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The Roots of Building a Model Faith

November 2, 2006 By:
Rabbi David Gutterman
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Lech-Lecha, Genesis 12:1-17:27

As we are on the cusp of an election, I'm reminded of the pithy observation of the late former Speaker of the House, Massachusetts congressman Tip O'Neill: "At the end of the day, all national politics are local."

Far be it from me to interject myself in politics, but this week, we encounter a different kind of election -- the election, so to speak, of a person and his family into a covenantal life. God says to Abraham: "I will establish My covenant with you ... and with your children after you as an eternal covenant."

I am tempted to ask the question regarding the Jewish journey. Are we, the Jewish people, more about the universal or about the particular?

Listen to these astounding words from the eminent non-Jewish historian of the Jews, Professor Paul Johnson. At the end of his monumental A History of the Jews, he writes: "All the great conceptual discoveries of the intellect seem obvious and inescapable once they have been revealed, but it requires a special genius to formulate them for the first time. The Jews had this gift. To them we owe the idea of equality before the law, both divine and human; of the sanctity of life and of the dignity of the human person; of the individual conscience and so of personal redemption; of the cohesive conscience and so of social responsibility; of peace as an abstract ideal and love as the foundation of justice; and many other items which constitute the basic moral furniture of the human mind. Without the Jews, it might have been a much emptier place."

And yet. Many of our scholars point out an interesting fact. The universal aspect of the story appears in the first 11 chapters of the Torah. A cursory perusal of the first two Shabbatot is proof enough. The world was created, corrupted and then condemned, so to speak -- Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel and Noah.

But something dramatic happens in the symphony with the advent of Chapter 12, the beginning of this week's Torah reading; the tone and tenor changes. Our story turns from the universal to the particular -- to Avram, who will become Abraham, and his children. Indeed, the balance of Tanach, the Hebrew Bible, is an unfolding drama of this people -- our people -- in the world.

How can we reconcile these universal contributions with our particular commitments that is at the heart of the Jewish people? In his remarkable book, The Dignity of Difference, Sir Jonathan Sacks offers an approach. In our being stubbornly committed to our unique and particular story, we create a model for other faith communities to do the same. "The God of Abraham is universal, the faith of Abraham is not," he writes.

A Chasidic rebbe interpreted Lech-Lecha as meaning not just "go for yourself" but "go to yourself." It means to passionately, pridefully and purposefully commit to your unique, particular and authentic story.

But isn't being different an implicit denigration and diminution of the other? Might this lead to a sort of religious triumphalism and sense of intolerance? In response to this query, a Chasidic master responded with a delicious parable.

Imagine, he said, two people who spend their lives transporting stones. One carries bags of diamonds, the other hauls sacks of rocks. Each is asked to take on a consignment of rubies. Which of the two understands what he is now to carry?

"The man who is used to diamonds knows that stones can be precious, even those that are not diamonds. But the man who carries only rocks thinks of stones as a mere burden. They have weight but not worth. So it is with faith. If we will cherish our own, then we will understand the value of others."

Rabbi David Gutterman is the executive director of the Vaad: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.

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