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20.10.2015 19:58    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  parashah  lech lecha  shimon  

"Until Abraham came and received the reward of all"


The twelfth chapter of Genesis begins with a dramatic and unexpected instruction to Abraham[1] from G-d, insofar as He does not introduce himself,[2] telling him to leave his family and his country and go to another land.  Although Abraham's name is mentioned in passing in parashat Noah, Scripture gives not the slightest hint why he became the object of the Lord's attention,[3] nor how what had transpired thus far in the world, according to Scripture, was connected with the promise given Abraham that he would become "a great nation."  As for the second question, the Sages found a hint in the fact that the number of generations from Adam to Noah equals the number from Noah to Abraham:  ten,[4] and this fact invites comparison of the two periods.  On one hand, they bear certain similarities:  in both, mankind "provoked the Lord," and in both the Holy One, blessed be He, was "long-suffering" and waited for a change.  But each of these eras came to an end under different circumstances:  one, to a tragic end, and the other, an end full of hope.  Noah's generation brought on a flood and the end of the world as it had been known until then, whereas the tenth generation of the second era brought Abraham who, as the Mishnah puts it, "received the reward of all."  What is meant by this expression and what does it seek to teach us?

The points of similarity hint that both figures, Noah and Abraham, represent turning points in the history of mankind.  Throughout the entire first era G-d hoped that the human beings whom He had created in His image would be capable to attain the requisite social and moral development on their own, but apparently what had transpired in the Garden of Eden had so badly spoiled and destroyed the balance between good and evil in the world that G-d decided to bring on the flood.  G-d, however, did not despair of mankind and decided to try to maintain the world once more, starting from the very best of what remained from the old world, that is, Noah and his family, and with the best of the animal and plant world (Gen. 8:21-22).

Nevertheless, the generations following Noah also did not act as the Lord desired; they still provoked him, but even so they were not quite a total failure.  Mankind had several good traits that could be built upon, and therefore the Lord decided to give humanity a second chance, but this time with a new plan:  to create a special nation, known in history as the Lord's people, a nation whose role would be to serve as living proof of the presence of G-d in the world, in order to provide other nations an incentive to attain the desired end.[5]

The new plan was based on the recognition that universal brotherhood is an illusion and that the basic organized social unit would always remain the nation.  Only a nation, a group of various people who draw together out of choice and who undertake to be loyal to a centralized moral authority, and who are prepared to accept responsibility for economic, security and educational problems, only such a group can serve as an example to mankind in general,[6] especially if that nation acts in history according to the values of the Lord.  Only then can it serve as a source of inspiration and blessing to "all the families of the earth" (Gen. 12:3).  In Abraham G-d found the appropriate figure to initiate His new plan.[7]

However, if the plan was to create a special nation, what was the point and function of all the stories in Genesis?  Might it not have been more fitting to begin with Exodus and national events such as the exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Torah?!  The answer is that the strength and resilience of any nation depend on the strength and moral maturity of each of the families comprising the nation.  The stories of the patriarchs portray a great laboratory in which bitter struggles take place between fathers and sons, among siblings, or between husbands and wives, from which we learn a great deal about commonplace problems facing any family.  The Sages said:  "There are but three forefathers called patriarchs and four mothers called matriarchs" (Berakhot 9a).  In other words, matriarch and patriarch are not honorific titles such as could be given to Joseph or David, for example.  Rather, they are terms intrinsically limited to our three patriarchs and four matriarchs insofar as they, and only they, serve as the source of the Israelite soul (in terms of the genetic and experiential heritage they passed down).  As testimony to this notion is the fact that when Jacob and his family went down to Egypt to begin building the Israelite nation, the Torah tells us that the sons of Israel came "each…with his household" (Ex. 1:1).  Each one came with his household as a fundamentally complete unit.

After twenty-four years during which Abraham traversed the land of Canaan, and after the events that brought him to Egypt and close to Damascus, the Lord made a covenant with him that was renewed with Isaac[8] as well as Jacob (Gen. 28:13-16).  In this covenant G-d promised them offspring as numerous "as the dust of the earth" (Gen. 13:16) and "as the stars of heaven" (Gen. 22:16), and all the land of Canaan, "from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates" (Gen. 15:18).  This is known as the covenant with the patriarchs, and is different from the covenant of Sinai (Deut. 28:69), which the Lord made with the Israelites when He gave them the Torah.

Regarding this, Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik raises a question:[9] a covenant, as we know, involves mutual consent binding the parties and imposing various obligations.  For example, in the covenant at Sinai G-d undertook to safeguard the nation,[10] and the Israelites, on their part, undertook to keep and observe His laws and statutes.  In the covenant of the patriarchs the Lord's promises were clear, but whether or not specific duties were imposed on the patriarchs is unclear.[11] Assuming the covenant is still valid today, what obligations does it place on us?  Rabbi Soloveitchik's answer was that the "actions of the fathers foretell what will be with the sons."  We must learn from the patriarchs not only what we are to do, but also what it is within our power to do, what we are capable of doing.  As he put it:  "When we study the stories of the patriarchs we absorb their values and scope of emotions into our Jewish consciousness."

