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Parashat Lekh Lekha

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Lekh Lekha 5760/1999

"Formerly" and "at first" in Abram's journeys

Prof. Jacob Eliahu Efrati

Department of Talmud

"And he proceeded by stages from the Negeb as far as Bethel, to the place where his tent had been formerly, between Bethel and Ai, the site of the altar which he had built there at first" (Gen. 13:3-4). Rashi comments: "'That he had built there at first, and there Abram invoked' -- where Abram had invoked the Lord by name. And one could also say that he invoked the Lord by name now." According to these two interpretations, the words ba-tehilah ("formerly") and ba-rishonah ("at first") are not significantly different in meaning. According to both, Abram reached the place in his journeys where he had formerly pitched his tent and where he had previously called on the name of the Lord (according to the first interpretation), or where he now called on the name of the Lord (according to the second interpretation). In both interpretations, he reached one place-- Bethel.

Onkelos, the Aramaic Targum, rendered both words, "formerly" and "at first," with the same word in Aramaic, as if to say there is no significant difference in meaning. The Aramaic translation attributed to Jonathan ben Uzziel, however, rendered each word differently, indicating that he thought a distinction should be made between them.

I noticed that in Ha'amek Davar, Rabbi Naphtali Zvi Judah Berlin (the Netziv) apparently follows Rashi's interpretation: ba-tehilah, the first place he pitched his tent was there, since in Shechem--the first site which Abram reached in Canaan (12:6)-- he never pitched his tent at all. He continues: ["the site of the altar which he had built there at first"] ba-rishonah, at first -- meaning the first time around, when he was at that site; but that was not the absolute beginning of his erecting altars, since he had also done so in Shechem (see 12:7). The Netziv too sees the site as Bethel.

In all modesty I would like to offer my own interpretation, which sees a significant difference between the two terms. If we re-trace Abraham's early journeys, we find that after arriving in the land of Canaan he journeyed to the site of Shechem, as far as Elon Moreh. There the Lord promised him the land, and there he built an altar to the Lord. From there he continued his journey, moving his tent[1] and pitching it between Bethel to the west and Ai to the east; there, too, he built an altar. In addition the text tells us that he also called on the name of the Lord, then continued his journey by stages to the Negeb.

Later, after the incident with Pharoah, when he returned from Egypt to Canaan, he went back to all the places where he had previously been. Thus he came as far as Bethel, where his tent had formerly been (ba-tehilah), and from there he continued to the site of the altar that he had made in the beginning (ba-rishonah), namely Shechem. This time he called on the name of the Lord there, as he had not done the first time.[2]

Thus there is a significant difference between the two expressions, "formerly" and "at first, in the beginning." According to our understanding they each refer to different places. Abraham's first station in the land had been at Shechem; and there he arrived on his return journey from Egypt, to call there on the name of the Lord. This was "the site of the altar that he had built there at first [ba-rishonah]." On his way back from Egypt to Shechem he also passed through Bethel, where his tent had been formerly, i.e., ba-tehilah. This seems to be the plain sense of the text. I cannot fathom what led our great exegetes to interpret the passage as they did, unless they were following the direction taken by Onkelos' translation, which, by using the same word for both terms implied that the verse referred to only one site.

This distinction which we have made between the two terms also helps us understand Isaiah's prophecy: "I will restore your magistrates as of old [ke-va-rishonah], and your counselors as of yore [ke-va-tehilah]" (Is. 1:26). The first magistrate of the people of Israel was Moses, as Scriptures state explicitly: "Moses sat as magistrate among the people" (Ex. 18:3), and later, "When they have a dispute, it comes before me, and I decide between one person and another" (Ex. 8:16). Perhaps one could also include in this prophecy the other magistrates appointed by Moses, "capable men out of all Israel." Thus ba-rishonah refers to the absolute first, the beginning.

As for the counselors, however, Isaiah prophesied that they would be truly from our own ranks, from the people of Israel and not from the outside, as had been at first, for Jethro was the first counselor (cf. Ex. 18:19). Viewing the entire verse, Isaiah apparently meant that the Lord would restore our magistrates as they had been at first, at the absolute first, on the level of our very first magistrates: Moses and the capable men with him; but our counselors he would restore as they had been formerly (ke-va-tehilah), not like our very first counselor, Jethro, but like former counselors of the quality that Israel had had in the past.

In like manner I think one should understand the musaf prayer on the festivals, "Build Your house as formerly [ke-va-tehilah]." According to the Mahzor Vitri, the musaf prayer has not two, but three requests: "Build Your house [betkha] as formerly [ke-va-tehilah], and Your shrine [hekhalekha] as in the beginning [ke-va-rishonah] and the sanctuary [mikdashekha] on its foundation"). Build Your house (betkha) specifically as it was formerly, not as in the beginning; since we pray for the Temple that Solomon built and not for the house of the Lord that was at Shiloh,[3] which was the first dwelling of the Lord in the land of Israel.

But as regards the shrine (hekhalekha) , according to the wording in Mahzor Vitri, we pray for it to be "as in the beginning." For the intention is that it be like the First Temple built by Solomon, and not the Temple built by the exiles who returned to Zion from Babylonia, or like the one built by Herod. Lastly we request, "Establish Your sanctuary on its foundation," in language similar to that in the Song on the Sea: "The sanctuary, O Lord, which Your hands established" (Ex. 15:17). Thus, in this prayer we mention the three levels of holiness, one above the other: the Temple, the Shrine (hekhal), and the Holy of Holies, may it be speedily rebuilt in our day.

[1] Cf. Rashi. It is not clear to me why the Netziv said that Abraham never pitched his tent in Shechem.

[2] Perhaps here one can apply the Midrash that Abram "settled his debts upon his return", since this time around he fulfilled his obligation, in that this time he called on the name of the Lord. Cf. Malbim's commentary on this passage.

[3] Which was also called a house of the Lord (bet hashem). Cf. I Samuel.

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