Abraham and the Covenant


By Rabbi David L. Abramson

This week’s Torah portion is Lech Lecha, Genesis 12:1-17:27.

The memory is still a clear one: I was sitting in shul with my dad on Shabbat Lech Lecha — I must have been 13, 14 or, maybe, 15 — and I was flipping through the pages of the Chumash. First the beginning of the portion, then through the next pages of the portion, even back to the previous week’s portion. But I couldn’t find what I was
looking for.

What was I looking for? The story of Abraham breaking his father’s idols.


Abraham was the original iconoclast — in the colloquial and original (or at least etymological) sense of the word. The story of the young Abraham breaking his father’s idols is an important midrash. It tells of Abraham’s youthful wisdom, his recognition of the foolishness of idolatry, his understanding of the folly of paganism, his courage in standing up to
his father.

But when we meet Abraham at the beginning of Parshat Lech Lecha, we know almost nothing about Abraham. God simply says to Abraham: “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show
you. [There], I will make of you a great nation.”

It seems curious that the Torah tells us so little about Abraham at this point. After all, Abraham will enter into the Covenant with God, creating the greatest religious revolution the world had ever seen or has seen since: ethical monotheism; a belief in one invisible, all powerful, all knowing, and all-just God; what ultimately was to turn into Judaism.

But maybe there are reasons for the sparseness of the Bible’s “Abraham story” at this point. One reason for not dwelling on Abraham’s past, I think, is that the establishment of the Covenant marked an abrupt change in Abraham’s life and in the lives of his household and his future descendants as well.

Perhaps through its succinctness, the Bible is telling us that we should see Abraham not in terms of his past but in terms of his future. As Nehama Leibowitz writes, “The Torah was not interested in Abraham as the son of Terach or the subject of Nimrod, but only in his role as the ancestor of the Jewish people, as the bearer of the Divine message.”

There is, I think, another important lesson for us to learn from this. All too often, modern people tend to view religion solely in terms of our quest for God, solely in terms of our spiritual needs. This “us-oriented” view of religion makes it a little too easy for us to conclude that it is solely our own perspectives, feelings and needs that should guide us in our religious lives. But this anthropocentric view of the world can diminish religion, camouflaging its great wisdom, and lessening its profound influence on our lives.

For Jews today, there is spiritual profundity in reaffirming that at least part of our role, in our covenantal relationship with God, is to submit to God.

The lesson of the beginning of our Torah portion, then, is a reminder to us Jews that we are not the measure of all things. It was God who initially called out to Abraham, and not the other way around. As Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, God is in search of us, just as much as we are in search of God. The challenge, then, is to hear the divine call as is resonates in our souls, and to respond to it in our own lives, just as Abraham responded in his.

Rabbi David L. Abramson is an adjunct rabbi at Congregation Beth El, a chaplain at the Hebrew Home and for the Jewish Social Service Agency and a teacher at Shoresh Hebrew High School.

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