Avraham - אברהם 

By Rabbi Dr. Hillel ben David (Greg Killian)

 


In Bereshit (Genesis) chapter 15 we read of one of the most significant turning points in the history of man. We find Avraham making himself into dust and ashes and then using this dust to make himself into an entirely new creature.

 

We read this significant chapter twice in a Sabbatical cycle, when using the triennial Torah cycle. We read it once in the end of Kislev just before the tekufat Tebet[1] and again in the end of Sivan just before the tekufat Tammuz.[2] It is read both times on the last Shabbat before Rosh Chodesh. The timing suggests a significant turning point in the year. This is an entirely appropriate time to read of the turning point of mankind.

 

The following study is based on a study by Rabbi Noson Weisz.

 

The first covenant recorded in the Torah between HaShem and man that is arrived at by a process of negotiation is recorded in Bereshit:

 

Bereshit (Genesis) 15:18 On that day HaShem made a covenant with Avraham saying, "To your descendants have I given this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates river.

 

This covenant constitutes a legal contract between HaShem and man where each takes on obligations and burdens. This covenant is a major cornerstone upon which the Bnai Israel, the Children of Israel, stands.

 

As can be seen from the above text, the subject of the covenant was the grant of the land of Israel to the children of Avraham. In this covenant HaShem promised Avraham two things:

 

1. HaShem promised him offspring. Avraham accepted this part of the covenant:

 

Bereshit (Genesis) 15:2 And Abram said, Lord HaShem, what wilt thou give me, seeing I go childless, and the steward of my house is this Eliezer of Damascus? 3  And Abram said, Behold, to me thou hast given no seed: and, lo, one born in my house is mine heir. 4  And, behold, the word of HaShem came unto him, saying, This shall not be thine heir; but he that shall come forth out of thine own bowels shall be thine heir. 5  And he brought him forth abroad, and said, Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them: and he said unto him, So shall thy seed be. 6  And he believed in HaShem; and he counted it to him for righteousness.

 

2. HaShem promised Avraham the land of Israel. This promise Avraham raised some doubts for Avraham:

 

Bereshit (Genesis) 15:7 And he said unto him, I am HaShem that brought thee out of Ur of the Chaldees, to give thee this land to inherit it. 8  And he said, Lord HaShem, whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it?

 

Why did the promise of the land raise doubts in Avraham’s mind? Why did Avraham have more trouble accepting the promise of land than the promise of children?

 

At the time of the signing of this covenant HaShem told Avraham:

 

Bereshit (Genesis) 15:13  And he said unto Abram, Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years; 14  And also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge: and afterward shall they come out with great substance.

 

The four hundred year exile began when Avraham’s descendent, Yitzchak, was born. A Hundred and ninety years later, Avraham’s descendents went into exile in Egypt. They spent two hundred and ten years in Egypt. According to the Gemara, this 210 year exile and oppression were a result of Avraham's questioning HaShem’s promise of the land of Israel, and his subsequent request for proof:

 

Nedarim 32a R. Abbahu said in R. Eleazar's name: Why was our Father Abraham punished and his children doomed to Egyptian servitude for two hundred and ten years? Because he pressed scholars into his service, as it is written, He armed his dedicated servants born in his own house. Samuel said: Because he went too far in testing the attributes [i.e., the promises] of the Lord, as it is written, [And he sand, Lord God,] whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it? R. Johanan sand: Because he prevented men from entering beneath the wings of the Shechinah, as it is written, [And the king of Sodom said it to Abraham,] Give me the persons, and take the goods to thyself.

 

Why did HaShem have such a significant time period attached to Avraham’s question? A two hundred and ten year exile for simply asking a question? In answering all these questions, let us begin by trying to understand why it took a covenant with HaShem to allow Avraham to have children.

 

We are not only seeking an explanation for the workings of HaShem that determined that Avraham and Sarah should be naturally childless. We also have to explain why a couple bearing a child in their middle years[3] takes on the proportions of such an immense miracle. After all, Avraham was willing to enter a fiery furnace[4] out of loyalty to HaShem, so why did the mere belief in the promise of having children earn him so much praise from HaShem? What is so immense here?

 

The Midrash relates that when HaShem told Avraham to leave Ur, Avraham was nervous that people would criticize him for abandoning his parents just as they were getting old. HaShem told Avraham that he is absolved from the obligation of honoring his parents.

