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.