I have loved [known] him in order that he will command compassionate righteousness and moral justiceâ€¦ Genesis 18:19)
In last week's portion, Lech Lecha, we read of God's covenant with Abraham - that seminal event which made Israel the Chosen People. An important contemporary theologian, Michael Wyschogrod, maintains that our covenant is a result of God's preferential love for the descendants of Abraham, through which He continues to "dwell within the continuity of historic or corporate Israel."
The Bible itself teaches (Deut. 4:37-38; 7:7,8), "He loved your fathers, therefore He chose their seed after them, and brought you out in His presence with great power from Egypt, to drive out nations greater and mightier than you, to bring you in and give you their land for an inheritanceâ€¦ God did not love you and choose you because you were greater in number than any people; rather, you were the fewest of any people; it was because the Lord loved you and because He would keep the oath He swore to your ancestorsâ€¦."
This is how Wyschogrod formulates his thesis: if God continues to love the people of Israel - and it is the faith of Israel that He does - it is because He sees the face of His beloved Abraham in each and every one of his offspring, as a man sees the face of his beloved in the children of their union. (See Meir Y. Soloveichik, God's First Love, First Things, November 2009).
I would maintain, however, that God's election of Abraham was not merely an act of love but rather a morally directed charge in keeping with the fundamental definition of ethical monotheism. This is made clear in this week's portion; "And Abraham shall surely become a great and powerful nations, through whom all the nations of the earth shall be blessed; it is to this end that I have known [loved, specifically appointed] him; in order that he will command his children and his household after him to guard the way of the Lord, to do compassionate righteousness and moral justice (tzedaka umishpat), in order that the Lord may bring you, Abraham, whatever He has said He would." (Genesis 18:18, 19)
The divine election of Abraham and his descendants is explained by their responsibility for spreading God's message of compassionate righteousness and moral justice. This fits with the ancient definition of a covenant - a two-way street of mutual obligations. This covenant between God and our ancestors provided an enlightened alternative to the corrupt societal structures which brought about Divine punishment through deluge, fire and brimstone. And even though God unconditionally guarantees that Abraham's seed - the Jewish people will never be destroyed - our ability to live in the Land of Israel as a sovereign nation is dependent upon our moral and ethical worthiness.
The relationship between our status as a nation and our ethical standing is iterated and reiterated throughout the Bible. Even those biblical passages which emphasize divine love as the reason for the election conclude with a warning: "But you shall observe the statutes and commandments which I have commanded you this day, that it may go well with you and with your children so you may lengthen your days on the land which the Lord your God has given youâ€¦" (Deut. 4:40)â€¦ "And you shall know that the Lord your God, He is God the faithful God who observes the covenant and - lovingkindness for those who love Him and observe His commandments â€¦ So you shall observe the commandment and the statutes and the laws which I have commanded you this day to do them (Deut. 7:9-11).
Indeed the Bible prophecies two destructions and exiles - one foretelling the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE (Lev. 26:14), "if they will not hearken unto Me," and the second dealing with the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE and the second exile (Deut. 28:15), "And it will happen if they do not hearken to the voice of the Lord your Godâ€¦" The prophet Isaiah (1: 27) even refers to the divine charge to Abraham when he insists that ultimately "Zion shall be redeemed by means of moral justice [mishpat] and [Israel] shall return [to her land] by means of compassionate righteousness [tzedaka]." No wonder that these are the concluding words of our prophetic reading (haftara) on the Shabbat before Tisha Be'av, the anniversary of the destruction of both Temples.
The message which emerges from this study should be clear and frightening. God loves and believes in Abraham's progeny, and there will always be a faithful remnant worthy of redemption. But whether our present miraculous return - "the beginning of the sprouting of our redemption" - will truly flower into the long-anticipated salvation of our nation and the world depends on our penitent hearkening to God's voice, and our ability to serve as a sacred model of compassionate righteousness and moral justice.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.