Bible Dynamics

Pinchas Polonsky

Evolving Personalities And Ideas

Contemporary Torah Commentary

Following the Teaching of Rabbi Yehuda Leon Ashkenazi (Manitou) and Rabbi Uri Amos Cherki


Part A. Bereshit – Chayei Sarah

Translated from the Russian

by Betzalel (Todd) Shandelman

Orot Yerushalaim


ISBN 978-1-949900-20-0

© Copyright 2020 Orot Yerushalaim / P. Polonsky •

© English translation of the Torah by the Jewish Publication Society, New JPS Translation, 1985. With sincere gratitude for the permission to use

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My very special expression of gratitude goes first to Rabbi Uri-Amos Cherki, one of modern Israel 's most outstanding rabbis and religious philosophers, a disciple of Rabbi Z. Y. Kook and Rabbi Y. L. Ashkenazi (Manitou). The lessons of Rabbi Cherki allowed me to explore the uniquely innovative approach to the Torah on which the Bible Dynamics commentary is based.

Next, I wish to thank everyone who helped in creating this book at all its various stages, and especially Mikhail Fridman, without whose support this English translation could never have come to fruition, and Betzalel (Todd) Shandelman, the translator of the book, for his wonderful work.

I also wish to express my gratitude to Rabbi Yeshayahu Hollander for his deep dive into Bible Dynamics and insightful comments that resulted in some very important edits of this text.

I have been privileged to benefit from the invaluable advice and support of all the following individuals: Leonid and Irina Margulis, Alexander and Yulia Shlyankevich, Svetlana Rousakovski, Masha Yaglom, Yuri Livshets, Grigory Yashgur, E. Ya., Galina Zolotusky, Alexander Levchenko, Michael Sherman and Yulia Yaglom, Boris and Anna Gulko, Michael Leypounskiy, Olga Emdin, Rivka Rosin, Iris Mersel, Vassili Schedrin, Alexander Becher, Anna Steingart, Sofia Rivkind, Tamara Levin, Inessa Rifkin, Ilya Brodsky, Roman Rytov, Anatoly Gurevich, Marat Ressin, Ilya Salita.

My heartfelt thanks are also due to all who participated with me in my work on the original Russian edition of this book:

Elena Gitel, Alexander Merman, Oleg Evdokimenko, Mikhail Simonov, Eugene Birger, Nechama Simanovich, Nathan Brusovani, Lea Ashurov z"l, Nelly Kemmel z"l, Avshalom Donskoy, Alexander Astakhov, Alexander Yurovsky, Alexey Shumai, Alina Pozin, Alon Lembritsky, Anna Tkatch, Baruch and Rina Yusin, Boris Shapiro, Vadim Akopyan, Dmitry Akopyan, Valentin Leshchinsky, Valeriy Khaiznikov, Victor Prokopenko, Galina Bleikh, Gershon and Natalia Levitsky , Dmitry Radyshevsky, Eugene Bulgarelli, Elena Rimon, Joseph Shrago, Lea Lubomirskaya, Lily Tsinkovskaya, Marina and Alexander Podelko, Marina and Alexander Sapir, Marina and Mikhail Magrilov, Marina Matlin, Maria Kopylova, Mark Zelikman, Meir Gross, Menashe Elyashiv, Miriam and Levy Kitrossky, Mikhail Weisberg, Mikhail Golosovsky, Mikhail Zeleny, Michael Zule, Michael Goldblat, Natalia Bartenev, Natalia Zwibel, Olga Rivka Umansky, Sonya Kofman, Shlomo Gendelman, Eli Samoilovich, Ella Byshevskaya.

Pinchas Polonsky

Preface to the English Edition

The Midrash notes that “every generation has its expounders,” and new commentaries to the Torah are needed in every generation. Our own times likewise call for new approaches to understanding the Torah. The Bible Dynamics commentary, based on the kabbalistic ideas of Rabbi Y. L. Ashkenazi (Manitou), seeks to provide such a new understanding.

The need for new commentaries arises as cultures and societies constantly change and evolve, and are forced to confront new problems. Naturally, the previous commentaries retain their importance, but they are no longer sufficient. New approaches are paramount for preserving the relevance of the Torah for successive generations.

Our own generation is undergoing especially rapid and radical changes in all areas of Jewish life. The following deserve special mention.

The creation of the State of Israel and the return of the Jewish people to their land have occasioned a dramatic shift in the Jewish worldview. Life in exile demanded from the Jewish people, and from Judaism, an approach that focused on self-preservation, and consistently strived for isolation and conservation. But contemporary Israeli life, in an independent state on equal footing with other nations, places different demands on the Jewish people, and orients them instead toward extroversion: development and advancement, universalism, shared human values, and a need and desire to influence world history and global culture.

The interest of the peoples of the world in Judaism has increased tremendously in our time. While the Jews were in exile and subjected to persecution, other nations showed little interest in Jewish culture and tradition, because “a poor man’s wisdom is scorned” (Ecclesiastes 9:16). The larger world’s ever increasing interest in Judaism today is due in large measure to Israel ’s significant successes and achievements. These changing circumstances require a completely new approach to interpreting the Torah.

Jewish psychological and cultural integration into the Western world has brought the secular Jewish reader and the non-Jewish reader closer together than ever before. A significant segment of the Jewish people is already so far removed from tradition that it views it from the outside looking in. While those Jews still feel a sentimental attachment to Judaism, overwhelmingly they are already a part of the non-Jewish world, culturally speaking, and can move closer to Judaism only as a part of that larger world.

All these changes create new questions, and new aspects and meanings in the Torah are thus revealed.

The contemporary reader might be a free-thinking traditional Jew or a Jew entirely removed from tradition, or he might be not even Jewish at all, but undertakes reading the Torah simply because it is an important component of humanity’s rich spiritual heritage. The key features and needs of contemporary readers can be summarized as follows:

1. The Torah commentators of the past addressed themselves primarily to observant Jews who lived within the tradition. Contemporary readers are different, and they view the Torah text differently. Most readers today live in a far more open world, which gives them an “external” perspective, in the psychological or even the physical sense. Their view of the Torah too is thus a view “from the outside”.

2. The traditional Jewish reader of the past was mainly interested in observing the commandments. It was important for him to understand precisely how the commandments and their details, with which he was already largely familiar, related to the Torah text. A contemporary student of the Torah, on the other hand, is very likely more interested in ideas that will promote his personal development. Rather than viewing the Torah primarily as a source of commandments and laws, the contemporary reader will more typically be seeking values and ideals.

3. For the traditional Jewish reader the Torah was the ultimate legacy. There was never any question of which tradition he should choose; it was only a matter of deepening his knowledge of a text that he took for granted as his very own. For the modern reader, however, the Torah is only one of many spiritual sources with which it must compete. Any Torah commentary today must take this competitive challenge into account.

