This is dedicated to the memory of my wife Manya’s Mother Lola Denholz a”H (Leah bas Asher & Miriam), on her third yahrzeit. 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 David, a productive life and a wonderful family. Her love for us (“I love you more”) and her memory remain an inspiration to us all--her two daughters and their spouses; her six grandchildren and her sixteen great-grandchildren. Her name lives on in her great-grandchildren: almost-three-year-old Rivka Leah Berenholz and month-old Leah Bina Peled.
Third of Avram’s tests: God directs Avram to leave his
• Father’s house
…and to travel to an unnamed destination
Fourth and fifth tests:
• Famine in Canaan
• Avram travels to Egypt and instructs his wife Sarai to say she is his sister
• Pharaoh’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 [“father of many nations”]. The insertion of the Hebrew letter “hay” is a reminder that God will always be a part of his life to protect him. A name is indicative of the one’s personality and fate
Bris milah (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
The Birth of the Nation of Israel
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 Kayin murders his brother Hevel
o Worldwide corruption leads to a Flood
o A universal attempt to build a City and Tower of Bavel
But now, as Rabbi Menachem Leibtag explains, the Torah embarks on describing the bechira (choosing) process that led up to the creation of the nation of Israel.
Though 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. Their technological breakthroughs overshadowed their humanity.
Although the Torah text never tells us why he was selected, Avram appears to have been 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.
The arrival of Avram represents a fresh start and a progressive step in the evolution of Mankind. We are being introduced to the man who will demonstrate the cooperative partnership that can exist between Humankind and God. The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that “this communication to Avraham was the precursor of Sinatic revelation which would witness the development of this ‘cooperation’ into a coherent system of 613 mitzvos.”
Professor Everett Fox discusses some of the missing pieces in the Avram saga. The Torah makes no mention of Avram’s reaction to the sudden divine command to pick up and leave. “Abraham undertakes a significant journey, to be sure, but as we have seen, the Bible is not the least bit interested in the details. Neither spiritual doubts nor physical obstacles appear to have any bearing on his behavior.” Nor does the Torah give us details of the travel plans for/in Canaan. This stands in contrast to other major leadership figures (like Moshe) whose dramatic “calling” includes details of the directed task and its goal and/or purpose. Professor Fox’s conclusion is that it was his willingness to obediently follow God’s directions without question that made Avram unique and special. “Abraham emerges as one who, despite the seeming absurdity of the promises made to him, remains steadfast, and dares to take divinely commanded journeys without question. Guided by an unseen hand, he passes the tests laid out for him in Genesis, and so becomes a hero, not of the usual epic variety, but of a kind that became central to the three Western faiths.”
It’s also possible that Avram’s selection was based on the way he lived his life day in day out. He was, among other things, …
Generous (letting Lot decide which of the available territories to choose)
Sincere (not accepting payment for his successful attack to save his captured nephew Lot)
Caring (acceding all his wife Sarah’s demands)
Filled with a sense of Justice (arguing with God about His decision to destroy Sodom)
Honorable yet shrewd (in negotiating for a burial plot when Sarah dies)
Avraham’s unassuming manner and his integrity in his dealing with others are the reasons for his becoming a role model for so many of his surrounding neighbors. The Torah mentions “the souls that they had made [i.e., people whose souls they touched]”. The Torah is subtly communicating to us that this is the way we should live our lives.
Textual support for this idea may be found in an earlier verse in the Torah, “These are the chronicles of heaven and earth when they were created…” The letters for the Hebrew word for “when they were created” can be re-arranged to spell the name Avraham. The Midrash takes this to mean that the world was created for Avraham (or, more broadly, for humans to be like and/or to behave just like Avraham). Prior to his arrival, humanity failed to consistently achieve positive character traits. His appearance on earth wiped away the past and meant re-birth and re-creation.
The Man Named Avram
The Torah furnishes us with few details of his background and upbringing electing, instead, to focus on his…
• Humanity as a husband and uncle who deals with dangers and family matters in his own unique way
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. Martin Buber explains that Avram’s calling was radically different from those of Adam and Noach. They were given natural blessings of fertility whereas Avram’s blessing is…
“…promising and demanding at the same time
Promising the formation of a people and
Imposing the obligations of a people,
Addressing the people in the person of its father and
Demanding in his person to ‘become a blessing’, a blessing for the world of nations”.
Rabbi Gunther Plaut points out that Haran, the city in northeast Mesopotamia, where Avram received his calling, means “highway” or “crossroads”. It was situated at a crossroad of important highways and was a center of the cult devoted to the moon-god Sin.
God spoke to Avram at the “crossroads” of his life directing him to abandon his native land to be the start of what was to become the nation of Israel. His life would be a model for his offspring. Just as he would be a wanderer so would his descendants “wander across the earth, along the highways of history”.
God instructs Avram “lech lecha” --“go forth” or “go away from” -- your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you”. Avram was to leave…
For his own good and benefit (Rashi)
To find his own roots(Chasidic)
To find his own self. Each of us needs to find our inner wholeness; our inner strengths; and our life purpose (Rabbi Marc Angel)
The journey had to be made alone, foreshadowing “that of all religious seekers and above all, that of the people of Israel, in their historic solitude” (Rav S.R. Hirsch).
