<I>Lech Lecha</I>: Marx, Spinoza, Freud and Abraham

It will be important for us to try to understand why living in Israel should be so central an aspect of our status as the people of the Covenant, but even prior to this is an even more obvious query: Why did G-d choose Abraham?

Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin,

rabbi riskin.jpg
rabbi riskin.jpg
Arutz 7
Our Biblical portion opens with G-d's election of Abraham: "Go away, for your own good, from your land, from your birthplace and from your father's house, to the land that I shall show you. I will make you into a great nation.... You shall become a blessing.... All the families of the earth shall be blessed through you." (Genesis 12:1-3) And here, indeed, is the first Divine commandment to the first Jew - and it is the command to make Aliyah.

It will be important for us to try to understand why living in Israel should be so central an aspect of our status as the people of the Covenant, but even prior to this is an even more obvious query: Why did G-d choose Abraham? The Bible has not yet told us of any significant act that he performed or any path-breaking ideology that he discovered which would warrant his election. Almost apropos of nothing, G-d seems to have chosen this son of Terah to be a source of blessing for the world. On what basis?

The great philosopher-sage of the twelfth century, Maimonides, basing himself on the earlier midrashim, maintains that it was actually Abraham who discovered the concept of ethical monotheism - a unique and single Creator of the universe who demands justice, compassion and peace. Abraham shattered the idols in Ur Kasdim, was chased to Haran, where he continued to preach his new-found religion, and was at that time addressed by G-d and sent to the land of Israel (Mishneh Torah, "Laws of Idolatry" 1:3).

In effect, then, if the question is raised: "How odd of G-d to choose Abraham for the Jews," the logical answer must be: "It was not at all odd, because Abraham chose G-d."

At this point in our inquiry, our earlier question becomes a major issue: Why is travel away from country, birthplace and father's house necessary to propagate this new faith? The first issue to be understood is that, in fact, it is the propagation of this new credo that is the source of the Abrahamic blessing for the world and is the essence of his election. Not only does G-d stipulate that "through (Abraham) all the families of the earth shall be blessed," but Maimonides also pictures the first Jew as an intellectually gifted forerunner of "Yonatan Appleseed," planting seeds of ethical monotheism and plucking the human fruits of his labor wherever he went.

And, as strange as it may sound, this "missionary activity" on behalf of G-d that was established by Abraham is a model for all of his descendants, and even (according to many authorities) an actual commandment. In the words of the Midrash Sifrei (on Deuteronomy 6:5), in interpreting the commandment "to love the Lord your G-d," our sages teach:
(We are commanded) to make Him (G-d) beloved to all creatures, as did Abraham your father, as our Biblical text teaches, "...the souls which they (Abram and Sarai) made in Haran." (Gen 12:5) After all, if all the people of the world were to gather in order to create one mosquito and endow it with a soul, they would be incapable of accomplishing it, so then what is the text saying in the words "the souls which they make in Haran"? But apparently this teaches that Abraham and Sarah converted them and brought them under the wings of the Divine Presence.
The midrash further confirms that the propagation of ethical monotheism was the major vocation of Abraham when it explains the reason for G-d's command that he leave Haran in favor of Israel:
Said Rabbi Berakhia: "To what could Abraham be compared? To a vial of sweet-smelling spices sealed tightly and locked away in a corner, so that the pleasant aroma could not spread. Once the vial began to be transported, its aroma radiated all around. So did the Holy One Blessed be He say to Abraham, 'Move from your place, and your name (and message) will become great universally.'" (Bereishit Rabbah 39)
But this midrash flies in the face of the Biblical text. It was in Ur Kasdim, and then in Haran, that Abraham and Sarah won converts (souls) to their religion. And this is confirmed by a daring Talmudic statement, "Said R. Elazar: 'The Holy One, blessed be He, sent Israel into exile amongst the nations of the world only in order to win converts....'" (Babylonian Talmud, Pesahim 77b) So, if propagating the faith is so essential to the Jewish election and mission, why did G-d command and send Abraham (as well as his descendants) to live in one place, in Israel? It would seem that a large diaspora would be far more efficacious in bringing multitudes of souls into our faith.

The true answer lies in the fact that we are a nation as well as a religion, a people imbued with a mission not only to serve G-d, but also - and even principally - to perfect society. From our very inception, the Bible understood that the world is a global village, that nations are interdependent, and that an ethical and moral code of conduct was central to the survival of a free world.

Only from the backdrop of our formation as a nation - desperately involved with daily problems of peace and war, wealth and poverty, racial and ethnic differences, education for every spectrum of society - do we have the opportunity of influencing other nations, when they have become impressed with the society that we develop. Our goal, therefore, must be to influence others because they strive to emulate us; not for us to be a nation like all nations, but rather for us to be a light unto the nations.

Even more to the point, no one can influence another unless he or she knows very well his or her own self-definition. A minority group dominated by a host-culture majority will expend so much energy merely attempting to survive that there is little ability or will left over to develop a unique culture as a model for others; besides, unless one is in control of the society, there is no living laboratory to test ethical and moral ideas, to see if they can be expressed in real-life situations.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, expressed it very well. There were three brilliant and disenfranchised Jews who developed unique world outlooks. Karl Marx argued that human beings are controlled by social forces, mainly economic, tied to land or real estate. Baruch Spinoza maintained that humanity is controlled by nature and natural instincts, biological drives and genetic determination. Sigmund Freud believed that every human personality is formed by the laboratory of his or her parents' home, fraught with traumas of Oedipus and Electra complexes, and all too often arrested from proper emotional development by parental insensitivity.

G-d commands Abraham: 'Free yourself of the Marxian determinism of land, the Spinozistic determinism of genetic birthplace, and the Freudian determinism of parental home. All of these will have an influence, but human freedom emanating from our being children of a G-d of love will empower us to transcend these limitations and create a more perfect society.' Hence, G-d tells Abraham that he must leave Marxist nationalism, Spinozistic materialism and Freudian determinism to forge a unique nation dedicated to the ultimate values of human life and freedom, societal justice and compassion, international pluralism and peace - so that, through his special nation, the world will be blessed and humanity will be redeemed.

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