Parshat Lech L'cha

(To prepare for this shiur,
see the questions for self study.)

How many times must God repeat the same promise to Avraham Avinu? In Parshat Lech L'cha alone, God tells Avraham four times that his offspring ("zera") will become a nation in a special land ("aretz")! Would not have one divine promise been sufficient?

In this week's shiur, we attempt to explain the reason for each of these promises and their relation to the events that transpire in the interim.

Let's begin this week's shiur with a table that charts the progression of events in Parshat Lech L'cha. To verify this table, quickly glance over the entire Sedra noting how it divides into seven "parshiot". Then, try to give a short title to each "parshia", noting any "hitgalut" where God speaks to Avraham regarding his future. [The psukim that include a "hitgalut" are denoted by a [*] symbol.]
Parshia Topic
12:1-9 Avraham's "aliyah" to Eretz Canaan [*12:1-3,7]
12:10-13:18 Lot leaving Avraham [*13:14-17]
14:1-24 Avraham's victory in the war between the kings
15:1-20 Brit Bein ha'Btarim [*15:13-19]
16:1-16 The birth of Yishmael
17:1-14 Brit Milah [*17:7-8]
17:15-27 The promise of the birth of Yitzchak [*17:19]

The opening "hitaglut" is the simplest to understand. After instructing Avraham Avinu to leave homeland, God first explains to Avraham why he has been chosen:

"I will make you a great nation... and through you all nations of the world will be blessed..." (see 12:1-3)

[See board #1]

This fits nicely with the overall theme of Sefer Breishit, as we explained in last week's shiur. In wake of the events of Migdal Bavel, God initiates a special relationship with Avraham Avinu in order that he become the forefather of His special (model) nation that would direct mankind toward a more theocentric existence.

This backdrop also explains God's next "hitgalut" to Avraham upon his arrival in that land:

"To your zera [offspring] I shall give this aretz [land]" (12:7)

To become that nation, Avraham's family will need to multiply, and hence the blessing of zera; and there must be a certain territory (=aretz) wherein his offspring can establish this nation (see board #2). As we continue, note how this concept of "zera" & "aretz" will be mentioned in almost every other "hitgalut" as well!

Theoretically speaking, these two promises could have been enough. Now that Avraham has arrived in the land, he should now have many children, settle the land, and establish this special nation. But as we know, Chumash is not a 'fairy tale', and becoming God's nations unfolds as a long and complicated process. To appreciate that process, we must now consider the reason for each additional "hitgalut" to Avraham Avinu, and how it relates to the stories that transpires in the interim.

The First Split
The next "hitgalut" to Avraham takes place after his quarrel with Lot (see 13:1-14). Here we find yet another divine promise of "zera v'aretz":

"And God spoke to Avram after Lot had left him: Lift up your eyes from this place and see... for this entire land (aretz) which you see I am giving to you and your offspring (zera) forever..." (see 13:14-18)

This promise, although a bit more 'poetic' than the first, appears to be more or less a repeat of God's original promise. Why then was it necessary?

To understand why, we consider the fact that this promise (in 13:14-18) concludes a "parshia" that began way back in 12:10! Even though a "parshia" usually carries only one common topic, this "parshia" contains three different stories:
1) Avraham's descent and return from Egypt (12:10-13:4)
2) The quarrel between Lot and Avraham (13:5-13)
3) God's promise to Avraham of "zera v'aretz" (13:14-18)

Nevertheless, the fact that all three stories are in one parshia indicates that they are thematically connected.

At the most basic level, the connection is quite simple. The reason for the quarrel between Lot and Avraham is due to their wealth (see 13:5-6). However, it was because of their journey to Egypt that Avraham & Lot became wealthy (see 12:16,20; & 13:1-2,5). Therefore, upon their return, the land is not big enough for all of their new possessions (13:6), thus leading to the quarrel (13:7). Finally, one could suggest that God's promise comes to 'cheer up' Avraham after this tragic separation from his nephew Lot (see 13:14).

Nonetheless, one could suggest a deeper connection relating to a more fundamental theme of Sefer Breishit.

Recall that Avraham has no children and his nephew Lot has no father. Therefore, Avraham treats Lot like his own son. In fact, from the moment we meet Avraham in Parshat Noach, Lot faithfully follows him everywhere. [See 11:27-31, 12:4-5, 13:1-2,5!]

One could suggest that Avraham understood that through Lot, God's promise of "zera" would be fulfilled! [See Radak 13:14!] And even if God would bless him with his own son, Avraham could still include Lot as an integral member of his 'chosen' family. Therefore, Lot's decision to leave could be considered a personal tragedy for Avraham.

