“A Commandment and a Covenant” Parashat Lech Lecha 5776

The Talmud in Tractate Yoma [28b] teaches that the forefathers kept all of the mitzvot in the Torah even though they had not been commanded to do so[1]. Rav Haim Sabato, writing in “Ani LeDodi”, explains that as the forefathers were so close to Hashem, they knew Him so well, that it was only natural for them to do as they knew He wanted, even without being explicitly told. They performed the mitzvot in the same way I naturally do things that I know make my wife happy.

When certain episodes in the Torah contradict this thesis the commentators always offer a fitting explanation. For example, when Avraham is visited by angels he feeds them a meal fit for kings [Bereishit 18:8]: “[Avraham] took butter and milk and the meat that he had prepared and he set it before them”. How could Avraham serve his guests milk and meat together? One answer offered is that Avraham first gave them “butter and milk” and only afterwards gave them meat. Similarly, the Ramban asks how Yaakov Avinu could marry two sisters when this is explicitly forbidden by a verse in Vayikra [18:18]. The Ramban offers an answer that is beyond the scope of this shiur[2]. Another example of the forefathers not keeping the Torah can be found in our Parasha. The first mitzvah that Avraham is explicitly commanded to perform is the mitzvah of circumcision. Hashem commands him [Bereishit 18:11] “You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin”. Why did Avraham wait until Hashem commanded him before he circumcised himself? Why did he not do it on his own volition?

Most of the solutions that I have seen involve talmudic acrobatics[3]. I would like to offer a more simple solution by zooming out and increasing the aperture. Why didn’t Avraham circumcise himself? The obvious answer is that the circumcision is not only a mitzvah; it is the sign of an eternal covenant between man and Hashem. It takes two to tango, and so Avraham could not enter into a covenant without Hashem commanding him to do so. But this only pushes off the question. Avraham could have proactively circumcised himself before Hashem commanded him, and his circumcision would eventually become the seal of a future covenant. This is similar to the covenant of the rainbow. According to the Ramban, Hashem did not change the laws of physics after the flood. There were rainbows as soon as all the ingredients for a rainbow – sun and water vapour – were created. Rather, after the flood Hashem chose the rainbow as the sign of his covenant. The rainbow was the same rainbow – it just acquired an additional significance. In the same way, Hashem could have chosen to establish His covenant in Avraham’s already-existing circumcision.

The answer, I believe, lies in the nature of the covenant. Why is the most basic covenant with Hashem sealed in the organ of reproduction? The Rambam writes in the Laws of Idolatry [1:2] that the first humans were pagan pantheists: “The Creator of the Universe was known to none and recognized by none other than a few solitary individuals, such as Enosh, Metushelach, Noach, Shem and Ever. The world moved on in this fashion until that pillar of the world, the patriarch Avraham, was born… [Avraham] would travel and cry out and gather the people from city to city and kingdom to kingdom until he arrived in the land of Canaan where he proclaimed his [universal] message”.

Avraham was not the first monotheist. Why, then, is he considered the first of the forefathers? Why isn’t Noach considered one of the forefathers? Rav Yossef Karo, writing in the “Kesef Mishnah”, answers that “Avraham would call out and announce [to all the peoples] belief in the unity of Hashem. Shem and Ever taught the path of Hashem [only] to their students. They did not awaken and announce the way Avraham did, and that is why [only] Avraham’s greatness increased.” Avraham did not relegate the belief of one G-d to a select club. He opened the gates to whoever wanted to enter.

And if this is how Avraham treats outsiders, how much more so his own family. Hashem extols Avraham with the words [Bereishit 18:19] “I have loved him because he commands his sons and his household after him that they should keep the way of Hashem to perform righteousness and justice”. The greatness of Avraham was that he knew that it was critical that he pass on his belief and his tradition to his children. They were automatically part of the club. So the Hashem’s covenant is made specifically with Avraham and it is sealed specifically in the organ or procreation. As the circumcision itself is an integral part of the covenant, Avraham had to wait until Hashem chose to enter into a covenant before he circumcised himself. When Hashem commands Avraham to circumcise himself, he also changes Avraham’s name from Avram to Avraham, saying [Bereishit 17:5] “I have made you the father of a multitude of nations”. This is not only a blessing – it is an obligation. If you want to enter into an eternal covenant with the Divine, then you must take responsibility to pass on that covenant to every single one of your descendants.

Let’s take this a step further. Why did Hashem wait until Avraham was eighty-six years old before He entered into a covenant with him? Why didn’t he command Avraham to circumcise himself from the outset? Did Avraham do something that convinced Hashem that he was ready to enter a covenant? The Midrash suggests that this is indeed so. When the Torah tells us that [Bereishit 17:26] “On that very day (b’etzem hayom hazeh), Avraham was circumcised”, the Midrash comments that the covenant could not have been entered even one minute sooner. What happened “on that very day”? I suggest that the trigger for the covenant is found in the immediately preceding episode.

Sarah comes to the conclusion that she is barren and cannot have children. She orders Avraham to marry their maidservant, Hagar, and Sarah will serve as the mother for the child that Hagar will bear. When Hagar becomes pregnant she scoffs at Sarah. In response Sarah mistreats Hagar and Hagar runs away to the desert, where she is found by a group of angels. She is told to return to Avraham so that she can bear for him a child. Unfortunately, she is told that this child will be no saint [Bereishit 16:12]: “He will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be upon all, and everyone’s hand upon him”. Not good news for a person who prides himself in his ability to pass his ideals to his children.

When Yishmael is born the Torah tells us [Bereishit 16:16] “Avram was eighty-six years old, when Hagar bore Yishmael to Avram”. While the last words – “to Avram” – might seem superfluous[4], they offer critical insight. Avraham had certainly heard the prophecy that Yishmael was destined to be a “wild donkey”, a criminal, a child who would likely spend his formative years behind bars. Avraham’s response was unequivocal: Not in my house. Not on my watch. Yishmael might be the child of Hagar, an Egyptian refugee, but he was the also son of Avraham. Avraham will do everything he possibly can, to his dying day, to ensure that Yishmael has a different destiny – a destiny of “righteousness and justice”. When Hashem sees this, it becomes clear that Avraham and his descendants are now ready to enter into an eternal covenant.

Soon after birth Yishmael, as predicted, goes “off the derech”. He becomes such a bad influence on Yitzchak that Avraham is forced to throw him out of his home. But Avraham is not deterred. The Talmud in Tractate Bava Batra [16b] teaches that Yishmael eventually repented. Avraham would never give up on his children, and our covenant with Hashem ensures that neither will He.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5776

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka, Yechiel ben Shprintza, and Shaul Chaim ben Tziviya

[1] This concept is discussed at length in our shiur of Parashat Toledot 5770.

[2] In short, the Ramban says that Yaakov was married to two sisters only outside the Land of Israel, where mitzvot are kept only as “reminders” of how they are meant to be kept within its borders. For this reason Rachel dies as soon as Yaakov reenters the Land of Israel. This explanation is worthy of its own shiur.

[3] For instance, the Torah teaches that a person who performs a mitzvah because he was commanded to do so is greater than one who performs the mitzvah even though he is not commanded. Avraham knew that he would one day be commanded to circumcise himself and so he waited until that moment.

[4] The Torah should have just said that “Avram was eighty-six when Hagar bore him Yishmael.”

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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