The Bible tells the story of the Jewish people—who we are and who we are challenged to be. Our national birth occurs in Chapter 12 of Genesis, when God instructs Abraham to leave his family and pagan Mesopotamian culture and journey to Canaan. Here he will start a new life, a new culture and a new people: the Jewish people in covenant with God.
Genesis 12 also signals a literary and theological change of direction. Genesis’ first eleven chapters are a narrative of the cosmos and humanity, suffused with the grandeur of God’s universal concern. Yet from chapter 12 onward, the Bible’s focus narrows dramatically, restricting itself to God’s stormy relationship with a small, particular people—Abraham’s descendants. It is the story of two lovers so smitten with each other that they leave the rest of the world behind. The God of the universe has gone ethnic.
Looking closely, we can still detect the universal plan. A critical part of the particularistic covenant with Abraham is a bold challenge: “Be a blessing…. Through you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” God calls upon the Jewish people to be a partner in creation and to carry the divine blessing to all humanity. It is so essential to the covenant that the Bible repeats it twice more to Abraham, once to Isaac when he inherits the covenant and once more to Jacob when the covenant is passed to the third generation. Jews are not to be an isolated ghetto people, or an insignificant minority relegated to a footnote to the larger human story. The covenant calls on us to be a major player—the major player—in the culture and history of the world.
The late 19th century Hasidic master, R. Yehudah Leib Alter (“the Sefat Emet”), connected this idea to the Sinai commandment for Jews to be “a kingdom of priests.” The function of Jewish priests is to bestow God’s blessing on other Jews. (Think of the beautiful blessing that kohanim recite every holiday before the congregation.) But if all Jews are a nation of priests, it must be the nations of the world that entire Jewish people is to bless. Indeed, ancient midrashim portray Abraham as a priest among his pagan neighbors, foreshadowing the spiritual role that his descendants received at Sinai.
Unfortunately much of the covenant’s universal dimension has receded into the background of Jewish life. This is understandable given how painfully we suffered at the hands of the Romans, the Church, the Tsars, the Nazis, the Communists and others. It seems that whenever we tried to engage with the gentile world, Jewish blood ran in the streets. Today Jews are a traumatized people still reeling from the wounds from history. Thus survival tops our agenda and our religious lives tend to turn inward to the security of our homes, study halls and synagogues. Yet the Torah demands that the Jewish people not merely survive, but become agents of universal blessing.
We can bestow the divine blessing in two ways—one active, one more passive. Chapter 18 of Genesis relates that Abraham argued with God to save any righteous people in Sodom and Gomorrah. This audacious behavior confirmed his qualifications to be the father of the covenant, since it demonstrated Abraham’s commitment to teach “the way of the Lord, doing tsedakah (justice) and mishpat (righteousness).” This is why Jews are the children of Abraham and not the children of Noah. Abraham was righteous in his concern for others, while Noah was self-righteous in caring only about himself and his family. The message is clear: God’s covenant bids us to move the world toward justice and morality.
Rashi and some other commentators opted for a more passive interpretation: The covenant requires Abraham and the Jewish people to be role models for others. When we act righteously, others will be moved to emulate our behavior and adopt “the way of the Lord.” Actually this path is the more difficult personal one because it places a heavy responsibility on all members of the covenant: Each of us is required to act with integrity in everything we do—and to be seen as such by those around us. As the covenantal nation others take special note of our behavior, both good and bad. We cannot be true to God’s covenant and be morally lax. When we fail ethically, we create scandal and bring harm to the world, not blessing. This is the very opposite of the Bible’s dream for the Jewish people.
God’s covenant with the children of Abraham does not allow us to withdraw into isolation out of some mistaken notion of spiritual purity. In the Bible’s vision of sacred history, Jewish religious life is not a parochial or ethnic affair. God has asked Jews to become a charismatic nation—a people with a message to the world. And as the people of the covenant, our behavior should reflect the wide spiritual horizons of our covenantal partner, the Creator of the universe Who is invested in the course of human history.
Whether we choose to actively engage or to be role models, the covenant demands that we be mindful of our role in history and that the Jewish people have a purpose beyond ourselves. In the simple and profound words of the Torah, “Be a blessing.”
Eugene Korn is American Director of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation in Israel and editor of Meorot—A Journal of Modern Orthodox Discourse.