Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Lekh-lekha 5768/ October 20, 2007

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. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il

 

 

Land, Destiny, and Chosenness

 

Dr. Yirmiyahu Malhi

 

Department of Talmud

 

In Parashat Lekh-Lekha the Torah describes the most significant spiritual turning point in the history of human civilization.  The rabbis of the Mishnah expressed this radical change in the following terms: [1]

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].

The number ten denotes, here as elsewhere, something whole; and ten generations, an entire world.   The previous weekly readings –Bereshit and Noah – describe two worlds, that of the generation of the flood, and that of the generation of the Tower of Babel.   These came to their end, and in the time of the patriarch Abraham a new world came into being.

The Natural World

Each of the two previous worlds can be characterized as a “natural” world, running as it were on its own, according to its own natural laws.  In such a world there were no doubts and wavering, human beings were not faced with moral decisions, with questions of good and evil, of good deeds or transgressions, of reward and punishment, as these concepts have been perceived over the ages.  Such was world that the Torah painted in clear lines in the story of Creation and of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

Indeed it is very tempting to embrace such a world as an ideal place, a world where everything flows on its own, with the “spirit of G-d sweeping over the water” (Gen. 1:3), only from above but not felt from below, and life follows its course according to the nature of the world and the nature of human beings.  For this reason apparently several central philosophical schools of modern times have presented the natural world as ideal, the primal and ideal condition of the world and of human society. [2]

Through its narrative in the first two weekly readings, the Torah apparently wishes to teach us that such a “natural” world has no value, no purpose, and no endurance. Parashat Bereshit describes the creation of the world and of Man, the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, their sin and expulsion from the garden, and concludes with the generation of the Flood.  This is the lowest level of the natural world, in which people act according to their nature, even when that is contrary to the nature and desires of the next person.   The inevitable result was that the world became “filled with lawlessness because of them” (Gen. 6:13) and the Flood came and wiped out that world.

The New World

Then there arose what seemed to be a new and better world.  Human beings learned their lesson and restrained their primal nature and natural desires so that they not hurt their fellows, or in terms with which we are more familiar, they established a set of social rules.  Then, Parashat Noah comes and tells us about Noah and his sons, their trials and tribulations and their attempts at building a new world.   The end, however, is pessimistic:   the story of the Tower of Babel and the generation of the dispersal, resulting in human beings losing their brotherhood with all mankind and becoming dispersed into separate nations over the face of the earth.  From this we learn that also a world where people take into account the needs of their fellows has no permanent future, as long as human beings view themselves as the masters of the Earth.

This brings us to this week’s reading, Parashat Lekh-lekha, in which the Torah tells us how Abraham came and set the world in the right direction.

Above we quoted the remarks of the rabbis of the Mishnah about the ten generations from Adam and to Noah, and ten generations from Noah to Abraham.  Before we turn to a close analysis of these remarks in an attempt to plumb their full significance, it is befitting that we consider the precise formulation of the mishnaic interpretation; in this regard two remarks are in order:

  1. Both sentences are formulated identically at the beginning (“There were ten generations from Adam to Noah” and “There were ten generations from Noah to Abraham”), but not at the end.  The second sentence says, “until Abraham came and received the reward they [should] all [have earned],” whereas the first says, “until He brought upon them the waters of the Flood.”  Why does it not say of Noah, the progenitor of the new human race, that he received the reward of them all?
  2. What is the precise meaning of the expression “received the reward of them all”?   What reward does this refer to?  After all, in both instances the previous generations provoked G-d continually.

Commentators take varying stands on this question.  In the commentary on Tractate Avot that is ascribed to Rashi it says:   “the reward that they should all have received, had they repented of their evil ways.”   Whereas in the commentary of Rabbi Jacob b. Rabbi Samson (a disciple of Rashi) on Avot, found in the Vitri Mahzor, [3] the following interpretation is given:  until our patriarch Abraham came and instructed the entire world in the straight and true, thus giving them all life and saving them from the fate of the generation of the Flood, which was erased from the face of the earth.   While this interpretation is close to the plain sense of the mishnah, it also offers an explanation of our first question, why the same was not said of Noah, as well, since he did not succeed in saving others in his own generation.

A similar interpretation is given by Rabbi Israel Lifshitz in the work, Tiferet Yisrael, in his commentary on this passage.  Abraham’s reward was the reward that all mankind ought to have received according to the initial thinking of the Creator, who sought to be beneficent to all mankind, to reveal Himself to them, to make a covenant with them, and to bring them close under the shelter of the Divine Presence.  Having sinned, human beings lost all these precious gifts, until Abraham came, who along with all his offspring received of all this [this explanation is implicit in the English translation provided above].

