On Being a Jew – Parashat Lekh Lekha (Genesis 12:1-17:27)

“Our Bodies are the Instruments through which our Souls Play their Music.”

Albert Einstein

By-the-by, something entirely irrelevant to this blog but critically important: Taiwan reached a milestone – 200 days without recording a single locally transmitted coronavirus infection.

There are four ways to organize the polities in the world. One option – globalism –seeks a world government that can impose its will on individual nation-states that deviate from what is accepted as a universal norm. The second option entails multilateralism, the world managed by agreements between and among nation states to establish and strengthen order across the world. These two options are taken as given; that is, without either one or the other, there can be no order in the world, only chaos. One or the other is the sine qua non of a peaceful world.

There are two other ways that challenge or, at the very least, deviate from this claim to install and perpetuate a world order. They are particularist rather than universal options. One is nationalism that gives primacy to the family and to community values, and not identity politics or any claim that those values are inherently universal or even superior. They can become universal when offered in the form of witnessing and other nations choose to follow them. A fourth unseemly option is particularist as well, but it is also unilateralist. It entails choosing one’s own nation as destined to rule, not only over one’s own citizens, but to dominate other nations.

The four options then are:                  Illustrative Tales


Globalism                                         The Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9)

Multilateralism                                  Abraham as a father of many nations


Nationalism                                       Sarah as the mother of the Jewish nation

Unilateral Imperialism                       The story of Ishmael      

I begin with the Tower of Babel tale and the underlying concept of globalism in a tale purportedly explaining the origin of different languages and the spread of humanity around the globe. However, more interesting is what is replaced and why. What was wrong with a monolithic and linguistically uniform global system in which everyone speaks the same language? What was wrong with “the whole earth…of one language and of one speech?” Its second major feature is that a common language was the means to storm the gates of heaven with a mighty city with “its top in the heavens.”

Why were humans so widely scattered across the earth and why do they speak so many and such different languages? Does that mean that the sin of the Babylonians was to try to rise above their allotted station in the order of the universe? Or was it because of human pride in a building erected to honour a false god – such as Marduk? Or was it really because humans expanded their imperialist goals and envisioned conquering the realm of the gods?

In the Torah, we are not told what sin was committed. But since Abraham and Sarah become migrants, it may be a statement against cultural stasis even more than uniformity. It may be a statement in favour of horizontal mobility in contrast to vertical mobility of a sedentary society where the desire is to get higher on the ladder and become an overlord of those beneath you. Instead of human concentration, the Torah lauded dispersion. I believe it is a story that celebrates pluralism and opposes uniformity. For with absolute unity, humans behave like aspiring gods with their eyes upwards to the heavens instead of stressing their responsibility for making the earth fertile and bountiful.  

Alternatively, the story may offer a rationalization for violence and war. For in building the tower, humans were engaged in a cooperative community endeavour. Just as God at the beginning of Genesis set up enmity in men between their mindhearts and their bodies, between Adam’s mind and his flesh, between his brain and his penis, now God sews the seeds of enmity among nations of men. However, no matter the costs, struggle between and among nations is superior to a unitary given order.

What follows, ten generations after the flood, is a paeon to multilateralism, to pluralism, to nationalism, for Abram becomes Abraham, “a father of many nations.” His name in Hebrew means “father of a multitude.” He is commanded or driven to leave his native land and found a new nation. He is NOT the father of all nations. From being exalted as a father (Abram means “to be exalted”), he becomes a devotee of his offspring. His children do not worship him as a god. Instead, he lives for his children. It is a total inversion of the customary order.

Was Abram, like Noah, obedient to God, willing to do whatever God ordered, including sacrificing his son? Trust in is not the same as blind obedience. Look at the relationship between Abraham and his father. Terah takes Abram and his wife, Sarai, his brother, Haran and the latter’s son, Lot, away from Ur to travel to Canaan, but became waylaid in Haran. In the next version, Abram is instructed to migrate by God, which he does with his wife, Sarai, his brother, Haran, and Haran’s son, Lot. God commands Abram to leave Ur, to leave his father’s house and away from his kindred, Whatever complementary version, Abram and Sarai become migrants rather than sedentary inhabitants of their home country travelling even on to Egypt because there was a famine in the land. They had become humanitarian refugees.