The message of the covenant at Sinai was conveyed to the children of Israel through the commandments, whereas the message of the covenant with the patriarchs was conveyed to them by means of personal example, as the Sages said:  every person should say, "When will my deeds measure up to the deeds of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?"[12] According to Soloveitchik, the covenant with the patriarchs has another important implication:  common sense would say that the development of history follows the principle of causality, meaning that past events determine the future.  But in the covenant of the patriarchs, G-d declared that the history of the people of Israel will be influenced by its destiny, by the vision of the end of days.  The glorious future that G-d designed for the world and mankind is what draws history forward, like a magnet, to realize His plans.  Even if some rabbis expressed the view that the "merit of the patriarchs has been exhausted," clearly the covenant of the patriarchs has not (Shabbat 55.  Also see Tosefotloc. cit.).

The admiration of the inhabitants of Canaan for Abraham, expressed in declarations such as, "You are the elect of G-d among us" (Gen. 23:6), reflects the deeper significance in the title of this article.  Some of the good in each of the generations throughout the years accumulated to create a beneficial and moral basic culture that spread throughout the region.  Scripture provides evidence that an atmosphere of decency enveloped Abraham, and this context can explain the behavior of Melchizedek (Gen. 14:18) or Abraham's steward Eliezer.  Also the fact that Abraham could traverse the length and breadth of the land fearlessly attests to this, and Abraham's words, "I thought surely there is no fear of G-d in this place" (Gen. 20:11), prove that he apparently sensed it in other places.  These comfortable circumstances were the "reward" that Abraham received from the generations that preceded him and were what made his task easier.  Thus, when Abraham built an altar, and "proclaimed loudly the name of Him who had let His divinity be known,"[13] there were people around who were capable of hearing, understanding, and perhaps also answering, "Amen."

Translated by Rachel Rowen

* Dr. Shimon Eliezer (Shubert) Spero is the Irving Stone Professor of Jewish Thought at Bar Ilan University and author of Aspects of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik's Philosophy of Judaism: An Analytic Approach (Ktav, 2009).

[1] He is called Abram from this chapter until chapter 17.

[2] To Jacob, G-d said, "I am the Lord, the G-d of your father Abraham and the G-d of Isaac" (Gen. 28:13); to Moses, He said, "I am the G-d of your father, the G-d of Abraham, the G-d of Isaac, and the G-d of Jacob" (Ex. 3:6).  According to the midrash (see below), G-d presented Himself to Abraham as the Creator of the Universe.

[3] "Since Abraham our father said, 'Is it conceivable that the world is without a guide?' the Holy One, blessed be He, looked out and said to him, 'I am the Guide, the Sovereign of the Universe'" (Genesis Rabbah 39.1; Soncino edition, p. 313).  This homily fits in with the theory that Noah's son Eber was a sort of teacher and founder of a philosophical sect that believed in living morally.  His disciples and followers were called Ivriyim, thus we have Abraham the Ivri or Hebrew (Gen. 14:13).  It was to this faith that Abraham converted people, as Scripture says, "and the persons they had acquired in Haran" (Gen. 12:5, also see Rashi, loc. cit.).

[4] "There were ten generations from Adam to Noah to make known how long-suffering G-d is, seeing that all the generations continued to provoke Him, until He brought upon them the waters of the Flood.  There were ten generations from Noah to Abraham, to make known how long-suffering G-d is, for all those generations provoked Him continually, until Abraham came and received the reward they [should] all [have earned]" (Avot 5.2).  According to the Maharal of Prague, just as the number ten is complete and contains all the digits, so ten generations include all the various types of generations (Derekh Hayyim, a commentary on Tractate Avot).

[5] "The people I formed for Myself that they might declare my praise" (Isa. 43:21).

[6] To have "fame and renown and glory" (Deut. 26:19), or to be a "consternation, a proverb, and a byword" (with negative connotations, Deut. 28:37).

[7] As it says in Scripture, "Finding his heart true to You" (Neh. 9:8).  The Sages remarked:  "The Holy One, blessed be He, found three 'findings':  Abraham, David, and Israel" (Genesis Rabbah 29.3).  A "finding" is something good that a person suddenly discerns, and considering the circumstances, Abraham's appearance on the scene was indeed a "finding."

[8] Genesis 26:3-5.  "Covenant" aptly describes the relationship between G-d and the Children of Israel and is such a fundamental concept that it is considered a defining component of Judaism (Covenantal Judaism.  The "covenant" concerns the relationship between G-d and a group, a nation, and progeny to come in future generations and eras; hence the need for a formal legal statement, a covenant.

[9] From a class given by Rabbi Soloveitchik (1973).

[10] Exodus 20:2, and Sforno, loc. cit.

[11] Generally speaking the covenant bound the generations preceding giving of the Torah to be faithful to the vision of the Covenant of the Pieces, i.e., to accept their destiny in history with patient understanding that all would lead towards the promised future, and of course also to observe the rite of circumcision.

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