4. It seems most relevant today to read the Torah as an engaging narrative of uniquely human characters and personalities, each with his or her own challenges and doubts, and having many aspects of greatness to be sure, but shortcomings and flaws as well. Any meaningful reading of the Torah must thus include the dynamics of development – the evolution of people, ideas, and concepts. Commentators of previous ages saw the leading characters of the Torah as a source of lessons and teachings exclusively, and not as personalities per se. In passing from one book of the Torah to the next, those commentators also typically disregarded any transition in the development of ideas and concepts, perceiving the entire Torah instead as a single monolithic, instantaneous event.

* * *

The modern reader’s needs are rather difficult to address. One notable attempt toward developing a new understanding of the Torah was made in the mid-twentieth century by Yehuda Leon Ashkenazi (Manitou), a prominent rabbi and Kabbalist, who through his innovative ideas and concepts formulated a new approach to understanding the text of the Torah and its narratives.

Yehuda Leon was born in Algeria in 1922. His father David was the last chief rabbi of Algiers, and the family had its own kabbalistic tradition. He received an education that was both deeply religious and broadly secular.

During the Second World War Ashkenazi fought in the French resistance. He moved to France after the war, and became a key figure in the post-war revival of French Jewry. (By this time, he was known by his cognomen “Manitou”.) After the Six-Day War of 1967 he emigrated to Israel , where for three decades he was a dean of the Merkaz Ha-Rav yeshiva of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, and spiritual leader of French Jewry’s religious Zionism movement. He died in Jerusalem in 1996.

Teaching mainly in French throughout his life, Ashkenazi exerted a far-reaching influence on French-speaking Jewry. He wrote very little, focusing mostly on lecturing and teaching, with the result that relatively few of his teachings have appeared in other languages, nor even in Hebrew until only very recently. In the English-speaking world (not to mention other languages) Ashkenazi and his ideas are virtually unknown even to this day.

The Bible Dynamics commentary is based primarily on the lectures of Ashkenazi’s devoted disciple Rabbi Uri Cherki. (But it also includes a number of the author’s original ideas and additions.)

Rabbi Uri Cherki is among the most prominent modern Israeli proponents of the ideas of Rabbi Yehuda Leon Ashkenazi-Manitou. The school that Rabbi Cherki has founded presents Rabbi Ashkenazi’s approach in a systematic way, through a series of Torah lectures that have never before been published in written form.

The ideas that Rabbi Ashkenazi reveals allow us to see the Patriarchs as dynamic personalities who evolved and changed throughout their lives. He teaches us to ask questions like the following: How did Abraham and Isaac, Jacob and Moses evolve in the course of the Torah’s narratives? How did their views and ideas change over time? How and why do the ideas of Leviticus and Numbers differ from those of Genesis and Exodus? And why are the Torah’s commandments, and the development of the Jewish nation, presented differently in the book of Deuteronomy as compared with the earlier books of the Torah?

In former times such questions were deemed unacceptable. Instead, the questions were usually posed along the following lines: What is great about Abraham? What example does he set for us, and what is he trying to teach us? How can we reconcile the apparent contradictions between the book of Deuteronomy and the Torah’s previous books?

On the other hand, certain questions were never raised. For example: How did Abraham himself change in the course of his life story, and how did he himself understand it? How are we to understand that Deuteronomy has its own unique approach to presenting the commandments? Such questions, for a very long time considered too privileged for the public consciousness, could be discussed only by a narrow coterie of kabbalistic sages.

Even today the members of certain religious circles, upon hearing that the Patriarchs developed as personalities, or that Moses saw the commandments variously in different periods of his personal development, are moved to protest, because they see this viewpoint as portraying the Patriarchs as imperfect, and not “as they must be.” After all, if a person is said to have developed, that can only mean that at first there was something that he failed to understand, and only later came to understand. How can we say such things about the Patriarchs, or about Moses? Who are we to judge them? Against their greatness we are all but insignificant; how dare we evaluate their development? Nor can the eternal commandments, given from Heaven, ever develop or change!

People accustomed to this mode of thinking believe that dynamics and development testify ipso facto to imperfection, and they therefore deem it unacceptable to speak of the Patriarchs and the commandments in such terms. Such a view of development, however, is the vestige of a medieval mindset, in which any ideal must be completely static, and all truly great things must remain ever constant and unchanging.

To the new-age thinking, however, the value of dynamics and development is, on the contrary, quite obvious. When a person fails to develop or advance, this is seen today as an essential shortcoming, even if that person is one of the “greats”. Under this revised approach, the dynamics and development that a person undergoes speak only in his favor, and make him so much greater in our eyes. We sense not only the pragmatic, but also the spiritual and religious value of such personal dynamics. And as concerns the commandments, it seems reasonable and natural that God would reveal different facets of the commandments to the Jewish people in different periods. The particular emphasis in a given era would depend on the Jewish people’s stage of development at that time.

These are just some of the the teachings of the Kabbalah that were once transmitted only to select individuals, but today can finally be made public, to become a part of our general consciousness.

* * *

All of a human life is a dialogue between man and God. The participants in this dialogue are individuals, nations, and humankind as a whole. The Almighty wants every human being, and every society, regardless of size, to become more perfect, and to that end He constantly confronts us with new tasks and new problems.

As we manage to cope with each succeeding task, God gives us yet another and another, thus continually advancing us to successively higher levels. When, as sometimes happens, we are not able to cope with a given task, God gives us an easier one, and after we solve it, He returns us to the original, more difficult problem. As we continue solving each subsequent problem in a long series of tasks, humanity gradually improves, and man advances closer and closer to God.

Our ability to understand the Patriarchs as dynamically developing personalities is an essential element of this process. It is our hope that this book will succeed in serving that purpose.

* * *

We begin this commentary with the fourth chapter of Genesis, the story of Cain and Abel.

The numbered chapters likewise begin with chapter 4. We plan to publish our commentary on the first three chapters of Genesis in the next edition of this book.


Chapter 4. Cain and Abel

4.1. The Birth of Cain (4:1)

א וְהָ֣אָדָ֔ם יָדַ֖ע אֶת־חַוָּ֣ה אִשְׁתּ֑וֹ וַתַּ֨הַר֙ וַתֵּ֣לֶד אֶת־קַ֔יִן וַתֹּ֕אמֶר קָנִ֥יתִי אִ֖ישׁ אֶת־יֽי׃

[1] Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gained a male child with the help of the Lord”.

[1] Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain With reference to birth, the words “knew” and “conceived” are seemingly superfluous, as they add nothing to the meaning of the story. But this only means that they must be understood at a deeper level – indicating certain stages in Adam and Eve’s personal development. That is, these terms indicate that Adam and Eve changed significantly and developed not only through the birth of their child, but even earlier, at the time of sexual knowledge and conception. And the same is true of humans in general.