Leaving Avraham or Leaving God?
This background allows us to view the story of Lot and Avraham as the first example of "dechiya", i.e. when a member of Avraham's family is 'kicked out'. As we will see, many of the stories in Sefer Breishit explain how this process of "dechiya" unfolds, and, as we should expect, these stories will also explain why! This incident with Lot is a classic example.

Recall (from our shiur on Parshat Ekev) that Lot's choice of Kikar ha'Yarden was not the compromise that Avraham had suggested. As Tirgum Unkelos explains, Avraham offered Lot to go either north (left) or south (right/ see 13:9), i.e. to choose between the hills of Yehuda or Shomron; not a complete separation, only a far enough distance to avoid quarrels.

Instead, Lot opted to leave the mountain range of Eretz Canaan altogether, preferring the Jordan Valley instead (see 13:10-11). The 'technical reason', because the Jordan Valley had a river, a constant supply of water - in contrast to the mountain range whose water supply was dependent on the rainfall.

However, Lot's choice carried spiritual ramifications as well. As Parshat Ekev explains:

"For the land which you are coming to inherit [i.e. Eretz Canaan] is not like Eretz Mitzraim [which has the Nile River as a constant water supply]..., instead it is a land of hills and valleys - which needs rain for water. [Therefore] it is a land which God looks after..." (Devarim 11:10-12)

Symbolically, Lot's choice reflects his preference for a different life-style. Avraham accepts the challenge of Eretz Canaan - a life dependent on matar (rain) and hence - dependent on God (see Devarim 11:13-16!). Lot prefers the 'easy-life' in Sdom. The Midrash (quoted by Rashi on 13:11) stems precisely from this interpretation:

"va'yisa Lot m'kedem" - Midrash Agada - "hi'si'ah atzmo m'kadmono shel olam - Lot lifted himself away from God, saying, I can no longer remain with Avraham - nor with his God. " (see Rashi on 13:11)

[Sdom is really to the east, therefore the pasuk should say "l'kedem" and not "m'kedem". The Midrash picks up on this to show its deeper meaning. See also the use of "m'kedem" to show a direction away from God, as in 3:24 (leaving Gan Eden), and 11:2 (Migdal Bavel).]

Lot's total divorce from Avraham is indeed tragic for he has lost not only a 'son' but also a disciple. Therefore, God must now not only console Avraham, but also reassure him that despite Lot's departure (13:14/ "acharei hi'pared Lot") His promise of "zera v'aretz" remains (see board #3). Indeed, he will yet have a child - a son who will follow in his footsteps as well.

This explanation of Lot's choice of Sdom provides the thematic connection between all three stories in this "parshia". Recall that Lot had traveled with Avraham to Mitzraim. It may have been Lot's own experience in Egypt, seeing the 'good-life', that led him to reject Avraham's offer, and chose the Jordan Valley instead:

"And Lot lifted his eyes and saw the entire Jordan valley, for it had a plentiful supply of water... like the land of Egypt..." (see 13:10)

In contrast to Lot, Avraham who remains 'chosen' ("nivchar") reacted to his experience in Mitzraim in a totally different manner. Avraham, after his incident with Pharaoh and Sarah, saw corruption in Egypt. He returns to Eretz Canaan inspired with the spirit to stop such corrupt behavior, to teach morality. Upon his return, Avraham travels immediately to Bet-el, and once again calls out in God's Name. [See Ramban 12:8 and Rambam Hilchot Avodah Zara I:2-3!]

The First Covenant
The next time God speaks to Avraham is in chapter 15 - better known as Brit Bein Ha'btarim. There again, God promises "zera v'aretz" (see 15:18), however in this promise, for the first time, we find the framework of a "brit" - a covenant.

Once again, to better appreciate this promise, we must take note of the event that precedes it, i.e. the war of the five kings against the four kings in chapter 14. In this battle, for the first time we see Avraham Avinu as a man of war, a conqueror. Yet, it is this military victory that leads Avraham to the realization of how important it is that he have a successor. Note how chapter 15 opens as a direct continuation of that victory:

"achar ha'dvarim ha'eyleh - After these events, God spoke to Avram in a vision saying: Do not fearful... I will shield you, your reward is very great..." (see 15:1-2)

Now there are numerous opinions among the commentators explaining why Avraham was fearful (which are not all mutually exclusive). However, there is one point that Avraham raises over and over again in his ensuing conversation that definitely relates to his military conquest, as well as his lack of a son:

"...Since you have given me no offspring - v'hinei ben beiti yorash oti - behold my house servant [i.e. Eliezer] he will be my heir..." (see 15:3)

Avraham realizes that without a son, everything that he has acquired will be taken over by his servant Eliezer. But note the use of the verb "yorash" [which is usually understood simply as to 'inherit'] here, and in the psukim which follow:

"And God answered: That one [Eliezer] will not yo'rash you, rather your very own son (yet to be born) - he will yo'rash you... & then He said to him: I am the Lord who brought you out of Ur Kasdim to give you this land l'rishtah... then Avraham asked - b'mah eydah ki i'rashenah..." (see 15:4-8)

There can be no doubt that "yerusha" is the key word in this conversation, but what does it mean?

