“Va’avarcha m’varachecha… v’nivrechu vecha kol mishpechos ha’adama – I will bless those who bless you… and all the families of the earth will be blessed through you” (12:3). The words v’nivrechu vecha not only mean that the families of the earth will be blessed through you, but also that they will be grafted onto the Jewish people. When other nations see that by simply blessing Avram, they too will be blessed, they will want to convert to Judaism. Jews by birth who may be practicing Judaism out of habit will be strengthened in their commitment to Torah by the fresh enthusiasm and conviction of such converts.
G-d tells Avram to go to the land “that I will show you” without naming the land. So, Avram wanders through the land of Canaan, likely passing many places, but the Torah only mentions two specific locations: Shechem and Alon Moreh. In Shechem he experiences a troubling prophecy, a vision of the sons of Ya’akov fighting there. He does not yet know whether the children of Yaakov fighting in Shechem are his own descendants, or if the land of Canaan is his own land, because G-d has not told this to him yet. Perhaps the children of Yaakov are not his biological children but are merely his students, in the spirit of “whoever teaches Torah to his friend’s son is regarded as if he had fathered him” (Sanhedrin 19b).”
In Alon Moreh, which is close to Shechem, he experiences a joyful prophecy. He has a vision of the descendants of Yaakov pledging collective responsibility to the Torah at Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival. Avram understands that what appears to be negative infighting in Shechem can turn out to be positive unity at Alon Moreh. If there has been sinas chinam, selfish hatred, there might also be ahavas chinam, selfless love. But if you have not experienced the former, you will not fully appreciate the latter. It is only after Avram demonstrates his own ahavas chinam, by praying for the welfare of others and celebrating the joy of others in a land of others, that G-d tells him in pasuk 7 that these are his biological children, and this is indeed his own land.
No sooner has G-d told Avram that the land of Israel belongs to him and his descendants, there is a famine in the land and Avram finds himself on the road to Egypt. This is one of the tests of faith he undergoes to see whether he will question G-d. Fearing that Pharoah will kill him and take Sarai as his wife, Avram asks Sarai to tell Pharoah that she is his sister, “lmaan yitav li va’avureich, v’chaysa nafshi big’lalech – so that it will be good for me because of you, and I will live thanks to you” (12:13). Rashi interprets these words to mean that the Egyptians will give Avram gifts. But that begs the question. Why does Avraham adds the words v’chaysa nafshi big’lalech. Obviously, Avram cannot enjoy gifts if he is not alive. And why use the word “nafshi”?
G-d did not directly instruct Avraham to go down to Egypt. The Gemara informs us that there was no mass exodus from Canaan to Egypt. People were able to survive the famine in Canaan, even if only with difficulty. But Avram felt compelled to go down to Egypt of his own accord, even if he did not yet know why. And in so doing, he set the stage for the ultimate survival of the Jews in Egypt.
Like Nachum Ish Gamzu, Avram understood that the famine was for the best. Lmaan yitav li va’avureich means gam zu l’tovah (this too is for the best). In asking Sarai to pretend she was his sister, a ruse which led to Pharoah being stricken with a skin disease that made intimacy with her impossible, Avram and Sarai guaranteed the future purity of the nefesh of the Jewish people. Even though the Egyptians were later given the power to enslave the Jews, they did not dare touch the Jewish women, out of fear that what happened to Pharoah years earlier, would happen to them.
As a result, the Torah can vouch that the pedigree of all the twelve tribes was unadulterated. It does so by adding two letters of G-d’s name, the letters yud and hei, to the names of the tribes, as in mishpachas haChanochi (Rashi to Bamidbar 26:5 and Tehillim 122:4.). In addition, by acting in this way, Avram and Sarai guaranteed that the twelve tribes would not assimilate with the Egyptians but would live apart in the land of Goshen. Chazal tell us that the land of Goshen was given to Sarai by Pharoah, in compensation for the stress he caused her and that it was later bequeathed to Joseph’s brothers when they arrived in Egypt (Bereishit 47:6, Pirkei DeRabi Eliezer 26:7). By creating these two precedents in Egyptian history, which resulted in the Egyptians desisting from having relations with Jewish women and earmarking the land of Goshen for the Jews, Avram and Sarai saved the Jewish soul from corruption and assimilation. That is the meaning of v’chaysa nafshi big’lalech.
As a result of the gifts Pharoah lavished on them, both Avram and Lot became extremely wealthy. But they related to their wealth very differently, “V’Avram kaveid me’od bamikneh bakesef u’vazahav – Avram was exceedingly wealthy, in livestock, silver and gold” (13:2). The word kaveid means that Avram considered his wealth a burden and the word me’od means he suffered from this burden, (Midrash Rabbah, Bereishis 9:8). Avram did not need all that wealth to live, and he understood that G-d had deposited it in his bank account in trust for other less fortunate people. He was now burdened with the responsibility of finding those people and making sure he fulfilled his function as paying agent. Shlomo Hemelech’s warning that “osher shamur livalav l’ra’aso – riches hoarded by their owner to his misfortune” (Kohelet 5:12) did not apply to Avram.
