Following are some of the ideas, insights and interpretations that emerge from our weekly Chumash learning group at the Young Israel of Oceanside, Long Island. We cite sources when possible. Some of our interpretations may derive from ideas we may have seen elsewhere, possibly without attribution. Or we may simply have forgotten the source. For this we apologize. We invite your comments, observations and participation.
Avram’s calling and travels… Avram and Lot, his nephew, first travel together then part ways…God promises Avram a homeland…War between Five Kings and Four Kings…Avram rescues Lot… Avram refuses spoils of war… Avram and Malchitzedek King of (Jeru) Salem… God promises Avram children…Bris bein habsarim (covenant of the animal parts)…Avram, Sarai, Hagar and Ishmael… Name change from Avram to Avraham; Bris meela (covenant of circumcision); Sarai’s name is changed to Sarah (princess) and she is promised a child…Avraham and his household are circumcised
From the universal to the particular
Rabbi Menachem Leibtag’s analysis is that the first eleven chapters of Sefer Bereishis recount stories of universal sin and punishment: Creation is followed by violations in the garden of Eden; Cain murders Hevel ; worldwide corruption leads to a Flood; and there is a universal attempt to build a City and Tower of Bavel.
At that time the people of the world, who spoke only one language that contained a small vocabulary, migrated Eastward (as viewed from Palestine) and settled in the plain of Shinar –an area that was rich in asphalt (a mineral that they ingeniously figured out how to bake to form bricks). They said “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed across the whole earth”. They wanted to immortalize their name by building a city (that would keep them unified and together) and a towering structure that would appear to reach the heavens. (Philip Sandos speculates that it was the ancient calendar’s lunar orientation that precipitated the people’s desire to build a stairway to Heaven to wrest control of the Moon.) But “Man proposes and God disposes” and He confused their language and scattered them across the face of the earth. The city is left unfinished and is named Bavel because it is similar sounding to the Hebrew word for confusion, Balal.
Although their efforts at universal unity would seem to be admirable, it is clear they did something wrong and are punished. The Torah leaves it to us to determine what their sin was.
The Sages perceived an egocentric and antagonistic attitude towards God ("Come, let us build us a city… and let us make a name for ourselves”.) They devoted all their energies to self -glorification rather than to productive, creative pursuits. Rabbi Leibtag concludes that Avraham was singled out by God to reverse this trend and to redirect mankind’s efforts. To facilitate this enormous task, Avraham is promised a homeland and a special nation to “represent Him, to educate all other nations and to spark their spiritual development”. These two tools--a multiplying offspring (Zera) and a special land (Aretz)--are repeated in God’s conversations with the Patriarchs about their future.
Avraham calls out b’shaym hashem (in God’s name) to both correct the previous generation’s goal of trying to make a name (shaym) for themselves and to make known God’s existence to all Mankind (Ramban). Rabbi Leibtag speculates that the land of Israel’s location between the ancient world’s two great centers of civilization (Egypt and Mesopotamia) was a strategic asset for accomplishing this goal. The remaining chapters of the Sefer Bereishis recount the development of the nation of Israel from its “founder” Avraham to its realization in the twelve sons of Yaakov.
”Vayikrah b’shaym Hashem”, means “…and he (Avraham) called in God’s name” .The root KRA also means “to encounter”; the letter Bais may also mean “utilizing”; and the deeper meaning of ”shaym” is “the essence of”. Whenever Avraham encountered anyone, he dealt with them using the essence of God (ethical and caring). He was fair, honest and compassionate. His behavior told it all; he had no need to lecture people to change.
Avraham was extraordinary in that he came to an understanding of and belief in God on his own in the face of a surrounding pagan society. Midrashim portray him as a man of extraordinary character and stature. Avraham was in his forties when he discovered God .The Torah furnishes us with few details of his background and upbringing electing, instead, to focus on his persona and his mission.
Avram the Iconoclast
According to the Midrash, when Avram was still a young child, he realized that idol worship was nothing but foolishness. One day, while supervising his father’s retail idol store, he took a hammer and smashed all the idols except for the largest. His father came home aghast. "What happened?!" he shouted. "It was amazing, Dad," replied Avram. "The idols all got into a fight and the biggest idol won!” With his beliefs, his words and his manner Avram challenged and overturned traditional beliefs/ customs / values. With his actions of destroying icons he was literally the world’s first iconoclast, a word derived from the Greek roots eikon (image) + klaein (to break).
Themes of Bracha and Bris (Blessings and Covenants)
The opening verses repeat the root word Bracha (blessing) five times. Benno Jacob notes a parallel with the five-time repetition of the word “light” in the opening verses of the Creation story and concludes that with the advent of Avraham there was a new Creation (of the Jewish nation) characterized by blessings by Man for Man. This word light in the Creation story refers to clarity and an unraveling of the then-existing chaos (“shedding light on”). Positive energy--here in the form of Bracha-- is necessary to create, build and progress.
The word Bris means covenant/agreement but can also refer to the Torah. The first Bris--the rainbow reaching from earth to heaven--was a covenant between God and the world. Multiple repetition of the word Bris (covenant) in this Parsha underscores the important and unique relationship that exists between the nation of Israel and God. This relationship is reinforced with the Bris at Mt. Sinai.
