Lech Licha
Rabbi Bernard Fox

"And it was when he approached Egypt, he said to Sarai his wife, 'I know that you are a woman of beautiful appearance." (Beresheit 12:11)

A famine afflicts the land of Canaan. Avram is forced to leave the land to seek sustenance. He travels to Egypt with his wife, Sarai and his nephew, Lote. Avram recognizes that Sarai is a woman of unusual beauty. He foresees that the Egyptians will covet her. He fears that someone will kill him in order to take possession of Sarai. Avram is forced to ask Sarai to lie about their relationship. She is to tell the people that Avram is her brother. Avram will not pose a threat to a hopeful suitor. There will be no reason for the Egyptians to kill him. The pasuk quotes Avram's words to Sarai. We have translated the phrase loosely. In the original, the Hebrew word "na" is used. This word often is translated as "now." If we adopt this translation, the passage has a somewhat different meaning. Avram is saying to Sari, "Now, I know you are a woman of beautiful appearance." This translation poses a problem. It implies that Avram had been oblivious to Sarai's physical beauty. Now, as they prepare to enter Egypt, he suddenly realizes that Sarai is stunning. Why is Avram only now aware of Sarai's appearance?

Rashi offers two responses. Both are derived from the midrash. The first is that Avram and Sarai conducted themselves with extreme modesty. Sarai never flaunted her beauty. Avram had not previously carefully studied her appearance. As odd as this seems, the pasuk is to be understood in the strictest literal sense. Only now did Avram recognize her beauty. The second explanation is that the long journey to Egypt had made Avram aware of Sarai's unusual beauty. Normally, a long arduous trip would have a deep impact on a person's appearance. Even a normally attractive woman would appear less glamorous after many days on the road. However, Sarai's appearance was unaffected by the journey. This made Avram realize that Sarai was dazzling. The Egyptians would surely covet her.

Nachmanides explains that these are homiletic interpretations. Neither of these interpretations represents the simple meaning of the passage. He demonstrates that the term "na"does not really mean "now." It means "even until the present." Avram was saying to Sarai that he has realized in the past, and still recognizes her astounding beauty. The passage does not actually imply that Avram was not previously aware of Sarai's beauty. In short, Nachmanides explains that the pasuk has a simple meaning and also a homiletic interpretation. This is true of many passages in the Torah. For example, in Sefer Shemot, the Torah tells us to "remember the Shabbat day in order to sanctify it." Our Sages derive from this passage the requirement to recite Kiddush at the advent of Shabbat. However, the simple meaning of the passage is that we are to observe Shabbat. In other words, we are not to perform work on this day. The passage has a simple, or literal, meaning and also an additional midrashic interpretation. There is one important difference between our pasuk and the above example. In the above example, the literal meaning and the alternative interpretation are complementary. Shabbat requires sanctification through observance. We are also required to recite the Kiddush.

This is not the case in our passage. In our pasuk, the two interpretations are mutually exclusive. The simple meaning of the pasuk is that Avram was always aware of Sarai's beauty. The Midrash's interpretation asserts that Avram was not previously aware of Sarai's appearance. Only now has he become cognizant of her beauty. This raises a question. How can both the simple interpretation and the midrash be true? It seems that accepting the truth of the midrash requires that we reject the simple meaning of the pasuk. Conversely, accepting the simple interpretation demands that we reject the midrash's comments! Nachmanides answers this question. He explains that the pasuk must be understood according to its manifest meaning. In other words, Avram was previously aware of Sarai's beauty. He was not oblivious! Our Sages do not intend to contradict this meaning. The midrash is not contradicting the simple message of the passage. Instead, the midrash is using the passage as an opportunity to provide an additional lesson. It is teaching us that Avram and Sarai conducted themselves with extreme modesty. This humility even prevailed in their relationship with each other. The Sages seize upon our passage to make this point. They create a homiletic interpretation of the passage in order to relate the lesson to the pasuk. However, they do not intend to suggest that this is the true meaning of the pasuk. And He took him outside and He said, "Look now towards the heavens and count the stars ­ if you can count them." And He said, "So will be your descendants." (Beresheit 15:5) Hashem promises Avram that his children will be as numerous as the stars. Just as the stars cannot be counted, so Avram's progeny will be beyond counting. Rabbaynu Nissim ­ a 14th century scholar ­ asks an interesting question on this pasuk. The stars can be counted! Astronomers can calculate the number of stars in the sky! Yet, Hashem indicated to Avram that the stars cannot be counted. Rabbaynu Nissim offers two answers. In the first answer, he explains that there are many stars we cannot see. We observe a portion of the stars. Other stars fill the heavens. But, their light does not reach us. Hashem compared Avram's progeny to all the stars. This includes the visible and those we do not observe. We can count the visible stars, but not all of the stars that fill the heavens. In his second answer Rabbaynu Nissim explains that we can calculate the number of visible stars. However, we cannot count them. This is an important distinction. Imagine we wanted to determine the number of kernels of grain in a thirty-gallon container. We would not want to count the kernels. Instead, we would perform a calculation. We would count the number of kernels in a small measure ­ perhaps an ounce. We would then calculate the number of grains in the container. Astronomers calculate the number of stars in a similar fashion. They do not attempt to count the stars. According to this analysis, it is accurate that the stars cannot be counted.


