In the biblical view, creation and history belong together. Creation is the foundation of a covenantal relationship between God and world and, in a specific and important sense, between God and Israel (Plaut, 23).
This parashah contains the story of Abram's journey from the land of his forefathers to the land that God will show him. Abram takes his family and passes through Egypt and up into the Negev where he builds an altar to God. He separates from Lot and settles in Hebron, where, again he builds an altar to God. Abram participates in a war in order to rescue Lot. God promises Abram offspring. Hagar births Ishmael. God changes Abram's and Sarai's names to Abraham and Sarah, and Abraham circumcises every male in his household, as God commanded him.
Fifth Aliyah: Genesis 14:20-15:6
This aliyah takes place some time after the war. God promises Abram a reward and he responds that his true desire is for an heir. God answers Abram by taking him outside and saying,
"Turn your gaze toward the heavens and count the stars, if you can count them!" And [God] promised him: 'So shall your seed be!" (15:5)
Abraham is a character who both accepts his destiny and actively participates in shaping it. His relationship with God is complicated-while God has plans for Abraham as the father of the Jewish people, God requires him to endure several trials until he proves himself worthy of such a distinction. Since the Torah does not provide an explicit rationale for Abraham's behavior and his need for reassurance, the Sages endeavored to derive one.
R. Levi postulated that Abram was concerned about the kings he had just killed in war and that their sons would gather together to retaliate against him. Rashi's comment gives us additional insight into Abram's character. He says that Abram was worried that maybe he had been instrumental in taking both blameless and unscrupulous lives and that, while he understood the necessity of war, he was traumatized over any role he played in the bloodshed. When someone calls out as Abram does here, "Why me?" two possible sentiments can be inferred-either the speaker feels his fate is unjust in that he has been treated too harshly, or perhaps he feels undeserving of good fortune.
"The Rabbis explained it thus: Abraham was filled with misgivings, saying to himself, "…[P]erhaps I have already received my reward in this world and have naught for the future world?" (B'reishit Rabbah 44:5)
God has a plan for Abram, and thus reassures him. The meaning of our verse seems plain--God literally directed Abram out of his tent to look up at the sky. But the midrash, understanding Abram's character in this way, interprets the verses allegorically. B'reishit Rabbah 44:10 teaches that God said to Abram,
"Go out of your astrology, for you have seen in the signs of the zodiac that you are not destined to have a son. In fact, Abram will not have a son, but Abraham will. Sarai will not give birth, but Sarah will. I will change your name and your destiny."
God takes Abram outside of his current reality and shows him a new way to perceive things. Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg teaches, "'I shall create you anew'-the call of God is the quasi-autonomous urge of man to create himself anew" (The Beginning of Desire, 79). In Abraham, God has created a co-creator, a covenantal partner, whose identity is as much a product of will as it is destiny.
Abraham's life reveals two sides of the same coin: accepting fate as well as seizing opportunities to change it. We cannot be Abraham, but we can learn from his example by facing our insecurities and deciding that changes we need to make in our own lives. We can learn from Abraham that breaking out of our current reality begins with a sense of internal discomfort that arises from an enduring question about our raison d'être. We are not entirely in control of our destiny, but neither are we powerless in shaping it.
To Talk About
1. For Abram, wealth meant nothing without an heir to continue after him. What do you think is more important than wealth?
2. Abram had to change, to become Abraham, in order to have an heir. What do you think changed about Abraham, other than his name, to make it possible for him to have a son?
3. How might turning to God and pleading for help affect a people? Can it help them to change their reality, or might it further entrench them in their current situation?
Several of the early portions of the Book of Genesis have to do with infertility and the ways our ancestors faced such a challenge. Abraham and Sarah pleaded for a child and so will Rachel. In the Book of Samuel, Hannah also cried out to God for a child. In each of these cases, stories of heartache evolve into tales of rebirth, renewal, and fulfillment. How can these portions be a guide to people today, some of whom may not see their own lives as they would wish them? Many today cry out to God much like Abraham, Rachel, and Hannah. How can we support those whose cries we hear in our communities?
Lech L’cha, Genesis 12:1-17:27
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 91-117; Revised Edition, pp. 88-117;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 59-84