Lech Lecha

Rabbi Bernie Fox                 




The Difference between Haran’s and Avraham’s Convictions

Haran died in the presence of his father Terach in the land of his birth, Ur Kasdim. (Beresheit 11:28)

The above passage is found at the end of Parshat Noach. Rashi, in his comments on this pasuk, provides an important biographical note on Avram[1] – the main character of Parshat Lech Lecha.  Rashi relates that Avram destroyed his father Terach's idols. Enraged, Terach brought Avram before the king, Nimrod, to be tried for this heresy. Nimrod condemned Avram to be thrown alive into a fiery furnace.


Avram’s brother, Haran, decided to test the veracity of Avram's religion. If Avram emerged unharmed form the fiery furnace, then Haran would proclaim his commitment to Avram’s G-d.  If Avram did not survive the furnace, he would retain his idolatrous beliefs. Avram emerged from the furnace unscathed. Haran, faithful to his decision, declared his faith in Avram's G-d, and he too was condemned to suffer the same punishment. However, unlike Avram, the flames of the furnace consumed Haran.[2]


It is difficult to understand why Avram and his brother, Haran, experienced such different fates. Why did Hashem intercede on behalf of Avram, but allow Haran, who also proclaimed his faith in G-d, to be consumed? The answer lies in the difference between the nature of Avram's commitment to G-d and Haran's conviction.


Maimonides writes that Avram came to his understanding of G-d through a careful, lengthy analysis.  Avram studied the universe and its wonders.  He was completely convinced that there must be a Creator.[3]  In contrast, Haran did not pursue this difficult, challenging path. His faith was based completely on a single observation, which he understood to be a sign from G-d. Although Haran and Avram came to the same conclusion, the bases of their convictions were very different. Avram’s convictions were based upon a deep understanding of the universe and the Creator.  He had been transformed by his convictions and elevated to a higher spiritual level. Haran remained, to a great extent, the same person who existed prior to his religious conversion. As a result, Avram's spiritual perfection resulted in his salvation. Haran, lacking Avram's elevated state, was not saved.

Hashem Tests Avraham with the Command to Travel to the Land of Israel

And Hashem said to Avram: Go forth from your land, your birthplace, and your father’s house to the land that I will show to you.  (Beresheit 12:1)

Hashem commands Avram to leave his homeland and the household of his father.  He is to travel to the land that Hashem will indicate.  This is the Land of Israel.  Our Sages comment that this was one of the tests that Hashem required of Avram.[4]


One important aspect of this command is not clear.  The Torah seems to indicate that Avram was born in Ur Casdim.  He left Ur Casdim with Terach, his father, and traveled to Charan.  Terach died in Charan.  Avram traveled from Charan to the Land of Israel.[5]  This account suggests a problem.  Hashem commanded Avram to leave his birthplace and his father’s household.  This implies that these two descriptions refer to the same location.  However, according to the simple interpretation of the passages, this is not the case.  Avram’s birthplace was Ur Casdim.  His father’s household was located in Charan!


There is another difficulty.  When did Avram receive this command?  If we assume that Avram received the command in Ur Casdim, then he did not fulfill its requirements.  He was commanded to leave his father’s household.  He did not do this.  Terach left Ur Casdim with Avram.  Avram only left his paternal household after the death of his father in Charan.  Alternatively, we can propose that Avram received the command while living in Charan.  If this is true, the command does not make sense!  Avram had already left his birthplace of Ur Casdim.  Why would Hashem command Avram to leave a place from which he had previously departed?


