In Part One of this letter, we learned about the arrogant and self-serving society of the Tower of Babel. As we discussed, the people of this society started to build a very tall tower; moreover, they developed a cruel and cold indifference to the deaths of some of their builders. Our father, Avraham, who dedicated his life to acts of loving-kindness, protested against the cruel behavior of this arrogant and self-serving society. In this letter, we will discuss how Avraham, at age seventy-five, was given the Divine mission to become the founder of a nation that would develop an altruistic society in the Land of Zion – a nation that would be dedicated to serving the loving and life-giving Divine purpose.
In the following passage,
Hashem tells Avraham, our
father, to begin the journey
to the land where a new and
great nation will emerge
“Go for yourself, from your land, from your birthplace, and from the house of your father, to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation; I will bless you, and make your name great; and become a blessing!” (12:1,2)
In the above passage, Avraham is told, “Become a blessing!” These words indicate that his journey to the new land is to also benefit others. As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains, the great nation which is to emerge from Avraham is not to be like other nations which just seek blessings for themselves, for this new nation is to strive to be a source of blessing for others. Rabbi Hirsch writes:
“The nation of Avraham is – in private and public life – to heed only one call: Become a blessing! Its life is to be devoted to the Divine aims of bringing harmony to humankind and to the world, as well as to restore the human being to his former glory.” (Commentary to Genesis 12:2)
Avraham’s nation is to become a universal source of blessing; thus, Hashem concludes the message with the following promise:
“All the families of the earth will be blessed through you” (Ibid 12:2).
Rabbi Hirsch explains this universal promise regarding all the families of the earth in the following manner: “They all will ultimately base their lives on the foundation on which your own life is based.” The chosen nation that will descend from Avraham will therefore become a universal source of blessing through serving as a social model of the spiritual ideals of Avraham.
This universal promise to Avraham is also found in the following verse where Hashem proclaims:
“For Avraham is to become a great and mighty nation, and through it, all the nations of the earth will be blessed.” (Genesis 18:18)
This Divine promise was passed on to Avraham’s younger son, Yitzchak (Isaac), as Hashem said to Yitzchak: “And all the nations of the earth will be blessed because of your offspring” (Genesis 26:4).
This Divine promise was then passed on to Yitzchak’s younger son, Yaakov (Jacob), whose 12 sons became the founders of the 12 Tribes of Israel. As Hashem said to Yaakov: “And all the families of the earth will be blessed through you and your offspring” (Genesis 28:14).
The following Divine statement explains why Avraham was chosen to be the founder of a new nation that would become a universal source of blessing:
“For I have known him because he commands his children and his household after him to keep the way of Hashem, to do tzedakah and justice” (Genesis 18:18, 19).
Our tradition uses the term “tzedakah” to refer to the mitzvah to share our resources with those in need, and Rabbi Hirsch translates this term as “dutiful benevolence.”
The Talmud teaches in the name of King David that doing acts of loving-kindness is one of three distinguishing characteristics of our people (Yevamos 79a). As a source for this teaching about loving-kindness and our people, the Talmud cites the above verse concerning Avraham’s command to keep the way of Hashem, to do tzedekah and justice. A major commentator on the Talmud, known as the Maharsha, explains that the reference to acts of loving-kindness in the above verse is found in the phrase, “to keep the way of Hashem” – to emulate the loving Divine attributes and deeds.
The Maharsha refers us to a passage in the Talmud which discusses our obligation to follow the ways of Hashem through emulating Hashem’s acts of loving-kindness; moreover, the Talmud cites various examples of Hashem’s acts of loving-kindness, such as clothing the naked, visiting the sick, and burying the dead (Sota 14a).
As the above teachings indicate, the radical protest of Avraham against the self-serving society of his region was only an initial stage of his social activism, for Avraham, the social critic, was later given the Divine mission to become the founder of a radical nation – a social model that will serve as a source of blessing for all the nations of the earth.
Becoming a social model is a greater challenge than being a social critic, but when we fulfill this universal Divine mission in the Land of Zion, we will experience the fulfillment of the following prophecy: “And nations will go to your light” (Isaiah 60:3).
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
One of the major ways in which Avraham dedicated himself to loving-kindness was through his acts of hospitality to travelers. For example, the Torah describes how he welcomed and served travelers even when he was weak from the operation of circumcision (Genesis 18:1-8).
Our mother, Sarah, whose major role we discussed in previous series, was also devoted to hospitality. For example, the Midrash states that the doors of Sarah’s tent “were open wide” – a metaphor for her warm hospitality to the female guests who entered her tent seeking physical and/or spiritual nourishment. (Genesis Rabbah 60:16)
2. Avraham, our father, gave us a mandate to keep the way of Hashem, and this is also a mitzvah of the Torah. A source for this mitzvah is found in the following words: “And you shall go in His ways” (Deuteronomy 28:9). Maimonides discusses this mitzvah in his “Book of Mitzvos” (#8), and he cites the following teaching of our sages:
“Just as the Holy One, blessed be He, is called Compassionate, so should you be compassionate; just as He is called Gracious, so should you be gracious; just as He is called Righteous, so should you be righteous; just as He is called Chasid (devoted to acts of loving-kindness), so should you be a chasid.” (Sifri on Deuteronomy 11:22)