Parashat Hashavua for Lech Lecha
Cantor Michel Laloum
Temple Beth Israel, St Kilda, Victoria
It is an interesting time to be reading this week’s parasha, where Abram is told “Lech lecha – go from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house to the land which I will show you,” and in commanding this, God promised blessings upon Abram and that Abram would be a blessing. 2020 – the year of endless ironies. My wheelie bin has gone forth from my house more often than I have this year!
There is a lot that happens in this parasha, including the covenant between God and Abraham – a central event in Judaism. The covenant promises to a childless Abram that his descendants will inherit the promised land and become a multitude: “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” And God added, “So shall your offspring be” (Genesis 15:5).
Later in the Torah, there is a clarification regarding the covenant whereby God’s blessings are conditional upon adhering to the covenant: “Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples” (Exodus 19:5). This is also the first allusion to Jews being "chosen" or "treasured" by God.
Importantly, the concept of being "chosen" is not about being members of an exclusive club but about the responsibilities bestowed upon Jews when Abraham entered into the covenant with God. To continue to receive God’s blessings we must be worthy of them – we must be a righteous people.
As we in Melbourne come towards the end of a long and difficult period of social isolation and lockdown, which at its core has the tenet “pikuach nefesh” (saving a life overrides religious rules), we think not only of the covenant between us and God, but the social covenant between us as individuals and our wider community. On 30 July, Victoria had 723 new cases of COVID-19 diagnosed. In France that number was 1,377 and, in the UK, there were 846. Twelve long weeks later, on 19 October, Victoria recorded two new cases. France recorded just short of 30,000 and the UK recorded just under 17,000 new cases.
The pandemic and the response to it in some parts of the world demonstrates a breakdown in the social contract: the agreement to live according to a set of moral and political rules of behaviour; that every person should be able to expect their community will act to preserve health and life. The overwhelming majority of Melbournians have upheld their part of this contract: they stayed home, washed their hands, burned through hand sanitiser and learned to breathe in a mask without fogging their glasses. And in doing so, Victoria has achieved something nowhere else seems to have achieved – at great personal cost to many people: we have protected our community and the many lives of those who might have died or become seriously ill from this disease.
With global cases now soaring past 40 million and deaths surpassing a million, it is easy to be overwhelmed by the numbers and forget that each number is a person – a friend, sibling, child, parent or spouse. As a community, we have a responsibility to the least among us; to those who need protection and to preserve life. As Jews, our highest moral obligation is to protect life.
In the coming weeks and months, we will hopefully enjoy the benefits of this battle that came at high cost to many. We will see our loved ones, we will drive more than 25 kilometres, will get to hold our friends and family close. As Jews, our covenant with God is everlasting, but if we are to be treasured by God, we must be deserving of God’s blessing: “Walk before me and be perfect.” It is our moral obligation, not only as responsible members of society but as Jews, to adhere to the disease containment principles that have got us to this point because, as we have seen, the work of the vast majority can quickly be undone by the few. We must be perfect or, if perfection is not achievable, in the same vein as "lo alecha hamlacha ligmor - you are not expected to complete the task, but neither are you free to avoid it"; we must at least strive to achieve it.