In the beginning of Parashat Lech Lecha, Avram is commanded, “Lech Lecha MeiArtzecha,” “Go for yourself from your land” (BeReishit 12:1). He is told to leave his home and go to a place that Hashem will show him. Traveling across the Fertile Crescent, he and his family arrive in Kena’an, but interestingly, they continue to travel from one place to another. They travel to Eilon Moreh to offer a sacrifice, and then to the mountain east of Beit El where they set up a camp. The Pasuk here states, “VaYisa Avram Haloch Venaso’a HaNegbah,” “And Avram journeyed going on towards the house”(12:9). Rashi interprets the phrase Haloch VeNaso’ah, literally, walking and traveling, to mean that Avram traveled in intervals where he would go to one place, stop, live there for a month or more, and then move somewhere else (Rashi BeReishit 12:9 s.v. Haloch VeNaso’ah). Considering that Hashem commanded Avram to leave his home and move to Kena’an, it is puzzling why he keeps moving. Where is Avram going? Perhaps there was a famine when Avram entered Kena’an and he was just going in search of food? However, this explanation is difficult, given that the verse mentioning the famine follows the verses that describe the traveling. The original question remains. Why didn't Avram just set up camp after his arrival in Kena’an and create a
permanent home for his family?
An analysis of Avram’s mission may uncover the purpose of his travels in Kena’an. After Avram is told to “go to a place that I will show you” (BeReishit 12:1), he gathers together all of his belongings, and all the people who are important to him, such as Sarah and his nephew Lot. The verse also states he brought along all the “Nefesh Asher Asu BeCharan,”“The souls that they made in Charan” (BeReishit 12:5), a rather unusual phrase. The Midrash in BeReishit Rabbah explains that this phrase describes the people whom Avram and Sarah converted. Avram and Sarah would bring individual polytheists into their home have a meal and build a relationship with them, and eventually teach them about the oneness of God. The Midrash is teaching us that when one awakens another to the idea of Hashem as the one God, it is as though he created him and shaped his true potential. BeReishit Rabbah then compares Avram to a jar that contained a fragrance. If the jar stays in one place, the fragrance remains within the jar. However, if moved from one place to another, the jar cannot stay closed and reveals the beautiful smell that had been hidden away in the jar. Avram was told, “Lech Lecha,” and by leaving and going from one place to another, he was able to release his scent, spreading the beautiful message of God.
Avram’s mission was more than following a road map. Avram accepted that Hashem is the one and only true God and therefore he accepted the responsibility to travel and spread the word of Hashem. He used his Midah of Hachnasat Orechim, hospitality, to facilitate the creation of a great nation which was to serve Hashem.
This is a wonderful message from our forefather Avram, but we in 5774 generally do not accept the responsibility to actively go and convert Gentiles to Judaism. In the time of the Maccabees, Jews actively sought and converted Gentiles like the Idumeans to Judaism. In that period, other Gentiles were receptive to conversion because Judaism was the only faith in the Mediterranean region that believed in a single God. Today, we follow the Talmud which requires us to discourage someone who wants to convert to Judaism twice before we let them begin the process. What led to the change in Jewish practice over a few hundred years?
One possibility for the change in Jewish practice is related to the rise of Christianity. The early Christians were Jews who also followed Jesus. Later, they separated themselves from Jewish life and linked themselves to the Romans, who accepted Christianity as the state religion during the time of the Emperor Constantine. The Jews were blamed for the deicide of their savior, even though it was the Romans who crucified him. Jews and Judaism were scapegoated and oppressed and out of fear of the Romans, the Jews discouraged conversion to Judaism and made it more difficult to convert.
Another important idea regarding Judaism’s message to the worldre,aomd. “Kol Benei Vasar Yikre’u ViShmecha,” “All of humanity will call upon Your [God’s] name.” This idea was articulated by Rav in the 3rd century in his prayer Aleinu, originally written for Rosh HaShanah davening. Later in Jewish history, the prayer was so beloved that it was instituted to be recited three times daily. It articulates that the Jewish ideal is that one day the whole world will recognize Hashem as the one true God. This is same idea that was expressed by Avram two thousand years earlier, as see in his spreading the belief in Hashem. However, the Jews were generally powerless to express this powerful idea to the world at large.
In the modern period of Judaism, beginning with Napoleon declaring in 1789 that Jews would be regarded as free French citizens like the Christians, Jews regained political status in the world. By becoming citizens, Jews were able to share their unique religious message with the world. We have faced many difficulties and tragedies since that time, but today the unique Jewish message is considered by much of the world as one of the most significant definitions of morality and ethics, although we are a demographically tiny people.
Western society in the 21st Century continues to struggle with declining morals, while Judaism continues to be guided by its own moral map, the Torah. It is how we navigate our lives with Hashem’s ideals while being surrounded by the declining morality in the world around us.
Like Avram, we must spread the fragrance of Torah in the world, as described in the Midrash. By us being the example of morality through our Torah ideals, others will see our example and choose to praise Hashem together with us. By assuming the responsibility of “LeTakein Olam BeMalchut Shakai,” “To establish the world in the kingship of Hashem,” the Jewish people and the “souls made in Charan” will make this world truly a place for all to proclaim Hashem’s name.