 

Midrash Rabbah - Genesis 39:7 Now what precedes this passage? And Terah died in Haran (ib. XI, 32), [which is followed by] NOW THE LORD SAID UNTO ABRAM: GET THEE (LEK LEKA). R. Isaac said: From the point of view of chronology a period of sixty-five years is still required.[5] But first you may learn that the wicked, even during their lifetime, are called dead.[6] For Abraham was afraid, saying, ' Shall I go out and bring dishonour upon the Divine Name, as people will say, “He left his father in his old age and departed”? ‘Therefore the Holy One, blessed be He, reassured him: ‘I exempt thee  (leka) from the duty of honouring thy parents, though I exempt no one else from this duty.[7] Moreover, I will record his death before thy departure.’ Hence, 'And Terah died in Haran’ is stated first, and then, NOW THE LORD SAID UNTO ABRAM, etc.

 

HaShem added that Avraham was the only person in all of human history who would ever receive such absolution. But why was Avraham absolved?

 

The Maharal[8] explains in his work Gevurat HaShem[9] that Avraham received this absolution because he was a new beginning. Usually, children inherit their potential, whether physical or spiritual, entirely from their parents. As such, they owe their parents honor and respect as the ultimate source of their beings.

 

On his own, Avraham climbed to a new pinnacle of spirituality. Avraham did not inherit his spiritual potential from anyone. On his own he climbed to a new pinnacle of spirituality whose potential was innate in all human beings but that no one else had ever actualized since the fall of Adam.

 

The ability to form the powerful spiritual bond with HaShem which prompted HaShem to finally command Avraham to depart from Ur to go to live in the Holy Land was a heretofore unexploited human resource that Avraham obtained directly from Adam himself, as no human being had ever tapped into it before.

 

Avraham is described by the Midrash[10] as the very first convert to Judaism:

 

Tehillim (Psalms) 47:9 The princes of the people are gathered together, even the people of the God of Abraham: for the shields of the earth belong unto God: he is greatly exalted.

 

The God of Avraham and not the God of Yitzchak and Yaaqov? The God of Avraham who was the very first convert to Judaism. [He is the noble of spirit among the peoples, as it was only Avraham's nobility of spirit that brought him to HaShem. He was not raised to be a Jew by his parents. Isaac and Jacob already had Jewish parents.] The ruling that applies to all new converts to Judaism, stated many times in the Talmud is that the convert is like a new born child.

 

Yevamoth 48b R. Jose said: One who has become a proselyte is like a child newly born.[11]

 

In the eyes of Jewish Law, he is no longer related to his previous family. On the other hand, all converts are considered the children of Avraham, their predecessor and the very first convert.

 

But there is a necessary downside to this. The ability to have children is also a potential one inherits from his parents. Indeed, it could be argued that the human genome is the most basic human factor that is transmitted from generation to generation. Each and every human being who is born represents yet another link in the endless chain of DNA that stretches all the way back to the first man. If Avraham is not a continuation of this chain, but represents an entirely new human departure, then it follows that he cannot serve as a connecting link along the existing chain of generations, but has to originate a brand new chain of his own. To transform oneself is one thing. To be able to transmit this transformation to all future generations of one's descendants is quite another. This is the background to the covenant described in Bereshit (Genesis) 15.

 

Above The Stars 

 

Shabbath 156a Rab too holds that Israel is immune from planetary influence. For Rab Judah said in Rab's name: How do we know that Israel is immune from planetary influence? Because it is said, and he brought him forth from abroad.[12] Abraham pleaded before the Holy One, blessed be He, ‘Sovereign of the Universe! one born in mine house is mine heir.’ ‘Not so,’ He replied, ‘but he that shall come forth out of thine own bowels.’ ‘Sovereign of the Universe!’ cried he, ‘I have looked at my constellation and find that I am not fated to beget child.’ ‘Go forth from [i.e., cease] thy planet [gazing], for Israel is free from planetary influence.

 

According to Jewish thought, all physical potential is mapped out in the stars, which serve as both reservoir and conduit of the spiritual force required to bring about all physical changes in the world. Avraham was an expert in the science of reading the stars. Thus he concluded, that his lack of offspring did not result from a mere physical defect which could theoretically be repaired by some sort of operation or its miraculous equivalent, but was due to the fact that the natural universe contained no spiritual energy that could be translated into providing him with offspring. HaShem was informing Avraham that he was correct in this assessment but it was irrelevant, as He, HaShem, was moving him out of this entire system controlled by the stars.

 

There is a major difficulty in going above nature and drawing energy straight from this ultimate source.

 

However, there is a major difficulty in the way of going above nature and drawing energy straight from this ultimate source. HaShem may be perfectly willing to supply the necessary inputs, but the recipient has to be able to reach up all the way to the ultimate source to be able to receive this input. In order to be able to accomplish this, Avraham had to somehow increase his own stature so that he could reach above nature, and such length of reach was not yet programmed into human beings.

