We’re now three weeks into the new Torah reading cycle and I already deeply appreciate year two of the triennial cycle. Year two readings occupy the middle sections of each parasha, often where the heart of the matter resides. This year, this week, I find myself taken by Genesis 15 which offers up a wonderfully different angle on Abram/Abraham. Throughout Lekh L’kha, Abram acts. He journeys from his home to Canaan, he walks the Land upon his arrival, he travels to Egypt and encounters the Pharaoh there, he settles disputes peacefully, he fights and wins military battles, he takes on domestic turmoil in his own household, and he enters into more than one covenant with God the last of which calls upon him to circumcise himself and all the males of his clan. By the end of this action packed parasha, Abram has become Abraham, the ‘father of many nations,’ as the Torah puts it.
Genesis 15 has a different feel from the chapters that surround it, and the Abram of this middle narrative presents a different face to us as readers. The confident patriarch, wanderer, and warrior of most of Lekh L’kha is, here, a worried and inward looking soul searcher. As opposed to the sagas that surround it, the tale told in Genesis 15 takes place at night, an apt moment, in my experience at least, for fear and anxiety. One midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 44:5, Theodor-Albeck, pp. 428-429, Aviva Zornberg, translation) frames the whole episode inside of Abram’s qualms (hirhurim).
“And it was after these things” (Genesis 15:1): after the hirhurim, the troubled thoughts that ensued. Who was troubled? Abraham questioned God, ‘Master of the Universe, You made a covenant with Noah that You would never destroy his children. Then I came along and pleased You better, so that my relation with You overrode his. Perhaps someone else will come along and please You better than me, so that his relation with You overrides mine?’
Abram worries about his own expendability. As I write these words, I realize that I worry about the same thing. I suspect we all do. Abram craves, we crave, durable connection and long term relationship, something that human beings need in order to thrive. The possibility of its absence keeps Abram up at night. God’s response intrigues me.
God replied, ‘Among Noah’s children there are no righteous people who intercede for others, but among yours there will be.’
God’s message to Abram and to us is that if you want long term commitment from others you have to demonstrate it first. The Hebrew for ‘righteous people who intercede for others’ is m’ginim shel tzaddikim which is usefully and suggestively ambiguous. It could mean ‘righteous people who defend others,’ and it could also mean ‘people who defend the righteous’. People, in other words, whose commitment to righteousness and justice, and to others who practice righteousness and do justice, is long term, reliable, durable. And that life posture, suggests our Midrash, is transmitted across generations. Abraham’s children and grandchildren, indeed all of his descendants, will follow his example. Talk about long term commitment.
In the darkness of Genesis 15, God reminds Abraham not only of his future and his legacy, but also of his origins. “I am the Lord who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to assign this land to you as a possession.” (verse 7) You came from someplace else, says God, and I lifted you from that place and transported you to this new moment, opening, opportunity. One of the Targumim (Pseudo-Jonathan) preserves an ancient tradition in translating our verse. ‘Ur of the Chaldeans’ – ur kasdim in Hebrew – is read as the fiery furnace of the Kasdai. God carries Abram not from a specific place but rather from a state of mind, a personal status. We know the image of the fiery furnace from elsewhere in the Bible. It’s an enclosed space, a deathtrap, a place of searing pain and agonizing death. God’s redemptive act carries Abram from slavery to freedom, from agonizing pain to unending possibility, from the fiery furnace to the fertile fields of the Promised Land and to the fatherhood of a new people. It’s quite a transformation!
(Ephraim Moses Lilien, ‘Abraham Contemplates the Stars’, 1908)
I’ve been thinking about my own fiery furnaces – the spaces and aspects of my life that confine, frighten, terrify, and burn. I’ve been thinking too about the grandeur of the night sky and the impossibility of counting the stars. One of God’s promises to Abram in Genesis 15 goes like this: “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your offspring be.” And I’ve been thinking, finally, about my personal ‘promised land.’ Abram’s inner journey follows that trajectory. My inner journey, and yours, proceeds according to a similar itinerary. Without this interior quest and transformation, the more visible, outer journey – both Abram’s and ours – can’t happen. With it, well, the sky’s the limit!