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The Future of a Promise: Lech Lecha

Lech Lecha: Genesis 12:1-17:27

This week’s Torah portion marks the beginning of the Patriarchal story in the Book of Genesis. Abraham receives God’s call to leave his home and travel to an unknown land with the assurance of God’s promise: “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…through you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” [Gen. 12:3] And then, as Abraham arrives in the land of Canaan, God appends His promise to him saying: “I am giving this land to your descendants.” [Gen. 12:7]

But we immediately notice a problematic twist in God’s promise to Abraham: it is written in the future tense. God’s promise is not to be fulfilled in Abraham’s lifetime, but through his descendants. In fact, no sooner had Abraham been given the vision of this grand future than the reality of the present comes crashing down on him. Canaan will have to wait. There is famine in the land and Abraham is forced to migrate down to Egypt. He eventually manages to find his way back to the Promised Land only to split it with his nephew Lot whose own tribe has now grown too big. Abraham then risks losing everything, finding himself drawn into a nine-king war, trying to free Lot who had fallen captive during one of their battles. Abraham’s reality never lives up to the hopes of the oft-repeated Divine vision. Time and again God reiterates His promise of land and peoplehood; but each time the tenuous promise is threatened by yet another danger in Abraham’s way.

We find ourselves facing the same challenge as Abraham does in Torah. The dichotomy between his aspirations and his reality is ours as well. And it comes into focus for us perhaps especially when elections come around. Every presidential election cycle seems to bring up within us the yearning for a promise of what our country could be, of what our world might become. We dream of a vision for tomorrow that would be an expression of our deepest aspirations, one that would look like us and feel home to us. Of course, we want that vision to prevail come Election Day because who wouldn’t want to share in the ideals we hold so dear? After all, isn’t that the Golden Rule: “Do unto others what you would want them to do unto you”?

But to this version from the Gospel of Luke [6:31], I prefer Hillel the Elder’s one from the Talmud: “What is hateful to you, do not do unto others.” [Shab. 31a] To me, Hillel invites us to be concerned with the “others” in a way that Luke doesn’t. As important as creating a world aligned with our values might be, we cannot ignore—and must, in fact, take into consideration—the fears and deeply emotional reactions of those whose own worldview might feel threatened by ours. As we continue to work toward evolving beyond today, we must address the basic needs for safety and inclusion of all who share this Promised Land with us. More polarization, more rejection and more outraged battle cries won’t help.  We must move to dream a bigger dream, to hold a grander promise that would enlarge the circle of inclusion. Why? Because a vision worth working toward might need to be one similar to the one that Abraham also heard; that our presence be a blessing to the earth and all its inhabitant, that we continue to seek peace and justice in our cities and in the world, that we uphold as guiding principles the values of compassion, inclusivity, truth and love.

Now we also have to accept that, like for Abraham, our reality will always fall short of the vision we hold, of the promise we carry—if it didn’t, it would mean that our vision wasn’t big enough to begin with. But should that preclude us from continuing to dream? Perhaps in our generation more than in any other, the tenuous promise of what our nation stands for seems to be deeply threatened; there is famine in the land. But should that deter us from doing all we can to keep the vision alive? Abraham didn’t struggle to save the imperiled Divine promise time and again, just for himself. He did it for future generations. It is our duty to keep the promise of “a more perfect Union” alive. It is ours to manifest within our homes and our communities, within our towns and our cities. Not for ourselves, but for the generations that will follow, so that “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”