"And the Lord said to Abram: Go forth to yourself, out from your country, your birthplace and the house of your father, to the land I shall show youâ€¦ And I shall make you for a great nation, and all the families of the earth shall be blessed by you." (Gen. 12:1-3)
What was the first commandment given to Abraham (Abram), the first Jew? It lies in the words cited above, but what do these actually mean? And clearly this is much more than a command; it is a charge, a mission statement, a national calling. So what is God telling this first Jew?
I used to see in the opening statement the commandment to go to Israel, to "make aliya." And certainly that remains true, because after all, no verse can be separated from the plain meaning of its words and context, both of which point to Abraham leaving Ur Kasdim to establish a new residence in Israel.
But God is demanding much more than a change in venue. The charge to leave one's birthplace and parental home "to yourself, for yourself" (Hebrew "lecha") is a charge to be fearlessly independent, self-reliant, to express one's existential uniqueness. What adumbrates within this phrase is Balaam's later characterization of the Jews as "a nation which dwells alone, and is not to be counted among the nations" (Numbers 23:9), as well as the midrashic interpretation of the familial name "Hebrew," (Ivri), meaning that "Abram stood on one side of the world (ever) and the rest stood on the other side."
Abraham discovered a new God concept, radically different from that of the pagan world into which he was born, a God/idea of pure spirit, a God of unconditional love who nevertheless enjoins ethical conduct, a God who created human beings in His image, whose lives are to be modeled after His attributes rather than a god created by humans.
And Abraham understands that if humanity was to live and develop rather than self-destruct, this great ideal of ethical monotheism had to be disseminated worldwide, without the intrusive, invasive, and destructive ideas which could well infiltrate from Abraham's country, his birthplace and his parents' home. Abraham must separate himself from his culture, must free himself as much as possible from genetics and geography, from both nature and nurture, in order to become a blessing for the world.
And indeed, through Abraham's teaching all families of the earth have been blessed. The family of Abraham, having developed into the nation of Israel, has literally transformed civilization via the Bible and its commentaries.
And precisely which are the ideas of Judaism which have changed the world? I believe they are seven:
* The human being, free and responsible, created in the Divine Image.
* Tzedaka, the obligation to share with the less fortunate.
* A sabbath day and a sabbatical year.
* Everyone's right to freedom - the Exodus.
* Freedom brings responsibility - herut and ahrayut: The 10 Commandments.
* God in man, God in world; soul and spirituality.
* Peace and redemption - the optimistic faith in humanity's ability to perfect itself and redeem the world.
TRAGICALLY, MOST contemporary Jews remain ignorant of this treasure - and may give up their heritage for less than the proverbial mess of pottage. But I have a dream - which, after the great success of "birthright israel" and the Wexner Heritage Fellows - may stand a chance, a proposal which can change the face of American Jewry.
Our tradition ordains bar and bat mitzvas at 13 and 12 respectively, although individuals don't really achieve independence before 18.
Hence I suggest that every Jewish family be encouraged to register each bar and bat mitzva in their local Jewish Center, which would provide a two-hour class each week for seven years - each year dealing in depth with one of the above Jewish ideas. Each student would receive a significant if modest stipend for attending (after all, they could be earning money). At the conclusion of the seven years, the JCC would sponsor a trip to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, where each graduate would receive a "hatan mitzva" and "kalla mitzva" (groom and bride of commandment) certificate. In the presence of the president of the state, and amidst music and the sound of the shofar, they would take an oath to do their best to uphold the traditions of their people, just as so many soldiers vow fealty to the State of Israel in that same setting. It goes without saying that the Masa program, created by the Jewish Agency and Prime Minister's Office for college-age Jews around the world, would encourage as many as possible to spend that year studying in Israel.
I believe the funding of such a program would be more than cost-effective, especially when we realize that the years between 12 and 20 are precisely the time in which so many decide how to live their lives, and when proper peer relationships are so crucial. Families could also register their children at birth, and life-cycle gifts can be made by family and friends toward this learning program.
Such a plan may just inspire a new generation of Jews not only to survive but to prevail.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.