They are received well in Egypt because Sarai agrees to follow Abram’s lead and says she is his sister rather than his wife. Because she is beautiful, she is taken into Pharaoh’s harem and Abraham is allowed to prosper under the Pharaoh’s protection. But when God visits a plague on Pharaoh’s household because of Sarai, and Pharaoh learns the reason why (how we are not told), Abram and Sarai are expelled, but Abram now has a herd of cattle. And silver and gold. He has prospered because of his deceit.

So had Lot. But his herdsmen and Abram’s quarreled as if they did not have enough strife on their hands from the resident Canaanites and Perizzites. Abram and Lot each went their own way, Lot to settle the plains of Jordan and Abram to Canaan. However, a long war of attrition broke out among the resident nations in Lot’s territory. Lot was captured by the victors in Sodom and taken prisoner with all his herds.

At the same time, Abram had become a wealthy man with 318 trained guards. He set out to rescue Lot, which he did after killing Lot’s captors. Abram became richer still and was given land by the King who ruled over Sodom. While the King took the captives as slaves, Abram was offered the rest of the spoils. But Abram turned the king down, insisted that he did not want wealth from war, but only the wealth he obtained with his own labour.

One is eager to question Abram. Why is it alright to prostitute your wife to preserve your own life and gain wealth but not take the spoils of military victory? There is no answer. Only the switch to the devotion to progeny rather than either self or one’s forefathers. God promises that He and Sarai will have a son. “The LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying: ‘Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates.’” (15:18)

But the tale becomes even more complicated. For Sarai remains barren. She gives her maid, Hagar, to Abram who gets her pregnant with Ishmael. But Sarai feels that her maid is now lording over her. In a fit of jealousy, she sends Hagar and Ishmael into exile. They become persecuted refugees. And Ishmael grows up to be “a wild ass of a man; his hand shall be against every man, and every man’s hand against him; and he shall dwell in the face of all his brethren.”

We are in a totally different world, a world of national rivalry, a world in which might can possibly rule over right, especially when the might belongs to a leader who cannot get along with any of his neighbours. Then the absence of universal laws from a unitary source or even from agreement among the nations becomes a cause of wars because the nations cannot get along. But God has opted for nationalism and, like globalism, it comes in two varieties. In one, a nation is allotted land as if in a lottery. In another, a nation seizes land. In the first, the nation is chosen for that land. In the second, the nation itself chooses to become a great nation.

There has been one other development besides the turn from the global to the national, the universal to the particular, and from devotion to one’s progeny versus progeny kowtowing to the Lord their father. We have moved from a shame culture to a guilt culture, a shame culture whereby your children cover up your embarrassment versus one which insists that wealth and land be acquired by contract and not by conquest. Guilt comes from breaking written laws. Shame is an internal policeman and arises because of inherited traditional values which a society is dedicated to protecting. But for the nation that is to come from the loins of Abram (now Abraham) and his wife Sarai (now Sarah), what is most important is not where you came from but who you give birth to. Knowing where you came from is critical only because it reinforces the progeny to become more than oneself or one’s ancestors.

Abraham was desperate to be a father, was destined to found a family tree rather than just serving the natural continuity of cultural memory. This was the great moral revolution of the Hebrews – not just a guilt rather than a shame culture, but a covenant with God whereby not only is the land held by humans only as a trustee, but so are your children who enter into a covenant with God. And the Brit Milah is the sign that we are only custodians of our children.

Thus, the diversity of nations (and within each nation) yields a diversity of values even at the risk of one nation seeking to dominate and rule over others.

