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Guarantees of Faith

Lech Lecha (Genesis 12-17 )

by Rabbi Noson Weisz

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

This covenant is one of the cornerstones upon which the Jewish nation stands till the present day.

It is the first agreement recorded in the Torah between God and man that is arrived at by a process of dialogue/negotiation: it constitutes a legal contract between God and a human being where each takes on obligations and burdens.

We still announce today at the ceremony of circumcision that we are entering yet another Jewish child into the Covenant of Abraham. This covenant is an eternal part of the Jewish birthright.

As can be seen from the text, the subject of the agreement was the grant of the land of Israel to the children of Abraham. There are several conceptual difficulties surrounding this supremely vital treaty we have with God.

  1. Why is Israel different than other nations? Why do they all have a country as a matter of course, whereas Israel requires a covenantal grant to have its own piece of the earth?
  2. In this covenant God promised Abraham two things. Firstly, He promised him offspring; this promise Abraham accepted immediately, although the delivery on this promise seems like no simple matter as evidenced by God's manifest appreciation: And he trusted in God, and He reckoned it to his (Abraham's) credit as righteousness. (Ibid 6). Secondly, He promised Abraham the land of Israel; this promise Abraham seems to have had trouble accepting as he responded: My Lord God: whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it? (Ibid 7). This idea seemed so remote to Abraham that he asked God for a guarantee. Why did Abraham have more trouble accepting the promise of land than the promise of children?
  3. At the time of the signing of this covenant God told Abraham: Know with certainty that your offspring shall be aliens in a land not their own ― and they will serve them, and they will oppress them ― four hundred years. (Ibid,13) According to the Talmud (Nedorim, 32a) this 400-year exile and oppression were in retribution for Abraham's lack of faith, i.e. Abraham's failure to accept God's promise of the land of Israel at face value and his request for a guarantee. Doesn't this seem like a punishment out of all proportion to the crime? A 400-year exile for simply requesting a guarantee? Moreover, if Abraham deserves to be censured for his lack of faith, how does it make sense to impose the punishment on his great-great grandchildren long after his death?

In answering all these questions, let us begin by trying to understand why it took a covenant with God to allow Abraham to have children.

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

The Miracle Of A New Line

The Midrash (Bereishis raba, 39,7) relates that when God told Abraham to leave Ur, Abraham was nervous that people would criticize him for abandoning his parents just as they were getting old. God told Abraham that he is absolved from the obligation of honoring his parents. He added that he was the only person in all of human history who would ever receive such absolution. But why was Abraham absolved?

The Maharal explains in his work Gvuros Hashem (Ch.5) that Abraham 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.

But Abraham 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 God which prompted God to finally command Abraham to depart from Ur to go to live in the Holy Land was a heretofore unexploited human resource that Abraham obtained directly from Adam himself, as no human being had ever tapped into it before.

Abraham is described by the Midrash as the very first convert to Judaism:

The nobles of the peoples gathered, the nation of the God of Abraham (Psalms 47). The God of Abraham and not the God of Isaac and Jacob? The God of Abraham who was the very first convert to Judaism. [He is the noble of spirit among the peoples, as it was only Abraham's nobility of spirit that brought him to God. He was not raised to be a Jew by his parents. Isaac and Jacob already had Jewish parents.] (Yalkut, Tehilim, 754)

The ruling that applies to all new converts to Judaism, stated many times in the Talmud (Yevomat 48b among others) is that the convert is like a new born child. 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 Abraham, 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 Abraham 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 Genesis 15.

Outside The Control Of Nature

Rabbi Yehuda taught in the name of Rav: "How do we know that the fate of Jews is not under the control of natural law? It is written: And He took him outside, and said, 'Gaze, now, toward the heavens and count the stars if you are able to count them.' (Genesis 15:5) Abraham said to God, 'Master of the Universe, the steward of my house Eliezer is my heir.' God told him, 'You are wrong! Only him that shall come forth from within you shall inherit you.' (Ibid 4) Abraham said: 'I have consulted the stars, and I know that I am unable to have a son.' God replied, 'Abandon this science. It does not apply to you as the laws of nature do not determine the fate of Israel.'

