This is dedicated to the memory of Manya’s aunt Mildred Green, nee Abraham (Malka Bas Feiga and Mordechai) on her first yaartzeit. She was a Holocaust survivor who, much like our Patriarch Abraham HaIvri, came from the “other side” of the world with nothing and despite obstacles built, with her husband Sol of 60 years, a productive life and a wonderful family.
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.
Third of Avram’s tests: God directs Avram to leave his land, his birthplace and his father’s house and travel to an unnamed land
Fourth and fifth tests: famine in Canaan and Avimelech’s taking of Sarai
Avram and Lot, his nephew, first travel together then part ways
God promises Avram a homeland
War between Five Kings and Four Kings
Sixth test: Avram rescues Lot
Avram refuses spoils of war
Avram and Malchitzedek King of (Jeru) Salem
God promises Avram children
Seventh test: vision of exile; Bris bein habsarim (covenant of the animal parts)
Birth of 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
Eighth test: Avraham circumcises himself and his household
From the universal to the particular
According to Rabbi Menachem Leibtag, the first eleven chapters of Sefer Bereishis recount stories of universal sin and punishment:
o Creation is followed by violations in the garden of Eden
o Cain murders Hevel
o Worldwide corruption leads to a Flood
o A universal attempt to build a City and Tower of Bavel
Now the Torah embarks on describing the bechira process (choosing) that led up to the creation of the nation of Israel.
Although their efforts at universal unity would seem to be admirable, it is clear the generation of the Tower and City of Bavel did something wrong. 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.
Although we are never told why he was selected, Avram is singled out by God to reverse this trend and to redirect mankind’s efforts. To facilitate this enormous task, Avram is promised a homeland and a special nation to “represent Him, to educate all other nations and to spark their spiritual development”. These two events--a multiplying offspring (Zera) and a special land (Aretz)--are repeated in God’s conversations with the Patriarchs about their future.
The Torah furnishes us with few details of his background and upbringing electing, instead, to focus on his persona and his mission. Avram 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 remarkable character and stature.
Avram 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 notes 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 Avram to its realization in the twelve sons of Yaakov.
”Vayikrah b’shaym Hashem”, means “…and he (Avram) 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 Avram 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 and to preach.
Avram the Iconoclast (image breaker)
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 story of Avram is God’s third attempt at creating a sustainable universe. The original creation was filled with hope and optimism, but the deterioration of man’s ethical and moral behavior necessitated the destruction of the world by flood. This cataclysmic event should have been a purifying experience. Instead, over time mankind resumed its evil ways and soon became enmeshed in its own self-aggrandizement and worship of technology. Enter Avram who embodies the essence of decency and kindness.
The opening verses of the parsha repeat the root word bracha (blessing) five times. Benno Jacob, noting insightfully a parallel with the five-time repetition of the word “Ohr (light)” in the opening verses of the Creation story, concludes that “with the advent of Avram there was a new Creation (of the Jewish nation) characterized by blessings by Man to Man.” The word light in the Creation story refers to clarity and an unraveling of the then-existing chaos (“shedding light on”). Positive energy that radiates from a man like Avram (in the form bracha) is necessary to build and to progress.
• The Hebrew (ivri)
• Who came from the other side of (mayaver) of the river
• Who stood aside from (mayaver) the pagan culture that surrounded him
• Who 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
The Hebrew word bris can mean a circle, a ring or a covenant, in which the participants come together to create a whole. The first bris mentioned in the Torah is the rainbow reaching from earth to heaven. It was God’s reminder that He would never again destroy the world by a flood. In this week’s parsha we are introduced to two additional divine agreements: Bris bein habsarim (Covenant of the Animal Parts) and then Bris meela (covenant of circumcision).But it is only in bris meela that man is called upon to be an active partner (i.e., “complete the circle”) by performing the circumcision ritual.
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.
Rabbi B.S. Jacobson notes that in the entire Torah there is no mention of a covenant between God and other nation beside Israel.
Professor Umberto Cassuto observes differences between the Covenant of the Animal Parts and the Covenant of Circumcision. In the former, God appears in a vision; in the latter God communicates with Avram when he is wide awake. In the former, God is referred to by His Essential Name (yud-hay-vav-hay). In the section on Circumcision, the more universal name E-lohim is used to identify God (after a preface when the Essential Name is cited).His conclusion is that because circumcision is not limited to Israel alone but is demanded of all of Avram’s offspring including the Ishmaelites, the Torah employs the more universal Name of God. The Covenant of the Animal Parts is about His special relationship with Israel in which He promises our nation’s brave and devoted founder Avram a land and a people. Therefore, the Torah uses the Divine name that is “particular to God whom Israel believes to be Lord of the World and the Chooser of His People”.
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 descendants will be”. Why the change in imagery?
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. This reminds 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.
Benno Jacob theorizes that because heaven and earth belong together the stars imagery is meant to supplement the imagery of dust with something that is more brilliant, livelier, more impressive and permanent. Furthermore, “looking up to the heavens and stars means looking up to God who resides above them”.
The imagery of stars may also be seen as a preview of Avram’s offspring. Just as dust is everywhere, future generations of Jews will be dispersed to the four corners of the globe and often will be treated like dirt. God is predicting that despite this treatment and despite our relatively small size as a nation, Jews will be major players in, and have a major impact on, history. As a group, Avram’s descendants will distinguish themselves as luminaries, shining lights unto the nations of the world with both intellectual and moral achievements. This Jewish intellectual 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. Two of last year’s Nobel Prize winners were Israeli citizens. One of the recipients of the prize in physics that year is affiliated with Tel Aviv University. This shining ethics and morality is evident in the State of Israel’s unique policy of minimizing collateral damage during war by alerting the civilian population of an impending attack-- even at risk to its own soldiers.
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 reasons 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
Some believe that he was asking what he would have to do to earn this gift
Others think he was asking for a sign
Both Joseph Albo and Rabbi Gunter Plaut observe that the ancient ritual of cutting animals this way was an act of creating a permanent bond between the two parties, who are now to be considered as one body (just as the animal was when it was alive) and nothing but death is to cause them to part. 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, enigmatic 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, Avram seems to be deeply concerned more about the near-term outlook, not the longer term picture. His view is that the darkness that falls on Avram is not the natural darkness of night but a deep sleep filled with anxiety.
o The number three represents the three generations of servitude and oppression that Avram’s offspring would experience soon in Egypt.
o God’s presence (smoking fire and flaming torch) passes through and unites those who are separated.
o The uncut birds are symbols of freedom and represent the fourth generation of Israelites that would be liberated from Egypt.
o Pharaoh the persecutor is embodied in the attacking birds. (In ancient art, a 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 Avram.
Bris meela (covenant of circumcision)
Permanent external reminder of God’s covenant
Obedience to God
Active partnership with God
A ritual not limited to priests as it was in Egypt, but available to all thereby creating “a kingdom of priests” (Shadal)
Performed on procreative organ, relating it to the divine promise of offspring
Performed on eighth day
• Child builds strength and gains “independence” from mother
• Allows child to experience one Sabbath, (day of perfect harmony) and build spiritual strength
• The number seven represents the cycle of nature
• Peak levels of coagulating factors in blood, thereby minimizing risk of excessive bleeding