Finally we should note that apparently the remarks of the tannaim in Pirke Avot contain a hint of another tradition, different from the one relayed in Tractate Avot.   In Sifre Zuta, a Midrash Halakhah on Numbers, [4] we read (beginning of ch. 27):

Then the daughters of Zelophehad … came forward.  This indicates that every proper person in a generation of evildoers is given the reward of all.  Noah came in the generation of the Flood, and was given the reward of all, Abraham came in the generation of the dispersal and was given the reward of all, Lot came in the generation of Sodom and was given the reward of all, these [the daughters of Zelophehad] came in the generation of the wilderness and were given the reward of all.

Here we see a different tradition from that which we find in the version of Tractate Avot that we have at hand, and according to this tradition also Noah was said to have received the reward of all.

In what way was the world of Abraham’s day different from that which preceded?  As indicated by the title of this article, the answer can be summarized in three main themes:  being chosen, destiny, and land.

Being chosen.   In the previous generations human society is described anonymously (save for Noah, of whom it is said that he “found favor with the Lord” (Gen. 6:8) and therefore was saved from the Flood, but no more than this); there is no reference to any single person who will lead all of mankind to a single destiny; there is no divine revelation and there is no designation of a chosen person.   In this week’s reading, however, we come to a turning point.  G-d reveals himself in the world and singles out one person (“Abraham was a singular person” – Ezek. 33:24 [|LR1]  ), to whom He reveals Himself and says:  “You are the one I have chosen.”  You must separate yourself from your past, from your society, from your family and from your father.  But what is the purpose of this severance from the past, from the previous world?

Destiny --The purpose for which Abraham was chosen. Abraham was chosen to be the father of the clan and father of the nation that would march forth carrying the banner of the Lord in the world, the role of this nation being to spread among all mankind faith in the Lord reigning in the world and demanding of mankind that they follow the ways of law and justice (“For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right” [Gen. 18:19]), which is the Lord’s way in the world.   It is an historical and long road that our patriarch Abraham and his progeny after him were destined to travel on their own, with great suffering.  At the end of this road, however, is a promise of reward:   “And all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you” (Gen. 12:3), and in the end all mankind will come to acknowledge this truth:  “For then I will make the peoples pure of speech, so that they all invoke the Lord by name and serve Him with one accord” (Zeph. 3:9).

Land-- Where is this revelation – this great revolutionary change that in the end will bring all human beings to recognize G-d’s dominion in the world – to take place?   The answer is “the land that I will show you” – the land of Israel.   Why can such a revolutionary, complex, and central process occur in this place alone?

The remarks of greatest depth and most everlasting significance about the land appear to have been made one thousand years ago by Rabbi Judah ha-Levy in the Kuzari: [5]   “The philosopher said:   Indeed the Glory (=prophetic revelation) is a spark of divine light that brings benefit to His people and in His land.”  Further,

The philosopher said:  Indeed, your mountain on which you say your vineyard thrives, were it not planted with vines and not cultivated properly, it would not produce grapes…   The unique and primary virtue of the people lies in their being chosen and being the heart, and the land assists in this through the deeds and laws [associated with the land]; but this chosen people could not attain the divine were it not for this specific place.

Lastly, “Abraham would not have adhered to this divine idea and entered a covenant with Him except for the fact of his being in this land and participating in the Covenant of the Pieces.”

The members of the chosen people, the progeny of our patriarch Abraham, are assured that He who chose Abraham and his offspring will grant them life, that they endure to witness with their own eyes the day when the Lord will be one and His name one.

                                                                                                                                         



[1] Mishnah, Tractate Avot 5.2.

[2] For example, Jean Jacques Rousseau, who used the term “natural condition” to denote what in his opinion was the ideal and desirable condition (as opposed to the condition of society in his day).  His theory was further developed in several of Kant’s ideas and had great impact on central figures of the French Revolution.  

[3] Rabbi Simhah of Vitri, The Vitri Mahzor (redacted, S. Horowitz), Neurenberg 1923, p. 535.

[4] H. S. Horowitz (redactor) Sifre al Sefer Be-Midbar ve-Sifre Zuta, Jerusalem 1966.

[5] Rabbi Judah ha-Levy, Sefer ha-Kuzari, Part II, 8:12, 16.


 [|LR1] My own translation; JPS is not appropriate to the context.