God commanded Avram to leave his homeland; God promised to make him into a great nation. Avram, his wife Sarai, and his brother Lot left Haran for Canaan, which God promised to give to Avram’s progeny. Due to the famine, they all go to Egypt. In order to save Avram’s life, Sarai pretends to be his sister. The pharaoh took Sarai, realized she was Avram’s wife, and returned her to him and compensate him with gifts.
It is with this story that the Bible switches from a universal perspective to a particular one. Until now, all of humanity was our concern. From here onward, our only concern is Avram (soon to be Avraham) and his descendants. It is fascinating that in our Holy Book, only eleven chapters are devoted to the entire world– the other 918 chapters concern the people who ultimately become the Jewish people. It is consistent with the fact that in our liturgy, God is not usually referred to as “God, Creator of the world,” but rather, “the God of Avraham, Yitzhak, and Yaakov.”
While there are certainly universal aspects to the Jewish religion, the vast majority of it is particular to the Jewish people, and that begins here with our chapter. Judaism is not just a set of beliefs and practices that anyone can take on. Rather, it is a religion for the people who descend from Avraham and for those who wish to join that people through conversion. A testament to that fact is that one of the questions traditionally asked of candidates for conversion on the day that they officially convert is, “Do you wish to become a full member of the Jewish people even though you will face adversity, antisemitism, and hate just because you belong to the Jewish people?” This question has nothing to do with religious beliefs and practices and everything to do with belonging to a nation– to the Jewish family.
This chapter calls upon the Jewish people to celebrate their difference. Though many of us have a tendency to favor universal ideas and ideals and to minimize differences between groups, we cannot forget those ideas and ideals unique to Judaism and to the Jewish people. We must proudly carry the torch of Avraham.