“Please, gracious and compassionate King, remember and call to mind the Covenant between the Pieces [with Avraham] and let the binding of his only son [Yitzchak] appear before You for Israel’s sake. Our Father, our King, be gracious to us and answer us, for we are called by Your great name. You who work miracles at all times, deal with us according to Your lovingkindness. Gracious and compassionate One, look and answer us in time of trouble, for salvation is Yours, Lord.” (Tachanun for Mondays and Thursdays)

In this heartfelt prayer, we call upon Hashem to recall two of the ten trials of Avraham – the brit bein habetarim, the Covenant between the Pieces and the akedat Yitzchak, the binding of Yitzchak. The first appears in our parsha (Bereishit 15) and the second, in next week’s parsha, Vayeira (ibid chapter 22). God appeared to Avraham (then known as Avram) after his successful campaign against the four kings of the East who had captured his nephew Lot, and told him that he would be his “shield”, his protector, and that his reward would be great. He also assured him that he would have an heir, despite his advanced age, and that his descendants would be as innumerable as the stars. Avraham believed what Hashem told him and Hashem “considered it for him as righteousness”, as a correct, upright and proper act. God then addressed the matter of the Land of Canaan (verse 7), “He said to him: I am the Lord who took you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to inherit it.” Avraham replied (ibid verse 8), “He said: My Lord God, how shall I know that I shall inherit it?”

The Sages struggle to make sense of Avraham’s question. As Rashi (verse 6) notes, the patriarch believed with perfect faith when God told him he would have a child at his old age, yet, when God told him that his descendants would inherit the Land of Canaan, he asked for some form of ‘guarantee’. Surely the former is more miraculous that the latter? My Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi A.C. Goldfein, of blessed memory, explained that Avraham’s question indicates just how difficult it is to possess the Holy Land. It is a spiritual place that does not tolerate immoral behaviour (see Vayikrah 18:24-28). It “vomits out” the inhabitants of the Land when they behave in an abominable fashion. Moreover, the Talmud (Brachot 5a) lists the Land of Israel as one of three wonderful gifts that Hashem gave us but which are acquired with suffering. The events of Simchat Torah, 7 October, have reinforced this statement. Avraham asked for an assurance that his descendants could indeed maintain their grasp of the Land. According to the Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni Bereishit #77, cited in Messilat Yesharim chapter 4), Avraham was punished for his lack of trust in Hashem as indicated by his question. The punishment was that several generations would have to pass, before Avraham’s family would inherit the Land, as stated in the Covenant between the Pieces.

Rashi (verse 6, citing the Talmud, Megillah 31b) offers an alternate explanation. Avraham had no doubt about God’s Promise. Just as he believed he would have a son at an advanced age, so he believed completely that his offspring would inherit the Land. Rather, his request was by what merit the Jewish people would inherit the land. God replied that it would be in the merit of the sacrifices. Hence, His response (verse 9), “He said to him: Take for Me three heifers, three female goats, three rams, and a dove, and a young pigeon.”  Rashi explains that these animals correspond to certain sacrifices that were brought in the Temple.  Avraham took these animals, slaughtered them and divided them into two pieces. He did not divide the birds. Birds of prey attempted to devour the carcasses but Avraham drove them away. The narrative continues (Bereishit 5:12-18), “It was when the sun was setting; a deep sleep fell upon Avram and behold, a dread, a great darkness fell upon him. He [God] said to Avraham: Know that your descendants shall be strangers in a land that is not theirs. And they shall be enslaved to them and they shall oppress them four hundred years. And also the nation that they shall serve, I will judge. And afterwards they will emerge with great property. And you shall go to your fathers in peace, you shall be buried at a good old age. And the fourth generation shall return here for the iniquity of the Emorite is not complete until then. It was when the sun had set and there was extreme darkness, and behold a smoking furnace and a flaming torch that passed between those pieces. On that day, the Lord established a covenant with Avram, saying: To your descendants I have given this land from the river of Egypt until the great river, the Euphrates River.”

There is deep symbolism in every detail of this covenant. On the most basic level, the ritual described was common in the ancient world. When two (or more) parties to a covenant would finalise an agreement, they would slaughter an animal and each party would walk between the halves. In this case, Avraham was one party and Hashem, represented by the “smoking furnace and flaming torch” was the other party (see Rashi verse 10). The “dread” and “great darkness” that “fell upon” Avraham was a result of what he witnessed in this prophetic vision. Avraham was shown how the people of Israel would be persecuted and oppressed by the four mighty empires – Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome. Moreover, each animal and bird symbolised one of these great powers (Midrash Bereishit Rabba 44:15 & 17). This vision is considered one of Avraham’s ten trials because he was fully aware of how his offspring would suffer and yet, he remained steadfast in his faith.

I have often though about what Avraham saw in that gloomy prophecy. He witnessed the destruction of both Temples; exile to the four corners of the world; inquisitions; crusades; pogroms; forced debates; expulsions; blood libels; the Holocaust and now we can add: Simchat Torah 5784. How is it that he did not go mad? How did he maintain his faith? In the last three weeks, I have seen several horrendous videos from the terror attack in the south of Israel. I have watched interviews with the courageous volunteers of Zaka who identify and collect bodies. They will require trauma counselling for the rest of their lives after what they found. I have seen clips of funerals, including one where a young boy is the sole survivor of his entire family.  And I have seen footage of hundreds of thousands of pro-Palestinian supporters marching in several major cities across the globe. These images are terrifying and anxiety-inducing. They reinforce our tenuous position as a tiny nation, a veritable “lamb amongst seventy wolves” (Midrash, Esther Rabba 10:11). But then I am encouraged when I recall that despite witnessing this vision, Avraham was reassured by God that his descendants would eventually inherit the land, in its most expansive definition. We are small in number but we have a powerful Guardian who “neither slumbers nor sleeps.” This is the intention of a fascinating exchange in the Midrash (ibid) “The Emperor Hadrian said to Rabbi Yehoshua: ‘Great is the lamb that survives among seventy wolves!’ He said to him: ‘Great is the Shepherd who saves it [the lamb] and crushes them before it. That is what is written: “No weapon formed against you will succeed”’ (Isaiah 54:17). May we see the fulfilment of the Covenant between the Pieces speedily in our days!

Lee, Chani Merryl and Naomi join me in wishing you Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Liebenberg

Link to Rabbi’s YouTube message for the parsha:

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