Parshat Lech Lecha 5783: Avraham, the Covenant Between the Pieces and the Jews’ Inheritance of Eretz Yisrael

Shalom Friends;

This week, our Parshat HaShevua Lech Lecha is being sponsored by Zev and Sarit Schonberg and family of Ramat Beit Shemesh dedicated as a Zechus for the success of their children, Aryeh & Chaya, Akiva & Shira, Adina, Racheli and Yehuda. To the Schonberg family, many thanks for your sponsorship and your continued kindnesses.

You can celebrate a Simcha — a birth, a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, a Chassuna or other Simcha event in your life, or commemorate a Yahrtzeit of a loved one, or for whatever other reason by sponsoring a Parshat HaShevua.

Please forward to your relatives and friends and encourage them to sponsor a Parshat HaShevua. And please be in contact with me with any questions, or for further details.

Best Regards,

Moshe Burt
skype: mark.burt3

Parshat Lech Lecha 5783: Avraham, the Covenant Between the Pieces and the Jews’ Inheritance of Eretz Yisrael

by Moshe Burt

As Parshat No’ach segues into our Parshat Lech Lecha, Rabbi Shmuel Goldin provides context for this vort in his sefer, “Unlocking the Torah Text” (Sefer Breish’t, Parshat No’ach, page 71):

Towards the end of Parshat Lech Lecha, Hashem delivers two dramatic promises to Avraham [who] reacts to each in vastly different ways.

Hashem first states, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars if you can; thus will be your children.” …Avraham responds with unquestioning belief. Hashem then continues, I am the Lord who took you out of Ur Casdim to give you this land to inherit.” Here, Avraham objects, “My Lord, Hashem/Kelokim [as quoted from the Sapirstein Edition: Torah with Rashi Commentary, Sefer Breish’t, Perek 15, posuk 8], how do I know that I will inherit?”

In response to objection, Hashem commands the patriarch to slaughter a series of animals, divide some of the carcasses in half and place each half opposite the other. Hashem causes a deep sleep to fall on Avraham and appears to him in a dramatic vision. “Know full well,” Hashem proclaims. “that your children will be strangers in a land not their own, where they will be tormented and enslaved for four hundred years…. And the fourth generation will return here,”

Hashem’s presence then passes between the divided animals and a covenant between Hashem and Avraham is struck, known as the Brit bein Habetarim, the “Covenant between the Pieces.” (Rabbi Goldin providing a narrative on, and rendering to English Sefer Breish’t, Perek 15, posukim 5-15)

There is a somewhat puzzling grammar in a posuk within the section of Torah known as the Brit bein Habetarim, the “Covenant between the Pieces” :

“The bird [HawHayit] of prey descended upon the carcasses, and Avram drove them [Otawm] away.” (Sefer Breish’t, Perek 15, posuk 11 rendered to English in The Sapirstein Edition, Torah with Rashi’s Commentary, pages 147-148)

The Artscroll Stone Edition Chumash renders this posuk to English with one exception: It renders HawHayit as “The Birds” and provides commentary (page 69):

“Birds of prey descended.” The symbolism is described in different ways. King David would seek to destroy the enemy nations, but Hashem would “drive him away,” pending the coming of Moshiach. (Artscroll citing Rashi) Or, the birds represent the nations, which try to abrogate the covenant by exterminating Israel. (Artscroll citing Radak) Or, preventing Israel from serving Hashem (Artscroll citing Ramban), but Hashem, or the descendants of Avraham would drive them away. (Artscroll continues citing Ramban)

This author derives an understanding of the posuk from the Artscroll Stone Chumash: The use of the singular loshen “HawHayit — the bird” would indicate: the nations are unified, through the generations, in their desire, indeed, their lust to either eradicate Israel, or to eliminate Israel’s service of Hashem, destroying Judaism’s spirituality.

We know that through the generations Am Yisrael has struggled to prevail over the nations who have tried to enslave, persecute, expel or eradicate us. We recall how author Mark Twain wondered at the fact that the Jews through history have survived repeated attempts by the nations to destroy them — that the Jews have survived while the nations which have attempted to eradicate them have eventually disappeared. The phrase: “Avram drove them [Otawm] away,” as rendered by Rashi seems indicative of our ongoing struggle to survive and serve Hashem as we await Moshiach’s coming and destruction of the enemy nations.

