By HaRav Mordechai Greenberg
Rosh HaYeshiva, Kerem B'Yavneh
Parshat Lech Lecha begins the “Jewish” part of the Torah. Already in the first pasuk, we learn an important principle about the essence of Judaism: “The foundation of true Jewish wisdom is the recognition of the divine element in the national soul.”
The parsha begins with the words, “Go from your land… and I will make of you a great nation… and all the families of the earth shall be blessed through you” (Bereishit 12:1-3). The Ramban asks:
This parsha neglected to explain why God told him, “Leave your land and I will do good for you the likes of which have never been.” The parsha does not introduce this with a description of how Avraham was a servant of God or a completely righteous person…
This silence is further perplexing considering that the Torah describes Noach’s positive qualities, informing us that he was a perfectly righteous person and that he “found favor in the eyes of God” (6:8) even before Hashem revealed Himself to him. Regarding Avraham Avinu, however, we hear nothing about why Hashem chose him!
The Maharal elaborates on this point in Netzach Yisrael (ch. 11). He explains that the choice of Yisrael was a general choice of Am Yisrael as a nation, in order to serve the divine purpose of Creation. This choice will never be revoked, as it was independent of any person’s actions. Hashem’s choice of Noach, on the other hand, was a choice of Noach as an individual because he found favor in Hashem’s eyes. Such a choice is dependent on a person’s actions. Since it constitutes “love that is dependent on another factor,” when the factor is absent, the love is nullified.
This is why the Torah refers to Yisrael as “children:” “You are children of Hashem your God” (Devarim 14:1). Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yehuda disputed the nature of this designation in Kiddushin (36a). According to Rabbi Yehuda, Yisrael are called “children” only when they act like children should – when they adhere to their Father’s command. According to Rabbi Meir, however, “Regardless, you are called ‘children.’” In Rabbi Meir’s opinion, this appellation is not dependent on the child’s actions; even when the Jewish People worship idolatry and lack faith, they are still considered Hashem’s children, as it says, “Children who have no loyalty” (Devarim 32:20) and “Corrupt children” (Yeshayahu 1:4). This accords with the Chazal’s famous principle: “A Jew… even though he has sinned, is considered a Jew” – a Jew can never free himself of his divine connection.
Although we usually accept the opinion of Rabbi Yehuda when he is involved in a dispute with Rabbi Meir, it seems that everyone has accepted Rabbi Meir’s opinion in this case. The Shulchan Aruch records that it is forbidden to lend on interest to a Jewish heretic, and the Gra writes that the source of this halacha is Rabbi Meir’s opinion that Jews are called “children” regardless of their behavior, as well as the gemara’s statement of “A Jew… even though he has sinned, is considered a Jew.”
Similarly, Chazal write (Kiddushin 70b):
Rabbah bar Rav Huna said: Jews have an advantage over converts. Regarding Jews, it says, “And I will be for them a God, and they will be for me a nation” (Yechezkel 37:27), whereas regarding converts it says, “I will bring him near and he will come close to me… So you will be my people and I will be your God” (Yirmiyahu 30:21-22).
For Jews, the process begins with the fact that Hashem is their God – only afterwards are they considered His nation. The choice of the Jewish People is unilateral and independent on their actions, whether good or bad. The choice of people of the other nations, on the other hand, is dependent on their actions. Only once they find favor in His eyes and they become His nation does He become their God. This is the meaning of the promise that Hashem made to Avraham: “I will ratify My covenant between Me and you and between your offspring after you, throughout the generations, as an everlasting covenant, to be a God for you and your offspring after you” (Bereishit 17:7).
This explains Moshe’s emphasis on the last day of his life: “Not with you alone do I seal this covenant and this curse, but with whoever is her, standing with us today before Hashem our God, and with whoever is not here with us today” (Devarim 29:13-14). The gemara (Shabbat 55a) tells us that “the merit of the forefathers has ended,” and Tosfot comment that while the merit of the forefathers has ended, the covenant of the forefathers has not, since the covenant is not dependent on deed and merits. This is what we mean when we say in our tefillot every day, “And he brings a savior to their children’s children for the sake of His name, with love” – as Yechezkel taught, “I am not acting for your benefit, House of Israel, but for the sake of My holy name that you desecrated among the nations” (Yechezkel 36:22). This redemption will come “even if Yisrael are complete evil-doers, God forbid.”
