The articles in this column are transcriptions and adaptations of shiurim by Rav Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, zt”l.
Abraham’s story, initiated at the conclusion of Parshat Noah, retains its relevance to us so many generations later. The struggles between the Jew, the Egyptians and the other neighboring peoples foretold by Abraham continue to this very day. As our Rabbis taught, events in the lives of our patriarchs are paradigmatic foretellers of events that will occur to us, their children.
Parshat Lech Lecha starts with G-d’s commanding Abraham to separate from his birthplace and nation in order to initiate the process of building a separate nation. It concludes with the Covenant of Circumcision, brit milah. What is the unifying thread that runs through the parshah?
Abraham, the first Jew, encountered the Egyptians soon after he entered and subsequently departed Canaan. Indeed, Egypt constantly surfaces throughout the Bible and Prophets as the antagonist of the Jewish nation. Abraham was not our only ancestor to deal with the Egyptians. Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt; the Jewish people were enslaved there; there were constant battles and incidents with Egypt throughout the first and second Commonwealths. In Messianic times Egypt will be prominent as well, as the prophet Zechariah says: at the end of days all the nations will gather against Jerusalem and G-d will confront them on behalf of His nation. Egypt will be singled out for punishment because it will not celebrate the festival of Sukkot (Zechariah 14:18).
Abraham arrived in Egypt and, ironically, the Egyptians blamed him for the tension associated with taking Sara, accusing him of misleading them by identifying Sara as his sister rather than his wife. Their behavior justified his mistrust, for even if she was his sister, the Egyptians had no right to seize her. Abraham and Pharaoh, perhaps for their individual reasons, realized that Abraham cannot remain among Egyptian society. He subsequently separated from the Egyptians and returned to Canaan.
Toward the end of the parshah, G-d commanded Abraham to walk before Him and be complete and G-d will establish His covenant between Abraham and his descendants (Genesis 17:1). Rashi comments that G-d informed Abraham that He is all-powerful and all-capable to administer to each and every creature; therefore, walk before Me and I will be a G-d and protector to you. What is the connection between G-d’s command and brit milah according to Rashi’s explanation?
The Midrash says that Abraham feared that undergoing circumcision would cause a fundamental change in his relationship with the rest of the world. Until now, people from diverse lands and backgrounds sought out Abraham and he was able to influence them to come closer to G-d. Though they were aware that he espoused a unique philosophy of belief in a one, true G-d, they still shared enough in common that justified a relationship with him. Abraham feared that after circumcision, any common link would be severed and they will no longer associate with him, stranding him alone. The Torah says that he sat at the door of his tent at the hottest point of the day, searching for guests, yet none passed by. The people did indeed boycott him. G-d told Abraham not to worry, for He will be with him and protect him.
Circumcision and the Sabbath/Festivals are both classified as otot (signs) of our relationship with G-d. While they share the concept of a sign, each symbolizes a distinct aspect of the relationship between G-d and the Jewish People. Sabbath symbolizes the unique kedushat Yisrael, Jewish sanctity. The Jew has to follow a path of sanctity and remain separate from the other nations of the world.
While the Jew participates in solving the same medical, social and economic problems confronting all of humanity, we remain separate in a metaphysical sense. Brit milah shows that the Jew is inherently different from the other nations. He has a unique destiny. The non-Jew may understand the concept of sanctity. He might grasp the idea of performing mitzvot. However, he has difficulty grasping the unique separation between the destiny of the Jew and the rest of the world. He finds it especially difficult to grasp the connection between the Jew and Eretz Yisrael.