Parashat Lech L’cha sets the stage for the historical, geographical, and spiritual journey of the Jewish people. We meet Abram, who at God’s instruction leaves his home in Mesopotamia to begin a pilgrimage to Canaan. Along the way he accrues wealth, a family, an entourage, and a new name—Abraham—reflecting his covenantal destiny as “father of many nations.”
Four times in this parashah God promises him the land of Canaan:
- “The Eternal now appeared to Abram and said, ‘I am giving this land to your descendants’” (Genesis 12:7).
- “The Eternal One now said to Abram . . . , ‘Look around . . . for all the land that you see I am giving to you and your descendants, forever. . . . Get up and walk about the land—its length and its breadth, for it is to you that I am giving it’” (Genesis 13:14–17).
- “[God said] to him, ‘I am the Eternal who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land as an inheritance’” (Genesis 15:7).
- “[God said to him], ‘I will give you and your descendants after you the land where you have sojourned, the whole land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession . . . ’” (Genesis 17:8).
Given the fourfold refrain that Abraham's descendants will possess the land of Canaan, the actual story line of the Torah seems all the more aberrant. The actual path from promise to possession, from oath to occupation, turns out convoluted and painful. While Abram and his progeny do dwell in Canaan, their descendants escape famine in Egypt, where later generations are bound in slavery. Even after liberation they wander, often hopelessly, for forty years until a new generation arises to inherit the land. The repeated promise, to inherit and inhabit Canaan, belies the dominant state of the Israelites throughout the Torah: they are in a constant state of exile.
The narrative arc of the entire Torah is encapsulated in a dream sequence in which Abram, amid a “deep sleep” and “great dark dread,” (Genesis 15:12) learns what fate awaits: “[God] said to Abram, ‘Know well that your descendants shall be strangers in a land not theirs; they shall be enslaved and afflicted for four hundred years. But then I will bring judgment upon the nation they are serving; after that they shall go out with many possessions. And you—you shall go to your ancestors in peace; you shall be buried in good old age. The fourth generation shall return here, for not until then shall the iniquity of the Amorites be repaid’” (Genesis 15:13–16).
Of this development in the story, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, former chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, has commented, “The wrinkle suggests a change of heart. The story is so familiar to us that we have stopped feeling the inelegance of the plot" (online commentary to Parashat Va-y'chi , December 21, 2002).
More bluntly, one could ask: Why take the devastating detour at all? If God intends to bequeath the land of Canaan irrevocably, why must generations of Abraham's innocent offspring suffer at the hands of Egyptian slave drivers?
One answer comes from the dream sequence itself: “. . . for not until then shall the iniquity of the Amorites be repaid” (Genesis 15:16). This is the Torah's way of saying that God has a time frame in mind for the Israelite occupation of the land, which will follow the Amorite domination of Canaan. The Amorites, also known as the Old Babylonians, were the Mesopotamian overlords dominant throughout the Near East during our founding fathers’ time, 1900–1600 b.c.e. They made their capital in Babylon and produced the famous ruler Hammurabi and his celebrated legal code. God here suggests that only after these Amorite rulers have, through their wickedness, abdicated their lawful ownership of the land can the Israelites take over. This will happen all in good time—to wit, when God so determines. This view proposes that the sojourn in Egypt is all part of God's master plan for Jewish history—however unfair, convoluted, or brutal that may seem to an outside observer.
A second possible answer is suggested by a historical-critical approach. Why does God announce to Abraham a four-hundred-year period of enslavement and oppression? Because what we’re reading is not so much a forecast as a retelling. That is to say, the redactor of this passage, probably writing long after the Israelites had settled in Canaan, was, like his audience, steeped in the foundational story of exile, bondage, liberation, wandering, and return. The redactor understood that God’s optimistic promise would have to be filtered through that story’s main premise: that before occupying Canaan, we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. Basically, the Torah tells the long story of bondage and exile, even though it makes for an “inelegant” plot, because it has to , because bondage and exile lie at the heart of the Jewish master story.
The last answer aims for the bigger picture. Why did we suffer, given God’s rosy promise to Abraham? Because only in the crucible of slavery and exile could we become the Jewish people and thus realize the mandate of our existence: to be “a light to the nations.” Today we take pains to underscore our humble and painful origins. “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt” is not an ignominious statement for the Jew. We had to know bondage in Egypt so that we could endeavor to end it everywhere else and in every subsequent era. We had to experience an Egyptian cult that idolized death in order to cultivate a faith that would value one life as if it were the world altogether. We had to feel the inhuman pain that one human being, reduced to his animal element, can inflict upon another so that our scars would throb whenever we encountered another human being in pain.
Our pilgrimage to a place of promise has never been easy or direct. It has been tempered with tears and undesired travels. Yet it informs our insistence on empathy in the face of suffering and courage in the face of injustice. We journey on with the pain of the past and the promise of a better future to light the way.
Rabbi Jonathan E. Blake is senior rabbi of Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, New York. A graduate of Amherst College (1995), he was ordained at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in 2000.