And bore Cain, saying, “I have gained a male child with the help of the Lord” ◊ The word kaniti is more literally translated as “I have acquired”. The name Cain is grammatically related to (indeed, it derives from) kaniti. Cain’s essence is that he is a “person who acquires”. He longs to “acquire the world” and transform it, which is why he chooses, as we will soon see, to engage in agriculture. By no means should these longings be seen as something negative; on the contrary, this desire fully corresponds to the Divine command to “fill the earth and master it” (1:28). However, it is also not without its problems, and Cain must subsequently grapple with those.

“I have gained a male child with the help of the Lord” ◊ The words “the help of” are an interpolation by the translator. They do not appear in the original Hebrew, which translates literally as, “I have gained a male child with the Lord”.

Thus, there are two related but different senses to Eve’s message. First, as per the English interpolation just noted: “I have gained a male child with (i.e., through) the help of the Lord”. And second, “I have acquired this male child and, with him, I have acquired the Lord too”. That is, she has acquired a new level of Godliness. Besides getting a son with the birth of Cain, Eve had also acquired the status of a parent, that is, a creator.

 God is fundamentally both Giver and Creator – He created man and gave him life. Initially, then, a person who receives the gift of life from God has been created and is a receiver, but he not does not yet himself create or give. This chasm that initially separates a person from God is a very significant human problem. But we remedy that situation by creating children in our own image and likeness, just as God does (1:26, 9:3), which provides us with a path for getting closer to God by exercising our ability not only to receive, but also to give. And above all – to give life.

Of course, bearing a child is not the only way to become a creator. One can get closer to God also through other creative acts and positive actions. But giving birth to a child is one of the most important ways of achieving that.

From this perspective, Cain is at the center of the world, because through him Adam and Eve became parents and creators, and drew closer to the Lord. Therefore, the Torah does not say (as it typically would) “she gave birth to a son and called him Cain.” Rather, it is written, “she gave birth to Cain”; that is, to “acquisition” – she gave birth to her own new status.

4.2. The Birth of Abel (4:2)

ב וַתֹּ֣סֶף לָלֶ֔דֶת אֶת־אָחִ֖יו אֶת־הָ֑בֶל וַֽיְהִי־הֶ֨בֶל֙ רֹ֣עֵה צֹ֔אן וְקַ֕יִן הָיָ֖ה עֹבֵ֥ד אֲדָמָֽה׃

[2] She then bore his brother Abel. Abel became a keeper of sheep, and Cain became a tiller of the soil.

[2] She then bore his brother Abel The literal meaning of the Hebrew is, “she continued to give birth – to his brother Abel”. The idea of “continued” underscores that this second birth was not completely independent from the first and was on par with it, but only secondary in relation to it. Nor does the Torah state here, as it states previously with Cain, that “Adam knew Eve and she conceived”. Those details are not significant for the birth of Abel, because they are not a new stage in the development of Adam and Eve.

His brother Abel If the essence of Cain is to be a son, to “acquire the world” and change Adam and Eve’s status by making them parents, then the essence of Abel is to be a brother, that is, an adjunct and complement in some sense to Cain’s existence. (There would have been no need to state the obvious, that Abel was Cain’s brother, unless the Torah wished to make a particular point about this brotherhood.)

The birth of Abel does not affect Adam and Eve’s status, for they are already parents. But it radically changes Cain’s status and creates a new reality for him: he ceases to be an only son, and becomes a brother. Abel’s assigned task is to correct Cain, to unseat him from his central position, and to create for him and for the world the concept of brotherhood. Thus Cain is transformed from “only son” into “son and brother”, who must now take into account the existence of “the other”, and the need to share with him.

This “downgrade” is a major problem for every firstborn who must face it. As is well known, if a brother or sister is born in a situation where the first and (until now) only child has already realized his central place in the family – when he is, say, between three and five years old – a serious crisis can ensue. The firstborn, who suddenly discovers that someone else is now laying claim to his place, experiences severe frustration that can engender envy and even hatred. The parents’ joyful statement about the imminent appearance in their home of a brother or sister brings about as much joy to the first child as if a husband were to tell his wife, “I love you so very much, my dear! Oh, and by the way, I will soon be marrying a second wife”.

Cain failed this test of brotherhood; the consequences of that have remained a heavy burden on the entire subsequent history of mankind, even up until our own days. Conflicts between firstborns and their younger brothers are an oft-recurring theme throughout this entire Book of Genesis, finding their resolution only in the Book of Exodus, in the relationship of Moses and Aaron.

Abel In Hebrew, hevel. This is the word used to refer to the warm wisp of vapor that leaves the mouth in the frosty air of winter and then disappears immediately. The same word also symbolizes utter futility and insignificance, as it is written in the famous opening verse of the Book of Ecclesiastes, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”. Thus, the two brothers are antipodes. If Cain represents acquisition, stability, and solidity, then Abel is airiness, transience, ephemeralness.

However, all this ephemeralness refers only to Abel himself in isolation. In his relationship with Cain, it becomes something completely different. Abel is the “hot steam” that boils, transforms, and corrects. His calling is to correct Cain, to append a cipher (‘0’) to Cain’s unit (‘1’). Cain was to become the foundation of civilization’s development, and Abel was charged with pointing out Cain’s errors, in order to correct and improve him.

The birth of a younger brother performing this role is a terrible ordeal for any firstborn child.

Abel became a keeper of sheep, and Cain became a tiller of the soil When Adam was expelled from the Garden of Eden, he was told that thenceforth, “by the sweat of your brow shall you get bread to eat” (3:19). Cain assumes this task – surely a very noble and worthy act.

However, for all the importance of farming, it also carries the danger that the farmer will become so mired in his own tract of land that he will not even notice the world around him. Notice that oved adamah (“tiller of soil”) here can also be read as eved adamah, “a slave of the land”. (This is because the Torah here spells oved defectively; that is, without the letter vav that would more typically provide the o vowel sound.)

No one politely pleads with the earth to yield its bounty; rather, the earth is ordered, slave-like, to do so. But it is a truism that when a person keeps slaves, he himself also lives within a paradigm of slavery. The entire life of a farmer who works the earth consists of giving “orders.” Thus, a farmer’s profession harbors for him the danger that he will himself acquire a slave mentality. Enter Abel, who has been given to Cain for just that purpose – to serve as a counterbalance to Cain’s position, by showing him that there are also other possibilities in life.

Abel became a keeper of sheep Abel is the “vapor man”, a luftmensch. He therefore chooses a profession that will not tie him down to any particular place. A shepherd’s work requires constant peregrinations. He is free to observe the world around him and analyze it. He observes nature and the heavens, and is not enslaved by a tract of earth.

