech Lecha: Genesis 12:1-17:27; Isaiah 40:27-41:16.
Our portion opens with the first words of God to Abraham: “Leave your land, your birthplace and your father’s house, and go to the land that I will show you.” These words are the foundation upon which Abraham was to build our nation.
Generally, people conform to their surroundings. They adopt the standards and absorb the culture of the time and place in which they live.
I want you, says God to Abraham, to be different. Not for the sake of being different, but for the sake of starting something new: a nation that will not worship power and the symbols of power — for that is what idols really were and are. I want you, said God, to “teach your children and your household afterward to follow the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just.”
To be a Jew is to be willing to challenge the prevailing consensus of worshiping the old gods. Statues, figurines, icons, idols represented power. That is what Baal for the Canaanites, Zeus for the Greeks, and missiles and bombs for terrorists and rogue states are today.
Power allows us to rule over others without their consent. Judaism is a sustained critique of power. It is about how a nation can be formed on shared commitment and collective responsibility. It is about how to construct a society that honors the human as the image and likeness of God. It is about a vision, which has yet to fully be realized but has never been abandoned, of a world based on justice and compassion.
Abraham is the most influential person who ever lived. Yet, he ruled no empire and commanded no great army. He is the supreme example of influence without power.
Why? Because he was prepared to be different. Leadership, as every leader knows, can be lonely. Yet you continue to do what you have to do because you know that the majority is not always right, and conventional wisdom is not always wise. The children of Abraham are prepared to challenge the idols of the age.
One reason why Jews have become, out of all proportion to their numbers, leaders in almost every sphere of human endeavor is precisely this willingness to be different, refusing to assimilate to the dominant culture or convert to the dominant faith. That is why, however small their numbers, Jews created communities. It is hard to lead alone, far less hard to lead in the company of others, even if you are a minority.
As Jews, we do not follow the majority merely because it is the majority. It is what makes a nation of leaders.
Rabbi Bentzion Geisinsky lives in Bloomfield Hills, where he co-directs Chabad of Bingham Farms with his wife, Moussia.