"Your name should no longer be called Avram. And your name should be Avraham ­ for I have appointed you as the father of a multitude of nations."(Beresheit 17:5)

Hashem appears to Avram. He commands Avram to observe the mitzvah of circumcision. The Almighty also changes Avram's name. Hashem bestows the name of Avraham upon him. The Talmud in Tractate Berachot discusses the practical implications of this name change. Bar Kafra comments that referring to Avraham as Avram violates a positive command. This command is found in our pasuk. The Torah explicitly states that the proper name is Avraham. Rebbe Eliezer argues that a negative command is violated. This command is also expressed in our pasuk. The Torah states that Avraham should no longer be referred to by this previous name. Most authorities do not accept this restriction as an actual law. Instead, they view this text as a homily.

The Sages are teaching us a lesson of moral, or theological importance. However, Magen Avraham disagrees. He maintains that the text establishes a legal prohibition. We are not permitted to refer to Avraham by his previous name. The Sages are disputing the legal formulation of the prohibition. The position of Magen Avraham presents a problem. It is difficult to assume that this prohibition is actually derived from the pasuk. Why? Let us begin through carefully analyzing Magen Avraham's position. If the restriction is a Torah mitzvah, it should be counted among the six hundred thirteen mitzvot. It will be a positive commandment according to Bar Kafra and a negative mitzvah according to Rebbe Eliezer. Yet, no authority includes such a commandment among Taryag Mitzvot. It is more likely that Magen Avraham regarded the restrictions as a Rabbinical injunction. This creates a serious problem. The restriction is Rabbinical. There is no actual source in the Torah. What, then, is the dispute between Bar Kafra and Rebbe Eliezer? What message are they communicating through disputing the passage legislating the new name? No actual Torah command ­ positive or negative ­ exits! The injunction is Rabbinic! In order to answer this question, we need to better understand the reason Hashem changed Avraham's name and the meaning of these names.

The Talmud explains that the name, Avram, is a contraction of av leAram ­ father of Aram. Aram was Avraham's homeland. His original name indicates that he was a father to the people of Aram. He influenced this nation and showed the people the truth of monotheism. The name Avraham is a contraction of the phrase av hamon goyim ­ father of a multitude of nations. The Talmud explains that this name means that Avraham will be the father of all the nations of the earth. Avraham's influence will extend beyond his homeland. All peoples will be affected by his teachings. The bestowal of the name Avraham implied that the Almighty will help Avraham communicate his message to all civilization. With the granting of this name, the previous name, Avram, became inappropriate. The old name represents a limitation to Avraham's influence. The Almighty will remove this limitation. This is reflected in the name change. In short, the name change had two effects. A new message was communicated. An outdated message was removed. We can now understand the disagreement between Bar Kafra and Rebbe Eliezer. Both understand that the prohibition against using the name Avram is Rabbinical. However, they dispute the reason for this restriction. According to Bar Kafra, the name Avraham was created to communicate a message. A new role for Avraham had emerged. Bar Kafra maintains that the Sages insisted we use this name to confirm the new role Hashem assigned to our first forefather. The Sages felt that use of the old name implies denial of Avraham's true effect on humanity. Bar Kafra expresses this formulation by describing the requirement as a positive command. This expression and the pasuk, Bar Kafra quotes aptly describe the nature of the Rabbinical law. Rebbe Eliezer maintains that the Sages were not instituting a requirement to affirm Avraham's new position. However, they prohibited use of the old appellation. This name implies denial of our forefather's influence upon all humankind. We employ this name to avoid the implication of the old name Avram. Rebbe Eliezer appropriately describes this formulation as a negative command. We can now appreciate the position of Magen Avraham. He does not maintain that the restriction against using the name Avram is from the Torah. He understands that Bar Kafra and Rebbe Eliezer are relating a Rabbinic prohibition to a pasuk in the Torah. They dispute the portion of the pasuk which is relevant to the prohibition. Each picks the portion that reflects his unique understanding of the prohibition.

Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 12:11.
Sefer Shemot 20:8.
Mesechet Pesachim 106a.
Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 12:11.
Rabbaynu Nissim ben Reuven Gerondi (Ran), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 15:1-7.
Mesechet Berachot 13a.
Rav Avraham Avlee, Magen Avraham Commentary on Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chayim 156:1, note 1.