Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s Unlocking the Torah Text – Bereishit, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers
Towards the end of Parshat Lech Lecha God delivers two dramatic promises to Avraham. The patriarch reacts to each in vastly different ways.
God first states, “Look up to the heavens and count the stars if you can; thus will be your children.” Faced with this prediction, Avraham responds with unquestioning belief. God then continues, “I am the Lord Who took you out of Ur Casdim to give you this land to inherit.” Here, Avraham objects, “O Lord God, how do I know that I will inherit?”
In response to Avraham’s objection, God commands the patriarch to slaughter a series of animals, divide some of the carcasses in half and place each half opposite the other. God causes a deep sleep to fall on Avraham and appears to him in a dramatic vision. “Know full well,” God proclaims, “that your children will be strangers in a land not their own, where they will be tormented and enslaved for four hundred years…. And the fourth generation will return here…”
God’s presence then passes between the divided animals and a covenant between God and Avraham is struck, known as the Brit bein Habetarim, the “Covenant between the Pieces.”
Why does Avraham believe God’s promise concerning progeny, yet question the inheritance of the land? If it is within God’s power to bless Avraham and Sara with children after so many years of barrenness, He is certainly capable of ensuring that the Jewish nation will inherit its homeland. Compounding the problem is the fact that on two previous occasions God has already clearly promised that the land of Canaan will be given to Avraham’s descendants. Avraham, for some reason, does not question that promise until now.
On the flip side, God’s response to Avraham’s doubts seems abundantly strange. How is the prediction of Egyptian slavery meant to allay Avraham’s fears or answer his questions? Is there a message of reassurance hidden in the dark vision of exile and slavery? Or is this simply God’s way of saying that “all will be well that ends well”? Further, what is the significance of the ritual accompanying the Covenant between the Pieces?
Finally, on a deeper level, how does this entire episode affect the delicate balance existing between prescience (God’s knowledge of the future; see Bereishit 4, Approaches A) and man’s free will? Once God informs us of the future, is He not, then, predetermining it? Are Joseph and his brothers, the biblical characters whose actions will lead to the descent of the Jewish people into Egypt, simply actors playing out predetermined roles on a predefined stage?
The scholars of the Talmud and Midrash draw two direct yet vastly different connections between Avraham’s question and God’s response at the Covenant between the Pieces.
The first approach perceives the patriarch’s question as the catalyst for God’s dire prophecy. The very descent of the nation into Egyptian slavery will be a direct result of Avraham’s doubts. Shmuel said: ‘Why was our forefather Avraham punished through the enslavement of his children in Egypt for 210 years? Because he questioned the powers of God, by saying, ‘how do I know that I will inherit?’”
In Shmuel’s eyes, God’s message at this moment is not one of reassurance but punishment. You have doubted my power, and as a result your children will suffer through enslavement at the hands of strangers. Then, and only then, will they inherit the land.
Shmuel fails to explain why Avraham suddenly doubts God. He also raises the serious philosophical question of why children should be punished for a sin committed by their ancestor.
The question as to whether or not children are affected by the sins of their parents is dealt with on a number of occasions within rabbinic literature. The most well-known iteration of the issue is found in a Talmudic passage in the tractate of Brachot. The Talmud notes an apparent discrepancy between the following two biblical passages:
1. “He Who visits the iniquity of fathers on children and children’s children until the third and fourth generation.”
2. “Fathers shall not die because of their children, nor shall children die because of their fathers. Each individual will die in his own sin.”
The Talmud resolves the contradiction by suggesting that God will indeed punish children for their parents’ sins but only if the children persist in continuing in their parents’ ways.
Based upon this Talmudic passage, the following balance can be suggested.
Judaism absolutely rejects the Christian concept of “original sin” (the idea that all generations of mankind continue to bear guilt for the original sin of Adam and Chava). We are not responsible for the sins of others. We are each responsible for our own fate.
Judaism cannot deny the idea, however, of “intergenerational reverberation.” Our actions help shape our children’s lives, just as we are, in large measure, a product of our ancestors’ decisions and deeds.
We are not guilty of the sin committed by Adam and Chava. We do, however, still pay the price. This is not punishment, but, rather, a reality of life. Had Adam and Chava not sinned, we would now be living a very different existence in the Garden of Eden. We are still affected by the actions of our primal ancestors.
Similarly, such overarching life issues as where we are born, to whom, into what environment, and, in fact, whether or not we are born at all, are determined not by us and not only by God, but also by our parents and those who came before them as well.
