In Parshat Lech Lecha we read of the brit bein habetarim, the covenant between the parts, whereupon Hashem promises Avraham (then Avram) that his offspring will inherit the Land. He also informs Avram that his offspring, while multitudinous, will be strangers in a strange land, and implies that they will suffer through multiple exiles. This is a strange sort of promise and on the surface doesn’t seem very reassuring. Indeed, at the beginning of the vision that precedes this covenant, we learn that “a great dark terror fell upon” Avram (Bereishit 15:12).
In order to properly understand this message, we must look back a few pesukim to when Avram first learns that his descendants will be as plentiful as the stars and will inherit the Land. Rashi notes that Avram never doubts that Hashem can provide him with progeny, in spite of the fact that he and Sarai are very old and this seems to run contrary to the laws of nature. However, he asks Hashem, “How will I know that I will indeed inherit?” (Ibid. 8, Rashi on 6). The Gemara in Nedarim (32a) notes that by asking this question, Avram has already invited upon himself the edict of exile to Mitzrayim. But Alshich on this pasuk emphasizes that with all prophecies of negative events, the outcome depends upon the conduct of the descendants of Avram and whether they will do teshuva. If they are righteous and serve Hashem faithfully, then the decrees of subsequent exiles might be abrogated.
This, according to the Kedushat Levi, is what lies at the root of Avram’s question. He knows it is within the power of Hashem to miraculously multiply his offspring and he understands that Hashem has the right to give the Land to whomever He sees fit. But how is Avram to know – and how can Hashem guarantee – that future generations will not be wicked and thus forfeit their title to the Land?
For this reason, Hashem describes the various exiles that Israel will undergo, by way of guaranteeing that these future generations will never be completely lost in them. No matter how bad things might get – because of what we have brought upon ourselves by our choices and actions – Hashem’s guarantee to Avram ensures that every exile will end and we will inherit the Land. This assurance is as strong and as true as the account of the several exiles that Hashem warns Avram about.
Yes, these terrible things, described in order and in detail, will befall us – but we must also know (and here the language in the Torah is repeated, for Avram must surely know) that every exile will end and the nations that afflict us will be judged. Ramban teaches that they will be judged because of their Hamas, and it is also noteworthy that the verb “to judge” here is stated in the past tense because Hashem has already judged and decree the redemption of Israel.
As we see many times in Scripture and in Jewish history, Hashem precedes the disease with the presentation of the cure (See Megillah 13b). According to many of our great Sages, the key to surviving the exile and its associated afflictions is encoded into the ritual that preceded Avram’s vision. This event is described as the covenant between the parts because Avram is instructed to split the bodies of several animals (excluding the birds, which he does not split), and arrange them in such a manner that they are facing one another. The Beit HaLevi follows several of the classical commentators in identifying these split animals with the korbanot that we would later be commanded to bring in the Beit HaMikdash. He explains that in future generations Israel would transgress against Hashem both willfully and inadvertently. Hashem is merciful and will surely forgive those who act wrongly in error, but how can the willful sinner be forgiven? The answer, Hashem is already implying to Avram, is by virtue of bringing the appropriate offering by means of which atonement can be made. This is very different from the nations that stand to be dispossessed so that Avram’s children may inherit – for these nations and for their iniquities, there is no atonement and no forgiveness. They will be banished with no claim and no right to ever return.
Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsh has a beautiful and inspiring reading of these passages as well. He says that future generations will not only rebel against Hashem, tragically, but they will also fight amongst themselves. Much misfortune and unpleasantness will occur as a result of baseless hatred and feuding among the people of Israel. However, in arranging the parts of the split animals “every individual facing his fellow,” in the words of the pasuk (Bereishit 15:10), there is a hint of the unity that will be instrumental in Israel overcoming adversity. When times are most challenging and when our enemies seem to possess the power to overcome us, we prevail at last by returning to face one another and understanding that we are all the children of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, sharing a common destiny.
And why were the birds not split? Rav Hirsh explains that the bird is distinguished by its ability to fly. This aspect of our experience, throughout many generations of long and painful exiles, is never impacted by anything that befalls us. Always, no matter what, Israel has the ability to soar above our troubles and follow our unique path that leads heavenward to draw near our Father Above who is always ready to welcome us.