Sedra Shorts

Ideas and commentaries on the weekly Torah readings.

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Location: Bet Shemesh, Israel

I taught Tanach in Immanuel College, London and in Hartman, Jerusalem. I was also an ATID fellow for 2 years. At present, I work for the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, in Bar-Ilan University, Israel. The purpose of this blog is to provide "sedra-shorts", short interesting ideas on the weekly Torah reading. Please feel free to use them and to send me your comments.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Parshat Lech Lecha

There are for Sedra Shoorts on Parshat Lech Lecha. Scroll down for each Dvar Torah

  • The Cannanites Were Then in the Land
  • Sarah, Wife of Avraham
    The Repeated Promise
  • The Double Edge of Circumcision

The Cannanites Were Then in the Land

God told Avraham to go "to the land that I will show you" (Bereshit 12:1). When he arrived there, the passuk tells us that "the Canaanites were then in the land" (ibid 6). The word "then" – "
אז" in Hebrew, has troubled traditional Jewish commentaries for it implies that at the time Sefer Bereshit was written, the Canaanites were no longer in the land. Orthodox Jews believe that Sefer Bereshit was written by Moshe. That makes the word "then" problematic, for the Canaanites were the unchallenged rulers of Canaan in Moshe's day.

Rashi states that Avraham's time marked the beginning of the Cannanite conquest. The word "then" then implies that the Canannites were then taking control of the land, as opposed to today, Moshe's day, when the Cananites had supreme control.

This interpretation is difficult to accept for it cannot be historically justified. The Canannites were firmly in control of Canaan well before Avraham arrived on the scene.

The Chizkuni therefore, explains that the word "then" was included for later generations, such as ours, so that we should understand that when Avraham first arrived in Israel, it was actually a strong holding of the Canaanites.

Ibn Ezra however, has real trouble with world and hints, though he doesn't say it openly, that the word was added at a later date.

I would like to add an alternative suggestion that will make the traditionalists more comfortable. But before I do I would like to ask, why God repeats His promise to Abraham numerous times throughout the parsha, God had already told Avraham that he would become a great nation in the land. Why does God then repeat "To your descendants I will give this land," (ibid 7)?

If we recall, Avraham was not told specifically what land he was directed to go to and that he had never been to Canaan before. It is possible that Avraham assumed that he would arrive in a sparsely populated region, a place that he could claim and inherit to his children.

However, when he arrived in Canaan he was shocked. This land was already full of people, not just any people, but the Canaanites; a highly developed people with a distinct culture and strong army. Could this be the land where he was to become a great nation?

Therefore Avraham may have assumed that he was at the wrong place. God immediately appears to him therefore and says: "To your descendants I will give this land". God explains that the promise is to be fulfilled in the future. Avraham's immediate reaction is to build an altar and show his trust in God. The word "then" therefore, expresses to Israel four hundred years later, Avraham's shock and surprise.

Moshe explains that they should not think that when Avraham arrived in the land it was unoccupied and that he was claiming it for them. No, even in Avraham's day, the land was fully occupied and controlled by Canaan.

Therefore, the pesukim can be understood as follows: "Avram passed through the land, until the place of Shechem, until the plain of Moreh, and [found that] the Canaanites were [already] then [firmly entrenched] in the land. [In order to allay Avram's doubts] the Lord appeared to Avram, and He said, 'To your descendants I will give this land'. There [showing his faith and new understanding of God's promise] he built an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him" (ibid 6-7).

Therefore, the word "then" need not be a post-Mosaic addition to the text, but merely a tool to teach us and ancient Israel:

· That Avraham had problems understanding God's promise in light of the facts

· Why God repeated his promise to Avraham

· Why Avraham did not build the altar immediately upon arriving in the land.

Sarah, Wife of Avraham

God had promised Avraham that he would have a son. However Sarah was never promised that she would have a son. Being sterile, she gave Hagar her maidservant to Avraham. She would no longer hold Avraham back and Avraham could now fulfill his destiny.