Sheep cannot be completely and physically controlled. While a shepherd does give orders to his sheep, he must also cajole and persuade his sheep, in order to nurture the necessary behaviors he wishes to see in them. Abel is thus by nature an educator, called upon to educate Cain as well. This is the primary task of Abel’s life, but in pursuing it he will suffer catastrophic failure.

4.3. The Conflict of the Farmer and the Herdsman

The confrontation between farmers and herdsmen that was so prevalent in the ancient world was not only economic or military in nature, but also ideological. This confrontation can be seen in many chapters of the Torah – for example, the conflict between Joseph and his brothers (37:5), and the hatred of the Egyptian farmers for the Jewish cattlemen (43:32, 46:34).

The farmer and the herdsman have completely different views of the world. Since farming brings incomparably higher profits, only on the basis of farming are civilizations built – the great ancient civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia, for example.

The farmer looks down, for he is absorbed in his plot of land. A man of narrow hereditary space, he is born and dies in the very house in which his ancestors lived. His family has lived in their little village for centuries, and it is all they know.

As was especially true in antiquity, the farmer often needs the significant organizational power of the state. For example, no single village using only its own resources and influence could possibly build the irrigation channels it needs. The agricultural civilizations of antiquity were therefore formed as extensive empires.

But the cattle breeder is a man of freedom and space, which means that he has a different level of consciousness. He is poorer than the farmer, but he is not limited to his tract of land. He gazes at the heavens, and at the world around him. He travels about, meets many different kinds of people, and sees a variety of lifestyles. This way, his horizons are incomparably broader. Because herders are spiritually stronger than farmers, pastoral peoples, as history demonstrates, have captured agricultural societies and ruled them as kings, but not vice versa.

At the same time, his not having his own land obviously indicates that the herdsman lacks rootedness, and that his position is always in flux. In a certain sense, a homeless people that has no land can never be a real nation.

The correction and synthesis of these conflicting priorities can be found in Jewish agriculture in the Land of Israel, which is unique and special because:

 (1) After settling in the Land of Israel the Jews became farmers. But long before that the Jewish patriarchs were herdsmen. The basis of Jewish religious attitudes in relation to this survives in the ecclesiastical word “pastor.” A pastor is a shepherd who leads his flock. This clearly expresses a pastoral rather than an agricultural attitude toward the world.

(2) Irrigation in the Land of Israel is not based on a system of diverting water from a river that is already flowing along the ground, but on rainfall. The Torah (Deut. 11:11) very clearly emphasizes this distinction between the Land of Israel and Egypt , where water for irrigation is taken from the Nile. A farmer in the Land of Israel gazes up at the sky and asks, “Will it rain?” He is therefore neither enslaved by the earth nor fixated on it.

(3) The Priests and the Levites who performed the service in the Temple did not have their own land. This means that there was always a prominent stratum of the Jewish nation that was not tied to farming and who were always “gazing at the heavens”, imparting a definite quality of “airiness” to the Jewish people.

In the Torah’s story about Cain and Abel, the problematic nature of farming and rootedness is at the heart of the conflict. Abel was faced with the task of raising Cain to a new level of awareness by teaching him to look up, and not only down.

The relationship of a person to his land should not be one of ownership (even though the essence of “Cain the acquirer” is that sense of ownership), but, rather, a relationship of cooperation between man as “tenant farmer” and God, Who is the true owner of the land. Abel’s task is to prevent people from becoming ossified in materialism, by imbuing their lives with an element of changeability and movement, and encouraging communication not only with the earth but with the heavens as well.

Because Cain and Abel could not successfully cope with this problem, it fell to all of humanity to seek and find a solution. This process continues up until today.

4.4. Cain and Abel Bring Their Offerings (4:3-5)

ג וַֽיְהִ֖י מִקֵּ֣ץ יָמִ֑ים וַיָּבֵ֨א קַ֜יִן מִפְּרִ֧י הָֽאֲדָמָ֛ה מִנְחָ֖ה לַֽיֽי׃ ד וְהֶ֨בֶל הֵבִ֥יא גַם־ה֛וּא מִבְּכֹר֥וֹת צֹאנ֖וֹ וּמֵֽחֶלְבֵהֶ֑ן וַיִּ֣שַׁע י֔י אֶל־הֶ֖בֶל וְאֶל־מִנְחָתֽוֹ׃ ה וְאֶל־קַ֥יִן וְאֶל־מִנְחָת֖וֹ לֹ֣א שָׁעָ֑ה

[3] In the course of time, Cain brought an offering to the Lord from the fruit of the soil.

[4] And Abel, for his part, brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock. The Lord paid heed to Abel and his offering.

[5] But to Cain and his offering He paid no heed …

[3] In the course of time Literally, “It happened at the end of [a certain number of] days”. This indicates the end of a well-defined period in the cycle of life. Mankind (in the person of Cain and Abel), having passed its initial stage of mere physical development, now ponders the spiritual foundations of its existence.

As a rule, in the text of the Torah and Tanakh, the expression “at the end of days” is understood to refer to the onset of the Messianic era (see Rashi, Gen. 49:1). Here, however, it means the end of the agricultural cycle – the harvest period. But for Cain, this time is in fact quite consistent with the concept of the Messianic era, because it is marked by success in the most important activity of his life – possessing and developing the earth.

Cain brought an offering to the Lord from the fruit of the soil Only after his life had been properly organized did Cain bring a gift to the Almighty. He brought not the first fruits but the last, the remainder.

Cain’s action per se is very significant and entirely positive. After all, an offering to God is the basis for the correct positioning of human life on earth. On the other hand, Cain’s offering entails an error that requires correction. One should make an offering to God not from remnants but from the first fruits, as an acknowledgement that the ability to create new life is itself a gift from the Almighty, and that only thanks to Him has the crop grown.

In Jewish tradition, what remains at the end of the harvest also becomes a gift – but to the poor, so that they too can enjoy some of the agricultural wealth that has been attained.

Cain, believing that one should be kind and share with everyone – even with God – thus puts God on equal footing with the poor. And because of this fundamental error, his gift cannot be accepted.

[4] And Abel, for his part, brought The literal translation is, “And Abel – he too brought...” Abel brought his gift only as a supplement to Cain’s. Until Cain brought his gift – that is, until humanity realized the need to connect with the Almighty – it was impossible to begin correction, to improve that connection and correct the details.

And Abel, for his part, brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock By his example, Abel taught Cain the two requirements for presenting a gift to the Almighty: The gift must be from the first fruits, and it must be from the best.

As the firstborn child, Cain’s attitude toward God as “indigent” is rooted in his egocentric ideas, in which the rest of the world is consigned to the periphery.

