David Seidenberg
David Seidenberg
Ecohasid meets Rambam

The spookiest story in Torah: Shmita and the covenant of the halves

Covenant of the Pieces, public domain, Gerhard Hoet, detail

I. This week’s Torah portion, Lekh Lekha, is always read in the fall around Halloween. In fact, last year this parshah was read on Halloween. Halloween is a time of contact with the spirits of the dead in some cultures, and in some, a time of ghosts and fright. (Americans know this, but people in Israel may not.) By coincidence, one of the spookiest stories in the whole Torah is found in Lekh Lekha. It’s called the brit bein habetarim, the covenant between the halves.

The story is precipitated by Avram (Abram) having a crisis of belief. God tells Avram that he will inherit all the land of Canaan (Gen. 15:7). Instead of trusting, Avram asks for proof. In response God commands him to bring a bizarre sacrifice—the first time in Torah that God asks for a sacrifice—and it leads to a terrifying dream.

God asks for “a three-year old calf and a three-year old goat and a three-year old ram, and a dove and a fledgling pigeon.” Avram takes the three mammals and splits them down the middle. Cutting an animal straight through the middle would have been especially bloody, though the Torah doesn’t mention where all the blood went.

Initially, nothing happens to the animals except that “the birds of prey came down on the corpses, and Avram drove them back.” Then “the sun was coming down, and numb stupor fell on Avram, and here, great terrifying darkness fell on him.” After that, Avram hears: “Know, you must know, your seed will be a stranger in a land not theirs, and will serve them, and they will afflict them four hundred years…” (Gen. 15:11-13).

public domain, Gerhard Hoet, 1720

Finally, the slaughtered animals play a role: “the sun came down and there was the gloom of twilight, and here, a smoking furnace and a torch aflame that passed between those cut-up halves.” (Gen. 15:17) The symbol of leaving Egypt, a (much smaller) pillar of fire, only comes after the terrifying darkness of slavery.

II. Only one other sacrifice of animals cut into halves is mentioned in all Scripture, and it’s related to Shmita (the Sabbatical year). With the Babylonian army besieging Jerusalem, Jeremiah tells the elite—property owners and nobles and priests—that if they “proclaim liberty/dror” and free all of their slaves, God will save them (Jer. 34:8-9). Jeremiah is using the same language we find in Leviticus 25:10 telling us what to do every seventh Shmita year, called the Jubilee (this is also the verse on the Liberty Bell).

When the elite follow Jeremiah’s advice, the enemy army starts to leave. So they stupidly figure they can grab their slaves back, re-enslave them, now that danger passed. Not so.

Instead, God promises a nightmare:

I cut a covenant with your ancestors in the day I took them out from the house of slaves, saying, ‘At the end of seven years… you will send away [your slave], freeing him from you’ and they didn’t listen. And you turned today and did the right thing in My eyes, proclaiming liberty… then you turned again and profaned my name…by bringing back slaves which you sent free…and subjugating them… Since you didn’t listen to Me to proclaim liberty… I hereby proclaim liberty to the sword and pestilence and famine, and I will make you a horror… I will put these men who transgressed My covenant… who cut a calf for Me and went through between the halves…into the hand of their enemies… and their carcasses will become food for the bird of the skies and the animal of the land (Jer. 34:13-19).

Heavy, scary stuff, but there is a very clear message. Shmita is about freedom and justice for people, not just rest and regeneration for the land. And the opposite of Shmita is a nightmare come true: sword, pestilence, famine, and being scavenged.

III. Still, there is a lingering question. Why is Avram’s revelation that he will inherit all the land tied up with this nightmare that his descendants will be strangers enslaved in a foreign land? I don’t think it’s just Avram’s punishment for not trusting God.

It turns out that the reason may also have to do with Shmita.

The Torah beseeches us, “love the stranger like yourself for you were strangers in Egypt” (Lev 19:34) and “do not oppress a stranger, for you know the soul of a stranger” (Ex 23: 9). When we are commanded to care for the vulnerable, we are repeatedly told, “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt” (Deut 16:12, Deut 24:18-22). And this parallels what Leviticus 25:23 tells us is one of the main lessons of Shmita: “the land is Mine, for you are strangers and sojourners gerim v’toshavim (temporary settlers) with Me.” The Torah diligently asks us to remember the experience of being strangers, so that we always treat both the land and the stranger with empathy and kindness.

How does the lesson of being strangers and slaves relate to God’s promise to Avram that his seed will inherit the land? Perhaps if people believe the land is God’s inalienable gift to them, they will imagine they can do whatever they want, to the land and to other people living there, without consequences.

The story of being strangers and slaves in Egypt is a nightmare that is supposed to act like an inoculation against such cruelties. As Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch wrote: “Beware…of making rights in your own State conditional on anything other than on that simple humanity which every human being as such bears within. With any limitation in these human rights, the gate is opened to the whole horror of Egyptian mishandling of human beings” (translated by Uri L’Tzedek from the German). If people remember what it’s like to be strangers, the Torah teaches, they will respect the land and take care of the stranger.

Avram, it seems, gets this lesson right away. After Sarah dies (in parshat Chayei Sarah), he goes to buy a cave in Hebron, where he wants to lay her to rest. In negotiating the purchase, Avram (now renamed Avraham/Abraham) describes himself exactly as Leviticus 25 would instruct: “I am a stranger and sojourner / ger v’toshav anokhi” (Gen. 23:4).

The opposite of this lesson would be setting slaves free and then re-enslaving them. The opposite of this lesson would be stealing land and destroying olive trees other people need in order to live. The opposite would be the horror of what happened this year on Simchat Torah, when “religious” settlers from Avigayil in the South Hebron Hills attacked Palestinian families in al-Mufaqara, causing terrible damage and seriously injuring a three-year old child. Despite denunciations of the attack by the government, when Israel lets settlers like these remain anywhere in the West Bank, it is complicit in their abominations.

Our spooky stories warn that such a society will find itself teetering on the edge of Avram’s nightmare and Jeremiah’s horror story — both stories far scarier than any conjured by Halloween. If we want to avoid that nightmare, we desperately need to learn the humility of being a stranger.

We can learn this lesson through the joy of releasing the land in Shmita and declaring freedom to all. But if not, we will learn it through witnessing the horror of Jews acting like the Egyptians in Avram’s nightmare, sacrificing not goats and calves, but people.

This column is an expanded version of Rabbi Seidenberg’s article on Lekh Lekha for Hazon’s Shmita blog.

About the Author
Rabbi David Seidenberg is the creator of neohasid.org, author of Kabbalah and Ecology (Cambridge U. Press, 2015), and a scholar of Jewish thought. He teaches around the world and also leads astronomy programs. As a liturgist, David is well-known for pieces like the prayer for voting and a well-acclaimed English translation of Laments. David also teaches nigunim and is an avid dancer.
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