The commentaries offer a number of approaches to solving these problems.  Rashi suggests that Avram received the command while living in Charan.[6]  He explains that Avram left Charan during his father’s lifetime.  He points out that a careful and full analysis of the passages supports this interpretation.  Rashi acknowledges that a simple reading of the passages is misleading.  This elementary interpretation would indicate that Avram left Charan after Terach’s death.  Rashi asserts that the Torah, by design, allows the casual reader to make this assumption.  The Torah does not explicitly state that Avram abandoned his aged father.  This statement might diminish our estimation of the importance of the commandment to respect our parents.[7]


Rashi further explains that Avram was not commanded to leave his birthplace.  He had already departed from Ur Casdim.  Instead, the intent of the command was that Avram should further distance himself from his homeland.[8]


Gershonides suggests a very different interpretation of the passages.  He maintains that Avram received the original command while living in Ur Casdim.  In response to this directive, he left Ur Casdim with his father.  Together, they traveled as far as Charan.  Terach decided to stay in Charan.  Avram realized that his father would not accompany him any further.  Therefore, he left Terach in Charan and proceeded to the Land of Israel.  Subsequently, Terach died in Charan.[9]   Of course, this creates a problem.  Avram was commanded to leave his birthplace and his father’s household.  According to Gershonides, it appears that Avram did not completely fulfill this directive.  He left his homeland of Ur Casdim.  However, he did not leave his father’s household.  He was accompanied by his father!


Gershonides acknowledges this problem and offers a very interesting answer.  He asserts that Avram was not directed to abandon his father’s household and his family.  He was commanded to travel to the location that Hashem would indicate.  Hashem told Avram that he must fulfill this command even at the cost of leaving his family.  He must be willing to endure this separation.  However, he should certainly attempt to convince his father and his family to join him in his service to Hashem.  Gershonides supports his interpretation of Hashem’s command with a simple proof.  Lote – Avram’s nephew – was an orphan.  He was a member of Terach’s household.  Lote accompanied Avram to the Land of Israel.  If Hashem’s directive required complete abandonment of Terach’s household, then Avram should not have allowed Lote to accompany him![10]


In short, Rashi and Gershonides offer differing interpretations of Hashem’s directive.  Their dispute seems to center on one fundamental issue.  Was Avram absolutely required to abandon his family?  According to Rashi, he was commanded to leave Terach.  According to Gershonides, Avram was commanded to travel to the Land of Israel.  He must be willing to leave his father.  However, he was not required to abandon him.


This dispute suggests a fundamental disagreement regarding the nature of the tests Avram experienced.  According to Rashi, these tests included a very personal element.  Avram was required to perfect himself through these challenges.  In this test, he was required to separate himself from all previous influences.  He was to leave the land in which he was familiar.  He was to abandon his father and eliminate this influence.  These challenges were designed to lead Avram to greater personal perfection.


According to Gershonides, this personal element was not present in this test.  Avram was commanded to travel to the Land of Israel.  He was to initiate the eternal relationship between Bnai Yisrael and the Land of Israel.  Acting properly often entails enduring personal trials.  In order to fulfill Hashem’s command, Avram had to be willing to leave all that was familiar and dear to him.  However, this personal trial was not the essential element of the directive.  It was a result of the imperative to act in accordance with the will of Hashem.



The First Blessing of the Amidah

And I will make you into a great nation.  And I will bless you.  And I will make your name great.  And you will be a blessing.  (Beresheit 12:2)

Hashem promises Avram that he will be rewarded for his devotion.  Rashi, based upon the Talmud, provides an interesting interpretation of these rewards.  A short introduction is needed to understand this interpretation. 


The Amidah is the most important prayer in the daily liturgy.  It is recited at least three times each day.  This prayer is composed of a number of blessings.  The central blessings of the Amidah vary in content and number depending on the occasion.  However, the first and last two blessings are constant.  The first blessing refers to the Almighty as “the G-d of Avraham, the G-d of Yitzchak, and the G-d of Yaakov.”  The closing of the blessing refers to Hashem as the “shield of Avraham.”