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. Abraham 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. God was informing Abraham that he was correct in this assessment but it was irrelevant, as He, God, was moving him out of this entire system controlled by the stars.

However, there is a major difficulty in the way of going above nature and drawing energy straight from this ultimate source. God 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, Abraham 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.

The Power Of Faith

Here is where emuna or the power of belief 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 (and frequently do) 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. Abraham, 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 emuna or belief.

We can understand this by drawing a simple analogy from the world of sports. The Australian Olympic games were just recently concluded. Among the many featured articles dealing with all aspects of the games and their participants, there was a fascinating recurring theme. It seems that the successful contenders all devoted a considerable portion of their training to meditation instead of exercise. The meditation consisted of visualizing themselves as winners and reinforcing their belief in their capacity to win.

Thus, even people who obviously already possess the physical potential to surpass all other contenders in their field, have to resort to the spiritual power of emuna in order to actualize their potential and bring it to light in the real world. Despite their prowess, without emuna they cannot win. How much more must this principle apply to a capacity one doesn't actually have?

Splitting The Sea

Perhaps the most illustrative example of this principle at work is in the story of Nachshon ben Aminodov. In 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 God would save them and then immersed himself in prayer.

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

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 Voloz'hen, the student of the Gaon of Vilna:

God 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.

Nachshon ben Aminodov 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 God had told the children of Israel to start traveling. Following God's orders could not lead him into danger. Just before he reached the point of drowning this power of emuna finally parted the waters and others who were not on this level of emuna were also able to follow.

The connection between emuna and Abraham's children and the need for a covenant with God to bring this about is now clear.

Faith In Inheriting The Land

Let us now move on to the land of Israel.

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

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 God promised Abraham. Why did God want Abraham 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 God everywhere?

In the world as God arranged it, the human habitat is always perfectly adjusted to sustain the people it must support. The same spiritual forces that were implanted by God 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.

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. (Genesis 7:23) If man sinned why where the animals at fault? Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcho answered with a parable: "A man built a wedding canopy for his son and stocked it with all kinds of delicious foods. But his son died and thereupon he demolished the wedding canopy and scattered all that he had placed inside... [saying] 'Didn't I prepare all this for my son? Now that he is dead what do I need with any of it?' Similarly God said, 'Didn't I create all this for the sake of man? Now that man has sinned and is no longer, why do I need the animals?'" (Talmud, Sanhedrin 108a)

But if this is so, then Abraham's offspring must face another serious problem. For just as nature contained no spiritual energy that Abraham 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 Abraham 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, Abraham had to leave Ur and travel to Canaan. But to bring it to earth also required emuna. Oddly enough however, the reach for the habitat takes more emuna than the reach for offspring.

The Remedy

To understand this point let us consider the remedy for Abraham's lack of emuna, the 400-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:

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

The type of emuna required to calmly walk into the waves of the sea, or to follow God into the barren desert, is the type of faith 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 God.

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

Thus, the 400-year exile was not a punishment but a means by which the nation of Israel could acquire the necessary emuna to be able to settle and hold onto the land of Israel.

Holding Onto The Land

In the natural world there is no room or provision for the children of Abraham. But if they can survive intact for 400 years and grow into a great nation without their own land or country or army, they will internalize the emuna that their prosperity and survival comes from God Himself, bypassing the conduit of the world of nature. This emuna 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 400-years was sufficient to bequeath the Jewish people such great emuna, how much more potent should an exile of 2,000 years have proven to be. One would think that the Jewish people can certainly not be far away from the emuna 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 emuna after such a long period of survival against great odds?

The truth is that the power of emuna hidden in the Jewish people is immense. The trouble with emuna 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 emuna within us.

Before 1967, the power of our emuna 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 emuna has waned and so has our worldly success. The lessons of history are obvious. We have only to read the book.

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