Into history’s stage walks Avram with his wife Sarai and the members of their extended family and troupe. God calls to Avram, “Go forth … to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing.” This is the beginning of the covenant, or brit, specific between God and our people. Prior to this, God had made a covenant with all humanity after Noah: no longer to destroy the world again. How would God then respond to an ever misguided humanity, given this constraint of “not being able to start all over again.” The answer is through Avram and his people. They are to establish a model society, in a land dedicated to God’s purpose. This week’s parasha and next tells the story of Avram.
While given this incredible promise and challenge, Avram realizes it does not come easily. First there is a famine in the land and he and Sarai must descend into Egypt, where their lives are at risk. Upon return, his shepherds and those of his nephew Lot’s quarrel and he must resolve the problem by dividing the land. Then Lot is kidnapped and Avram must go to war to rescue him. His place in the land tenuous, his age advancing, he queries how he will know that the promise is being fulfilled. In a mysterious vision God confirms that the promise indeed will be fulfilled, the b’rit of land and people, but first they will suffer hardship and servitude. Avram and Sarai, still being childless, resort to having a child, Ishmael, by Sarai’s handmaid, Hagar. Finally, God asks Avram to circumcise himself and the males of his household as a sign of the covenant. While renamed by God as part of the unfolding promise, Avraham and Sarah still are barren at the end of this week’s parasha.
Does God intervene in humanity’s affairs in this way? Some believe so fully. Others do not. For the latter, how can this story be understood? By handing down this story, one generation to the next, our ancestors handed us an important mission. The earth has gone through its various extinctions of animal life and transformations of consciousness. Our ancestors perceived that ultimate perfection of creation was in our hands; that to “start the game all over again” when it wasn’t going “our way” is actually childish. Whether God is real or a human construct, God’s decision to “stick with the rules” and not start a new game places enormous responsibility on humans.
Our ancestors were the first ready to pick up the cudgel. As this parasha indicates, with cudgel comes struggle. It has never been – and it will never be – easy to be a faith people. Yet our first ancestors, Avraham and Sarah, set us on our path: to be covenanted to a higher purpose, which they called the service of God. As God in Judaism is understood as Creator, Revealer and Redeemer, this becomes our task: to preserve our creation, to search for deeper truth and meaning in life, and to bring justice to this world.