Let us now return to our pasuk.  Rashi explains that the rewards described in our passage allude to this first blessing of the Amidah.  The phrase, “And I will make you into a great nation,” alludes to the characterization of Hashem as the “G-d of Avraham.”  “I will bless you,” refers to the phrase “the G-d of Yitzchak.”  Finally, “I will make your name great,” is a reference to the phrase, “the G-d of Yaakov.”  The blessing ends by associating Hashem to Avraham alone.  This is an expression of the promise “and you will be a blessing.”[11]


In order to understand the meaning of Rashi’s important comments it is necessary to review the insight of Etz Yosef on this phrase from the Amidah.  The wording of the blessing troubles Etz Yosef.  Our Sages designed the teffilah very carefully.  They avoided redundancies or verbose wording.  Yet, in this first blessing of the Amidah, Hashem is referred to as “the G-d of Avraham, the G-d of Yitzchak and the G-d of Yaakov.”  This can be reduced to “the G-d of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov.”  Why did the Sages choose the more repetitious formulation?


Etz Yosef explains that the Sages are teaching us a fundamental lesson.  Yitzchak did not merely serve Hashem because He was the G-d of his father Avraham.  Instead, Yitzchak repeated Avraham’s investigations.  He was not satisfied until he was personally convinced of the reality of Hashem.  Hashem was not a remote G-d known only through tradition.  The Creator was Yitzchak’s own G-d – discovered through his personal efforts.  The same was true for Yaakov.  He made Hashem his personal G-d.  He did not settle for a G-d known only through folklore.[12]


Based on Etz Yosef’s insight, we can understand Rashi’s interpretation of our pasuk.  According to the Rashi, part of the reward promised to Avraham was that his sons would follow his way.  They would develop a personal relationship with the Almighty.  They would not be satisfied with a second-hand G-d, known only through their ancestors’ traditions.


However, the reward in the pasuk contains a second element.  Often, when various individuals conduct the same investigation, they come to different conclusions.  This is especially true in theological areas.  Such issues are often difficult to analyze objectively.  Each investigator brings his own perspectives and prejudices to the study.  In view of this consideration, it is notable that Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov all discovered the same G-d.  Although each studied the issues separately, they all discovered and worshipped the “shield of Avraham.”  This was the second element of Avraham’s reward.  His children would not only find G-d; they would discover the Creator Avraham had discerned.  The closing of the blessing reflects this concept by associating Hashem with Avraham alone.



The Necessity of the Brit ben HaBetarim


And He said unto him: Take for Me a heifer of three years old, and a she-goat of three years old, and a ram of three years old, and a turtle-dove, and a young pigeon.  (Beresheit 15:9)

Our parasha describes the development of the relationship between Hashem and Avraham.  In the opening passages of the parasha, Hashem tells Avraham that he will enjoy His providence.  However, despite the influence of Hashem’s providence, Avraham and Sarah do not have children.  This leads to a dialogue between Hashem and Avraham. Again, Hashem tells Avraham he his has earned great merit and He will protect him.  Avraham responds that this merit is of little value to him.  He has no heir.  Hashem tells Avraham that he will have an heir and that that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars.  Avraham accepts Hashem’s message.  Then, Hashem tells Avraham his descendants will occupy Canaan.  Avraham asks, “In what will I know?”  In other words, he seems to ask Hashem for an additional indication that his descendants will occupy Canaan. 


Our passage introduces Hashem’s response to this last question.  Hashem instructs Avraham in the Brit ben HaBetarim – the Covenant of the Halves.  The instructions for the creation of this covenant are unusual.  Avraham is to take various animals.  Most are to be split in half.  Two birds are to be included among the animals.  The birds are not to be split and are to be placed at the beginning and end of the series of split animals.  Avraham follows the directions.  He arranges the animals and the birds as required.  Then, Avraham sees a bird of prey descend upon the dead animals.  He chases it away. 


The incident of the Brit ben HaBetarim ends with another prophecy.  Hashem tells Avraham that his descendants will be afflicted for four-hundred years in a foreign land.  They will leave with the wealth of their tormentors and conquer Canaan.  The prophecy ends with a flame passing between the halves of the animals.