Nevertheless, when Hagar becomes pregnant, Sarah became furious with her husband, saying: “May my injustice be upon you! I gave my handmaid into your bosom, and she saw that she had become pregnant and I became unimportant in her eyes” (Bereshit 16:5).

Why was Sarah angry with Avraham? Wasn’t that why she gave her to him? What else did she expect would happen?

It seems that while Sarah accepted the need for Avraham to have a son, she did not feel that she needed replacing. It seems that she felt that Hagar was taking over her role? When Sarah gave Hagar to Avraham she said: “perhaps I will be built up from her” (ibid 2). What did she mean?

There are two possible explanations: 1. Hagar’s pregnancy would affect Sarah psychologically, causing her to become pregnant (a common belief in the ancient world), 2. Hagar’s child would automatically be Sarah’s since being her maidservant, everything Hagar possessed, including her children, actually belonged to Sarah, her mistress.

Sarah never gave up hope of being part of Avraham’s future. She would either bear him a son, or she would be the legal mother of his son.

Nevertheless, Hagar did not see it that way. Sarah was now “unimportant in her eyes”. Hagar was claiming the destiny and partnership with Avraham, for herself. Sarah blames Avraham for this, for allowing Hagar to elevate herself to the status of wife.

Avraham accepted Sarah’s claim and tells her: “Here is your handmaid in your hand; do to her that which is proper in your eyes” (ibid 6), i.e. he tells her to ensure that Hagar understands her rightful place. He accepts only Sarah as his true wife.

Sarah does as he says. However, Hagar refuses to accept her fate and flees in order to secure her freedom. However, an angel reminds her who she really is. He calls her: “Hagar, Sarai's servant, where are you coming from?” Hagar realizes who she really is and responds: “From before Sarai my mistress I flee”(ibid 9).

Throughout the episode, the Torah describes Sarah as the “wife of Avram”, and Hagar as the: “maidservant of Sarai”. Indeed, the angel tells Hagar “Return to your mistress, and allow yourself to be afflicted under her hands” (ibid). Sarah is Avraham’s one and true wife.
Possibly as a result of Hagar’s actions, Sarah did not adopt Yishmael. He remained a slave and had no part to play in the blessings of Avraham.

The Repeated Promise

At the age of 70, Avraham Avinu begins a new chapter in his life.

God speaks to him for the first time and tells him to go to the land of Canaan and that He will make him a great nation there.

All this is fine, apart from the fact that this promise is repeated a further four times.

The first time: "Go forth from your land … to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation…" (Bereshit 12:1-2)

The second time: Avram passed through the land…and the Canaanites were then in the land. The Lord appeared to Avram, and He said, "To your seed I will give this land" (ibid 6-7).

The third time: "The Lord said to Avram after Lot had parted from him, "Raise your eyes and see... For all the land that you see I will give to you and to your seed to eternity" (13:14-15).

The fourth time: "On that day, the Lord formed a covenant with Avram, saying, "To your seed I have given this land" (ibid 15:18).

The fifth time: "I will give you and your seed after you the land of your sojournings, the entire land of Canaan for an everlasting possession, and I will be to them for a God" (ibid 17:8).

When the word of God was so precious, when God only spoke with Avraham five times over these 29 years, why did He give Avraham exactly the same message each time? Why was it necessary for God to repeat His message four times?

The answer can be found in a close reading of the text.

God had promised Avraham Canaan and that he would become a great nation there. However, when Avraham got there, he had a great shock: "The Canaanites were then in the land". This land was not an empty land waiting for a master. It was already fully inhabited by a strong and mighty nation.

This must have come to Avraham as a great surprise and must have given him doubts. Therefore, God immediately reassured him saying: "To your seed I will give this land". He adds that His promise was not going to be fulfilled immediately, but only in the future. Avraham "built an altar to the Lord" (ibid 12:8), showing that He trusted God.

