Monday, October 19, 2015

Parashat Lech Lecha 5776 Covenant

Echoes of Eden
Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat Lech Lecha 5776

The relationship between God and man is asymmetrical: God is infinite, omnipotent, and man is limited and flawed. Nonetheless, God reaches out to lowly man, offering His hand, as it were, in friendship. So it was with Avraham: God speaks to him, and promises him a future filled with blessings. However, in what may seem some sort of quid pro quo, the promises come with a price: Avraham must uproot himself, leaving behind everything and everyone he knows, and set out on an uncharted course to an unspecified destination – to leap into the unknown on faith alone.

As the narrative continues, more blessings are forthcoming, but these blessings are often accompanied by new commandments, additional responsibilities. Avraham’s relationship with God seems to have “strings” attached: In the Brit bein Habitarim [The Covenant of the Pieces], God promises the Land of Israel to Avraham and his descendants - but the road to this inheritance will be long and arduous: Hundreds of years of persecution and slavery stand between the promise and its fruition. Again, there is a price to be paid.  

After years of infertility, after years of wondering how his legacy would be carried into the future, after years of wondering how the message of monotheism would be transmitted, God promises Avraham that Sarah will bear him a son. This, the greatest blessing of all, the blessing that most occupied Avraham’s thoughts and prayers, also came with a price: Avraham is given the commandment of circumcision – and then, perhaps the most difficult commandment of all: Avraham is called upon to be willing to sacrifice that very son as an offering to God.

The moment Avraham lifts his hand, at the moment he proves himself ready and willing to follow God’s commandment without question, his relationship with God makes a quantum leap. God, for His part, proves to Avraham that He requires human devotion, not human sacrifice, and blesses Avraham by reiterating the promises he had already made in each of His earlier communications with Avraham.

And the Angel of God called to Avraham from heaven a second time, and said, “God declares, 'I have sworn by My own Essence, that because you performed this act, and have not withheld your only son, I will bless you greatly, and increase your offspring like the stars of the sky and the sand on the seashore. Your offspring shall inherit their enemies’ gate. All the nations of the world shall be blessed through your descendants - all because you obeyed My voice. (Bereishit 22:15-18)

God has the ability to bless as He sees fit; there is no limit to the bounty or blessing in God’s storehouse. Additionally, it is a basic tenet of our faith – first established by Avraham himself – that God has no needs; He lacks nothing, and therefore does not “require” anything man can offer. If this is so, why does God’s relationship with his first adherent seem to be based on this strange, lopsided “give and take?” Why does each blessing God confers upon Avraham come with a price tag? Why must Avraham take upon himself ever more demanding obligations in order to merit the blessings God wishes to confer upon him? 

Perhaps we might find a resolution to this question by considering the problem from Avraham’s perspective, rather than from God’s perspective: When God first spoke to him, Avraham was told to leave his home town, his birthplace and his father’s household. In fact, his home had become unbearable for him long before God suggested that he pull up stakes: Avraham espoused belief in one God - a God of kindness and mercy, a belief that undermined the concepts of power pagan worship of the society around him. He was a persona non grata in his own homeland – so much so that his townsfolk had thrown him into a furnace to rid themselves of his presence. When God suggested that he move on, Avraham may have perceived this as sound advice, and drawn the logical conclusion that God was motivated by concern for his safety and wellbeing. As time passes and the relationship develops, God’s instructions become more and more demanding. Yet even as the tests of his dedication become harder and harder, Avraham never seems to waver. In fact, the text seems to indicate that Avraham reacts with greater enthusiasm with each passing day. How can this be?

In fact, the Torah tells us what was going through Avraham’s mind as his responsibilities grew: “And he believed in God, and considered it an act of charity [on His part]”: Avraham understood that with each commandment, God was, in essence, extending His hand, allowing Avraham to reciprocate, to be a partner in the ever-growing relationship, and to somehow compensate for the impossible chasm between the two partners in the covenant between himself and God. Avraham understood that each mitzvah presented him with an opportunity to be an active party to the covenant, and he understood that the fact that God was giving him this opportunity was, in and of itself, a tremendous act of kindness.

As descendants of Avraham, we are given this very same gift: Through mitzvot, we are able to compensate for the asymmetry of our relationship with God, and to reach up and accept the hand He offers us. Each task, each challenge, each commandment that we fulfill allows us to feel that we are somehow deserving of the kindness with which God treats us. Although God is omniscient and omnipotent, and man may see himself as small and inconsequential, in His benevolence, God allows man to make these gestures of commitment that allow us to become invested in the relationship, and to be deserving of the blessings He showers upon us. While we must always remain mindful of the chasm that separates us from God, we should not lose sight of the immeasurable kindness God continues to perform by reaching out to us, by giving us tasks to perform, by challenging us. This is what Avraham understood as God continued to give him opportunities to build a covenant with Him: In His ultimate act of tzedakah, God allows us the illusion that we are deserving of a relationship with Him, and deserving of the blessings He first bestowed upon Avraham. 

                                                     Echoes of Eden

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