Throughout Chumash, "yerusha" almost always implies military conquest, usually by (or to become) a sovereign nation. [See for example Bamidbar 33:50-54!]. Here too, after his military victory, Avraham wants to know how his offspring will one day gain sovereignty over this land!

In Brit Bein Ha'btarim, we find the answer to Avraham's question: God informs Avraham Avinu that indeed his offspring will one day conquer ("yerusha") the land. However, this conquest will take place only after several generations of bondage in a foreign land, after which they will gain their independence and their oppressor shall be punished. [See 15:13-16.]

Therefore, in the aftermath of the war of the kings, an additional promise of "zera v'aretz" must be made, one which explains how the process of Avraham's offspring becoming a nation will unfold (see board #4).

Land for Purpose
This order of events that unfolds in Brit Bein Ha'Btarim is quite significant for it highlights the nature of our relationship to the land of Israel. Most nations first begin by a group of people living in a common land. First, we find a common land, and hence common needs, and then a common nation. In contrast to this, Am Yisrael will become a nation in a very different manner. We don't begin with a common land, rather we begin with a common goal (or destiny), i.e. to become God's model nation. As the Torah emphasizes, we will become a nation in a "land that is not ours" [see 15:13]. Technically speaking, our initial bonding is caused by a common plight and suffering in a foreign land. Only after we become a nation, and only after we receive the Torah at Har Sinai (the laws that teach us how we are to achieve our goal), only then do we conquer the Land that God has designated for us.

In other words, we are not a nation because we have a common land, rather we are a nation because we share a common goal, and to enable us to fulfill that goal God promises a special land. [Why specifically this aspect of God's promise requires a covenant ["Brit Bein Ha'Btarim"] is an important topic, but requires a separate shiur. If you would like some source material concerning the nature of a divine "brit", see Ramban on 6:18 as well as the Ramban here on 15:6.]

The Birth of Yishmael
The next 'parshia' in Parshat Lech L'cha describes the events that lead to the birth of Yishmael (see 16:1-16). God promises that he too will become a mighty nation, but a rather wild one (see 16:12). For some divine reason, God's intention is that Avraham's only chosen will be born to Sarah, but only after her lifelong struggle with barrenness.

However, before Avram and Sarai can give birth to this special child, God must change their names to Avraham and Sarah and enter into yet another covenant - "brit milah".

Brit Milah
The next 'parshia', describing the covenant of brit milah (see 17:1-11), contains the fourth and final promise of "zera v'aretz" in Parshat Lech L'cha. As this brit includes the very first mitzva that Avraham must keep and pass on to his children, its details are very important. In fact they are so important that their thematic significance has already been discussed in three earlier shiurim.
1) The significance of "brit milah" on the 'eighth day' was discussed at length in our shiur for Shmini Atzeret (sent out a few weeks ago/ see TSC archive for Parshat Tazria).
2) The thematic connection between "brit milah" and "brit bein ha'btarim" was discussed in our shiur for Chag ha'Matzot and on Parshat Bo.
3) The meaning the borders of the Land of Israel as detailed in "brit milah" (and "brit bein ha'btarim") was discussed in our shiur on Parshat Masei (see archive).

Therefore, we will not discuss "brit milah" in detail in this week's shiur. Instead, we will make note how this "brit" serves as the introduction to the birth of Yitzchak, and the prerequisite for his conception.

The following (and final) 'parshia' (17:15-27) details how Avraham fulfills this commandment. Yet, at the same time, God informs him the "bechira" process will continue only thru Yitzchak, who will soon be born (see 17:15-21); and not with Yishmael, even though he also fulfilled the mitzva of "brit milah" (see 17:20-24).

[Be sure to note the textual parallel between 17:7-8,19 and God's covenant with Noach in 6:18 and 9:8-17; "v'akmal".]

Iy"h, we will continue this topic of Avraham's "bechira" in next week's shiur as well. Till then, one small point in closing. We have shown how God's original choice of Avraham Avinu was not in reward for his merits, but rather in order that he fulfill God's mission - to become His nation. As this mission is eternal, so too is God's choice of the Jewish Nation.