On the contrary, Abel is fundamentally a “brother”; that is, in his perception of the world there is always ab initio someone else who has primacy. It is therefore natural for Abel to place God before himself.

The Lord paid heed to Abel and his offering God confirmed the correctness of Abel’s approach, endorsing not only the offering itself, but also its motives.

[5] But to Cain and his offering He paid no heed God told Cain that he must work on himself and learn from Abel. Cain, however, had difficulty learning from his younger brother.

It would be wrong to consider Abel “good” and Cain “bad”. Cain is the primary character of the two actors in this drama, because only his descendants will be preserved in mankind. Abel is not a a self-sufficient figure, for nothing will remain of him in the future – he has no heirs. Abel cannot build humanity on his own, but he does have the potential to correct Cain.

4.5. Become Better and You Will Be Forgiven (4:5-7)

הוַיִּ֤חַר לְקַ֨יִן֙ מְאֹ֔ד וַֽיִּפְּל֖וּ פָּנָֽיו׃ ו וַיֹּ֥אמֶר י֖י אֶל־קָ֑יִן לָ֚מָּה חָ֣רָה לָ֔ךְ וְלָ֖מָּה נָֽפְל֥וּ פָנֶֽיךָ׃ ז הֲל֤וֹא אִם־תֵּיטִיב֙ שְׂאֵ֔ת וְאִם֙ לֹ֣א תֵיטִ֔יב לַפֶּ֖תַח חַטָּ֣את רֹבֵ֑ץ וְאֵלֶ֨יךָ֙ תְּשׁ֣וּקָת֔וֹ וְאַתָּ֖ה תִּמְשָׁל־בּֽוֹ׃

[5] … Cain was much distressed and his face fell.

[6] And the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you distressed, and why is your face fallen?

[7] Surely, if you do right, there is uplift. But if you do not do right sin couches at the door; its urge is toward you, yet you can be its master”.

[5] … Cain was much distressed and his face fell: Instead of thinking about the causes of the incident and ways to remedy the situation, Cain is overwhelmed with disappointment and hopelessness.

A person’s lot in life is determined, to a very great extent, by maintaining a constructive attitude toward his mistakes, wishing to understand and correct them without blaming others, and not falling into despondency.

[6] And the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you distressed”God tells Cain that his reaction is wrong. If he improves, he will be forgiven. But even if he cannot improve, he can still dominate sin rather than succumbing to it. The world is not deterministic; mistakes do not close the path to their correction. God wants Cain to feel confidence in his strengths and capabilities. If Cain improves, he can surpass Abel, and reach an even higher level than him.

4.6. The Murder of Abel (4:8)

ח וַיֹּ֥אמֶר קַ֖יִן אֶל־הֶ֣בֶל אָחִ֑יו וַֽיְהִי֙ בִּֽהְיוֹתָ֣ם בַּשָּׂדֶ֔ה וַיָּ֥קָם קַ֛יִן אֶל־הֶ֥בֶל אָחִ֖יו וַיַּֽהַרְגֵֽהוּ׃

[8] Cain said to his brother Abel … and when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him.

[8] Cain said to his brother AbelCain makes a decisive step towards correction. He turns to Abel and offers to engage with him in dialogue. He overcomes his feeling of resentment and attempts constructive communication with Abel. He wants to improve. God has told Cain that he must change, and Cain is indeed trying to change! Moreover, Cain turns to Abel as one does to a brother, acknowledging the brotherhood status that Abel had imposed on him simply by virtue of his birth, and which itself was the source of many of Cain’s problems. This is a serious spiritual advancement for Cain.

Cain said to his brother Abel …Here, squarely in the middle of a verse, the story breaks off. The cantillation symbols indicate a strong break, best expressed in translation by an ellipsis or sometimes a series of dashes. The Torah declines to reveal what Cain actually said, or Abel’s answer.

The Midrash supplements the Torah’s narrative with different versions of their dialogue (a quarrel over property, or the Temple, or a woman). Be that as it may, such a conspicuous omission of the content of Cain’s words from the Torah text itself would suggest that the words that were spoken are not important. What is important is that Cain appeals to Abel and is willing to bridge their gap through their brotherhood – to understand and to learn.

Abel does not answer Cain, because he sees in Cain not a person with whom one can engage in dialogue, but someone that he must influence and educate. Abel arrogantly believes that it is enough to show Cain his own example of a proper and successful sacrifice. He will not belittle himself by engaging in “small talk”, nor does he try to understand his brother, who wants to discuss his problems with Abel. So Cain kills Abel. If one is called upon to be a teacher and one considers himself a shepherd and a leader, but does not engage in fellowship nor see in his fellow man an actual person, then he is an unworthy shepherd.

And when they were in the fieldThe field is the workplace where both Cain and Abel had to realize themselves. It is precisely Abel’s failure to realize his pedagogical potential that leads to tragedy. Abel, whose calling is to be a teacher, refuses to take responsibility for this role, and he therefore dies.

Cain set upon his brother AbelThe emphasis here on “his brother” indicates that Abel is rebelling against the whole idea of ​​brotherhood. Cain cannot bear the humiliation of being considered a mere object of education, which is how Abel regards Cain, and this is the reason that Abel will not engage with him dialogue. And so Cain rebels, destroying the very brotherhood with Abel that he had already acknowledged.

And killed himThe final break in their brotherly relations is expressed through murder.

Of course, none of the above rationalizations can justify Cain’s actions. He is deemed a criminal and subjected to commensurate punishment. But neither does Cain’s crime absolve Abel of his guilt. Having resolved to be a teacher, Abel must bear responsibility for the unsuccessful results of his teaching.

4.7. Cain Stands Accused (4:9-12)

ט וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יי֙ אֶל־קַ֔יִן אֵ֖י הֶ֣בֶל אָחִ֑יךָ וַיֹּ֨אמֶר֙ לֹ֣א יָדַ֔עְתִּי הֲשֹׁמֵ֥ר אָחִ֖י אָנֹֽכִי׃ י וַיֹּ֖אמֶר מֶ֣ה עָשִׂ֑יתָ ק֚וֹל דְּמֵ֣י אָחִ֔יךָ צֹֽעֲקִ֥ים אֵלַ֖י מִן־הָֽאֲדָמָֽה׃ יא וְעַתָּ֖ה אָר֣וּר אָ֑תָּה מִן־הָֽאֲדָמָה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר פָּֽצְתָ֣ה אֶת־פִּ֔יהָ לָקַ֛חַת אֶת־דְּמֵ֥י אָחִ֖יךָ מִיָּדֶֽךָ׃ יב כִּ֤י תַֽעֲבֹד֙ אֶת־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה לֹֽא־תֹסֵ֥ף תֵּת־כֹּחָ֖הּ לָ֑ךְ נָ֥ע וָנָ֖ד תִּֽהְיֶ֥ה בָאָֽרֶץ׃

[9] The Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” And he said, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”

[10] Then He said, “What have you done? Hark, your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground!

