By Rabbi Joel Levy
Was there something special about Abraham, which caused God to pluck him from obscurity and to enter into an eternal covenant with him? Our tradition offers many different responses to this question.
‘For I know him (ki y’dativ), that he will command his children and his household after him, that they shall keep the way of God…’ (Genesis 18:19)
According to one reading of this verse Abraham is special (or God chooses Abraham) because God knows (y’dativ) that Abraham will be capable of creating an on-going, self-sustaining community that will preserve God’s message. There could have been other people who were morally worthy of entering into a covenant with God but only Abraham was able to ‘command his children and his household after him’. The Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 56b) bases itself on the verse above when it acknowledges Abraham as the archetypal human commander (m’tsaveh). To put it crudely, Abraham was ‘Mr. Continuity’. We live in a world where, for better and for worse, the Abrahamic traditions dominate most of the planet. It does seem as if there was, at least mythologically, something special about Abraham’s ability to create self-perpetuating religious traditions.
But surely continuity is not enough. Conor Cruise O’Brien who represented Ireland at the UN in 1956 and who, since representatives sat in the alphabetical order of their nations, sat between the representatives of Iraq, Iran and Israel, was led to ponder whether religious traditions are really just another unpleasant facet of nationalism. The Abrahamic traditions may be good at self-replicating, but so are flu viruses!
God may have known from the outset that Abraham could be relied upon to perpetuate God’s ways, but it is only at the end of the parasha, after the story of the binding of Isaac and Abraham’s apparent willingness to sacrifice his beloved son, that God comes to know that this desire and ability to perpetuate is not merely an expression of self-interest: ‘…for now I know (ki atah yadati) that you fear God…” (Genesis 22:12)
The Jewish community is somewhat obsessed by continuity. But how much of this concern to perpetuate Judaism is motivated by self-interest or parochial national interest? Jewish continuity may be a good thing for the world, but not if it is motivated by base desires that stem from the evil inclination. Being committed to Jewish continuity is not the same as fearing God.
Rabbi Joel Levy is Rosh Yeshiva of the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem and rabbi of Kol Nefesh Masorti Synagogue
This commentary originally appeared in Reflections in 2006.