In Parshat Noach we saw how morality and creativity in the Torah begin to be fused through the concept of covenant. In Parshat Lech Lecha we see how the practice of covenant between God and humanity matures into a new tradition of countercultural monotheism. As the Torah proceeds from covenant to covenant, we begin to see in finer focus that the importance of moral relationships entails a rich sense of the complementary creative seriousness of individuality. Indeed, in God’s movement away from solitude in creation, toward recognition of humanity as a free partner in the process, the Torah is careful not to abandon the value of independent integrity, even as it is balanced with the sanctity of covenantal bonds.
This sense of balance appears in full effect in our parsha, as a covenantal partnership of immeasurable strength begins with an appeal to one individual’s sense of self. As Abram is called to leave his home and his family’s roots, to settle in a new homeland and become the father of nations, he hears a simple but groundbreaking command: lech lecha. Lech Lecha literally means go to yourself, and it is often translated as go forth. A Chasidic midrash combines these two interpretations to read, “go forth to find your authentic self, to learn who you are meant to be.”[i] In its actual biblical context lech lecha most definitely means do something that has never been done before. The Torah is teaching us not only that virtuous innovation relies on a strong sense of self, but that we must understand ourselves and our lives as the first subjects of our own creativity. Honoring the fact that we are completely unique and unprecedented as individual creative phenomena in the universe is at the foundation of the relationship between morality and creativity in human life.
In this way, no sooner do we see the advent of an intimate creative relationship between human beings and their Creator in the Torah, than we are also introduced to the dramatic suggestion that our first duty as partners in creation is to create ourselves. As Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik writes, “The most fundamental principle of all is that man must create himself.”[ii] This idea actually hearkens back to the beginning of Parshat Noach. In interpreting the fact that the text literally mentions Noah as the first in his own lineage, commentators have suggested that in his cultivation of righteousness in the midst of widespread moral corruption, the first person Noah created was himself.[iii] Abraham’s example as perhaps the Torah’s most prominent self-creator is particularly instructive because the chief source of creative inspiration for him is his Creator. Indeed, through Abraham our parsha brings us full circle in our discussion of covenant, demonstrating the inextricable link in the Torah between fully recognizing our partners in creation and diving into our own creative depths—between creative collaboration and creative independence.
But how exactly do we arrive at this striking balance between interdependence in covenant and independence in self-creation? The difference between God’s covenant with Noah and the next covenant with Abraham may seem slight, but the road between them reveals significant steps toward answering this question and better understanding the relationship between morality and creativity in the Torah. Accordingly, let’s turn to a brief episode that occurs just between Noah and Abraham in the biblical narrative: the story of the Tower of Babel.
Exactly one chapter after Noah’s death, the Torah tells us, “everyone on earth had the same language and the same words” (Gen. 11:1). This opening, so charged with suggestion of impending disaster, transitions directly into all the people gathering in one place, and resolving to build a city there with “a tower with its top in the sky” (Gen. 11:4). The reckless and hubristic creative ambition displayed by the people of Babel ultimately leads God to intervene, scattering the people and confusing their plans and language.
The essential detail for our discussion on the relationship between creativity and morality is the dangerous sense of uniformity upon which the project of Babel’s society is based. Indeed, in zeroing in on uniformity as the core concern of the story, Rabbi Shai Held notes, “If everyone says the same words and thinks the same thoughts, then a society emerges in which there is no room for individual tastes, thoughts, and aspirations, or for individual projects and creativity.”[iv]
What does this have to do with the emergence of self-creation alongside covenant? Consider the precise moment in the biblical narrative. Studying this new peak of faith in humanity’s creative potential, immediately after the sealing of God’s covenant with Noah, we too might be vulnerable to falling blindly into the false assumptions of the people of Babel. We must be careful not to succumb to the twisted logic that covenant entails the negation of individuality. Especially now in the Torah, it is critically important for us to grasp the difference between union and uniformity. Just before thrusting us into the monotheistic revolution of Abraham and Sarah, the story of the Tower of Babel illustrates the all too easily overlooked notion that the One God favors diversity—that a monotheistic culture should not strive for uniformity. The story is ultimately a sobering demonstration of the moral failure that grows out of an absence of self-creation.