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”. Thus, 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. By destroying these idols, he became 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 Mesopotamia 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. Rabbi 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 nation of Israel) 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 Midrash notes that with the change of one vowel, the Hebrew word for “blessing” becomes “a spring of water”. Those pagans attracted to Avram (and eventually his offspring) were taught the Truth and were thereby “cleansed”, much as a spring purifies the defiled.
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 milah (covenant of circumcision). Unlike the earlier ones in which Man is the passive recipient of God’s Goodness, in bris milah 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 individuals and God. This relationship is reinforced with the bris at Mt. Sinai when the giving of the Torah represented covenant between the entire nation of Israel and God.
Rav Jacobson notes that in the entire Torah there is no mention of a covenant between God and other nation besides Israel.
Baruch Cohen points out that the Hebrew word kares, to cut, is associated with a Covenant:
Kores bris is like our current terminology “cutting a deal”.
A Covenant often necessitates the parties cutting back their respective demands until a compromise is reached
The bris bein habsarim (Covenant of the Animal Parts) required the cutting of the animal carcasses into two pieces
Circumcision involves the cutting of the foreskin. The use of the word milah (which can also mean “word”) hints at the need for the newborn to “cut out” undesirable speech from his vocabulary like gossip, insults
One who does not perform this commandment is sentenced to the divine punishment of kares in which he dies earlier or is cut off from the Jewish nation or from God.
Avram’s Offspring will be as Numerous as the Dust of the Earth and as the Stars Above
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?
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 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 trampled on and treated like dirt. Stu Zellner thinks that 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. Stars are moving bodies speeding ahead in an expanding universe. Rikki Zibitt sees in this imagery the Jewish nation standing firmly entrenched on earth as it uses its intellectual powers to push out the frontiers of knowledge.
This Jewish intellectual genius is manifest in many ways including the substantial number of Jewish Nobel prize winners and in the extraordinary medical and scientific breakthroughs emanating from the State of Israel. 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. Furthermore, Israel is first, and sometimes alone, in rushing to help victims of natural (and sometimes man-made) disasters around the world.
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." [Note: this is the source of the expression magen Avraham—shield of Avraham-- in the Shmona Esray.] 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. 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 [Note: alternate meanings of the Hebrew word are “one three-year-old” or “one that is the third born” or “one that is of the best quality”.] 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. But 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. On that day HASHEM made a covenant with Abram, saying, "To your descen¬dants have I given this land…’”
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
Rabbi Dr. J. H. Hertz believes that he was not doubting God, only desiring confirmation of the vision
Ramban assumes that he wanted to know if the inheritance would be permanent, even if his descendants prove to be unworthy
Some suggest that he was asking what he would have to do to earn this gift
Others reason that he was asking for a sign
Both Joseph Albo and Gunter Plaut explain 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 would 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. [Note: Later, the prophet Jeremiah used a similar animal-cutting covenant.]
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 of 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 Avram
• 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 argues 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 to return to the land of their fathers.
o Evil Pharaoh the persecutor, who will try to prevent the covenant from being finalized, 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 and deliverance will occur, as promised by God.
Bris Milah (Covenant of Circumcision)
Circumcision, the cutting off the foreskin, the sexually sensitive sleeve of tissue that normally covers and protects the head of the penis, was practiced by several ancient nations in the Mid-East and in Africa. Egyptians were practicing circumcision for hundreds of years before Avram. Its origins and original intent is shrouded in the mysteries of lost history. In its primitive form it appears to relate to marriage, whether performed with a view to the facilitation of cohabitation or to the consecration of the generative powers. Ishmael was circumcised when thirteen years old; that is, at the age of puberty.
But the basis for Jews’ performing this ritual is found in this week’s parsha when God tells Avram: "This is my Covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; every man child among you shall be circumcised…and it shall be a token of the Covenant between Me and you…and he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you".
The circumcision of newborn Israelite boys on the eighth day marks the entry into the community of Israelites and symbolizes the ties between God and the Jews. It is only after the baby has experienced the holiness of the Shabbos, that he may enter the Covenant of the Jewish people.
The ritual is…
A permanent external reminder of God’s covenant
Obedience to God, Master of the Universe
Active partnership with God
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
To safeguard cleanliness and health (Philo)
Believed to counteract excessive lust (Rambam)
A symbolic reference to the human obligation to seek clear and lucid, intellectual thought, and reason, by removal of the foreskin which represents clouded, unclear thought (Philo)
A sacrificial symbol
Blood-letting as a sign of forgiveness
Initiation into a group
Performed on eighth day
• Child builds strength and gains “independence” from mother
• Allows child to first experience one Sabbath, (day of perfect harmony) and build spiritual strength
• The number seven represents the cycle of nature; a person’s first mitzvah is performed immediately after the seven-day Creation is complete
• Peak levels of coagulating factors in blood, thereby minimizing risk of excessive bleeding