Gidi Grinstein

Parshat Lech Lecha: Judaism’s Four Founding Stories

The first three verses of Lech Lecha seed the four founding narratives of the Jewish people. These narratives have not only shaped the collective and individual outlooks Jews of all generations and across their full spectrum of religious and political outlooks, but continue to do so today both for Israel and in the Diaspora.

The text reads: “And the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you; And I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will aggrandize your name, and [you shall] be a blessing; … and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you.’” (Bereisht, 12:1-3)

Thus, the first founding narrative is about faith and covenant. It establishes Abraham and his descendants as a religious community, collectively and individually sanctified by a unique relationship with God. It tells the story of Abram’s utter faith and absolute obedience, initially by leaving his land and the house of his father, and later by the willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice of his only son Isaac.

The second story is the story of nationhood: it is about a special association with a specific place on the face of this earth, which is the Land of Yisrael. This is the beginning of the millennia-long Hebrew and Jewish story of uninterrupted association, loyalty and right to that land; of the quest for presence in it and ownership, sovereignty and control of it; and of a recurring story of exile from it and a triumphant return to it. The Parsha not only articulates the promise to Abraham to inherit the land for all generations, but also elaborates on the physical journey from its North to its South.

The third story which is seeded in Lech Lecha is the story of Jewish peoplehood. It is a story about Jews as a family and a tribe, with shared history and shared destiny, whose connectedness transcends religious, cultural, geographic or political differences.

The pasuk: “all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you” – introduces the fourth story about the Jewish People endowed with a special and eternal mission in humanity: to be a light unto the nations, to repair the world in the kingdom of God and to be a  ”chosen people” (Am Segula).

Each of these stories will develop into a rich coherent narrative, which is rooted in distinct Jewish symbols, heritages, rituals, texts and holidays. Examples are countless: in Yom Kippur, when we enumerate our sins in plural we not only re-accept the sovereignty of God as individuals, but we also establish that we stand before Him together as a people. Hence, in this very act we enshrine both the stories of faith and covenant, as well as of peoplehood. Sukkoth, Pesach and Shavuot are holidays that are celebrated according to their seasons, in the Land of Israel, hence anchoring the story of nationhood.  The Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and their journey to the Land of Israel is about coming together as a people, returning to the ancestral land, accepting the Torah and offering a new vision to humanity. In 1948, the 1,100-word Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel also merges these four narratives within one cohesive constitutional text, as does the Jewish vision of Achrit HaYamim.

These founding stories have very concrete manifestations in our present Jewish life. It is the story of peoplehood that launched the global Jewish community and the State of Israel to cry ‘Let My People Go’ toward the Soviet Empire of Evil, and to mobilize for Ethiopian Jewry. And one could easily make the case that UJA Federation of NY, Jewish National Fund, American Jewish World Service or Aish HaTorah are each rooted in a different founding story.

Each of these narratives serves like a prism that helps Jews understand their condition and direction. So, when a peoplehood-Jew asks: “is it good for the Jews?” he or she means: will Jews around the world be safer or not? When a faith-Jew asks that same question, he or she probably mean: what will happen to the world of Torah? Meanwhile, for a nationhood Jew, that question would probably mean: Is it good for Israel? And a tikkun-olam Jew would probably ponder whether Jews have acted ethically and thereby provided an inspiring model to humanity.

And together the four stories serve as a sophisticated and vital survival mechanism. As our world evolves in an ever-growing pace, it is increasingly difficult to assess whether any specific development is good or bad. Therefore, those communities that are equipped with the mechanisms to appreciate their condition and direction are much better set to survive and thrive. The delicate interplay among these four stories is one of the most sophisticated mechanisms that the Jewish People has to do so.

Furthermore, the forebears of Zionism, Herzl, Harav Kook, Ben-Gurion and others have brought these four stories together within one cohesive narrative that sought to serve the entire Jewish People by establishing a state in our ancestral land and under divine providence, which was destined to be a model society, hence the four stories respectively of peoplehood, nationhood, covenant and faith and being a light unto the nations. Furthermore, I believe that the ability of the State of Israel to remain the true nation state of the Jewish People depends on its ability to continue to credibly integrate these four narratives into its being. This is why both the legacy and destiny of the State of Israel emanate directly from the first psukim of Lech Lecha.

Gidi Grinstein is the author of “Flexigidity: The Secret of Jewish Adaptability” and is the Founder of the Reut Group for social innovation.

About the Author
Gidi Grinstein is the founder and president of the Reut Institute, an Israel-based strategy and action group focused on effectuating change in areas critical to Israel’s future. He is the author of Flexigidity: The Secret of Jewish Adaptability.
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