In this week's parashah/Torah reading, God renames two people: Abram becomes Abraham and his wife Sarai is renamed Sarah. This act of renaming expresses the reality of a deeper relationship between God and these two people. What profound shift is marked by these renamings?
[Breishit/Genesis 17:1-4] When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him: I am El-Shaddai. Walk in My ways and be blameless. I will establish My covenant between Me and you, and I will make you exceedingly numerous. Abram threw himself on his face; and God spoke to him further, "As for Me, this is My covenant with you: You shall be the father of a multitude of nations."
Abram and Sarai were wanderers . . . geographically and spiritually. With the establishment of the covenant [brit] with God, they now have both a geographic and a spiritual home in the Land of Canaan and in the God called El-Shaddai (one of dozens of names of God that appear in the Torah]. They are profoundly changed and God's act of renaming them marks the moment that changes their personal life journeys and human history.
I am not on expert on pagan religion, but it occurs to me that in establishing this covenant with Abraham, Sarah and their offspring, God has blessed humanity with unprecedented respect. In the pagan world, there is no covenant. Human beings placate the gods of their imaginings, hoping that gifts, offerings, actions might avert anger or might spare humans from the pagan equivalent of a drive-by-shooting in which humans suffer because they are in the way as pagan gods fight it out amongst themselves.
But the God of Abraham and Sarah establishes a partnership . . . offers values and goals to be shared, offers eternal commitment and infinite potential. It behooves us to remember that Abraham and Sarah are the progenitors of "a multitude of nations," that we share the blessings of this brit we all those who acknowledge and worship the one God: El-Shaddai, Adonay, Elohim, these are all names of the God we cherish and share with the other monotheistic faiths of the world. The brit that will be forged at Sinai between God and Israel will be the particularistic covenant that establishes Judaism for all time, but here, in Genesis, this first brit with Abraham and Sarah, expressed through the changes of their names, casts a wider net.
Let us pray for the time when all those who share the blessings of this covenant with us -- Jews, Christians and Moslems -- all descendants of Abraham and Sarah -- will be ready to embrace as siblings.