Rabbi Goldin now asks pertinent questions regarding the narrative and provides commentaries (“Unlocking the Torah Text”, Sefer Breish’t, page 72-75):

Why does Avraham believe Hashem’s promise concerning progeny, yet question the inheritance of the land? If it is within Hashem’s power to bless Avraham and Sarah with children after so many years of barrenness, He is certainly capable of ensuring that the Jews will inherit their homeland.

…Hashem’s response to Avraham’s doubts seems abundantly strange. How is the prediction of Egyptian slavery meant to allay Avraham’s fears or answer his questions? Is there a message of reassurance hidden in the dark vision of exile and slavery? ….Further, what is the significance of the ritual accompanying the Covenant between the Pieces?

Finally, …how does this entire episode affect the delicate balance existing between prescience (Hashem’s knowledge of the future) and man’s free will? Once Hashem informs us of the future, is He not predetermining it? Are…the biblical characters… simply actors playing out predetermined roles on a predefined stage?

The scholars of Talmud and Midrash draw two direct yet vastly different connections between Avraham’s question and Hashem’s response at the Covenant between the Pieces.

….The very descent of the nation into Egyptian slavery will be a direct result of Avraham’s doubts. “Shmuel said: ‘Why was our forefather Avraham punished through the enslavement of his children in Egypt for 210 years? Because he questioned the powers of Hashem, by saying, ‘how do I know that I will inherit?'” (Rabbi Goldin citing Talmud Bavli Nedarim 32a)

In Shmuel’s eyes, Hashem’s message at this moment is not one of reassurance but punishment. [Shmuel relates Hashem’s message:] You have doubted My power, and as a result your children will suffer through enslavement at the hands of strangers. Then, and only then will they inherit the land.

Shmuel fails to explain why Avraham suddenly doubts Hashem. He also raises the serious philosophical question of why children should be punished for a sin committed by their ancestor.

Judaism absolutely rejects the Christian concept of “original sin” (the idea that all generations… continue to bear guilt for the… sin of Adam and Chava). We are not responsible for the sins of others. We are each responsible for our own fate.

Judaism cannot deny the idea, however, of “intergenerational reverberation.” Our actions help shape our children’s lives, just as we are, in large measure, a product of our ancestors’ decisions and deeds.

Rabbi Hiyya Bar Hanina said: [Avraham did not question] as an accuser but, rather, he asked, ‘by what merit [will my children inherit the land]?’ Hashem responded, ‘By the atonements that I will give to Israel.’ Rabbi Hiyya…explain[s] that the animals used in the covenant ritual represented specific sacrifices [korbonot] that would be brought by the B’nei Yisrael as atonements throughout the ages. (Rabbi Goldin citing Midrash Rabbah Breish’t 44:14)

Rashi summarizes Rabbi Hiyya’s approach as follows: “Avraham asked, ‘In what merit?’ and Hashem responded, ‘In the merit of the korbonot.'” (Rabbi Goldin citing Rashi on Sefer Breish’t, Perek 15, posuk 8) According to this approach, Avraham is not questioning Hashem’s power at all. He is instead questioning his own merit and that of his progeny. He believes in Hashem’s ability but doubts his own.

With regard to Avraham’s concern: “how do I know that I will inherit?”, this author could possibly approach the question, as Rabbi Hiyya Bar Hanina and Rashi have, that Avraham never doubted Hashem’s word, but questioned his own merit regarding inheriting the land. A few years ago, in Parshat HaShevua Vayishlach, Yaakov expressed fear regarding the imminent confrontation with Eisev after the Melachim informed him that Eisev was approaching with 400 men:

“Yaakov became very frightened, and it distressed him. So he divided the people with him… into two camps. For he said, ‘If Eisev comes to the one camp and strikes it down, then the remaining camp will survive.’ Then Yaakov said, ‘G’d of my father Avraham and… of my father Yitzchak; Hashem Who said to me, Return to your land and to your relatives and I will do good with you — ‘I have been diminished by all of the kindnesses and by all the truth that You have done for your servant… Rescue me from the hand of my brother, …Eisev, for I fear lest he will come and strike me down, mother and children.’ And You had said, ‘I will surely do good with you and I will make your offspring like the sand of the sea which is too numerous to count.’” (Sefer Breish’t, Perek 32, posukim 8-13)