For this reason, the Torah refrained from speaking in praise of Avraham, in contrast to Noach, since his actions did not bring about his selection. If the reason for his choice were dependent on his deeds, it would be “love dependent on another factor,” and in absence of that factor, the love would disappear as well. If that were the case, every time a Jew sinned, he would remove himself from the divine covenant. Now that the choice is “arbitrary” and independent of our actions, we cannot escape from it. We might avoid the responsibilities that we have been given, and for that we will be judged and punished, but a person can not free himself of the fact that he is Jewish. In the Maharal’s words:
It is therefore impossible to say that given the removal of the reason – the righteousness of the people – Hashem will revoke the fact that he chose them to be His nation. It is true that their actions, good or bad, contribute to the degree of closeness to Hashem or detract from it, but the selection itself was nevertheless not a result of any action.
Noach was chosen as a result of his actions, whereas Avraham was chosen “because he was the beginning of the nation.”
The question remains, however, why we specifically were chosen. How did we reach the situation in which Hashem relates differently to us than He does to other nations and that Hashem treats us with additional kindness? It seems that the answer can be found in Chazal’s words in the Sifrei:
“Hashem came from Sinai (and shone on them from Sa’ir, etc.)” – When Ha-Kadosh Baruch Hu revealed Himself to give the Torah to Yisrael, He did not reveal Himself to Yisrael alone, but rather to all of the nations. First He went to the descendants of Esav. He said to them: Do you accept the Torah? They said to Him: What is written in it? He said: “Do not murder” (Shemot 20:13). They said that their entire essence and the essence of their father was murder, as it says, “And the hands are the hands of Esav” (Bereishit 27:22) and “You shall live by your sword” (27:40). He went to the descendants of Ammon and Moav. He said to them: Do you accept the Torah? They said to Him: What is written in it? He said: “Do not commit adultery” (Shemot 20:13). They said that their entire essence was immorality… He went to the descendants of Yishmael. He said to them… “Do not steal” (ibid.) They said that the entire essence of their father was thievery. And so to every nation – He asked if they would accept the Torah… Until He removed them… and gave them to Yisrael.
This midrash teaches us that Yisrael were the only ones who responded to Hashem’s offer; they said “na’aseh ve-nishma” and willingly accepted the Torah. This would seem to be the reason that Hashem chose Yisrael as His nation, as the other nations refused to accept the Torah and only Yisrael agreed to accept it. There is another midrash that every child knows, however, which seems to contradict this point. On the pasuk, “And they stood at the foot of the mountain” (Shemot 19:17), Chazal said, “Ha-Kadosh Baruch Hu held the mountain above them like a barrel – kafa aleihem har ke-gegit.” Yisrael did not accept the Torah willingly either! If Hashem was willing to coerce the acceptance of the Torah, why didn’t He coerce any other nation? Furthermore, why did Hashem present each nation with a commandment that was clearly antithetical to their very being? If he had presented Esav with the prohibition of “Do not commit adultery,” for example, perhaps they would have accepted the Torah!
In order to better understand the significance of this story of Hashem offering the Torah to all of the nations, we must study the words of the Maharal in Netzach Yisrael (ch. 11). The Maharal describes three principles that led to the selection of Avraham Avinu and his children, through whom all the nations of the world would be blessed:
1) The Torah is necessary for the creation and maintenance of the world. The Torah preceded the world because it is the entire purpose of creation; there is no meaning to a world without the guidance of Torah. Ha-Kadosh Baruch Hu therefore conditioned the continued existence of the world on Yisrael’s acceptance of the Torah. Chazal explain the pasuk “A fearful and tranquil land” (Tehillim 76:9) – “If it is fearful, why is it tranquil? And if it is tranquil, why is it fearful? Rather, at first it was fearful [lest Yisrael not accept the Torah], and then it was tranquil [since Yisrael did accept it].”
