“Setting the Stage for the Jewish Future”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Lech Lecha, the Torah tells of the exploits of Abraham and Sarah. The remarkable life experiences of Abraham and Sarah have served for millennia as a model for the Jewish people, and as significant signposts for all Jewish generations.

Although there was no “Jewish nation” at the time, and there would be none for more than four hundred years, Abraham and Sarah were the trailblazers who were the first to embrace G-d, to declare their loyalty to Him, and, in this manner, they assumed the role of the very first Jews.

For sure, the fact that Abraham endures ten trials sets a daunting pattern for Jewish history. Would that future Jewish generations only be subjected to ten trials! Unfortunately, Jews throughout the centuries and millennia have been subject to countless trials and tribulations. Furthermore, Abraham and Sarah’s difficulty in conceiving a child, perhaps points not only to the challenge of bearing Jewish children, but to the particular difficulty of maintaining the faith of Jewish progeny, and protecting them from assimilation.

The fact that Abraham ultimately sires eight children, and only one [Yitzchak] remains loyal to his traditions is, sadly, a keen predictor of what the Jewish future would be. The destructive force that Sarah and Abraham’s son Ishmael represents, foreshadows the destructive Jewish personalities who were to emerge from within the ranks of the Jewish family to greatly harm their own people. With profound anguish we recall Pablo Christiani, the Jewish convert to Christianity, who challenged Nachmanides at the great Disputation of Barcelona in 1263, and the Jewish converts who served as brutal inquisitors during the persecution and expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 (The chief inquisitor, the notorious Torquemada, was apparently of Jewish origin).

Nevertheless, Abraham and Sarah succeed beyond their wildest dreams, introducing the concept of monotheism to the world that was to result in the founding of, at least, three great faiths. But at what cost? Sometimes we think of throwing up our hands to heaven and declaring, “Al-mighty G-d, enough of Your sweetness and enough of Your sting.” The cost of Jewish continuity throughout the millennia has been so painfully high.

Two particular verses in this week’s parasha underscore the predictive nature of Abraham’s life. In Genesis 12:1, G-d says to Abram [his name had not yet been changed to Abraham], “Lech l’cha may’ahr’tz’chah, oo’mee’moh’lahd’t’cha, oo’me’bayt ah’vee’chah, ehl ha’ah’retz ah’sher ahr’eh’kah,” Go for yourself, from your land, from your relatives, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.

As we have previously noted (Vayeira 5761-2000), Abraham’s life is bracketed by the two fateful Hebrew words, “Lech l’cha,”–“Go for yourself.” In the beginning of this week’s parasha, G-d tells Abram, “Lech l’cha,” give up your past, leave the land of Mesopotamia and go to a land that I will show you. Give up all your creature comforts and begin a journey of seventeen hundred kilometers, to a new land, about which you know nothing.

At the end of next week’s parasha, G-d tells Abraham (Genesis 22:2), “V’lech l’cha ehl ehretz ha’Moh’ree’yah,” Go to the land of Moriah and there offer up your son, Issac, as a sacrifice. After so many years of longing for a child, G-d, in effect, instructs Abraham to give up his future! These Divine directives given to Abraham underscore the great sacrifices that the Jewish people would be asked to make throughout their history. Not only will they be called upon to frequently relinquish their past, through expulsions, exiles, and enslavement, they will often have to forgo their futures as well–-as countless Jewish children fall victim to many cruel enemies.

Furthermore, when G-d says to Abram, “Lech l’cha,” the Torah, in a very real sense, predicts that not only will the Jewish people always suffer, but that they will most often dwell as a minority, often among enemies, and yet Abraham’s example has perpetually been a source of strength and inspiration for the Jewish people.

In Genesis 12:2, G-d tells Abram that He will make him into a great nation. He will bless him, and make his name great, and assures Abram that he will become a blessing. In Genesis 12:3, G-d says to Abram, “Vah’ah’vah’r’cha m’vah’r’cheh’chah, oom’kah’lehl’chah ah’ohr,” I will bless those who bless you, and those who curse you, I will curse.

Jewish history is often looked upon as one unending series of tragedies, defeats, expulsions, enslavements, persecutions, pogroms, and destructions, but, in truth, Jewish history is one unending series of moral and ethical victories.

Despite the numerous trials and tribulations, the Jewish people have, for the most part, served as an exemplar to humankind, sharing with the world the revolutionary ethics and the moral teachings of the Torah. Despite all the hardships, Jews have been inordinately successful in fulfilling their sacred mission.

The Torah predicts that those who persecute Abram [aka the Jews] will be cursed and will suffer decline. History boldly testifies that virtually every nation who persecuted and/or expelled the Jews went into an economic decline shortly thereafter. Some of the same nations eventually invited the Jews back when they recognized how productive the Jews were and how dependent their country was upon them.

Not only did the nations that persecuted the Jews decline, most often many quickly ceased to exist. The ancient Egyptians, Babylonians and Romans, all great nations, have vanished, and yet the Jewish people survive. The only obvious exception to this pattern is Germany, which today is a powerful nation. Germany, too, would have ended in the ash heap of history had it not been for the U.S. Marshall Plan, which not only kept Germany alive, but provided a foundation for that country’s growth and recovery. How ironic it is that the German government today persistently courts Russian Jews urging them to move to Germany, where the new Jewish immigrants are playing a key role in the economic revival and prosperity of the former East Germany.

It should be quite obvious that, when we read the Bible, we are reading not merely a record of the history of an ancient people. We are often gaining insight into the future destiny of the People of Israel. It should come as no surprise to discover that the contemporary experiences of our people are clearly reflected in the ancient Biblical narratives.

May you be blessed.