Identifying a single incident – or statement – that, in retrospect, changed the entire course of history, is one of the most exhilarating discoveries.
We have one such verse in this week’s Torah portion:
For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they will keep G-d’s way, to do righteousness and justice (Genesis 18:19).
Indeed, therein lays the secret of Abraham’s eternal success. As the sequence of the verses suggests: The previous verse states, Abraham is about to become a great and mighty nation, and through him all the nations of the world will be blessed. And the reason is given in the next sentence: For I know him, that… his children and his household will… do righteousness and justice. Abraham and his nation’s greatness and might are a result of their commitment to the just and righteous path.
This may be the first and earliest documented episode of humans adopting the most powerful moral mandate: To do what is right and just.
As benign and correct as this life choice resonates within us, the disturbing fact is that, despite Abraham’s commitment, the path of righteousness and justice would not come natural and easy to the human condition. It would take literally thousands of years for the idea to take hold and become the standard of virtue in the world at large.
Living in our free world today, it may be hard to imagine that institutionalized values of freedom, justices and righteousness are relatively new to our governments and institutions – merely a few centuries old. Before the 18th century nations were ruled by monarchs and despots, some of who may have been benevolent, but most were not and regardless, righteousness and justice was not the Divine right of the masses.
It was the American Revolution that embraced man’s Divine human rights, in its Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Reading this historical declaration and its appeal for “justice and magnanimity” and despair at those leaders “deaf to the voice of justice” provides us with an accurate depiction of the state of world affairs from the beginning of time. The ruling power was not justice and righteousness, but the people in control. From one end of the globe to the other, individuals ruled, often with tyranny and force, and their citizens were subject to their mercy. There were undoubtedly individuals throughout history that chose a path of peace, kindness and justice. From time to time there sprung up movements and life approaches that followed or were inspired by Abraham’s life, which helped plant the seeds of democracy. But these were exceptions, and they definitely did not create generations or nations that followed their personal philosophies.
So it’s quite remarkable to go back over 3700 years to the time when Abraham made his momentous move, and pioneered the path to keep G-d’s way, to do righteousness and justice.” And this was not merely his personal choice; this became the defining principle that would shape and permeate Abraham’s “children and household,” for generations to come.
It’s quite amazing when you think about it: G-d knew and trusted that.
It’s one thing to make a personal promise. But how many of us can be sure what our children and households would embrace? And not for one generation, but for over 90 generations, till this very day!
Easy it wasn’t. Indeed, this commitment to virtue cost many lives and caused much anguish. For thousands of years empire after empire persecuted those committed to an authority greater than theirs. Righteousness and justice had to be fought for, every step of the way.
Yet, Abraham’s “children and household” held on to the commitment. They maintained it and endured through their Egyptian slavery, through their suffering at the hands of the Babylonians, Greeks, Persians, and Romans. Their dedication to Abraham’s just path continued despite the hellish Crusades and Middle Ages, through the Inquisitions, expulsions and pogroms. And finally, through the horrors of the Holocaust in the 20th Century.
Through all these nightmares of history Abraham’s “children and household” did not just hold up their commitment; they exported it and spread the light unto nations, even to those nations that tormented them.
A nation with such vigilance and fortitude deserves to become a great and mighty nation, and through him all the nations of the world will be blessed.
And indeed, who has prevailed? Not the tyrants, not the killers and persecutors. Not they and not their families have remained. The world has become a more righteous and just place. Nations today are ruled by laws guaranteeing human rights, with freedoms unheard of just a few hundred years ago. And Abraham’s “children and household” are here to tell the story.
Many, many lessons can be gleaned from this ultimate story of history. Above all, it is the story of our own lives, or better yet, our own personal choices.
Today, we are not asked to pioneer a new path of justice and virtue. We stand on the shoulders of Abraham and his children and students. Yet, in our own way we are all faced with moral choices every moment of our lives. Each of us in our heart knows that the battle is not over. Despite our freedoms and all the great advances made over the millennia, we still are faced with our individual vices, driven by self-interest and greed.
Abraham’s mandate is as important today as ever. And his persistence teaches us the power of one individual’s choice, how much it can accomplish.
When your turn comes – and when does it not? – will you be an Abraham? And how will you educate your “children and household?”