“Can one man really change the world?” the young senator from Illinois was asked in his Presidential election race. He was comparatively unknown and he had only served one term in the Senate. But he defeated nominees far more experienced and renowned in his run for the Presidency; his great oratory and ability to sense the mood of the times won hearts and minds to his great cause for change. His memorable inauguration speech gave his intention to do just that; to change a nation when he said, “A House divided against itself cannot stand”.
This, of course, was Abraham Lincoln, the only other senator from Illinois besides Barack Obama ever to be elected to the Presidency. He was referring in 1860 to an America that was half-slave and half free. His proclamation of emancipation for black slaves in 1863 commenced the long and circuitous road to the election of the first Black President of the United States.
During Obama’s first campaign, I was interviewed by a journalist who wanted a rabbi’s views on Obama’s views of creating a just world amongst all the nations. She wanted to know if Judaism had any sympathy with these rhetorical political pronouncements. I reminded her that Obama gets his rhetoric from the Bible and especially the Hebrew prophetic tradition. This week’s parasha, Lech Lecha, begins that tradition when Abraham Avinu (“our father”), still called Avram, is called to live out a new promise, to lead a new people in making a new land their own, and by doing so become a blessing to all the families of the earth.
Two things particularly strike me in Genesis Chapter 12. First is that Abram is said to have “made souls” (nefesh asu) in Haran before leaving for the Promised Land. What does it mean to make souls? Rashi, the medieval biblical commentator, suggests that he made converts and took them with him to the new land. But in the previous story in last week’s parasha, the generation of those who built the tower of Babel are said to have made a great tower, and made a name for themselves by doing so (v’na’aseh lanu shem). The word “made” occurs in both narratives. While the people of Babel were focused on making buildings and destroyed a generation, Abram was concerned with building people and became the spiritual father of the Jewish people.
We see here a paradigm shift, from a human endeavor that leads nowhere to a vision of a new society imbued with values of universal justice and a universal God. But can one man really change the world?
Abram appears to us in Parshat Lech Lecha quickly developing in his power and authority: the patriarch, the fighter for justice, the pioneer of faith, the beloved of God. He is a heroic figure, but he is not flawless—and this brings us to the second striking aspect of Chapter 12 in Genesis. No sooner does he enter the land to which he has been sent than he leaves it at the first sign of famine; he passes his wife off as his sister to gain acceptance at Pharoah’s court. He certainly fails many tests. But for all that, he is remarkable in calling God to account for the justice that God represents.
Later in the parasha, when pleading with God over Sodom and Gemorrah—God wants to destroy both cities because of how sinful they are–Abraham famously remarks: Ha-shofet kol ha’aretz lo ya’aseh mishpat–shall the Judge of all the earth not act justly? For Abraham, God stands as the guarantor of human justice and freedom over any human designs, and this cannot be abrogated. Abraham begins the tradition of the Hebrew prophet who “speaks forth” –speaking truth to power, and reminding all (human and divine) of their obligations and duty.
In our own time, as we see the fragmentation of a recognized civilization in the Middle East and the horrifying effects spilling over to Israel and Europe, we wonder who will stand up and stand out as a leader able to recognize the gap between a universal moral imperative and the human ambition for building edifices of power and authority.
As the great scholar, Torah commentator, and teacher Avivah Zornberg has said in her teaching about Abraham, “One may lead perhaps with no more than a question in hand.” Ron Heifetz, who teaches leadership at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, has called this “adaptive leadership”, the ability to discern the conflicting values in a society and articulate a vision that calls people back to that original vision, to that which ultimately they hold dear.
True history is the history of the spirit, wrote Rabbi Leo Baeck in 1944 while in the Theresienstadt concentration camp, “the human spirit, which may at times seem powerless, but ultimately is yet superior and survives, because even if it has not got the might, it still possesses the power, the power that can never cease.” In the camp, Baeck did not despair. He wrote: “The Prophets turned against every misdeed of history, they objected to any justification of right by victory. Justice is the ultimate sense of history for Judaism.”
Shall not the people of the earth also act justly?
Our ability to bring justice to our fractured and contentious world lies not in more force, but in the naming of the wide gap between a vision of society and humanity and their reality. Abraham, Lincoln, and Baeck all wanted to change their worlds. Their repeated articulation of their foundational values, without being paralyzed by fear of failure or of their own failings, won other hearts, souls, and minds to carry their work forward.