The Brit ben HaBetarim is not easily understood.  It raises a number of questions.  One of the obvious problems is that Avraham’s responses to the various messages that Hashem communicated seem inconsistent.  It seems that Avraham was comfortable with and willing to immediately accept the prophecy that he would have an heir and that his descendents would be as numerous as the stars of the heavens.  However, Avraham seems to have been less certain of the message that his descendants would inherit the Land of Canaan.  Why was Avraham less certain of the meaning of this second message?


Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno addresses this question.  In order to understand Sforno’s response to this question, a brief introduction will be helpful.  Maimonides explains that the Torah provides us with a method by which we can determine the credibility of any prophet.  In order for us to accept that a claimant is a true prophet, we assess the accuracy of his prophecies.  Every prophecy that the claimant communicates must be fulfilled.  If all of the claimant’s predictions become reality, then we are required to assume that the claimant is an authentic prophet.  If at some point the assumed prophet offers a prediction that is not fulfilled, then we must assume that this person is a false prophet.


Maimonides adds two significant qualifications to this rule.  First, he explains that the requirement of absolute accuracy only applies to the positive predictions specified by the claimant.  However, if the claimant warns of disaster or tragedy and this prediction does not materialize, we do not assume that the claimant is a false prophet.  We recognize that a prediction of disaster is intended as a warning to repent.  We know that repentance and forgiveness are always possible.  We must acknowledge that the fulfillment of the prediction of disaster may have been forestalled by repentance and forgiveness.  Therefore, although the claimant must be absolutely accurate in his prediction of positive outcomes and events, inaccuracies in predictions of tragedy and disaster are not of consequence.  Such inaccuracies do not undermine the credibility of the claimant.


Second, it is important to recognize that there are two types of prophecy.  Some prophecies are designed for communication to others.  In such instances, the prophet serves as Hashem’s spokesman to humanity, or to a group or nation.  Other prophecies are personal.  In these prophecies the prophet receives information from Hashem for his own benefit.  These prophecies are not intended to be communicated to others.  Maimonides explains that the requirement for absolute accuracy only applies to prophecies intended for communication to the public.  This is because the public must have a means by which to determine the credibility of the claimant.  The means is the accuracy of the claimant’s predictions.  However, the true prophet himself knows that he is communicating with Hashem.  He does not need proof as to the veracity of his prophecy.  Therefore, it is possible that some personal prophecies will not be fulfilled.


This seems somewhat bizarre.  We can understand why negative prophecies may not be fulfilled.  As Maimonides explained, it is possible that through repentance and forgiveness disaster will be averted.  However, how is possible that Hashem communicate a personal prophecy to the prophet and not fulfill this prophecy?


Maimonides offers an amazing answer based on the comments of our Sages.  Our Sages explain that it is possible that a subsequent sin or wrongdoing will invalidate the prophecy.  In other words, Hashem may communicate to the prophet that he will receive a specific reward.  This communication is not a guarantee that this reward will be granted.  The granting of the blessing, or reward, remains dependent upon the righteousness and merit of the prophet.  If the prophet remains deserving, he will experience the fulfillment of the prophecy.  However, if he sins, he may be deprived of the predicted blessing.[13]


As an aside, it is worth noting that Maimonides is providing a clear basis for differentiating between true prophets and counterfeits.  Throughout the generations various individuals have claimed or implied prophetic powers.  Such a claim is not substantiated simply because some – or even many – of the claimant’s predictions seem to have been fulfilled.  The claimant must be unerring in his predictions.  Even a single unfulfilled positive prediction that goes unfulfilled completely undermines any possible claim of authentic prophecy.


