In this week’s parsha (Lech-Lcha), there is a strange story about a war in the Holy Land between local Kings, and Avram gets involved in the end. There is an even stranger scene at the end of this story when Malkitzedek, the Priest of Shalem comes out to welcome Avram, bringing bread and wine, and offers Avram a blessing. For us, I want to draw attention to the Divine name used four times in these four verses. It is a name of Gd that does not appear anywhere else in the Bible, but for people that say the traditional prayers in Hebrew, it is familiar and therefore does not grab our attention when reading the story. In Genesis 14:18-20, we meet Malkitzedek, and he is called the Priest of El-Elyon (The Supernal Gd). Next, he blesses Avram in the name of “El-Elyon” and blesses “El-Elyon” for delivering Avram’s foes. Finally in verse 22, Avram makes an oath in the name of “Hashem, El Elyon.”
These four times are the only times we meet this name of Gd in the Bible, and it is striking. What is going on here?
It seems like the name itself connotes that there is one Gd above all the other gods (like we say in “mi kamocha (Ex 15:11): Who is like you among the gods/powerful ones?), and this is the Supernal or Exalted God. Here is a Canaanite Priest in the city of Shalem (our Tradition says that this is really Jerusalem, and he is actually Shem, the son of Noah, but that is for another learning together!), that serves the One Gd. And then Avram goes on to say that Hashem, the One Gd that he follows, is the same El-Elyon!
One way to understand this is that there seems to be One Gd of all of humanity, this is the Gd that Avram has begun a relationship with and will go on to found what will become Judaism. This Gd is also worshipped by others–a universal experience behind the partiulars of different religions and practices. (It is important to note that the root of the name “Allah” is the same as the “El” that is here in “El-Elyon”), perhaps situating Avram in a pluralistic world of different ways of relating to the same One and Supernal Gd.
It is striking that in the continuation of the parsha, we have the Brit ben hab’tarim or “Covenant of the Parts” in chapter 15. This blessing and promise from Gd is the expression of a very particular mode of relating to Gd. It is about Avram’s son that will be born-Isaac, who will carry the blessing, and not his son that will be born- Ishmael. It is about his nation that will be enslaved before being redeemed and returned to this very specific Land of Israel.
What are these two poles of Divine Expression coming to teach us? Why do we have such a dramatic universal statement next to a very particular one?
I think that this is one of the most compelling aspects of Judaism, as we balance the seemingly competing world-views of universalism and particularism in a unique way. One the one hand, Hashem, the Gd of the Jews, is also the Gd of the entire world. The other monotheistic religions are worshipping the same Gd, albeit in a different way. We believe that the story of Hebrew Bible begins with the story of Humanity, and only later, becomes the particular story of the Jewish People, with a particular covenental relationship. There is no need to convert others to the one particular religion of Judaism, for we do not teach that it is the one singular path to serving the One Gd.
Avram will be renamed Abraham a few verses later (17:5), where Gd states that this new name is because he will be the father of a multitude of Nations. As particular as this story is, we cannot escape the universal dimension as well.
We opened our comments by suggesting that for those that say the traditional prayers, this unique and rare name of Gd, El-Elyon, does not stand out for it is right there in the beginning of the Shmoneh Esrei that is said by many Jews three times every day! The first blessing opens: Blessed are you, Lrd our Gd and Gd of our ancestors, Gd of Avraham, Gd of Isaac, Gd of Jacob. The Great, Powerful and Awesome Gd, El-Elyon“–Perhaps we also did not pay attention in the tefila to notice that this name that is used there is a name used in only one scene in the Bible, and it comes from a Canaanite Priest! But now we can understand that Avram himself acknowledged that this one, most lofty and superior Gd is the One and Only Gd, and when we use this name in our opening prayer, Rav Ezra Bick suggests that it is an intentional way of beginning prayer from a place of relating to Gd as the Gd of Humanity, of the entire world.
In other words, when a Jew begins to pray, says Rav Bick, he or she does not begin to pray as a particular Jew, rather, they begin from a place of being a human being. This is the first step and only then, after realizing that we are part of an even larger story, can we proceed to the particular and continue praying as a Jew.
May we be blessed as we read parshat Lech-Lcha, the beginning of the particular story of the Jewish People, and their relationship with the particular physical Land of Israel, to understand that Avram was at first a human being, before he was a Jew and that should guide each and every one of us as we navigate our own particular Jewish identity with a deep sense of identification and belonging to the larger epic of Humanity.