This Biblical theme stresses our need to focus more so on our responsibility to act as God's special nation, and less so on those privileges that it includes.

Virtual ClassRoom enhancements by Ronni Libson.

For Further Iyun
1. Note Yeshayahu 42:6 and its context. Relate this pasuk to our shiurim thus far on Sefer Breishit. [Note that this is the opening pasuk of the Haftara for Parshat Breishit (& not by chance!).]

2. In God's first "hitgalut" to Avraham, He commands Avraham to migrate to the special land, which He has chosen for that nation.

Upon Avraham's arrival in that Promised Land (at Shechem), God indeed promises:

"...To your seed I will give this land..." (see 12:6-7)

In response to this promise, Avraham builds a mizbayach to thank God (see 12:7). Afterward, Avraham continues to Bet-el, the thematic climax of his first "aliya":

"...From there [Shechem] he moved up the mountain range to Bet-El... And he built a mizbayach there and called out b'shem Hashem - in God's name!" (12:8).

Take special note that Avraham not only builds a mizbayach in Bet-El, but he also calls out in God's name. In last week's shiur, we explained its significance - for that purpose that he is chosen. [Recall the contrast between Avraham who calls out in God's name - to the generation of Migdal Bavel who "made a name for themselves" (see 11:4)].

Ramban, in his commentary (to 12:8), explains this pasuk in a similar manner:

"...and Avraham would call out there in front of the Mizbayach and make known God's existence to all mankind..."

Even though this goal can only be fully realized when his offspring establish a nation in the land (see Devarim 4:5-8), it is thematically significant that Avraham himself attempts to achieve this goal, at least partially, immediately upon his arrival in the 'promised' land.

Then, Avraham's stay in Eretz Canaan is interrupted by a famine which forces him to travel to Egypt (see 12:10-13:1). Again, it is not by chance that upon his return to Eretz Canaan, he comes back specifically to this very same mizbayach at Bet-El. There, once again he calls out b'shem Hashem (see 13:1-4)!

This "kriya b'shem Hashem" takes on additional significance when we consider where Avraham arrives in Bet-El from on each occasion. Note that Avraham's first "aliya" is from mesopotamia (Ur Kasdim), and the second "aliyah" is from Egypt. It just so happens to be that these two locations are the two 'cradles' of ancient civilization. Considering that it is Avraham's destiny to bring God's Name to all nations, it is thematically significant that he calls out in God's Name [in Bet-El] upon his "aliya" from each of these two centers.

[This may also shed light on why God chose specifically Eretz Canaan - for it is located at the crossroads between these two centers of ancient civilization - "v'akmal".]

3. This theme, that Am Yisrael is chosen in order to bring God's Name to mankind, develops not only as a theme in Sefer Breishit, but also continues throughout the entire Tanach.

Later in Sefer Breishit (see 28:10-22) we find that God appears to Yaakov Avinu at Bet-El, and confirms His promise of "zera v'aretz". At this very site, where Avraham first called out in God's Name, Yaakov now proclaims that it is to become a "bet Elokim" - a House for God. The purpose of this House for God is explained in Sefer Devarim where Bnei Yisrael are commanded to establish a national religious center "ba'makom asher yivchar Hashem l'shakeyn shmo sham" - in the place which God will choose for His name to dwell there (see Devarim 12:5,11).

[As we explained in our shiurim on Sefer Devarim, this phrase, repeated numerous time in the sefer, describes the Bet Ha'Mikdash - which is to become a focal point through which God's reputation will become known to all mankind.]

Some four hundred years later, when the Mikdash if finally built, this same theme is reflected in Shlomo's prayer at its dedication ceremony:

"If a foreigner comes from a distant land for the sake of your name, for they shall hear about Your great name... when he comes to pray at this House... grant him what he asks, thus all the peoples of the earth will know Your name and revere You, as do Bnei Yisrael, and they will recognize that Your name is attached to this House which I have built." (Melachim I 8:43 /see also Shmuel II 7:22-27)

In fact, in the second paragraph of the 'Aleynu L'shabayach' [that you probably know by heart /"v'al kein n'kaveh...], we express a similar hope that:

"The world will be fixed by the Kingdom of God [shem Shakei] and all mankind will call out in Your name in order that all the wicked will turn towards You, let all the inhabitants of the earth know recognize that only unto You they should bow down..." (see your "siddur")

[Next time you 'doven' note how often this theme appears from the first pasuk in "hodu lashem - kiyru b'shmo..." - to the last line of "alyenu"!]

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