[11] Therefore, you shall be more cursed than the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.

[12] If you till the soil, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. You shall become a ceaseless wanderer on earth”.

[9] Where is your brother Abel? More precisely, “What has happened to your brother Abel?” This question is the clear echo of God’s question to Adam (3:9): “Where are you?” But whereas there God demands of Adam only to answer for himself, here Cain is being asked to answer for his brother as well. At first a person is responsible only for himself, but as he grows up over time he must bear responsibility for his fellow human beings; that is, for others besides himself.

And he said, “I do not know”Cain never tries to deceive God or to cover up the murder. His answer would be better translated as “I do not want to know”, that is, I want to know neither Abel, nor his brotherhood. Cain’s “I do not know” reinforces the connection of this story to the sin of Adam and Eve, who ate from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. But if Adam in the Garden of Eden at least wants to know (although he approaches this desire very incorrectly), Cain actually refuses to know. A teacher’s failings discourage the student from wanting to participate at all in the process of learning.

Am I my brother’s keeper? Cain’s answer, “I do not know”, would have sufficed to answer God’s question. By adding “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (addressing a question that God has not even asked), Cain shows that it is the brotherhood relationship that is critical for him. “I turned to Abel as my brother, but he had no interest in responding to me. I see no reason to try to preserve something that Abel himself rejected.”

[10] Your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground … which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your handIn deciding to be a farmer, Cain took responsibility for the land, but he did not want to take responsibility for his brother, Abel. Therefore, everything that happened to Abel in his life is now absorbed by the earth.

[12] It shall no longer yield its strength to youIt is no longer possible for you to engage in agriculture. You must find yourself a different occupation.

You shall become a ceaseless wanderer on earthHaving killed Abel, Cain must now wander, wearing the shoes, so to speak, of his dead brother and gradually adjusting to them, as he recreates within himself the counterbalance of which he has by his own misdeed deprived himself.

4.8. The Mark of Cain (4:13-15)

יג וַיֹּ֥אמֶר קַ֖יִן אֶל־י֑י גָּד֥וֹל עֲוֺנִ֖י מִנְּשֹֽׂא׃ יד הֵן֩ גֵּרַ֨שְׁתָּ אֹתִ֜י הַיּ֗וֹם מֵעַל֙ פְּנֵ֣י הָֽאֲדָמָ֔ה וּמִפָּנֶ֖יךָ אֶסָּתֵ֑ר וְהָיִ֜יתִי נָ֤ע וָנָד֙ בָּאָ֔רֶץ וְהָיָ֥ה כָל־מֹֽצְאִ֖י יַֽהַרְגֵֽנִי׃ טו וַיֹּ֧אמֶר ל֣וֹ י֗י לָכֵן֙ כָּל־הֹרֵ֣ג קַ֔יִן שִׁבְעָתַ֖יִם יֻקָּ֑ם וַיָּ֨שֶׂם י֤י לְקַ֨יִן֙ א֔וֹת לְבִלְתִּ֥י הַכּוֹת־אֹת֖וֹ כָּל־מֹֽצְאֽוֹ׃

[13] Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is too great to bear!

[14] Since You have banished me this day from the soil, and I must avoid Your presence and become a restless wanderer on earth – anyone who meets me may kill me!”

[15] The Lord said to him, “I promise, if anyone kills Cain, sevenfold vengeance shall be taken on him.” And the Lord put a mark on Cain, lest anyone who met him should kill him.

[13] My punishment is too great to bear! We see no remorse yet. Cain seems not the least concerned about having murdered Abel, and does not admit of any wrongdoing. He only complains about the severity of the punishment. “I have been charged with exorbitant guilt (punishment) that is more than I can bear.”

[14] Since You have banished me this day from the soil, and I must avoid Your … anyone who meets me may kill me! Cain’s orientation is to the land and to ownership of land. In his perception, a person who has no land of his own is insignificant – he is nobody, and has no right to exist. Cain therefore sees exile as a punishment so severe that he cannot bear it.

Cain believes that a vagabond is of no importance to the Almighty, and is invisible in God’s presence. Thus, in his own estimation he is outside the law, and anyone can kill him with impunity. Cain’s attitude towards Abel is based on the same erroneous view of the “worthlessness of the wanderer.” But now that he experiences the fate of a wanderer, he must adjust his outlook.

[15] And the Lord put a mark on Cain, lest anyone who met him should kill himThis “mark of Cain” is by no means the mark of a villain, but only a mark of protection. On the contrary, God acknowledges Cain’s complaint as well-founded, and gives him a distinguishing, protective symbol.

The word used here for the mark that God gave Cain is ot, usually translated as “sign”. But everywhere in the Torah that the word ot is used, it is not just an ordinary sign, but an indicator of the Divine presence. And in the current context too, God is giving Cain clear evidence that he has a mission, and it is therefore forbidden to kill him. This sign allows Cain (as well as his family and other people closest to him) to understand that being a wanderer who has no land of his own is not the same as being a non-person; on the contrary, such a person can be the carrier of a highly critical mission. The mark Cain receives from God is thus a part of his re-education.

Overall, this re-education was quite successful. An important part of Cain’s heritage has been preserved in humankind. Noah’s wife was a descendant of Cain, which means that Noah’s three sons – and thus all of humanity – carry within them a piece of Cain.

