Parshat Lekh Lekha
November 12, 2005
God offers the children of Israel His assurance that they have no reason to fear for their future. This affirmation is based, in part, on their being of the progeny of Abraham, who had a unique relationship with God: \”But you, Israel, My servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, seed of Abraham, My friend (ohavee) – You whom I drew from the ends of the earth and called from its far corners, to whom I have said: You are My servant; I chose you, I have not rejected you, be not frightened for I am your God.\” (41:8-9 NJPS)
There is a certain amount of ambiguity in determining the meaning of the expression \”ohavee\” which is captured by the translation \”my friend\”. \”Ohavee\”, literally means \”one who loves Me\”, namely, that God has chosen Israel because Abraham has proven his love for God. This same understanding is found in a verse in 2 Chronicles (20:7): \”O our God, you dispossessed the inhabitants of this land before Your people Israel, and You gave it to the descendants of Your friend (ohavecha – literally: he who loves You) Abraham forever.
This interpretation is confirmed by almost all of the medieval commentators. Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra (11th century, Spain) affirms this interpretation on grammatical grounds: \”the verb is not \’ahuvee\’, a passive form meaning \’My beloved\’, but rather an active form meaning \’one who loves Me\’\”. Rashi offers an example of Abraham\’s love for God: \”for Abraham did not discern God\’s existence because he was punished or taught about God by His parents, but rather purely out of love.\” Rabbi Joseph Kaspi (13-14th century Spain) supports this interpretation on philosophical grounds: \”It is more appropriate to attribute love to human beings, namely, love for God, and not the opposite.\”
There is, however, an early tradition which interprets this verse to reflect that Abraham is beloved by God. In one of the versions of Avot d\’Rabbi Nathan, a rabbinic work closely related to Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), we learn: \”These five were known as beloved: Abraham was called \’ahuv – beloved\’, as it says: \’the seed of Abraham my beloved\’ (translated this way for the purpose of the midrash).\” (Version b, chapter 43 Schechter ed. p. 121)
The former interpretation became normative in the Jewish tradition and even came to have certain legal as well as theological overtones. Abraham\’s love for God came to serve for the sages for the ideal way to relate to God. The Talmud records the following teaching: \”Rabbi Meir taught: \’Abraham\’s fear of God derived from his love of God. From where do we know? For it is written: \’the seed of Abraham who loves Me.\”… What is the difference between serving God out of fear and serving God out of love? We can discern the answer from the teaching of Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar: \’Greater is the person who serves God out of love than one who serves God out of fear…\” (Sotah 31a)
Rashi explains that service out of love is greater because it is not done for an ulterior motive, neither to avoid punishment or to attain reward. May our service to God, both in study and in service share this orientation, just like the service of our forefather, Abraham.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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