A Global Nation
Lech Lecha (Genesis 12-17 )
Judaism as a religion is inseparable from Jewish nationhood. The very word “Jewish” describes anything connected to the Jewish religion (such as “a Jewish custom”), but also anyone in the Jewish nation. If a non-Jew wishes to convert to Judaism, this means he or she is also joining the Jewish people.
The centrality of Jewish nationhood to Judaism is reflected in the Bible. From very early on, the Torah focuses almost exclusively on the Patriarchs, their descendants' coalescence into a people, and this people’s journey through the ages up until the end of the Babylonian exile. Considering that the Bible has been dubbed the “Book of Books,” which seems to suggest it contains the wisdom found in all literary cultures, it’s surprising how much it focuses on just one people.
Yet the Torah doesn’t start in this particularistic vein. Throughout the entirety of the first two Torah portions, covering no less than 2000 years of civilization, there’s almost no trace of it. On the contrary, they recount God’s two attempts to reveal Himself to all of humanity—once to Adam’s descendants and once to Noah’s. This universal spirit returns in the prophets’ vision of the End of Days, especially those dealing with the establishment of world peace (for example, “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore,” Isaiah 2:4), and those describing humanity’s united worship of the Creator (for example, “For then I will convert the peoples to a pure language that all of them call in the name of the Lord, to worship Him of one accord,” Zephaniah 3:9).
Horizontal or Vertical Uniqueness?
That the Bible zeroes in on one people, and yet is bookended with a focus on all of humanity, begs an explanation, and many have been offered. It is widely agreed among commentators that the story of choosing the Jewish people does not reflect ethnocentric nationalism, but is rather part of a larger theological picture in which God is global and universal, all people descend from a single human created in His image, and He is concerned with the good of us all.
How can we reconcile the Bible’s universal framework with its overwhelming particularism?
Some have tried to say that, from the Torah’s focus on the history of one people and its relationship with its Creator, we can deduce that every nation in the world has such a relationship with Him—that they all merited their own sort of Divine revelation, and their history evinces its own kind of Divine Providence. In this view, the Bible focuses on Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob not because their story is special, but to teach us that every people’s story is “special in its own way.”
We can see what makes this interpretation appealing. Weaving together Judaism’s universalism and particularism in a way that neutralizes the potential vanity in the idea of a chosen people, it is easily digested by the modern thinker. The problem is, it fundamentally contradicts one of the most established, repeated principles in the Torah: the uniqueness of God’s relationship to the people of Israel. The Torah makes clear that this uniqueness is not only “horizontal”—Jews are different from other people—but also “vertical”: the Jews were chosen over all other people, and the Torah given to them is an absolute singularity. As the Torah states, “For ask now regarding the early days that were before you… and from one end of the heavens to the other end of the heavens, whether there was anything like this great thing… Did ever a people hear God's voice speaking out of the midst of the fire as you have heard, and live?” (Devarim 4:32-33).
We therefore must find a different solution to the problem of universalism versus particularism in the Torah. Beautifully, it is found precisely in the point in which the Torah first steers from the one to the other: the third portion of the Torah, the story of Abraham and Sarah.
Wisdom from the Nations, Torah to the Nations
The keys to understanding the Torah’s balance between universalism and particularism are hidden in two apparently simple verses. Let’s pry them open, using the Sages’ midrashim.
The first key is in the Torah portion's opening verse, which speaks of “the souls that they had made [acquired] in Charan” (Bereshit 12:5). On the surface, this refers to the slaves Abraham and Sarah bought. Yet the Sages interpret the word “made” as a spiritual “making”: they converted people to monotheism. According to the Sages, Abraham and Sarah would convince their acquaintances to abandon their gods in favor of serving the one Creator of the world. They saw themselves not only as the founders of a God serving nation, but as God’s messengers to all of mankind. This is reflected in the blessings they receive at the end of the parasha: “You shall be the father of a multitude of nations” for Abraham (Bereshit 17:5), and “She will be [the mother] of entire nations” (Bereshit 17:16) for Sarah.
The second key is found further on in the parasha, where the Torah states that “He [God] then took him [Abraham] outside” (15:5). A simple reading of the verse will be that God took Abraham out of his tent, but again, the Sages interpreted this “taking out” spiritually: According to one approach, God took Abraham out of his belief in astrology, and according to another, He took him out of the world altogether so that he could view the stars from above. However,, both versions convey the same message: Astrology is limited, for it doesn’t consider the possibility of miracles.
But what’s interesting is that, according to our tradition, Abraham didn’t completely abandon astrology. Sefer Yetzira, the ancient Kabbalistic work attributed to him, integrates within it many elements from astrology. There is no doubt that these were consciously included by Abraham in order to disassociate astrology from paganism and anchor it in service of monotheism.
We see, therefore, two important aspects of Abraham: He taught Jewish wisdom to the nations; and brought their own wisdom into Judaism. These two movements, giving forth and bringing in, teach us about the balance the Torah desires between particularism and universalism: Keeping the People of Israel separate is essential to preserving its singular relationship with God, after Adam’s and Noah’s descendants proved unworthy of it; at the same time, there must exist a relationship of cross-pollination between Israel and the rest of the world.
The People of Israel are a “kingdom of priests,” meant to share the Torah’s wisdom with the nations, while simultaneously receiving their wisdom, further developing it, and sanctifying it.
This cross fertilization is what will bring, with God’s help, the redemption of the Jewish people along with the whole world: “For My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:7).