“Say that you are my sister. Then they will be good to me for your sake. And through you, I will be spared.” (Beresheit 12:13)
Parshat Lech Lecha deals with the life of the first of our forefathers – Avraham. In the beginning of the parasha, he and his wife are referred to by their original names – Avram and Sari. The end of the parasha tells us that Hashem directed that their names should be changed to Avraham and Sarah.
At the opening of the parasha, Avram is commanded to travel to the Land of Israel. Once there, a severe famine plagues the land. Avram decides that in order to sustain himself and his family, he must temporarily leave the Land of Israel. He travels to Egypt. As he approaches the Land of Egypt, he realizes that he is in danger. His wife, Sari, is a woman of uncommon beauty. Avram suspects that the Egyptians will covet her. He does not trust the morality of the Egyptians. He fears that a determined suitor might kill him. With his elimination, the suitor would be free to pursue Sari’s affections. Therefore, Avram asks Sari to disguise her true relationship with him. She is not to reveal that Avram is her husband. Instead, she is to pretend that they are brother and sister.
According to Nachmanides, Avram acted incorrectly. He committed two errors. First, he should not have deserted the Land of Israel. Instead, he should have had greater trust in Hashem. Hashem had told him to settle in the Land of Israel. Confronted with famine, Avram should have relied on Hashem’s support and recognized that He would not abandon him. Second, he should not have hidden Sari’s true identity. Again, this scheme indicated a failing in his trust in Hashem. He should have realized that Hashem would protect him. The subterfuge of disguising his relationship with Sari was not necessary or appropriate.
Nachmanides continues and explains that the subsequent exile of Bnai Yisrael to Egypt and the subjugation of Avram’s descendants were consequences of this wrongdoing. Nachmanides reasons that the exile and suffering of Bnai Yisrael were clearly a punishment. A punishment implies a sin. He concludes Avram committed this sin. He also notes numerous parallels between the experiences of Avram in Egypt and those of his descendants. These similarities support his contention that the exile of his descendants was a punishment for his failings and that these similarities were intended to demonstrate this relationship.
Nachmanides’ comments are difficult to understand. The Talmud teaches us in Tractate Taanit that it is prohibited to rely upon miracles. Each individual is required to exercise common sense. We may not endanger ourselves needlessly with the expectation or hope of being saved by a miracle. Why, then, did Avram sin by traveling to Egypt and claiming that Sari was his sister? Both of these decisions seemed proper and reflect Avram’s determination to act responsibly and provide for his own safety rather than rely on divine intervention.
Avram reintroduced to humanity two truths that had been long forgotten or discarded. First, he taught that Hashem is the Creator and that the universe exists only through His will. Second, he taught that Hashem is aware of all events in the universe that He formed and intervenes in nature – performing miracles – on behalf of humanity or those who are worthy. It seems that Hashem intended to demonstrate through Avram the truth of these two assertions. Towards this end, commanded Avram to travel to a foreign land – the Land of Israel. There, Avram was stranger in a closed tribal society. But Hashem not only protected him from all harm. He also made Avram into a wealthy and mighty leader. Avram’s success and prosperity were intended to demonstrate that he enjoyed the protection of the deity that he promoted and worshipped. The famine was intended to contribute to this demonstration. Avram should have stayed in the Land of Israel. Hashem would have protected him, and his emergence unharmed from this horrible famine, would have provided further evidence of Hashem’s existence and providence. Similarly, upon entering Egypt, had Avram acknowledged Sari as his wife, his confidence in Hashem’s providence would have been rewarded. It is likely that some Egyptians would have coveted his beautiful wife and tried to eliminate him and seize her. However, Hashem’s intervention would have reaffirmed His providence and the truth of Avram’s teachings.
In short, it is prohibited for a person to rely upon a miracle. However, Avram had a unique mission. Hashem wished to demonstrate His providence through Avram. By abandoning the Land of Israel and concealing his relationship with Sari, he denied Hashem the opportunity to demonstrate His influence over nature on behalf of Avram.
Don Yitzcahk Abravanel agrees that Nachmanides’ basic reasoning is valid. The experience in Egypt is a punishment. This implies that a sin was committed. However, he objects to ascribing this sin to Avram. He points out that the Torah does not state or clearly imply that Avram sinned in descending to Egypt or concealing his relationship with Sari. Therefore, it is inappropriate for Nachmanides to ascribe wrongdoing to Avram. Instead, he maintains that we should attribute the exile to a behavior or event that the Torah unequivocally condemns. He suggests that the incident that precipitated the exile and bondage of Bnai Yisrael was committed by Yosef’s brothers. His brothers sold Yosef into bondage. The Torah does identify their behavior as sinful; therefore, it is completely appropriate to place upon the brothers the blame for the exile and bondage of their descendants.
Abravanel supports his thesis with a proof. There are a number of uncanny parallels between the sin of the brothers and the punishment experienced by Bnai Yisrael in Egypt. First, the brothers sold Yosef into bondage in Egypt. Their descendants experienced bondage in Egypt. Second, they threw Yosef into a pit. Their male descendants were thrown into the river. Third, they caused Yosef to enter bondage. Yosef persuaded them to descend to Egypt and, eventually, their descendants entered bondage. Fourth, they devised and executed their plot while they were caring for flocks. They descended to Egypt in order to provide their flocks with pasture.
Abravanel’s fundamental objection to Nachmanides’ thesis is that we should not ascribe a sin to the forefathers – the Avot – based upon circumstantial evidence. Instead, our Avot’s behaviors and attitudes should be regarded as models that we must strive to emulate. Only the Torah – through a clear statement – has the authority to attribute sin to these role-models. Obviously, Nachmanides disagrees. He argues that we should be open to strong and convincing evidence of misdeed by one of the Avot. We can attribute wrongdoing to the Avot based on an analysis of the evidence. An explicit statement of condemnation by the Torah is not required.
What is the basis of this dispute? It seems that Abravanel and Nachmanides disagree over the objectives of the Torah’s narrative of the lives of the Avot. According to Abravanel, one of these objectives is to provide us with models of behavior and conviction. Once this premise is accepted, Abravanel’s position follows. Obviously, the Torah wishes to provide clear and unambiguous instruction. In presenting the lives of the Avot as models for emulation, the Torah will take care to clearly identify any behaviors or attitudes that are exceptions. Incidents of wrongdoing will be clearly identified in order to assure that the reader does not adopt these flaws. In other words, it makes no sense to provide models for emulation and include within the biographies of these role models errors, sins, and mistakes without identifying these flaws.
Nachmanides does not agree that the narrative of the lives of our Avot is written in the form of a instructional model. This does not mean that we cannot learn important lessons from the Torah’s narrative of their lives. But this is not the objective that determines the design of the narrative. Instead, the Torah describes Hashem’s providence over Bnai Yisrael. This description requires a thorough treatment of many elements of the Avot’s lives. However, the Torah’s description of the lives of the Avot is not guided by the pedagogical objective of providing a clear, unambiguous model for emulation. This leaves us with some freedom to interpret their behaviors. We must recognize that the Avot were among the most righteous individuals to ever live. We cannot judge them superficially, and gratuitously ascribe fault to them. However, confronted with convincing evidence, we can conclude that a wrongdoing was committed.
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 extropulate and 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. This is an impossible task.
These two explanations provide slightly different interpretations of the blessing Hashem bestowed on Avram. According to the first interpretation, Hashem promised Avram that it will be impossible to quantify the number of Avram’s descendants. It will not be possible to assign a number to them. According to the second interpretation, the descendants will be too numerous to count. However, some estimate of their quantity will be possible.