The Rambam refers to Parsha Lech Lecha, as the true story of creation– the foundation story of the unique relationship that developed between God and one particular people – the Children of Israel. In essence, ground zero of the History of the Jews.
God’s prior ventures with man had not gone well. Adam and Eve had fallen, rather too easily, into the maws of Evil. Their son Cain had demonstrated the perils of giving man free will. An entire generation of their descendants had been infected by corruption and violence, with the exception of one man and his family, and they, as result, had literally had been washed from the face of God’s world. A successor generation of theirs had succumbed to greed and hubris. Rather than obliteration, dispersion was their fate, their social links and community destroyed.
The Parsha begins on an abrupt and dramatic note; a man by the name of Abraham, is commanded by God to leave; “your land, from your relatives, and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you”. There God promised Abraham that he would found a great nation. Abraham was then seventy-five years old. His only wife, Sarah was sixty-five of age. They had no children. Abraham, without question or reserve, obeyed God and gathered his family and retinue, packed his possessions and struck camp. There is a tremendous irony in presenting the progenitor of a new nation as old and childless, but that would be a fair description, as would be a very ordinary man confronted with pedestrian challenges.
God led them to Canaan, their new homeland. There God vowed: “To your offspring I will give this land. Unfortunately the promised lands were not inhabitable. Firstly, they were occupied: “The Canaanite was then in the land”; but more immediately, the lands were struck by a drought, as it turns out, not an uncommon occurrence. Abraham’s sojourn in what are commonly referenced as the Promised Land was short. He did not settle there, rather he continued down the road and the refuge of Egypt. All in all, an interesting premise for a profound promise.
On his return to Canaan, God made Abraham another promise, unconditional and non-equivocal; “I will make thy seed as the dust of the earth; so that if a man can number the dust of the earth, then shall thy seed also be numbered”. God repeated this promise and would repeat it again to Abraham’s grandson Jacob. But not all of God’s assurances were as propitious. Another was; “Know with certainty that your offspring shall be sojourners in a land not their own, they will enslave them, and they will oppress them four hundred years”. The Torah does not record any reiteration of this promise, which in fact foretold the Egyptian Exile, nor does it offer any explanation for such a dire fate.
For all the greatness of the language and the strong characters memorialized in the Torah, the Children of Israel were not founded in triumph; there were no great victories, nor were there feats of heroism or grandiosity. Rather, the History of the Jews fittingly began on a very human scale, with a tenuous presence and a future fraught with frail uncertainty. It would be many years later before the Children of Israel returned to the Promised Lands, after enduring years of hardship as strangers in strange lands. And then the cycle would repeat itself, again and again.