A great nation and its religion are born

Abraham was the first to define a great nation with a religion bound up in its land from the start.

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Rabbi Raymond Apple
Rabbi Raymond Apple
Larry Brandt

Torah reading: Lech L'cha

A GREAT NATION

Genesis 12:2, the beginning of the parashah, promises that God will make us a great nation.

"Great" can have many meanings. It cannot denote great in numbers, since the Torah itself says that Israel will be one of the smaller nations on earth.

"Great" cannot indicate fame or status, as if we had the right to advertise and show off our prestige, power and significance: that would be mere exhibitionism.

The best interpretation of the adjective great is ethical – a nation that strives for moral quality and ethical excellence.

Is this really true of the land or people of Israel?

Maybe not (yet) – but we have a vision, a conscience, a dream, and we constantly do our best to be worthy of it.

Edmond Fleg wrote a book titled "The Land where God Dwells", and that title encapsulates our greatness as the land where the people endeavour to live an upright life that accords with the Divine ethical call.


PARTING OF THE WAYS

Abraham and Lot decide to part company. One will go to the right, the other to the left.

The question is why their separation takes place when their shepherds have had a quarrel. Surely it is the two principals, Abraham and Lot, who should work out the situation: why let the servants, the shepherds, necessitate the decisions?

It is out of character for Abraham not to be tolerant and patient, even if Lot irks him.

The problem is that each group of shepherds backs their own employer. Lot has nasty, grasping servants for whom Abraham and his servants need to be put down.

Abraham’s own workers are alarmed and they feel that the Lot brigade is unfair and unappreciative. Each group of servants defends their own employers.

With servants like these, it is best for Abraham and Lot to separate.


THREE STEPS UP

At the beginning of the sidra, God tells our patriarch Abraham to leave his land, his kindred and his father’s house (Gen. 12:1).

Nachmanides sees a series of challenges in these three elements of Abraham’s background.

It is hard to leave one’s country, but if it has to be done, one can manage it. It is harder to leave the kindred with whom one’s upbringing has been bound up, but if one makes a big enough effort it is possible.

Hardest of all is leaving one’s parental home, with all its memories, feelings and associations, but a person of courage and faith can achieve it.

Nachmanides says that Abraham left all three, to show how great was his love of God.


DEFINING JUDAISM - A QUESTION THAT BEGAN WITH ABRAHAM


Despite the secularists, religion is the crucial and historically validated quality of Jewishness.

1000 years ago, Saadia Gaon declared, "We are a people by virtue of the Torah". That is, when the people of Israel accepted the Torah as their guide-book, they gained mission, purpose and identity.

But Judaism is more than religion. That too is clear.

To be a Jew is not only to be heir to a religious tradition. It is also to belong to a group, however one defines the nature of that group. Some may think it incongruous, but even an atheistic Jew remains a Jew, a member of the group.

Some people speak loosely of a "Jewish race". There is no such thing. Race is a scientific concept and it simply does not apply to the Jews.

Are they then a nation? Not in any political sense, at least outside Israel.

Yet there is a wider definition of nationality or nationhood which has relevance. Some editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica apply the term "in a more extended sense… to denote an aggregation of persons claiming to represent a racial, territorial or some other bond of unity, though not necessarily recognised as an independent political entity… A nationality in this connexion represents a common feeling and an organised claim rather than distinct attributes."

Phrases such as "an aggregation of persons… bond of unity… common feeling…" do have their application to the Jewish people. Of this there is no doubt.

But the problem as I see it is not a straight-out one of saying, are the Jews a religion or an ethnic group?

This kind of choice hardly ever presents itself. On the whole, Jews know that both elements are part of their make-up and that they have, as Eugene B. Borowitz puts it, an "intimate fusion of peoplehood and religion".

Thus within Jewish communal life there are times and places where the religious is stressed, notably of course in the synagogue; and are places and occasions when it is the group aspect which unites us.

Look for instance at the Jewish newspapers, and you see that they report what Jews are doing just as much as what is doing in Judaism.

The real problem is that of deciding what image to give to the wider community.

We are generally regarded as a religious denomination. Religion does not by itself cover all of Jewishness, but historically it was the religious pattern which made the Jew distinctive even in Israel; and even today, whatever one’s private angle on Jewish life, the vast majority of Jews maintain some religious associations and observances, and they would agree that it is Judaism which is the most Jewish of Jewish ideologies.


Rabbi Raymond Apple was for many years Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesman on Judaism. After serving congregations in London, Rabbi Apple was chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, for 32 years. He also held many public roles, particularly in the fields of chaplaincy, interfaith dialogue and Freemasonry, and is the recipient of several national and civic honours. Now retired, he lives in Jerusalem and blogs at http://www.oztorah.com



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