 

Here is where emunah[13] or the power of faithful obedience comes in to the picture. Suppose that a person who is naturally potent genuinely believes himself or herself to be sterile. As they inherited the capacity to conceive from their parents, and such capacity is already part of their phenotypes, their lack of belief is unlikely to interfere with their ability to actually bring children into the world. They may find themselves shocked to be pregnant. But the contrary is certainly not so. For someone who did not inherit any such capacity, belief is very much an issue. Avraham, who was not born with a capacity to reproduce and had to acquire it in midlife, could only accomplish such acquisition through the power of emunah, faithful obedience.

 

Perhaps the most illustrative example of this principle at work is in the story of Nachshon ben Aminadav. In Shemot (Exodus) 14, the Torah relates the story of the splitting of the sea. The pursuing Egyptians found the Jewish people encamped on the shores of the Red Sea and began their attack. Faced by the sea on one side, and the hostile Egyptians on the other, the Jewish people had nowhere to run. Moses assured them that HaShem would save them and then immersed himself in prayer.

 

Shemot (Exodus) 14:15 The Lord said to Moses: “Moses, Why do you cry out to me? Speak to the Children of Israel and let them journey forth.”

 

But what else was Moses supposed to do? The sea was raging before them. There was nothing else to do except pray. Explains Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, the student of the Gaon of Vilna:

 

HaShem told Moses that from His part, He had done everything He could possibly do to split the sea. But the miracle could not happen unless the Jewish people believed it could happen. They had to start moving in to the sea as though it would get out of their way.”

 

The Gemara[14] relates that Nachshon ben Aminadav walked straight into the water. First it covered his knees, soon he was immersed in the water up to his neck, and finally it was over his nose and he began to drown. But Nachshon believed that the water could not drown him, as HaShem had told the children of Israel to start traveling. Following HaShem's orders could not lead him into danger. Just before he reached the point of drowning this power of emunah finally parted the waters and others who were not on this level of emunah were also able to follow. His faithful obedience was the key!

 

The connection between emunah and Avraham's children and the need for a covenant with HaShem to bring this about is now clear.

 

Let us now move on to the land of Israel.

 

If Avraham had the necessary strength of emunah to reach above nature, connect directly to HaShem, and bring the power of reproduction down to the world, why did this emunah fail him about receiving the land of Israel? Why did he ask for a guarantee on this promise?

 

We must understand what is so special about this land of Israel that HaShem promised Avraham.

 

The answer to this question also emerges from these same ideas that we have been exploring. First of all, we must understand what is so special about this land of Israel that HaShem promised Avraham. Why did HaShem want Avraham to leave a place where he had a large following and was a major force for good and travel to the land of Canaan? After all isn’t HaShem everywhere?

 

In the world as HaShem arranged it, the human habitat is always perfectly adjusted to sustain the people it must support. The same spiritual forces that were implanted by HaShem into nature which produce human children also must be able to produce the energy required to sustain them. It would be futile to place human beings into the world without providing them with the necessities of survival. This connection between man and his world is clearly enunciated in the following passage of the Talmud, commenting on the following Torah pasuk.

 

Bereshit (Genesis) 7:23 And He blotted out all existence that was on the face of the ground -- from man to animals to creeping things and to the bird of the heavens.

 

Sanhedrin 108a And every living substance was destroyed which was upon the face of the ground, [both man and cattle]. If man sinned, how did the beasts sin? — A Tanna taught on the authority of R. Joshua b. Karha: This may be compared to a man who set up a bridal canopy for his son, and prepared a banquet with every variety [of food]. Subsequently his son died, whereupon he arose and broke up the feast, saying, ‘Have I prepared all this for any but my son? Now that he is dead, what need have I of the banquet?’ Thus the Holy One, blessed be He, said too, ‘Did I create the animals and beasts for aught but man: now that man has sinned, what need have I of the animals and beasts?’

 

But if this is so, then Avraham's offspring must face another serious problem. For just as nature contained no spiritual energy that Avraham could draw on to reproduce, it also contained no energy for the habitat to sustain any potential offspring that he might have. The promise of offspring and the promise of the land of Israel are thus intertwined.

 

Just as Avraham had to surmount nature to access his children, he had to reach above the natural world to provide them with a habitat. This habitat is the land of Israel. To bring this down to earth, Avraham had to leave Ur and travel to Canaan. But to bring it to earth also required emunah. Oddly enough however, the reach for the habitat takes more emunah than the reach for offspring.