That reaffirmation satisfied Avraham until he had another major crisis. Avraham had no children. His heir was Lot, his nephew, the man he brought up as his own son. He must have been satisfied that God would maintain his promise through Lot. However, Lot left him. His successor was gone. Therefore, God again reassured Avraham: "All the land that you see I will give to you and to your seed to eternity". God then tells Avraham to: "walk in the land, to its length and to its breadth" signifying his ownership of it. Avraham again shows his faith as "he built an altar to the Lord" (ibid 13:17-18).

Yet some years later, Avraham experienced another crisis. He had defeated a military super-power and was now worried about revenge. God tells Avraham "Fear not, Avram; I am your Shield" (ibid 15:1). At this point Avraham asks what was the point of all this protection when "I am going childless" and "You have given me no seed, and behold, one of my household (Eliezer) will inherit me" (ibid 2-3).

God therefore tells him that Eliezer, the head of his household " will not inherit you, but the one who will spring from your innards-he will inherit you" (ibid 4). But He also goes when one step further than just making a promise; He makes a covenant with Avraham – the "Covenant Between the Pieces", committing Himself to this pact. Avraham once again "believed in the Lord" (ibid 6).

The final time that God makes the promise to Avraham is not the result of any fears that Avraham had expressed. Simply, the time had come for the promise to begin to be fulfilled. Sarah, Avraham's wife was about to conceive. However, before that could happen, Avraham had to have his name changed from Avram to Avraham, signifying his acceptance of his new role, and he had to enter the covenant of circumcision - the Brit Milla.

Just like Avraham had to wait for the promise to be fulfilled, so too his descendants, the Jewish people, had to wait. Just like Avraham had to have blood spilt before he could take possession of the land, so too the Jewish people have experienced blood shed. Nevertheless, God has been faithful and the land of Israel is now our "everlasting possession" (ibid 8).

The Double Edge of Circumcision

God made a double edged promise to Avraham if he would leave his homeland and "go to the land that I will show you". God would: "...make of you a great nation…and through you all the families of the earth will be blessed" (Bereshit 12:1-4).

This promise was reaffirmed to Yitschak: "I will multiply your seed as the stars of heaven, and will give to your seed all these lands; and by your seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed" (ibid 26:4) and to Yaakov: "The land whereon you lie, to you will I give it, and to your seed…And through you and your seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed (ibid 28:13-14).

On the one hand, God promises Avraham exclusivity – he will become a great nation in his own distinct land. Yet on the other hand, he is also promised universality: he will become the father of humanity, that through him all humanity will attain blessing. By becoming a nation dedicated to God's values, Avraham's descendants would then positively influence the rest of humankind so that they too, would attain God's blessing.

Furthermore, before accepting the Torah, the children of Israel were required to accept both these national and universal roles: "you will be unto Me a kingdom of priests (universal), and a holy nation (national)" (Shemot 19:6).

God also placed these roles as the centerpiece of the Brit Mila, He made with Avraham. Firstly, Avraham's name was changed from Avram to Avraham, signifying that "the father of a multitude of nations have I made you" (Bereshit 17:5). Secondly, "This is My covenant, which you … and your seed after you shall keep: every male among you shall be circumcised" (ibid 10). Through, circumcision, Avraham and his descendents became unique, physically different and set apart from all other nations, signifying His exclusive relationship with them.

These two ideas still exist in the circumcision ceremony of Jewish males: The Circumcision and the Naming. The circumcision signifies the child's acceptance of the Jewish people's national role and the naming signifies his acceptance of the universal role.

Perhaps this is why two blessings are recited at the ceremony: The first "על מצות מילה" – "on the act of circumcision" representing the national role, and "להכניסו בבריתו של אברהם אבינו" – "on entering him into the covenant of Avraham, our forefather", representing the child's acceptance of his universal role.

This is indeed the task of the Jewish people. May we merit to accomplish both these roles.


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