• Avram the Hebrew
• Avram who came from the other side of (mayaver) of the river
• Avram who stood aside from (mayaver) the pagan culture that surrounded him
• Avram was thought by his contemporaries to be like a nomadic group known as Habiru, a people with specialized occupations (mercenaries and administrators), who were considered foreigners. Rabbi Günter Plaut, who points to the apparent common root in Habiru and Ivri, speculates that the title stuck even after the Habiru themselves disappeared as an identifiable group
Blessings from Dust to Stars
After Avram and Lot part ways, God promises Avram that He “will make your offspring like the dust of the earth”. Later, after the story of the battle of the Kings God tells Avram to “look at the sky and count the stars…that is how your descendents will be”. Rabbi Jonathan Muskat notes that the earlier image of dust suggests universality and large size whereas the imagery of discrete stars in the sky suggests Jewish individuality, thus reminding us that in the galaxy of Mankind, each person is important and not to be ignored no matter what his or her social or financial position.
The imagery of stars may also be seen as a preview of Avram’s offspring. God is predicting that despite their relatively small size as a nation, Avram’s descendents will be individuals who prove to be luminaries, shining lights unto the nations of the world. This Jewish genius is manifest in many ways including the large number of Jewish Nobel prize winners and in the extraordinary medical and scientific breakthroughs emanating from the State of Israel. The shining ethics and morality is apparent in the State of Israel’s refusal to leave any soldier on the battlefield. It was also evident in the release of Gilad Shalit last year and the relief and joy felt by Jews around the world for the saving of this one Jewish person.
Bris bein habsarim (Covenant of the Animal Parts)
“After these events, the word of HASHEM came to Abram in a vision, saying, "Fear not, Abram,** I am a shield for you; your reward is very great." And Abram said, "My Lord, HASHEM/ELOHIM: What can You give me seeing that I go childless, and the steward of my house is the Damascene Eliezer?" Then Abram said, "See, to me You have given no offspring; and see, my steward inherits me..." Suddenly, the word of HASHEM came to him, saying: "That one will not inherit you. Only him that shall come forth from within you shall inherit you." And He took him outside and said, "Gaze, now, toward the Heavens, and count the stars if you are able to count them!" And He said to him, "So shall your offspring be!" And he trusted in HASHEM, and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.I He said to him, "I am HASHEM Who brought you out of Ur-kasdim to give you this land to inherit it." He said, "My Lord, HASHEM/ELOHIM: Whereby shall I know that I am to inherit it?" And He said to him, "Take to Me three heifers, three goats, three rams, a turtledove, and a young dove." He took all these to Him: he cut them in the center, and placed each piece opposite its counterpart. The birds, however, he did not cut up. Birds of prey descended upon the carcasses, and Abram drove them away. And it happened, as the sun was about to set, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and behold — a dread! great darkness fell upon him. And He said to Abram, "Know with certainty that your offspring shall be aliens * in a land not their own — and they will serve them, and they will oppress them — four hundred years. uBut also the nation that they will serve, I shall judge, and afterwards they will leave with great wealth. As for you: you shall come to your ancestors in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. And the fourth generation shall return here, for the iniquity of the Amorite shall not yet be full until then." So it happened: The sun set, and it was very dark. Behold — there was a smoky furnace and a torch of fire which passed between these pieces. wOn that day HASHEM made a covenant with Abram, saying, "To your descen¬dants have I given this land…”
(**Note: this is the source of the expression magen avraham in the Shmona Esray.)
What was Avram’s real question when he asked "My Lord, HASHEM/ELOHIM: Whereby shall I know that I am to inherit it?"
Rabbi Leibtag thinks he was asking when this would happen. Ramban thinks he wanted to know if the inheritance would be permanent, even if his descendants prove to be unworthy. Others opine that he was asking what he would have to do to earn this gift. Still others think he was asking for a sign.
Rabbi Gunter Plaut notes that the ancient ritual of cutting animals this way was meant to be a guarantee of an agreement between two parties. He speculates that the meaning is that if one party violates the terms of the agreement the deal itself is torn asunder (no longer valid). Alternately, it may mean that the party that violates is deserving of being torn asunder.
This mysterious vision—the fourth of the seven times God appears to Avraham-- cries out for interpretation:
• Rashi , citing a Midrash, understands the imagery as an answer to Avraham’s question regarding what merit will enable his descendants to maintain themselves in the Promised Land . God promises that neither his nor his offspring’s misconduct would invalidate the promise because there will be a repentance mechanism in the form of the Temple and the Korbanot (offerings). Gur Aryeh elaborates that this is not to be taken literally, but refers to the repentance and prayer that the offerings symbolize that achieves atonement.
• Radak sees the divided carcasses as symbolic of the nations of the world that would ultimately be cut apart for their treatment of Israel and the bird as a symbol of Israel. The specific animals represent the nations that would drive Israel into exile (Egypt, Greece, Medea/Persia and Rome). The driving away the attacking birds of prey refers to God’s deliverance of Israel throughout history due to the merit of Avraham.
• Ramban thinks the animals allude to the three kinds of offerings and the birds of prey represent the heathens who would attempt to attack and destroy these offerings.
• Benno Jacob notes that there is no reference in the vision to offerings, to the utensils required, and to the associated rituals. Furthermore, in the context of what immediately precedes, Avraham seems to be deeply concerned about the near-term outlook, not the longer term picture. His conceptual approach is that the bird represents freedom; the animals in this imagery are those that were familiar and that the numbers represent the three generations of servitude that would be experienced soon in Egypt. The uncut bird represents the fourth generation when Israel would be freed. Pharaoh the persecutor is embodied in the attacking birds. (At least one Pharaoh is pictured with a falcon--believed then to be the king of the bird kingdom-- sitting behind his head protectively enfolding the Pharaoh’s head with its wings.) But Pharaoh’s efforts would be frustrated by the merits of Avraham.