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This Week's Torah Portion: What Are Jews Learning at Synagogue Today? (Part 4)

Parashath Lech Lëcha (Genesis XII,1-XVII,27)

In our comments on last week’s parasha, we compared and contrasted the characters of two people classified in the Torah as tzaddiqim – “righteous men” – Noach and Avram. We concluded that, despite being “righteous in his deeds and perfect in his ways,” as the Talmud tells us, Noach was lacking some essential quality which made him a tzaddiq of a lesser order than Avram. Rashi puts his finger on the point, as always: Noach was not so different from his generation in one regard: “Even Noach was of the small in faith…”

Emuna and bittachon – “faith” and “trust” – are revealed in this week’s parasha as the well-springs of Avram’s character. Our parasha opens with an incident which, to our modern and jaded perspective, is well-nigh incredible. Avram is told: “Go forth from your land, and from your birthplace, and from your father’s house, to the land which I shall show you. And I shall make you a great nation, and I shall bless you, and I shall make your name great…”; XII,1-2). It is not recorded that Avram for one second questioned this high-handed order: “And Avram went as Ha-Shem had told him…” (ibid., v. 4).

It is to be remembered that the Jewish tradition tells us that Avram was 75 years old when he received this order. He had no children, by Sarai or anyone else. Yet, without doubt or question concerning his destination or the provenance of this “great nation” which was to come from him, Avram exiled himself and his entire entourage (his wife, his nephew Lot and the community of converts which had become attached to them in Charan) from all that he had known to an unknown destination. Despite every possible reasonable objection, Avram simply followed orders; it is perhaps indicative of Avram’s charisma that the others, despite not having heard the voice of G-d, followed Avram.

Similarly, a bit later, we are privy to another prophetic exchange in which Avram, still childless, is reassured again that he will have numerous descendants. But this time, when Ha-Shem visits Avram in a vision, Avram asks, “What will You give me? I continue to be childless, and the support of my household is Eli‘ezer of Damascus [Avram’s servant]. …To me You have not given a child, and a member of my household is inheriting from me” (XV,2-3).

The passage seems rather querulous; yet, as the great 13th century commentator Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban) notes, Avram was a prophet; surely he knew when he heard that a “great nation” would arise from him that it was G-d speaking, and “G-d is no man, who might lie” (Numbers XXIII,19). Yet here again, we are told: “And he believed in Ha-Shem and he considered it justice for him” (XV, 6).

What is going on here?

The last three words of the above passage, va-yachshëveha lo tzëdaa, are translated rather awkwardly because of their ambiguity, which has caused a difference of opinion between Rashi and the Ramban over how they are to be read.

Rashi reads them: “The Holy One, Blessed is He, considered it for Avram’s merit and justification because of the faith [Avram] had in Him”.

The Ramban questions this interpretation: “I do not understand what this ‘merit’ is. Why should he, the prophet himself, not believe in the faithful G-d?”, and goes on to note that a man who would later accept unquestioningly the command to slaughter his only son (cf. ibid., XXII) should have had no difficulty in believing in good news from the same source! Therefore, he reads the subject of va-yachshëveha as Avram, who considered it to be G-d’s will, and therefore justified, that he would have descendants, even at his advanced age.

Rabbi Naftali Tzëvi Yëhuda Berlin, in his Ha‘améq Davar, suggests that Avram’s second statement be read as an explanation or elucidation of the first. Avram saw his life’s work as the implanting of emunath Ha-Shem, “faith in G-d,” in the world. Like anyone else, he ached to pass on the “family business” to a son; yet, here he was, already elderly, and still childless. He had no doubt whatsoever that Ha-Shem would keep His word. He would indeed have offspring and a “great nation” would arise from him, but with each passing year it seemed less likely that he would live to educate them. Therefore, it seemed his “heir,” the one who would inherit this precious task and be a guardian and mentor to his children, would be the faithful Eli‘ezer.

We also find this hinted in the unusual word-order Dameseq Eli‘ezer (instead of the expected Eli‘ezer miDameseq, or haDamasqi), which long ago led the rabbis to interpret the term as a description of Eli‘ezer, doleh umashqeh, “drawing from his master’s Torah to water others” (Yoma 28b). Eli‘ezer was learning Avram’s “trade” just as a son would have done.