The Artscroll Stone Chumash offers this commentary on the root of Yaakov’s fear:

On the surface it would seem that Yaakov’s fear of Eisev betrayed a lack of faith in Hashem’s promise of protection when he went to Charan, a promise that Hashem reiterated when He commanded Yaakov to return to Eretz Yisrael. Rashi (v.11) however, explains that the righteous are never sure of themselves, and that is why Yaakov was afraid that he might have sinned in the interim and thereby forfeited his right to Hashem’s shield from harm…. According to the opinion of the Sages cited by Rashi, Yaakov did not know of any specific sins, but was sure that there might have been some.

He [Yaakov] might have felt that he was at fault for sealing a covenant with Lavan, or it may have been his failure to honor his parents for twenty years that troubled him. The Zohar comments that Hashem instilled this fear in Yaakov so that he would be forced to pray, for Hashem craves the prayers of the righteous. (The Artscroll Stone Chumash, page 171)

In Avraham’s case, might he have had doubts as to his merit resulting from his having left Canaan with Sarah due to the drought and/or due to his deceiving Pharaoh regarding Sarah, telling him (Pharaoh) that she was his sister?

Rabbi Goldin concludes (“Unlocking the Torah Text”, Sefer Breish’t, page 76):

The tension between Hashem’s foreknowledge of events and our own free will comes to a head when we encounter an event such as the Covenant between the Pieces. While Hashem’s prescience does not normally affect our actions in any way, the moment He shares a prediction of the future with us the equation changes dramatically. How much choice can we have if we know that events are already predetermined?

Hashem will often paint the broadstrokes of history but allow us to fill in the details. We are told that Moshiach is destined to come, bringing with him the culmination of our nation’s story. How he comes, when he comes, how much difficulty or ease will precede his arrival, and which of us will be there to greet him are all issues that are determined by our actions. While Hashem predicted in general fashion that the B’nei Yisrael would experience hardship and exile in a strange land, the details of how those events came to fruition were determined by the actions of the personalities of the time.

May we, the B’nei Yisrael be zocha that our brethren — the refugee families from Gush Katif be permanently settled and be made totally whole — be totally restituted for all that was stolen from them, that the thrice expelled families of Amona be restored to their rebuilt homes and the oft-destroyed Yeshiva buildings in Homesh be rebuilt, all at total government expense; due to alt-leftist-agendized, supreme court legalized Yassamnik gunpoint. Baruch Hashem that our dear brother Jonathan Pollard is now in his second year at home in Eretz Yisrael and now embarks on a new chapter in his life. May Esther Yocheved bat Yechiel Avraham have an aliyah in Shemayim and may her spirit and memory continue to lift Jonathan to at least 120 years. May the MIAs be liberated alive and returned to us in ways befitting Al Kiddush Hashem — as with the return in April, 2019, via Russia, of the remains of Zachariah Baumel, as should the remains of the two chayalim from the Gaza War of eight years ago. May we have the courage and strength to stand up and physically prevent the possibility of Chas V’Challila any future eviction of Jews from their homes and prevent Chas V’Challila the handing of Jewish land over to anyone, let alone to enemies sworn to Israel’s and Judaism’s destruction and eradication. And may we soon and finally see the total end to the Communist Chinese corona virus pandemic and all like viruses. May we fulfill Hashem’s blueprint of B’nei Yisrael as a Unique people — an Am Segula, not to be reckoned with as with “the nations” and may we be zocha to see the Moshiach, the Ge’ula Shlaima, as Dov Shurin sings; “Ki Karov Yom Hashem Al’Kol HaGoyim”, the Ultimate Redemption, bimhayrah b’yamainu — speedily, in our time”, — Achshav, Chik Chuk, Miyad, Etmol!!!

Good Shabbos!
Moshe Burt, an Oleh, is a commentator on news and events in Israel and Founder and Director of The Sefer Torah Recycling Network. He lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh.