“The Compassionate One said to Avram, ‘Go to yourself, from your land, from your relatives, and from your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great, and you shall become a blessing!” (12:1,2)
Our father, Avraham, was told that through this journey, he will develop into a new and separate nation; moreover, this nation is to “become a blessing.” According to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, these words are not to be understood as a Divine promise, but as a Divine mandate, for the new nation that will emerge from Avraham is to strive to become a blessing to others. In what way is this nation to become a blessing? Rabbi Hirsch explains that this nation is to become a source of blessing by serving as an ethical and spiritual model of Divine service which can inspire others. This is why the Compassionate One added, “All the families of the earth shall be blessed through you” (ibid 12:3).
The Divine message that “all the families of the earth shall be blessed through you” was also given to Avraham's son, Isaac (Genesis 26:4) and to Isaac's son, Jacob (Genesis 28:14). Jacob was given the additional name "Israel" (Genesis 35:10), and his twelve sons became the founders of the Twelve Tribes of Israel that inherited the mandate given to Avraham: to become a source of blessing for all the families of the earth. Avraham’s separate journey therefore leads to a universal goal.
The following is another example of how this separate journey leads to a universal goal: Through “Bris Milah” - the Covenant of Circumcision - Avraham and his male descendants will have a sacred sign on their bodies which causes them to be separate and different; however, in the introductory comments for Bris Milah, the Compassionate One states:
“As for Me, this My Covenant with you: You shall become the father of a multitude of nations. Your name shall no longer be called Avram, but your name shall be Avraham, for I have appointed you as father of the multitude of nations” (Genesis 17:4,5).
According to Maimonides, the Divine statement that Avraham will become the father of the multitude of nations is referring to the converts from the nations who will join the People of Israel in each generation through accepting the Torah and its path of mitzvos. Through accepting the universal mission of Israel, they will become Avraham’s children just like the rest of Israel. In fact, each convert is given a Hebrew name with the following additional words: son or daughter of Avraham and Sarah. Maimonides mentions this idea in his classical work, Mishneh Torah (Laws of the First Fruits 4:3), and he elaborates on this idea in his famous letter to Ovadiah the convert, where he explains why Avraham is truly Ovadiah’s father.
There is another explanation of the above Divine statement in the biblical commentary of the Netziv, a noted Torah sage of the 19th century. He says that the statement, "You will be a father of a multitude of nations," includes not only converts from the nations who become part of the People Israel, but also the nations of the world that will accept Avraham’s belief in “Hashem” - the Compassionate One. When all the nations truly accept this belief, all forms of idolatry will vanish from the world. The Netziv explains that it is not part of the Divine plan that all national groups should become Israelites; thus, the nations who will accept Avraham's basic teachings concerning Hashem will be considered his spiritual children (He’Emek Davar). This goal will be fully realized in the messianic age.
Right after the story of Avraham’s circumcision is the story of his warm hospitality to three strangers (Genesis 18: 1-8). Such consideration for strangers was a contrast to the behavior of the surrounding nations. According to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, this story serves as another reminder of the universal goal of our separate journey. Rabbi Hirsch writes:
“This story is juxtaposed to the section on milah – circumcision. The people of Avraham, isolated by circumcision, are to become the most humane of men…Toward this end they became a people that dwells apart – to foster within themselves this pure humanity.” (Commentary on Genesis 18:1)
As human history developed, there emerged corrupt nations who forgot the sacred and altruistic purpose of humankind. The People of Israel who descend from Avraham were given the task to develop a just, caring, and holy society which would become a contrast to the selfish, and decadent societies around them. They therefore needed to have a separate journey in order to develop this alternative. As Rabbi Hirsch writes:
“Thus this people came to constitute the cornerstone on which humanity could be reconstructed. Recognition of God and of humankind’s calling found a refuge in this nation and would be taught to all through its fate and its way of life, which were to serve as manifest example, a warning, a model, and education. For the sake of this mission, however, Yisrael (Israel) could not join in the doings of the rest of the nations, in order not to sink down with them to the worship of material possessions and pleasure.” (“The Nineteen Letters, Letter 7)
In this spirit, after the People of Israel committed themselves to fulfilling the elevating path of the Torah, the Compassionate One proclaimed:
“You shall be holy for Me, for I, the Compassionate One, am holy, and I have separated you from the peoples to be Mine.” (Leviticus 20:26)
According to the following comment of the Midrash, the choosing of Israel to become a holy people is the beginning of a universal process:
Rabbi Brachya says in the name of Rabbi Avahu: It states, “I have separated you from the peoples to be Mine.” It is as one who picks out the good from the bad, and continues to look for and pick out other good ones.” (Yalkut Shimoni – end of Parshas Kedoshim)
The Midrash is indicating that the Compassionate One is continuing to look for other good peoples who are willing to be holy. Rabbi Hirsch therefore finds in this Midrash the following universal message:
“Do not think even for a moment that the selection of Israel means the rejection of the rest of humanity. The selection of Israel is only a beginning, the commencement of the spiritual and moral rebuilding of humankind. It is only the first step toward that future of which it is said: ‘Sing and be glad O daughter of Zion! For behold I am coming and I will dwell in your midst, spoke Hashem. Many nations will attach themselves to Hashem on that day, and become a people unto Me’ (Zechariah 2:14,15). Many peoples will attach themselves to Hashem and become His people, and Israel's Sanctuary will be not only the center of Israel; it will be the center of all humankind, redeemed through Hashem." (Commentary to Lev. 20:26)
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
1. In the messianic age of universal enlightenment, will the People of Israel still have a unique role? The Prophet Isaiah conveyed the following message to the People of Israel regarding their role in the messianic age:
“And you will be called Kohanim of the Compassionate One; ‘ministers of our God’ will be said of you” (Isaiah 61:6).
The Kohanim serve as teachers of Torah; thus, this Divine promise indicates that the People of Israel, when they experience their own spiritual renewal, will serve as teachers and guides to the peoples who will come to Zion in order to deepen their understanding of Torah. (See Isaiah 2:1-3.) Throughout the centuries of their persecution, the People of Israel studied and preserved the Torah; thus, they will merit to serve as teachers of Torah to an enlightened world.
2. “The Nineteen Letters” by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch
explores the universal role of the People of Israel, and
in Letter 15, Rabbi Hirsch writes: “Yisrael has no other
task than to acknowledge as its God the One Who calls
and educates all human beings to His service, and to
make Him known as such through its destiny and way of
“The Nineteen Letters” is published by Feldheim: www.feldheim.com