From the above, then, we can clearly understand the Ramban’s interpretation; what led Rashi to see things differently?

We can find a clue in verse 8. Immediately after telling us that Avram “believed in Ha-Sjhem va-yachsëveha lo tzëdaqa,” Ha-Shem reminds Avram that He has brought him from Ur Kasdim “to give you this land to inherit it”, i.e. that Avram’s descendants would inherit it. Avram’s astonishing response is, “How do I know that I shall inherit it?” The Ramban’s question returns with garish highlights: What sort of prophet and what kind of emuna is this?

To understand the answer, it is necessary to understand the subtle relationship between the words tzedeq and tzëdaqa. The root meaning of both words is “justice.” By this definition a tzaddiq is a “just man,” and in fact this is often the conventional translation of the term. But to anyone who possesses (as one of my teachers was fond of saying) a “living sense of the Hebrew language” a tzaddiq is far more than that. Beyond mere tzedeq, he engages in tzëdaqa which, the rabbis inform us, means that he goes lifnim mishurath hadin, “beyond the letter of the law” (Chullin 33a). The term thus comes close to the English word charity, with the difference that, unlike charity (derived from Latin caritas or “caring”), one performs acts of tzëdaa not merely because he is so moved, but because it is fundamentally right and just to do so.

It is in this sense that the great 16th century Rabbi ‘Ovadya Sforno understands the phrase va-yachshëveha lo tzëdaqa in our passage: “G-d considered this trust in Him a tzëdaqa and merit, and in this way we are assured that when Avram later said, ‘How will I know that I shall inherit it?’ he did not go back on his faith at all, for had he done so, his emuna would not have been considered tzëdaqa…”

So what did Avram mean? Rashi tells us: “[Avram] did not ask Him for a sign; rather, he was asking: Please tell me by what merit will [my descendants] be able to exist here?”

Avram was indeed a prophet who was being shown the entire future history of his progeny, both when they would be exalted and numerous as the starts (v. 5), but also when they would be otherwise. What would sustain and preserve his inhabitants in that far, bitter future? That they would be sustained he did not doubt, but through what?

So we see that our verse possesses a sort of “creative ambiguity,” admitting both interpretations at once. Avram’s demonstration of rock-solid faith in G-d in the face of what was clearly impossible by the laws of “nature” led G-d to grant Avram the “benefit of the doubt” when He heard his “how will I know.”

This sets the stage for G-d’s contract with Avram and the line of descent which would proceed through his son Yitzchaq to result in Israel. The Talmud proclaims that Avram’s emuna has come to be rooted in his progeny: “Israel are believers, sons of believers” (Shabbath 97a). Accordingly, Ha-Shem answered Avram’s question: Should your grandchildren sin and go off the path, the merit of the qorbanoth, sacrifices, will preserve them, as it is written, “Take for me three calves…” (v. 9, cf. Ta‘anith 27b).

This is the point of the Bërith bein habëtharim, the “signing ceremony” described in vv. 9-11. The nine animals (three each calves, goats and rams) are reminiscent of the sacrifices which would be offered in the Mishkan and the Temple, and simultaneously of the hostile nations of the word (cf. Psalms XXII,13 and Daniel VIII,3-25) whose power is destined to be broken and divided before Israel, whilst the bird, symbolic of Israel (cf. Song of Songs II,19), is not divided. Israel will not be divided, she is eternal. The ayit (a bird of prey) descends on the sacrifices to consume and abolish them, but Avram drives it away, just as Israel will one day bring an end to the exile under her anointed king, and restore the sacrifices (Rashi ad loc.).

The power of the qorbanoth lies in that each one entails a substantial sacrifice, that of a valuable animal, in order to come close (qarov) to Ha-Shem. In our day, an intermediate period when there is no Temple, the service of the qorbanoth (as the passage from Ta‘anith supra teaches us) is replaced by prayer. But the spirit of sacrifice for the sake of approaching Ha-Shem through tzëdaqa, by volunteering and donating time and resources to the needs of the community and Israel at large, by dedicating time to Torah study and prayer, all of these are very much with us, and serve to bring us closer to Ha-Shem.

It is indeed the qorbanoth which sustain Israel in her long and bitter exile.