All you need is love: the story of Avram and God

Lech Lechah
Genesis 12:1 – 17:27
Isaiah 40:27 – 41:16

Having described the origins of humanity and its subsequent descent into chaotic and immoral behavior, the Torah narrative now takes a dramatic turn away from the universal story to focus on one man and his family.

Ten generations after Noah, Avram (Abraham) hears the voice of the Divine commanding him to take his wife and household, to leave behind everything he has known and to go on a journey that will take them to unknown places and unfathomable experiences. This is a defining moment for Avram and the beginning of our story. Yet what the narrative never reveals is why Avram is chosen to begin the eternal journey of Judaism.

As children we were taught that God spoke to Avram only after he had already discovered the truth of God’s existence. Avram’s father, Terach, owned an idol store and Avram broke the idols, claiming that the biggest idol in the store did the damage. When Terach dismisses the excuse as ridiculous because everyone knows idols can’t move, Avram has him trapped: If idols are impotent, why consider them gods?

This fanciful flight of imagination beautifully captures the notion that anyone can discover the truth of divinity through the intellect — a critical aspect of Jewish spiritual exploration. Having freed himself from the bondage of idolatry, only then does Avram hear God’s call. But take note: This story is not in the Torah! It is created by the sages in the Midrash to answer the very same question asked above: What is so special about Avram that he is chosen to take the journey of a lifetime?

The rabbis’ interpretation rests on the idea that Avram is the only one of his generation who knew the reality of God. That is why he is chosen.

But this is only one possible reading of the text. A more contemporary interpretation suggests that God called out “Lech Lecha — get out, leave,” to many different individuals, and perhaps many of them followed God’s command. Taken in this way, the story of Lech Lecha actually provides the foundation for a religiously ideological pluralism. In this reading, Avram is but one of a multitude of chosen ones, all walking with God on their own road. We tell the story of Avram because it is our story.

Being something of a romantic, I prefer a third interpretation. In my reading, God and Avram meet one night in the emptiness of the desert and fall immediately in love. God, as it were, reaches out and says, will you come with me; Avram, never looking back, walks at God’s side, a love partner.

Is this overly inventive? I don’t think so. In Deuteronomy 10:15, God makes clear that “it was to your fathers that YHVH was deeply drawn in love for them … “

The love between God and Israel is meant to be palpable, passionate, affecting both partners who choose each other. The covenant of God and Avram is a covenant of mature love, foreshadowing the covenant at Sinai.

The Orthodox theologian David Hartman writes “the love nurtured by the intimacy of the covenant, by the feeling of mutuality with the divine Partner … issues from the invitation we are given in the covenant to live with God through the performance of His mitzvot.”

This reading suggests a covenantal model of love rather than of hierarchical authority. Avram chooses to walk with a love partner and is willing to sacrifice everything for that love. Mitzvot become transmuted from “commandments” into acts of love one partner performs for the other in order to experience intimacy.

The Chassidic master Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev often taught that the purpose of mitzvot is to bring pleasure to our “yedid nefesh,” our divine soulmate. Avram’s choice to take the journey and commit to a relationship with God points to the joy and blessing we might give and receive as well in a life of covenant.

Rabbi Lavey Derby is spiritual leader of Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon.