We’ve come to the part of Genesis where God establishes a covenant with Abraham. Near the end of Parashat Lech Lecha, in the opening verses of chapter 17, God summons Abraham to walk with Him and to strive to be wholehearted. He promises him that his descendants will “exceedingly multiply,” will live in a land of their own, and that he will become the father of many generations. To mark this moment in Abraham’s life and relationship to God, two things happen. First, his name is changed from “Abram” to “Abraham.” The difference between the two versions of the name is the single Hebrew letter “hey,” which symbolizes God’s essence. The second thing is that Abraham is told that he, and all of his male descendants, must be circumcised as an outward, physical symbol of continuity of tradition and heritage between generations. Abraham fulfills this command at an advanced age, by himself, while newborns males are entered into our Covenant with God on the eighth day of life.
Whenever we read this passage, it especially resonates with me. I am a Mohel and am present at Brit Milah celebrations at which newborn boys are welcomed into the family of the Jewish people through the recitation of prayers and the ritual of circumcision. When I officiate at a Bris, I most often tell the crowd that we have gathered to affirm that the story of the People of Israel continues in the life and generation of the newborn baby. It is a story that began with Abraham, who began the Jewish journey centuries ago in a land far way and at a very different time in human history. That our story continues in the times in which we live, that the Jewish people continues to thrive in the 21st century in a land of our own, that we continue to make major contributions to the welfare of humankind in every conceivable area of life, is nothing short of a miracle. Those who know the history of the Jewish people know well that the is no logical reason that we continue to exist. There are too many points in our history when we should have exited the world stage through military defeat or genocide. That other nations and civilizations have vanished, and the Jewish people is still here, is simply astonishing. Other than the part about his descendants being numerous, the promise made by God to Abraham has been kept.
That makes us the “miracle people.” When a person encounters a miracle, how should he respond? By expressing gratitude and awe, and by doing everything possible to preserve it. That is what we the descendants of Abraham, are summoned to do. As the People of Israel, we are called on to express gratitude that the Jewish story continues in our times and that we are part of that story. And we are ought to do everything we can to preserve the miracle. We must do our part to preserve our traditions, while at the same time responding with creativity and innovation to the challenges of our own day.
Every generation of our people must say to itself two things. First, our continued existence is nothing less than miraculous. And second, that miracle can end at any time. Let’s not allow it to be on our watch.