The Need to Exercise our Freedom

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, was a great thinker and prolific writer.  Several of his books sit on my bookshelf and I have benefitted greatly from them. Since his recent death on November 7, I have been catching up on some of his Covenant and Conversation posts.

One that struck me deeply is his recent commentary about Abraham.  He talks about two events that occur late in Abraham’s life – Abraham’s purchase of a plot of land in which he can bury his wife Sarah and his efforts to find a wife for his son Isaac (who at this point is 37 years old).  Both events are described in incredible detail – Rabbi Sacks says in more detail than almost any other story in the Torah.  He contrast the detail with the description of the story of the Binding of Isaac, in which so much is left unsaid, and suggests the literary style is meant to call our attention to the significance of what is happening.

And why are these two events so significant.  Rabbi Sacks’s finds the explanation to be “simple and unexpected,” writing:

Throughout the story of Abraham and Sarah, God promises them two things: children and a land. The promise of the land (“Rise, walk in the land throughout its length and breadth, for I will give it to you,” Gen. 13:17) is repeated no less than seven times. The promise of children occurs four times. Abraham’s descendants will be “a great nation” (Gen. 12:22), as many as “the dust of the earth” (Gen. 13.16), and “the stars in the sky” (Gen. 15:5); he will be the father not of one nation but of many (Gen. 17:5).

Despite this, when Sarah dies, Abraham has not a single inch of land that he can call his own, and he has only one child who will continue the covenant, Isaac, who is currently unmarried. Neither promise has been fulfilled. Hence the extraordinary detail of the two main stories in Chayei Sarah: the purchase of land and the finding of a wife for Isaac. There is a moral here, and the Torah slows down the speed of the narrative as it speeds up the action, so that we will not miss the point.

God promises, but we have to act. God promised Abraham the land, but he had to buy the first field. God promised Abraham many descendants, but Abraham had to ensure that his son was married, and to a woman who would share the life of the covenant, so that Abraham would have, as we say today, “Jewish grandchildren.”

Despite all the promises, God does not and will not do it alone. By the very act of self-limitation (tzimtzum) through which He creates the space for human freedom, God gives us responsibility, and only by exercising it do we reach our full stature as human beings. God saved Noah from the Flood, but Noah had to make the Ark. He gave the land of Israel to the people of Israel, but they had to fight the battles. God gives us the strength to act, but we have to do the deed. What changes the world, what fulfills our destiny, is not what God does for us but what we do for God.

This is the reality we must embrace.  God doesn’t do it all alone.  God’s promise will be fulfilled, but not if we sit back in our easy chairs waiting for God to do it all.

In Jewish terms this is sometimes referred to as tikkun olam, the obligation to take one’s part in repairing the world.  In Christian terms it is our obligation to co-labor with Christ for the building of God’s kingdom.

“God gives us the strength to act, but we have to do the deed.”

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