Abraham and “the Call” (pp. 34-35)
Abraham is a man whose belief in God drives him to abandon home and country, to set himself apart from other nations and other faiths. In Abraham’s first encounter with God, he is commanded: “Go forth from your land, and your birthplace, and your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. And I will make you a great nation” (Gen. 12:1–2
). Following God’s command, Abraham journeys to Canaan where he becomes a stranger in a foreign land. But ethnic and political separatism is not what makes Abraham the first Jew.
The Torah tells us that Abraham truly became the father of the Jewish people when he heeded God’s call to adopt a sacred purpose, spreading righteousness and justice in the world (Gen. 18:19
). The Jewish people would not be merely a people apart, a separate ethnic and political unit. Instead, they would be a people bound to a higher calling. According to God’s covenant with Abraham, every Jew is called upon not simply to believe in the values of righteousness and justice, but to act on them: motivated by moral responsibility, to advocate—as Abraham did—on behalf of the vulnerable of all nations. Abraham lived in Canaan as “a stranger and a sojourner” (Gen. 23:4
), but his sense of separateness and apartness did not prevent him from heeding a universalistic moral call-- behaving with altruistic compassion toward the people of Sodom and Gomorrah.
This sense of a higher calling—an altruistic urge to bring righteousness and justice into the world—is the Jewish legacy from Abraham. It is what I call the “Sinai impulse.” Interpretations of this calling, of course, have changed dramatically. It is interesting that modern Jews seem disinclined from using the term “calling,” as if uncomfortable with the suggestion that we have received some message that might guide our lives from a transcendent source. Christians, of course, use the term with great frequency, a fact that makes many Jews all the more uncomfortable with it. And yet, this is precisely what our legacy from Abraham is. God’s call to Abraham, to which Abraham responds, challenges the first Jew to extend the boundaries of righteousness and justice in the world. This calling takes on more specific, legal form at Sinai, making it easier to pass down through the generations, but it starts with Abraham.
Over time, the Jewish understanding of “calling” evolves. It is the genius of the rabbinic tradition that it takes the broad categories of righteousness and justice and redefines those concepts based on changing circumstances. Genesis, the first book in the Torah, tells the story of how Abraham and his family came to heed God’s call. The second book in the Torah, Exodus, describes the evolution of Judaism from the faith of a single isolated family into the ethical tradition of an entire nation.