Chapter 5. From Adam to Noah

5.1. Cain’s Descendants (4:16-24)

טז וַיֵּ֥צֵא קַ֖יִן מִלִּפְנֵ֣י י֑י וַיֵּ֥שֶׁב בְּאֶֽרֶץ־נ֖וֹד קִדְמַת־עֵֽדֶן׃ יז וַיֵּ֤דַע קַ֨יִן֙ אֶת־אִשְׁתּ֔וֹ וַתַּ֖הַר וַתֵּ֣לֶד אֶת־חֲנ֑וֹךְ וַֽיְהִי֙ בֹּ֣נֶה עִ֔יר וַיִּקְרָא֙ שֵׁ֣ם הָעִ֔יר כְּשֵׁ֖ם בְּנ֥וֹ חֲנֽוֹךְ׃ יח וַיִּוָּלֵ֤ד לַֽחֲנוֹךְ֙ אֶת־עִירָ֔ד וְעִירָ֕ד יָלַ֖ד אֶת־מְחֽוּיָאֵ֑ל וּמְחִיָּיאֵ֗ל יָלַד֙ אֶת־מְת֣וּשָׁאֵ֔ל וּמְתֽוּשָׁאֵ֖ל יָלַ֥ד אֶת־לָֽמֶךְ׃ יט וַיִּֽקַּֽח־ל֥וֹ לֶ֖מֶךְ שְׁתֵּ֣י נָשִׁ֑ים שֵׁ֤ם הָֽאַחַת֙ עָדָ֔ה וְשֵׁ֥ם הַשֵּׁנִ֖ית צִלָּֽה׃ כ וַתֵּ֥לֶד עָדָ֖ה אֶת־יָבָ֑ל ה֣וּא הָיָ֔ה אֲבִ֕י יֹשֵׁ֥ב אֹ֖הֶל וּמִקְנֶֽה׃ כא וְשֵׁ֥ם אָחִ֖יו יוּבָ֑ל ה֣וּא הָיָ֔ה אֲבִ֕י כָּל־תֹּפֵ֥שׂ כִּנּ֖וֹר וְעוּגָֽב׃ כב וְצִלָּ֣ה גַם־הִ֗וא יָֽלְדָה֙ אֶת־תּ֣וּבַל קַ֔יִן לֹטֵ֕שׁ כָּל־חֹרֵ֥שׁ נְחֹ֖שֶׁת וּבַרְזֶ֑ל וַֽאֲח֥וֹת תּֽוּבַל־קַ֖יִן נַֽעֲמָֽה׃ כג וַיֹּ֨אמֶר לֶ֜מֶךְ לְנָשָׁ֗יו עָדָ֤ה וְצִלָּה֙ שְׁמַ֣עַן קוֹלִ֔י נְשֵׁ֣י לֶ֔מֶךְ הַאְזֵ֖נָּה אִמְרָתִ֑י כִּ֣י אִ֤ישׁ הָרַ֨גְתִּי֙ לְפִצְעִ֔י וְיֶ֖לֶד לְחַבֻּֽרָתִֽי׃ כד כִּ֥י שִׁבְעָתַ֖יִם יֻקַּם־קָ֑יִן וְלֶ֖מֶךְ שִׁבְעִ֥ים וְשִׁבְעָֽה׃

[16] Cain left the presence of the Lord and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.

[17] Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch. And he then founded a city, and named the city after his son Enoch.

[18] To Enoch was born Irad, and Irad begot Mehujael, and Mehujael begot Methusael, and Methusael begot Lamech.

[19] Lamech took to himself two wives: the name of the one was Adah, and the name of the other was Zillah.

[20] Adah bore Jabal; he was the ancestor of those who dwell in tents and amidst herds.

[21] And the name of his brother was Jubal; he was the ancestor of all who play the lyre and the pipe.

[22] As for Zillah, she bore Tubal-cain, who forged all implements of copper and iron. And the sister of Tubal-cain was Naamah.

[23] And Lamech said to his wives, “Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; o wives of Lamech, give ear to my speech. I have slain a man for wounding me, and a lad for bruising me.

[24] If Cain is avenged sevenfold, then Lamech seventy-sevenfold”.

[16] Cain left the presence of the LordHe accepted upon himself his Divine punishment, and assumed the fate of the wanderer Abel, the brother whom he had killed.

And settled in the land of Nod Literally “the Land of Wandering,” in which it is impossible to become rooted in the ground. Cain therefore proceeds to build the city, but he does not cultivate the land.

East of Eden Despite his exile, Cain does not lose his connection with the Garden of Eden, the ideal of man’s existence in this world.

[17] Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch “Knowing” and conceiving, and not only birth, are mentioned here again, because Cain and his family have now moved on to a new stage of how they understand life.

And bore EnochIn Hebrew, “Chanoch” originates from chinnuch, which means “education” or “renewal.” Although the first educational process under the leadership of Abel proved unsuccessful and led to murder, Cain learns to give life to others by becoming a father. That experience is a part of the process of Cain’s correction. Assimilating within himself some of Abel’s characteristics, Cain now realizes the importance of education.

And he then founded a city, and named the city after his son EnochHaving forfeited the opportunity to practice agriculture, Cain creates a city – a completely new form of social organization –in which innovation, not land, is the central reality. This corresponds also to the meaning of the term chinnuch.

[18] To Enoch was born Irad … Mehujael … Methusael … Lamech ... [20] Adah bore Jabal; he was the ancestor of those who dwell in tents and amidst herds. … Jubal; he was the ancestor of all who play the lyre and the pipe. [22] …Tubal-cain, who forged all implements of copper and ironAfter several generations of city life, the explosive development of the civilization of Cain’s descendants begins – in technology, economics, military affairs, and culture.

[20] … Jabal; he was the ancestor of those who dwell in tents and amidst herds. [21] … Jubal; he was the ancestor of all who play the lyre and the pipeWe see that Cain’s descendants bear names phonetically similar to Abel’s, and also that they embrace the shepherding professions characteristic of Abel. This demonstrates that the civilization of Cain’s descendants was rooted in some of Abel’s ideas.

The Torah speaks here not just of simple shepherds, but of “the ancestor of those who dwell in tents and amidst herds.” This suggests industrial organization of livestock. Likewise, the Torah speaks here not just of simple musicians, but of “the ancestor of all who play the lyre and the pipe.” In other words, this is about the music industry. But at the same time, nothing is said about cultivating the land. This is a purely urban civilization that is wealthy and technologically advanced, and has developed within itself certain features of the murdered Abel.

[22] And the sister of Tubal-cain was Naamah.Literally, “pleasant.” It is a very positive name, and highlights the most positive aspects of the civilization of Cain’s descendants. The Midrash considers her Noah’s wife, which means that humanity will continue to reproduce and develop, synthesizing the descendants of Seth and the descendants of Cain (through Noah and his wife, respectively). This tells us that Cain has found correction and improvement in his descendants.

[19] Lamech took for himself two wivesThe fact that the Torah even mentions this tells us that Lamech was unusual in this regard. Ever since Adam and Eve, monogamous marriage was the accepted, dominant practice.

[23] And Lamech said to his wives, “Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; o wives of Lamech, give ear to my speech. I have slain a man for wounding me, and a lad for bruising me. [24] If Cain is avenged sevenfold, then Lamech seventy-sevenfold”The meaning of this “Song of Lamech” is quite unclear. The Midrash believes that Lamech here boasts of the murders committed by his ancestor Cain and Lamech’s son Tubal-cain. The civilization of the descendants of Cain, although it flourishes materially, also has a discernible spiritual crisis.

5.2. The Birth of Seth (4:25-26)

כה וַיֵּ֨דַע אָדָ֥ם עוֹד֙ אֶת־אִשְׁתּ֔וֹ וַתֵּ֣לֶד בֵּ֔ן וַתִּקְרָ֥א אֶת־שְׁמ֖וֹ שֵׁ֑ת כִּ֣י שָֽׁת־לִ֤י אֱלֹהִים֙ זֶ֣רַע אַחֵ֔ר תַּ֣חַת הֶ֔בֶל כִּ֥י הֲרָג֖וֹ קָֽיִן׃ כו וּלְשֵׁ֤ת גַּם־הוּא֙ יֻלַּד־בֵּ֔ן וַיִּקְרָ֥א אֶת־שְׁמ֖וֹ אֱנ֑וֹשׁ אָ֣ז הוּחַ֔ל לִקְרֹ֖א בְּשֵׁ֥ם יֽי׃

 [25] Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and named him Seth, which means “God has provided me with another offspring in place of Abel,” for Cain had killed him.

