Parshat Lech Lecha: From Darkness You will Know Light

As the sun was about to set, a deep sleep fell upon Avram, and a great dark dread descended upon him” (Bereishit 15,12).

In Parshat Bereishit I shared that the Torah was coming to address the question, “Who am I,” and in Parshat Noach we explore the importance of the question, “Who are we?” In order to answer that question, we need to explore the unique Jewish narrative, and indeed, in this week’s parsha, Lech Lecha, we meet Avraham and Sarah, the progenitors of the Jewish story. 

Though the beginning of the story begins with God’s command to Avraham of Lech Lecha, there is another story in the parsha which tells us much about the narrative of Am Yisrael, both then, and now. Chapter 15 of Bereishit details the Brit Bein HaBetarim, Avraham’s mystifying three-part prophetic experience filled with animal sacrifices, birds of prey, Divine promises, and to top things off, a burning oven and a torch.

But maybe the most puzzling piece of this story is the following: Hashem promises Avraham that his offspring will inherit the Land of Canaan, but immediately afterwards tells him that they will first descend into a long and bitter exile. Why? Why must the children of Avraham experience exile before they inherit the land?

In the first stage of Avraham’s prophetic experience, God tells him: Don’t be afraid Avraham, you will have children of your own; step outside, and look at the stars. Can you count them? This will be the number of your offspring.

God continues: I took you from Ohr Kasdim in order to give you this land as an inheritance.

And how will I know that I will inherit it, asks Avraham?  His question is not an expression of doubt; Avraham wants to see a sign; he wants to understand something of how this will unfold.

Avraham’s answer comes through an unusual request by God: take a calf, a goat, and a ram, a turtledove and a young bird. Avraham then slaughters the animals, and except for the birds, divides them in half, and then spreads the two pieces out, leaving space between them. Hence the name of this ritual, Brit Bein HaBetarim, the covenant between the pieces.

Suddenly birds of prey appear, but Avraham quickly shoos them away. Rav Steinsaltz explains the symbolism as follows: your children will need to stand up against those who will challenge them. The realization of this Divine promise will not come easily.

As the sun was about to set, a deep sleep fell upon Avram, and a great dread descended upon him.

True, God says, you will have many offspring, and they will inherit this land; but before they do so, they will be enslaved and suffer for 400 years in a land that is not their own. 

And now the sun sets completely, the darkness is tangible, and the vision of a smoking oven and torch passes through the split pieces of the animal carcasses. 

These two images, the oven and the torch, symbolize Hashem’s presence, as if to sign off on everything that has been stated and shown. The vision is complete, and the destiny of Avraham’s children has been decided. 

So let’s return to our initial question: Why must the children of Avraham experience exile before they inherit the land?

Says the Maharal of Prague: a positive matter is only known through its opposite. 

Just as we only know sweet after experiencing bitter, and we only know light after experiencing darkness, we only know redemption after the experience of exile.

Look at all the opposing images in this section: the bright stars in the night sky, the shining torch and the black smoke, day and night, symbol and speech, fear and ecstasy, awake and sleep, and most dramatically, exile and redemption.

Only through their estrangement from their home will your children come to truly know themselves, God tells Avraham. For them to be true inheritors of the land, they must first know the pain of being separated from it.

But don’t be afraid God says to Avraham;  through it all, through the darkness and through the suffering, my presence will always remain with your children. 

The Jewish people are no strangers to the darkness of exile. Though Avraham’s vision prophesied the nation’s descent and eventual enslavement in Egypt, it teaches us something bitter, but also something sweet, about the Jewish narrative as a whole. Sometimes, in order to find ourselves, we have to travel far from home. Sometimes, In order to taste the sweetness of success, we have to swallow the bitter pill of failure. 

The bitterness of Am Yisrael’s long and tragic exile could make someone forget the sweet. In those times of darkness, it can be difficult, or almost impossible, to see the light emanating from the torch. But from Avraham’s vision, we can find strength and courage from within our narrative, and we can strive to keep two things in mind: no matter what we undergo as a people or as individuals, the bitter is not for the sake of the bitter; it is only to truly appreciate the sweet. And most importantly, Hashem’s presence is always with us, both in the light and the darkness.

What do you think? Does one have to know bitter to know sweet? Can one experience true joy without the experience of loss?

About the Author
Rabbi Yonatan Udren is the Co-Director of the RRG Beit Midrash at the Hebrew University Hillel, which offers Jewish educational programming for overseas and Israeli Hebrew University students from all backgrounds and denominations.
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