This sense of moral imperative to cultivate a rich sense of self thus leads us to another subtler reason why the distinction between union and uniformity is revealed in the transition between Parshat Noach and Parshat Lech Lecha. The type of covenantal creativity that the Torah teaches us to pursue is often presented as a sanctuary of union meant especially for those who struggle against blind uniformity. The main characters in both Noach and Lech Lecha are paragons not just of covenant with God, but of independent thinking. While Noah was selected as the lone righteous person in his generation worthy of facilitating the continuation of life on earth, a midrash tells us that Abraham’s very name signifies that “all the world was on one side and he was on the other side” (Gen. R., 42:8). These chapters of the Torah focus as much on God moving away from complete creative isolation as on the loneliness of those creatively resisting conformity. They show us that the hallmark of biblical covenant is not just a soul that cleaves to the creative partner, but one that is utterly free of dependence on the idols of the age. And the story of the Tower of Babel challenges us to consider what might happen if we fail to learn from the examples of people like Noah and Abraham.
In some ways creative independence of heart and mind might be both the most intuitive and most radical dimension of the relationship between creativity and morality that we have explored. On the one hand, the idea that creativity is tied to independent thinking should not surprise us; innovation in its most basic form is a departure from the status quo. On the other hand, knowing when to follow one’s own heart and when to heed the voices of others can be of tremendous moral consequence; as we will see, Abraham himself is one of the most difficult examples of a prophet whose responses to tests of faith stretch our own trust in the Torah’s morality. Significantly, the Torah’s focus is on how we demonstrate our creative independence responsibly—how we keep it from becoming simple contrariness. In consideration of Lech Lecha’s challenge to all of us that we be self-creators, we see that the Torah’s teachings about the ethics of marching to the beat of your own drummer are nothing short of revolutionary. And that is why they first appear here, at the dawn of the monotheistic revolution.
Even as the full depth and complexity of the role of self-creation in the Torah is far beyond the scope of this essay, it bears recognizing how Lech Lecha locates self-creation at the foundation of innovating and charting new human territory successfully. Indeed, by some measures Abraham and Sarah may be considered the most successful moral creators in human history, and they are galvanized as much by sacred covenant as by countercultural independence of spirit. In personifying many of the values that the Torah infuses into the concept of self-creation, they represent a remarkable contrast to the recklessly anti-creative builders of the Tower of Babel who sought divinity not through covenant but through enforced uniformity.
In comparison to the agenda of Babel, which appeared to be spectacularly creative but in fact ended in rubble, the project of Abraham and Sarah started small and grew beyond compare. While the influence of Abraham and Sarah’s creativity has rippled out to change humanity forever, the fragments of the Tower of Babel were strewn about the earth as a cautionary reminder to honor diversity and be mindful of who we are in the most particular sense. Abraham and Sarah dealt in contradiction as they broke from their home to return to their Creator, and became trailblazers in humanity’s longest standing tradition. But their example shines light on the Tower of Babel as a demonstration of how easily creativity and morality may contradict each other when we are not careful to appreciate the importance of diligent and conscientious self-creation.
In discussing the totalitarian successors to the legacy of Babel, Hannah Arendt posits that no such society “can bear the unpredictability which springs from the fact that men are creative, that they can bring forward something so new that nobody ever foresaw it.”[v] Irresponsibly and destructively innovative communities like those in the story of the Tower of Babel may capture our attention with their shocking methods and ambitions. But we cannot afford to forget that on a fundamental level, as far as the Torah is concerned, in their denial of individuality they actually display fear of genuine creativity.
Abraham and Sarah, on the other hand, are the first people in the Torah who set out from home not out of ambition or as a punishment, but in pursuit of moral and creative integrity. They embark on a journey to create a new tradition through trust in God. It is an aspirational journey, but they are modest. From a 21st-century perspective in which over half the world traces its spiritual roots back to their odyssey, the scope of their success would be as unimaginable to Abraham and Sarah as the number of stars in the sky or sands on the seashore. And however troubled the relationships between the various heirs to their monotheistic legacy might be, few would deny the pioneering power of that legacy’s origin.
Just as Bereishit and Noach each represented morally and creatively complex beginnings in their own ways, Lech Lecha tells of the first steps in a giant leap forward for humanity. It is a story of authentic innovation infused with moral meaning and significance. We will deal with manifold uncertainties and complexities that are built into the morality of the extraordinary creative project of faith that is introduced with Parshat Lech Lecha. But along the way we must not lose sight of the overarching fact that it begins with a radical journey toward developing a true and vital sense of self.
[i] Rabbi Mordechai Yosef of Isbitza, Mei HaShiloah, Trans. Etz Hayim Travel-Size Edition (New York: Jewish Publication Society, 2004), p. 70.
[ii] Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Halakhic Man (Jerusalem: Sefer Ve Sefel, 2005), p. 109.
[iii] Etz Hayim Travel-Size Edition (New York: Jewish Publication Society, 2004), p. 41.
[iv] Rabbi Shai Held, “People Have Names: The Torah’s Takedown of Totalitarianism” (Oct. 21, 2014).
[v] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, (New York: Harcourt, 1976) p. 458.