2) In order to actualize the Torah in the world, there must be a nation that accepts the yoke of Torah upon itself that will bring the Torah and its traditions into practice in the real world. The Torah is not a book that lies on the shelf, but rather a Torat Chaim that guides a person and the nation to live according to divine ideals. There must be a nation that will accept this difficult and complex task.
3) There must therefore be a nation that can fulfill the mission of the Torah. If the Torah’s guidance is given to a nation that is not prepared for it and with which it does not identify, it will operate under coercion and not bear fruit. There was thus a need to create from the very outset a nation that was essentially different from every other nation, so that it could fit this role, without which the world cannot exist and was not even worth creating.
Through the story of Hashem’s offers to the nations, Chazal tell us this principle in their own way – there is no nation other than Yisrael that is appropriate for the role of Torah, as the other nations can not possibly observe “Do not murder,” “Do not commit adultery,” etc. Only Yisrael was created from the start with the qualities necessary for the Torah, and that is why the Torah was given to them.
In the end, “Bereishit, Hashem created the heavens and the earth” (Bereishit 1:1) – for Yisrael, who are called reishit, and for the Torah, which is called reishit. This is the meaning of the selection of Yisrael – not a selection from the other nations, but rather original creation that differed from all other existence. This is the reason that we recite the bracha of “asher bachar banu mi-kol ha-amim ve-natan lanu et Torato” every day. “Asher bachar banu” - and therefore “natan lanu et Torato.” The acceptance of the Torah did not lead to our selection. Quite the opposite – the choice of Yisrael – the creation of Yisrael in a way befitting the Torah – was what led to the giving of the Torah. This is stated explicitly: “This nation that I have created for Myself shall recount My praise” (Yishayahu 43:21). The composers of the tefillah expressed this clearly: “Baruch hu Elokeinu she-baranu le-chvodo ve-hivdilanu min ha-to’im ve-natan lanu Torat emet” – Hashem created us for His glory, in order to recount His praise, and that is precisely why He gave us the Torah.
Ha-Kadosh Baruch Hu declares: “I am Hashem; I have not changed. And you are the children of Yaakov; you have not been wiped out” (Malachi 3:6). Ha-Kadosh Baruch Hu does not change His master-plan as a result of Yisrael’s sins; Yisrael can delay the recollection of Hashem’s glory, but they cannot abolish it entirely. Repairing the world through the Kingdom of Hashem, tikun olam be-malchut Shakai, will take place through Yisrael, “and all the calculations that arise in the hearts of man, whose thoughts are vanity, will have no effect in opposing the divine will, which declared good for Yisrael.” For Yisrael were created with a different essence; they are “clinging to Hashem” (Devarim 4:4).
All of this is hinted to in the first words to Avraham: “Go forth from your land… and I will may you into a great nation” (Bereishit 12:1-2). The nature of that great nation would only become clear 500 years later: “For what great nation is there that God is close to like Hashem our God is close to us whenever we call Him! And what great nation has righteous laws and statutes like all of this Torah…” (Devarim 4:7-8).
The greatness of this nation lies in the unique quality of closeness to God, to the divine worth in its soul. That is what was said to Avraham: “I will make you into a great nation.” It is not your free will, your acceptance of the Torah, that will bring you to greatness. Rather, I will make you into a great nation. As Rav Yehuda HaLevi says in the Kuzari regarding the bracha of Ahava Rabba: “And we are obligated to express our belief in it and to show gratitude for it in Ahavat Olam Ahavtanu in order to remind ourselves that the beginning springs from it, and not from us…” (Kuzari 2:3).
Avraham and his children were chosen by Hashem for no other reason other than to be the servants of Hashem, as we read in this week’s haftara: “And you Yisrael, my servant Yaakov whom I have chosen, the descendants of Avraham, my beloved… And I said to you: You are my servant; I have chosen you and have not rejected you” (Yishayahu 41:8-10). “And now, so says Hashem who created you, Yaakov, and formed you, Yisrael – do not fear, for I will redeem you. I have called your name; you are mine” (Yeshayahu 43:1). “Remember these Yaakov and Yisrael, for you are my servant. I formed you; you are my servant. Yisrael, I will not forget you” (Yishayahu 44:21) – all of this in order to repair the world through the Kingdom of Hashem.