This is how Rabbi Yitz Greenberg’s parashat for this week begins:

In parashat Noah, the Torah revealed a dramatically transformative understanding of the interaction between the divine and the human. Before Noah, God, operating as a universal unlimited Force (called Elohim in the Torah) had appeared to humans as a Ruler, instructing them to live good lives and repair the world (tikkun olam). These commands were enforced by harsh, sometimes overwhelming, punishments. In the new understanding, God (called YHWH/Adonai in the Torah) self-limits out of love, renouncing coercive tactics such as future floods. God establishes objective natural processes and laws to govern reality. Out of respect for human dignity—and desire that human beings become responsible moral agents—God engages with humans in partnership (brit), so that they will act morally and repair the world out of free will. In the Noahide covenant, in recognition of human nature and habits, God “reduces” expectations (allowing meat, for example), compromising to ask humans to act the best possible way rather than at the ideal level.

In parashat Lekh Lekha, the next divine step toward accommodating human nature and emotions is revealed. Human beings are more energized by, and cling more tightly to, a covenant that is more intimate, more related to them and their distinctive memories and experiences. On the foundation of the universal Noahide covenant, God now enters into a particular covenant with one family, Abraham and Sarah. This sets up a paradigm of (future) multiple partnerships, each with distinctive practices, models, and emotional associations, with the same goal of overall tikkun olam.

                                                THE FOUR CHOICES


Globalism                                         The Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9)

Multilateralism                                  Abram as a father of many nations


Nationalism                                       Sarah as the mother of the Jewish nation

Unilateral Imperialism                       The story of Ishmael

From the bottom, populist dictatorships lead to imperialist adventurism. From the top, there is a different type of authoritarian totalitarianism based on a centralised source of formal authority with concentrated power in a single locale over everyone beneath. As Greenberg refers to the midrashic imagination, the Babel of Tower project is pure totalitarianism, “conscripting everybody to labor, imposing exaggerated quotas for construction, and mercilessly punishing failure to meet the requirement…Pluralism—political, economic, cultural, religious—is the best prophylactic against dictatorial centralization.” 

It is only when we opt for the two middle options, when we have nationalism based on citizens and citizen interests rather than identity politics, married to multilateralism, that we can find a balance between the particular and the universal, between nationalism and international cooperation, reinforced by the primacy given to the future but erected on a continuity with the past, and a present built on contractual and covenantal relations rather than shame. Both multilateralism and nationalism thrive on experimentation, on building based on comparative advantages, on progressing through demonstrations and witnessing. It is the only combination that and can develop without intimidation or coercion.  

The principle works for domestic politics as well.

In an election year set to overturn many precedents, one of the most anticipated is the prospect of Arizona turning blue. In a state that has voted for a Democratic presidential candidate only once since 1952polls have consistently favored Joe Biden. In our much-watched Senate race, former astronaut Mark Kelly leads Republican incumbent Martha McSally by a comfortable margin. If Kelly wins, the state would send its first all-Democratic Senate delegation to Washington in 67 years. Talking heads have plenty of explanations for this shift. It’s Latinos! It’s suburbanites! It’s moderate Republicans! These answers make for convenient sound bites. But the desire to explain Arizona through different voter blocs, with a lot of the focus on the increasing Latino population, misses what’s actually happening in Arizona. The key to understanding the state’s leftward shift isn’t identity politics: It’s the issues and ideas that shape daily reality for the people who live and work here. What the pundit class fails to grasp is that this is a state of fluid plurality, a place where the very definition of “American” is changing as the lines blur and the walls that have long safeguarded a monochromatic hold on power have begun to crack. Several identities often apply to the same person, making it a mistake to attribute changes in Arizona’s political DNA to the work of any one group of voters. I am an immigrant and a naturalized citizen; a college-educated Latina and college professor; a mother and widow whose new partner comes from a family with a long history of military service. Which of these identities guides my vote?

Fernanda Santos, The Washington Post, 30.10.2020


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