Based on Maimonides’ analysis, Sforno explains Avraham’s differing reactions to these two prophecies.  First, Sforno assumes that Avraham understood that both of these communications were personal prophecies.  They were not intended for communication to his followers.  Hashem communicated the future to Avraham for his own benefit.  Avraham concluded that these communications were not absolute assurances.  Like all personal prophecies, the fulfillment of these blessings would depend upon the beneficiaries’ righteousness. He understood Hashem’s message that he would have children and that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars depended upon his own continued righteousness and merit.  He accepted this responsibility without hesitation.  However, the message that his descendants would posses the Land of Canaan seemed problematic for Avraham.  How could he know that his descendants would follow in his path and merit this reward?  Avraham expressed his uncertainty regarding the absoluteness of this outcome.


Based on this interpretation of Avraham’s question, Sforno offers a novel explanation of Hashem’s response.   He asserts that any prophecy that is accompanied by a promise – or brit (a covenant) – must be fulfilled.  Therefore, the brit Hashem entered into with Avraham provided a definite assurance that the prophecy would come true.[14]


It is possible that Sforno maintains that a covenant, by definition, is a public declaration.  Any prophecy that is accompanied by a covenant rises above the level of a personal prophecy.  A covenant is an objective and public declaration.  The blessing is no longer dependent upon the beneficiary’s merit. The covenant must be fulfilled.


There is some evidence that this is Sforno’s understanding of the significance of a covenant.  In other words, further comments seem to indicate that Sforno understood a covenant as a public declaration and not just the affirmation of a personal prophecy.


Sforno is bothered by another problem presented by the Brit ben HeBetarim.  As noted above, one of the final elements of the brit was a prophecy regarding the future persecution of Bnai Yisrael.  Hashem told Avraham that his descendants would experience four-hundred years of affliction and exile.  This was a revelation of the eventual exile of Bnai Yisrael to Egypt and their persecution at the hands of the Egyptians.  Hashem also revealed to Avraham that Bnai Yisrael’s tormentors would be punished.  Bnai Yisrael would be redeemed from this exile and would leave the land of their persecution with great wealth.  Why was this revelation necessary and how is it related to Hashem’s covenant with Avraham?


Sforno explains that Hashem foretold Avraham of the suffering of his descendants in a foreign land for a specific reason.  During their suffering they would question Avraham’s prophecy that they would possess the Land of Canaan.  They would wonder how their suffering could be reconciled with the promises that their forefather Avraham had communicated to them.  In order to respond to this inevitable question, Hashem revealed the exile and suffering to Avraham.  Avraham was to share this revelation with his children and, through them, his descendants.  This revelation made clear that this suffering was envisioned by Hashem when He made His promises to Avraham.  Therefore, it was clearly not a contradiction to those promises.[15]


These comments indicate that Avraham was expected to communicate to his descendants the prophecy that they would possess the Land of Canaan.  With the addition of the covenantal element to the prophecy, the message was no longer personal.  It became a public declaration for future generations.  This necessitated the additional revelation of future exile and persecution.  Once the message was transformed into a public prophecy, this additional element – the prophecy of exile and persecution – became essential. 


[1] In the opening chapters of the parasha, Avraham is referred to be his original name, Avram.  Later in the parasha, Hashem instructs Avram to change his name to Avraham. 

[2]  Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 11:28.

[3]  Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Avodat Kochavim 1:3.

[4]   Mesechet Avot 5:3, Avot DeRav Natan 33:2.

[5]   Sefer Beresheit 11:28 - 12:5.

[6]   Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 12:1.

[7]   Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 11:32.

[8]   Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 12:1.

[9]   Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, (Mosad HaRav Kook, 1994),  p 100.

[10]   Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, (Mosad HaRav Kook, 1994),  pp. 101-102.

[11]  Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 12:2.

[12]  Rav Hanoch Zundel ben Yosef, Etz Yosef – Commentary on Siddur Otzer HaTeffilot, pp. 308-309.

[13] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Commentary on the Mishne, Introduction.

[14] Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 15:6-9.

[15] Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 15:13.