One of the more arresting insights about this week’s parashah is that it describes G-d’s third attempt to create a world.
The first attempt ended in a terrible, world-destroying flood. The second was not as cataclysmic, since G-d had sworn never to do that again, and set a bow in the clouds as a Divine reminder. Yet the second attempt also failed: even as the first humans had transgressed a boundary by reaching for G-dlike knowledge, so the Tower of Babel describes humanity’s naive hubris, displayed in an attempt to build a structure that would reach to G-d’s territory. Heaven, perhaps, or just a sort of safety unknown, and unknowable, to humans.
This third attempt shows us a G-d far less ambitious, a creation with far less impact. Not a world, and not all of humanity – just one person. What a picture: G-d reduced to searching through the world for one person who will listen, and follow.
How many times have you attempted to begin again? how disappointing it is to try once more after a failure! how much less shining the path looks, how much reduced one’s enthusiasm is…..
There is a story of a person who, in her youth, sets out to save the world. After some time and a few setbacks, she realizes that the world is a very big place, and perhaps it’s best to set one’s sights more realistically upon, perhaps, the nation. After a while the complexity of that mission overcomes her, and she begins to see how much work is needed just to lift up her own city. Then, having begun truly to see deeply, she realizes that her own neighborhood needs her attention. Then, of course (you can see it coming) she looks around and notices what needs doing in her own home. Finally, she understands: she has her hands full just to begin with herself. And that is, after all, a whole world, as the Rabbis teach: “one who saves one life, saves an entire [potential] world.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4.9).
G-d begins again with one person, possibly feeling – let’s just assume that G-d as a Creator, a role model we are meant to emulate, feels – a bit let down, that the Divine creative capacity has been disappointingly reduced. Where’s the special effects?
A great and difficult lesson of Jewish tradition offers you the insight that it is not in turning away from your failure, but in seeking within it, that one finds triumph.
Thus, in the seemingly humble beginnings of one person who listens, and who acts, an entire people will emerge. The one person is called first Avram, then Avraham, but he calls himself ivri, “the one who crosses over”. Finally, a crossing of boundaries for good. And it only happened because of all those former boundaries that were destroyed.
Many Jewish commentaries on this parashah voice a sense of wonder that Avram is called out of nowhere, for no reason. It is entirely possible that G-d called out to many other people, who did not listen, and who did not respond. In one ancient commentary it is said that G-d’s call to Avram was not simply go forth but go forth, and light the way for Me. In the simple willingness to go forth and try again, you too can light up the world.