 

To understand this point let us consider the remedy for Avraham's lack of emunah, the four hundred year long exile, a large part of which was the 210 years spent in Egypt in a state of oppression. The final step of the Exodus was the splitting of the sea referred to above about which is written:

 

Shemot (Exodus) 14:31 And the people revered HaShem, and they had faith in HaShem and in Moses, His servant.

 

The type of emunah required to calmly walk into the waves of the sea, or to follow HaShem into the barren desert, is the type of faithful obedience that is ready to accept the possibility of existing in the physical world without the aid of any natural inputs. Thus man can breathe in the absence of air, can relieve his thirst in the absence of water, and can satisfy his hunger in the absence of food if that is the will of HaShem.

 

It takes great emunah to be able to reach up to heaven and bring the land of Israel down to earth.

 

It is obviously this type of emunah in HaShem that is required to be able to reach up to heaven and bring the land of Israel down to earth. Avraham was not certain that he could pass this type of emunah down the chain of generations along with his genes. He knew that in the absence of such emunah it was impossible to hold on to the land of Israel. And so, he asked HaShem for a guarantee.

 

Thus, the four hundred year exile was not a punishment but a means by which the nation of Israel could acquire the necessary emunah to be able to settle and hold onto the land of Israel.

 

In the natural world there is no room or provision for the children of Avraham. But if they can survive intact for four hundred years and grow into a great nation without their own land or country or army, they will internalize the emunah that their prosperity and survival comes from HaShem Himself, bypassing the conduit of the world of nature. This emunah will also give them a long enough reach to stretch their arm all the way up to heaven and bring down for themselves their country, Israel.

 

If an exile of four hundred years was sufficient to bequeath the Jewish people such great emunah, how much more potent should an exile of two thousand years have proven to be. One would think that the Jewish people can certainly not be far away from the emunah necessary to bring the final redemption. Yet we are experiencing great difficulties in merely hanging on to a portion of the land of Israel. Why is this so? How can we explain such a total lack of emunah after such a long period of survival against great odds?

 

The truth is that the power of emunah hidden in the Jewish people is immense. The trouble with emunah is that we only push the switch that turns it on when we are convinced that there is no way to achieve our objectives according to natural law.

 

If we look at the history of modern Israel, it is clearly divisible into two parts. Before 1967 everything we touched turned to gold. Since then things haven't gone so smoothly to put it mildly.

 

This difference in our success in the outer world is entirely matched by the rise and fall of the power of emunah within us.

 

Before 1967, the power of our emunah was at full strength. Back then, we looked at ourselves as a people who had to survive against great odds through the strength of our faith and determination. The world has regarded us this way as well. Since then we've come to regard ourselves as a local superpower who is able to manage on its own. The world also treats us this way.

 

As our emunah has waned and so has our worldly success. The lessons of history are obvious. We have only to read the book.

 

* * *

 

This study was written by

Rabbi Dr. Hillel ben David

(Greg Killian).

Comments may be submitted to:

 

Rabbi Dr. Greg Killian

4544 Highline Drive SE

Olympia, WA 98501

 

Internet address:  gkilli@aol.com

Web page:  http://www.betemunah.org/

 

(360) 918-2905

 

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[1] The winter solstice

[2] The summer solstice

[3] Avraham lived to 175 and Sarah to 127; they were only a 100 and 90 respectively when they had Isaac; that is to say middle aged

[4] Midrash Rabbah - Genesis 34:9, Midrash Rabbah - Genesis 38:13

[5] To bring the narrative to the death of Terah. For Terah was seventy years old at Abram's birth (Gen. XI, 26), whilst Abram departed from Haran at the age of seventy-five (ib. XlI, 4); hence Terah, whose age at death was two hundred and five (ib. XI, 32), died sixty-five years after this command, and yet it is narrated before.

[6] Hence Terah is already in his lifetime called dead. (Though it is stated supra, 38:12, that he repented, presumably this was much later.)

[7] This is deduced from the emphasis GET THEE (LEK LEKA), where lek  (‘go’) alone would have sufficed.

[8] Hakham Judah Loew ben Bezalel

[9] Chapter 5

[10] Tehilim 47:10 Rashi D”H Am & Malbim D”H Am; Yalkut Shimoni Tehilim Remez 754; Yalkut Shimoni Shir Hashirim Remez 992 and Machzor Vitri siman 287. See also Bava Batra 15A that identifies Eisan HaEzrachi as Avraham Avinu.

[11] All his previous sins are forgiven.

[12] Genesis 15:5

[13] Emunah = Faithfulness, faithful obedience.

[14] Sota 37a