If, as we have said before, the box that defines our lives is, in large measure, predetermined by God (see Bereishit 4, Approaches a), it is also partially created by those who precede us.
The Talmud warns that parents and grandparents should be careful of their decisions and actions, for they help shape the lives of generations to come. Their children will build upon what they have built, reaping the rewards or paying the price.
In the episode before us, for example, Avraham’s descendants are neither guilty of nor punished for his failings. They are, however, affected by his decisions and by his actions – either because they will learn from his example and make the same mistakes in their time, or because Avraham’s actions themselves will create a given set of circumstances that will reverberate across the ages and influence generations to come.
The second Midrashic approach focuses not on the substance of God’s prophecy but on the ritual that accompanies it.
“Rabbi Hiyya Bar Hanina said: [Avraham did not question] as an accuser but, rather, he asked, ‘By what merit [will my children inherit the land]?’ God responded, ‘By the atonements that I will give to Israel.’” Rabbi Hiyya goes on to explain that the animals used in the covenant ritual represented specific sacrifices that would be brought by the Jewish people as atonements throughout the ages.
Rashi summarizes Rabbi Hiyya’s approach as follows: “Avraham asked, ‘In what merit?’ and God responded, ‘In the merit of the sacrifices.’”
According to this approach, Avraham is not questioning God’s power at all. He is instead questioning his own merit and that of his progeny. He believes in God’s ability but he doubts his own.
Textual support for Rabbi Hiyya’s position can be found in the seemingly superfluous word lerishta, “to inherit,” found at the end of God’s promise to Avraham concerning the land. In its active conjugation, this word does not mean to inherit but to conquer and acquire.10 God is informing Avraham that the land will not be given to his children as a gift. They will have to actively acquire the land when the time comes.
When the patriarch hears that his children will have to participate in the conquest of Canaan, he realizes, for the first time, that the acquisition of the land is not a foregone conclusion. He therefore asks: “How do I know that they will do their part? How do I know that they will inherit the land?”
God responds by reassuring Avraham that his children will indeed merit a return to their homeland. The source of that merit will be their religious devotion, represented by the sacrifices they will offer across the years. This reassurance is then driven home through the symbolic ritual of the covenant itself.
While Rabbi Hiyya focuses on the ritual of the covenant as a response to Avraham’s self-doubts, perhaps the prophecy of exile itself contains an element of reassurance. God is saying to Avraham that his children will inherit the land because when the time comes to leave Egypt, they will rise to the challenge. After centuries of slavery, they will still be a recognizable people and they will respond to God’s call.
In that merit, they will inherit the land.
Interpreted this way, the Covenant between the Pieces can also be seen as a harbinger of exiles to come. Throughout our turbulent history, we will be challenged, against great odds, to retain our integrity as a people and to keep the dream of return to our Homeland alive. How much greater is the challenge in our own day when the possibility of such return is real.
Finally, there are those commentaries, Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch among them, who see no element of doubt at all in Avraham’s reaction. They claim that the patriarch, hearing for the first time that his children will have to actively conquer the land, simply asks, Ba’ma eida? How will I know when the time is right?
God responds: It will not happen in your time, or in your children’s time, or in their children’s time. Only after generations, only after exile, will your descendents conquer the land.
Points to Ponder
The tension between God’s foreknowledge of events and our own free will comes to a head when we encounter an event such as the Covenant between the Pieces (for a brief discussion of the concepts of free will, prescience and predestination see Bereishit 4, Approaches a). For while God’s prescience does not normally affect our actions in any way, the moment He shares a prediction of the future with us the equation changes dramatically. How much choice can we have if we know that events are already predetermined? How much choice, for that matter, did Joseph and his brothers have concerning Joseph’s sale, the catalyst for our exile in Egypt?
While a full discussion of the issues raised by this question is well beyond the scope of our text, the following brief comment can be made.
God will often paint the broad brushstrokes of history but allow us to fill in the details. We are told, for example, that the Mashiach (Messiah) is destined to come, bringing with him the culmination of our nation’s story. How he comes, when he comes, how much difficulty or ease will precede his arrival, and which of us will be there to greet him are all issues that are determined by our actions. Similarly, while God predicted in general fashion that the Jewish people would experience hardship and exile in a strange land, the details of how those events came to fruition were determined by the actions of the personalities at the time. (For a more complete discussion of these issues see Vayeishev 3, Approaches a.)