Charting a Righteous Path

With our biblical father Abraham, the relationship of humankind and God-as-Lawgiver arrives at a novel paradigm. It is a pathway seemingly born out of a cosmic process of divine and human trial and error, played out through the first chapters of Genesis.

As so -

In the beginning, in the Garden, there is only one law, one clear commandment, one tree distinctly indicated from which alone not to eat; one single misstep, total and calamitous, the only available alternative. Torah - in the sense of Law - was then a yes-or-no proposition. We were in or we were out. Humankind naturally tending to be rebellious, or impudent, or curious, or bored, the single law is quickly broken, and we are banished from the simplicity of Eden.

End of lawgiving experiment number one: Human beings will not be unthinking yes-people.

Between the expulsion from the Eden and the Flood, there comes a time of utter lawlessness. God gives no Law - and a period of nightmarish anarchy ensues. With possibly a scant few notable exceptions (Enoch and his grandson Noah, who manage to "walk with God," and perhaps some people in the time of Enosh who begin to "call out in the name of the Eternal One"), the world fills up with unredeemable wickedness. So the whole establishment, minus Noah and family, is condemned and washed away.

End of lawgiving experiment number two: Our world cannot endure without a basis of instruction - in another literal sense of Torah, a teaching. There must be some Law.

So the rainbow-covenant with Noah comes amid a small flurry of lawgiving: a few basic principals, the so-called Seven Noahide Precepts of Genesis' ninth chapter. A few clear laws - and total unanimity. The whole world is of one accord, "devarim achadim" - "one speech" - one single-minded view. Call it a time of towering, self-affirming certainty. It is also a time of the ultimate in human pretension, arrogance, and overreaching. So sure in itself is humankind then, with its fundamentals, that nobody sees an impediment to claiming the very heavens. That, apparently, is also not what God intends, and the unison is shattered.

End of lawgiving experiment number three: There will be disparity of articulation. There must be varied viewpoints.

How then will a Godly way be established, as the Divine calls out to Abraham, the progenitor of our path? "Lekh lekha," God commands - "make your way." "Go unto yourself," our interpretive tradition has long read the instruction. Or, as the Eternal One also says to Abraham in Genesis 17:1, "Hithalekh" - a reflexive verb - "walk yourself about" - make your own going when you go as a standard-bearer before Me. Even as I point you in a general direction, you must chart a way toward goodness, of yourself; and "heyeh" - "be" or "become" - eternally in the imperative. Which is to say, you must do the work of searching out and bringing your own self into the fullness of your being, ever striving, ever reaching, ever propelling yourself onward, toward a distant righteousness, always ahead.

Not for nothing is the traditional, Talmudic term for definitively determined law "halakha pesukah." "Versified law," we might translate - but also, in a literal sense, "walking stopped." There is something broken about answers settled upon, try to stamp them as we may with divine imprimatur. Our Talmudic tradition, in its truest heart of hearts, does not really desire end-points, though it delights in endlessly seeking them. We are living creatures; we are born "lehithalekh" - continually to forge our searching path, as only human beings can. We are made to move.