Beginning With The Individual

Lech-Lecha marks a transition between God relating to humankind as a collective to relating to individuals.

Commentary on Parashat Lech-Lecha, Genesis 12:1 - 17:27

Lech-Lecha is such a comfortable Torah portion. Coming after the prehistoric pyrotechnics of Bereshit and Noach, one feels that one is on much more solid ground here — the people live long but not THAT long, we can start recognizing ‘Jewish’ things, and, in general, there is a feeling that we have left behind the world of myth and magic and moved into a much more real and recognizable world of commandment and custom.

Rashi (1040-1105) flags this shift for us in an interesting way. Last week’s Torah portion, Noach, ends, generations after the flood, with the birth of Abraham, and the unexplained move by Terach, Abraham’s father, in the direction of Canaan, to the town of Haran, where he and his family apparently settle. The portion concludes by telling us that Terach died in Haran.

The Nun of Haran

The last letter of the word “Haran” is a final nun. Rashi says that traditionally, when we write a Torah scroll, we write this letter backwards, so it’s facing the other way. It would then function like the closing half of a parentheses or bracket (when you are writing Hebrew, from right to left), as if to indicate that here, with the death of Terach and Abraham’s coming on to the scene, is the end of God’s anger (in biblical Hebrew, anger is ‘charon af,’ which sounds like the last word of the portion of Noach, the one with the backwards nun, the place name ‘Haran’).

Today, we do NOT have the custom to write this nun backwards, we just write it regular.

Leaving that aside, we see that Rashi, too, feels that, with the birth of Abraham, we move into a new era, different from the first era of “Creation.” Rashi sees this new era as being better than the first one, in that the first, pre-Abraham one, was typified by God’s anger at humanity, and that, with the coming of Abraham, this was no longer the case.

By anger, Rashi is clearly referring to the central stories of Bereshit and Noach — the Fall, the expulsion from Eden, the murder of Abel, and, of course, the flood. All in all, Rashi is telling those of us who have not been paying attention, God’s creation was a failure, and that made him mad. People behaved in an unreasonable way, were evil, and this angered God. It is only with Abraham, and his descendants, that God begins to see some ‘nachas‘ (Yiddish/Hebrew for pleasure, satisfaction) from his creation, and his ‘haron af,’ his anger, subsides.

This focus on Abraham prefigures, and in fact lays the groundwork for, God’s choice of Abraham’s descendants, the Jewish people, to be the recipients of the Torah, thereby becoming his special, chosen people, a nation of priests, a holy people.

This idea, a chosen people, is seen by many, for obvious reasons, as problematic. How can one simply dismiss the vast bulk of humanity and say that God is really only interested in us, a small handful of the faithful? I mean, there are an awful lot of un-chosen people out there. What is God’s relationship with them? Aren’t many of them demonstrably as ‘good’ as, if not better than, many Jews? How does this chosenness work?

I don’t think I have an answer to these questions, and I certainly do not want to start comparing one nation’s qualities to those of another. I would, however, like to point out what I think is an interesting dynamic in the way that we see God relating to the world in these sections of the Torah.

The First  Individual

God, in creating mankind, created an individual — Adam. However, this individual was clearly seen as the beginning of a collective, instructed by God to “be fruitful and multiply,” and is clearly a first step in the creation of an aggregate humanity. We see that God’s choice from the beginning was to relate to the world as a collective, to relate to mankind as a whole, and, ultimately, to get angry at mankind as a whole. When Adam is cursed, mankind is cursed. When Eve is cursed, mankind is cursed. This, all through Genesis and Noah, is the way that God continues to see the world. Noah, who alone is saved from God’s anger at everyone, is not really saved for himself. Rather, he is seen as a way to begin another collective, to restart the entire world.

Again, soon after the flood, as a collective (“And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech”), the world sins–building the tower of Babel and thereby challenging God’s supremacy. God’s response is to de-collectivize them, mix them up, by creating a number of smaller collectives, separate nations, with distinct languages. The sense we get from the tower of Babel story is one of God moving away from a collective humanity, and towards relating to the smaller collectives of individual, distinct nations.

And then Abraham, through his remarkable behavior, catches God’s attention in a way that no one had before. God is forced, as it were, by Abraham’s uniqueness, his faith, his humanity, to relate to him alone, to set him apart from the rest of humanity. A rabbinic etymology of the word ‘Hebrew’ (‘Ivri‘), used in reference to Abraham, is someone who stands on the opposite side of humanity, separate, individual, alone, with all the world on one side and him or her on the other. Abraham’s accomplishment can be seen as his ability to get God to focus on one individual, and stay focused on him.

Perhaps this explains the end of God’s anger, which Rashi sees as the defining feature of this new age. God’s decision to commit, as it were, to an individual, to one person, may lie at the root of this change. Despairing of his rocky relationship with all of humanity, God realizes, as it were, that the appropriate unit for a relationship is the individual. It is with one human being that one must begin the job of relating – successfully, meaningfully – to all of humanity, and God begins with Abraham. A relationship with a collective, to work, must begin with an individual.

And yet, God, like us, has no choice but to also look beyond the individual, to a nexus of relationships; family, children, grandchildren, friends, enemies, neighbors. He therefore immediately foresees a nation being started by Abraham, with whom he will also have a special, particular relationship, based on this first relationship with Abraham, and through which, in turn, He will relate to other nations. So, although God has moved away from all of humanity as His natural area of interest, He, like us, must still navigate his way between the poles of the individual and the collective, and somehow relate to both.

But, lest we lose sight of where God’s real interests lie, later on in the Bible, God reminds the Jewish people that his real commitment is to the individual. In Deuteronomy, Chapter 9, Moses tells the Jewish people that “Not for your righteousness, or the uprightness of your heart” does God give you the Land of Israel, but rather he does this so “that he may perform the word which the Lord swore to thy fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

Ultimately, it is the personal relationship, the promise God made to these individuals, which sustains, defines, and informs all other, subsequent relationships.

Provided by the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, a summer seminar in Israel that aims to create a multi-denominational cadre of young Jewish leaders.

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