With Lot it was different. Although we are told “V’gam l’Lot…haya tzon u’vakar v’ohalim,” (13:5) we do not find the words kaveid me’od. For Lot, whatever he had was nice, but it was not enough. He was the perfect example of Natan Habavli’s adage that woever has 100 desires 200. And so, in addition to the abundance he already had, he sent his animals to graze in the fields of others. This caused strife between Avram and Lot.
Let us not quarrel says, Avram, for we are “anashim achim” (13:8). Avram and Lot were not brothers; they were uncle and nephew, relatives. But what Avram meant is that even though we have to part ways to end the strife, I will always be there for you in times of crisis when you say “ach” and groan in pain (Rashi, Bereishis 7:23). Avram would always be there for Lot, to step into the breach, “la’achos es hakera,” as he did when he waged war with the five kings and rescued Lot from captivity.
G-d promises Avram (Bereishis 13:15) that He will give him the land forever (“ad olam”). What happened to that promise? True, we are no longer in Eretz Yisrael, because “mipnei chata’einu galinu mei’artzeinu,” as we say in the Yom Tov davening, but it is still and always will be artzeinu, our land. Nobody can take that ownership right away from us, even as they squat in our land. A yerusha can be taken away, but not a nachalah. Unlike the land of Moav, which changed ownership when conquered by Sichon, the ownership of Eretz Yisrael belongs to us, irrespective of who has possession of it.
That the land belongs to us even as we live in the Diaspora is confirmed by the very next pasuk in which G-d says, “I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth.” When the Jews live in Israel, they are not compared to the dust of the earth. They are compared to the stars of the heavens. It is only when they are living in the Diaspora that they are compared to the dust of the earth, because everybody treads on them. The juxtaposition of these two verses, one guaranteeing that Eretz Yisrael will be our land forever and the other telling us that we will be like the dust of the earth, proves that the land belongs to us forever, irrespective of where we live.
“Vayehi bimei Amrafel” (14:1). We know that the word “vayehi” always spells trouble. What was the trouble with the war that Avram won against the five kings?
There are three reasons given to explain why the Jews were enslaved in Egypt for 210 years (Nedarim 32a). The first is because Avram mobilized his Torah students to fight in the battle instead of hiring mercenaries (14:14). The second is because Avram asked G-d for a guarantee that his descendants would inherit the land (“ba’ma eidah ki irashena”) when he should have trusted G-d without guarantees (15:8). The third is that he allowed the King of Sedom to keep the war prisoners of Sedom instead of taking possession of them and converting them to Judaism (14:21).
It was Avram asking Hashem for a guarantee that that was the root cause of the other two incidents. No concrete action was involved in asking for the guarantee. It was merely words. But it showed a lack of trust in G-d that led to the two concrete actions in the war of the five kings. It was lack of trust in the ability to put together an army in short order that led Avram to mobilize the Torah students on hand, instead of allowing them to continue to study. And it was lack of trust that G-d would help him convert the wayward prisoners of Sedom that led him to give them up and abandon them in the custody of the King of Sedom.
The academic question ba’ma eidah ki irashena would in itself have not led to the punishment of Mitzraim, but it was the practical application of this question in the war of the five Kings, that triggered it. That was the vayehi.
When Sarai understood that she could not bear a child, she consented to Avraham having relations with her maidservant Hagar. Somehow, Sarai understood that her having a child was dependent on Hagar having a child, “ulai ibaneh mimenah” (16:2). Sarai could only build her family on the back of Hagar’s family. We know that Yaakov could not exist without Eisav. He needed Eisav to keep him keep in line. Yaakov would only rule over Eisav if he remained loyal to the Torah. The moment Yaakov strayed from adherence to the Torah, Eisav would rule over him (Bereishis 27:40 and Bereishis Rabbah 67:7).
The same was true for Yitzchak. He needed his archenemy Yishmael nearby to keep him in line. If Avram would never have married Hagar, Yishmael would never have been born and, in turn, Yitzchak could never have been born. The intervention of Hagar in the story of Avram and Sarai was essential for Yitzchak. This existential link between Yitchak and Hagar can be seen from the gematria of Hagar which is 208, the same as the gematria of Yitzchak.
These highlights from the Parsha Shiur of Haga’on Harav Dovid Fienstein, zt”l, are brought to you by Raphael Grunfeld, a partner in the Wall Street law firm of Carter Ledyard & Milburn LLP ,who received semicha in Yoreh Yoreh from Mesivtha Tifereth Jerusalem of America and in Yadin Yadin from Harav, Haga’on Dovid Feinstein, zt”l. and who attended his weekly parshah shiur for twenty years.