[26] And to Seth, in turn, a son was born, and he named him Enosh. It was then that men began to invoke the Lord by name.

[25] Adam knew his wife againThe birth of a new son, Seth, requires Adam to know his wife Eve on a new, enhanced level.

SethLiterally, “stability.” Another offspring in place of Abel, for Cain had killed him. Seth must perform the function of Abel, which is become a counterweight to Cain, but he must do it correctly. Abel was too ephemeral, too “airy.” A more stable Seth must become his replacement.

She bore a son and named him SethAbout Cain the Torah (4:1) did not say, “she bore a son and named him Cain,” but, more directly, “she gave birth to Cain.” In other words, that birth, the very fact of bearing a child for the first time, was itself an “acquisition” for Eve – a change in her status.

And then (4:2) Abel was born, but only as “his brother Abel” – his calling is to serve as opposition to Cain.

Only Seth is born as a son, ben, which is closely related to the verb boneh (livnot, “to build”), for it is on him that the primary construction of further civilization rests.

[26] And to Seth, in turn, a son was bornThe further construction of civilization proceeds through the birth of sons, through generational change.

And he named him EnoshThe name means, literally, “human” – precisely in the sense of human rather than Divine (but also “human” as opposed to animal).

Enosh also means “mortal.” Adam sensed that he was above all the creation of the Almighty’s hands, while Seth senses that he is the progenitor of the new human race, taking the place of Abel and Cain. Only at the level of Enosh does Seth’s awareness of himself as a mortal become a leading factor.

It was then that men began to invoke the Lord by nameA person who is keenly aware that he is mortal and finite requires support from God, who is immortal and infinite. He then begins to “invoke the Lord’s name” when naming objects that he sees in the world around him. (He identifies those wordly objects with God.)

Although this suggests a deeply religious feeling, it also – as the Midrash tells us – marks the onset of idolatrous practices among mankind. Spiritual parameters play a central role in Seth’s civilization – unlike Cain’s civilization, which was thoroughly pragmatic.

5.3. “This is the Record of Adam’s Line” (5:1-32)

א זֶ֣ה סֵ֔פֶר תּֽוֹלְדֹ֖ת אָדָ֑ם בְּי֗וֹם בְּרֹ֤א אֱלֹהִים֙ אָדָ֔ם בִּדְמ֥וּת אֱלֹהִ֖ים עָשָׂ֥ה אֹתֽוֹ׃ ב זָכָ֥ר וּנְקֵבָ֖ה בְּרָאָ֑ם וַיְבָ֣רֶךְ אֹתָ֗ם וַיִּקְרָ֤א אֶת־שְׁמָם֙ אָדָ֔ם בְּי֖וֹם הִבָּֽרְאָֽם׃ ג וַיְחִ֣י אָדָ֗ם שְׁלֹשִׁ֤ים וּמְאַת֙ שָׁנָ֔ה וַיּ֥וֹלֶד בִּדְמוּת֖וֹ כְּצַלְמ֑וֹ וַיִּקְרָ֥א אֶת־שְׁמ֖וֹ שֵֽׁת׃ ד וַיִּֽהְי֣וּ יְמֵֽי־אָדָ֗ם אַֽחֲרֵי֙ הֽוֹלִיד֣וֹ אֶת־שֵׁ֔ת שְׁמֹנֶ֥ה מֵאֹ֖ת שָׁנָ֑ה וַיּ֥וֹלֶד בָּנִ֖ים וּבָנֽוֹת׃ ה וַיִּֽהְי֞וּ כָּל־יְמֵ֤י אָדָם֙ אֲשֶׁר־חַ֔י תְּשַׁ֤ע מֵאוֹת֙ שָׁנָ֔ה וּשְׁלֹשִׁ֖ים שָׁנָ֑ה וַיָּמֹֽת׃ ו וַֽיְחִי־שֵׁ֕ת חָמֵ֥שׁ שָׁנִ֖ים וּמְאַ֣ת שָׁנָ֑ה וַיּ֖וֹלֶד אֶת־אֱנֽוֹשׁ׃ ז וַֽיְחִי־שֵׁ֗ת אַֽחֲרֵי֙ הֽוֹלִיד֣וֹ אֶת־אֱנ֔וֹשׁ שֶׁ֣בַע שָׁנִ֔ים וּשְׁמֹנֶ֥ה מֵא֖וֹת שָׁנָ֑ה וַיּ֥וֹלֶד בָּנִ֖ים וּבָנֽוֹת׃ ח וַיִּֽהְיוּ֙ כָּל־יְמֵי־שֵׁ֔ת שְׁתֵּ֤ים עֶשְׂרֵה֙ שָׁנָ֔ה וּתְשַׁ֥ע מֵא֖וֹת שָׁנָ֑ה וַיָּמֹֽת׃ ט וַיְחִ֥י אֱנ֖וֹשׁ תִּשְׁעִ֣ים שָׁנָ֑ה וַיּ֖וֹלֶד אֶת־קֵינָֽן׃ י וַיְחִ֣י אֱנ֗וֹשׁ אַֽחֲרֵי֙ הֽוֹלִיד֣וֹ אֶת־קֵינָ֔ן חֲמֵ֤שׁ עֶשְׂרֵה֙ שָׁנָ֔ה וּשְׁמֹנֶ֥ה מֵא֖וֹת שָׁנָ֑ה וַיּ֥וֹלֶד בָּנִ֖ים וּבָנֽוֹת׃ יא וַיִּֽהְיוּ֙ כָּל־יְמֵ֣י אֱנ֔וֹשׁ חָמֵ֣שׁ שָׁנִ֔ים וּתְשַׁ֥ע מֵא֖וֹת שָׁנָ֑ה וַיָּמֹֽת׃ יב וַיְחִ֥י קֵינָ֖ן שִׁבְעִ֣ים שָׁנָ֑ה וַיּ֖וֹלֶד אֶת־מַֽהֲלַלְאֵֽל׃ יג וַיְחִ֣י קֵינָ֗ן אַֽחֲרֵי֙ הֽוֹלִיד֣וֹ אֶת־מַֽהֲלַלְאֵ֔ל אַרְבָּעִ֣ים שָׁנָ֔ה וּשְׁמֹנֶ֥ה מֵא֖וֹת שָׁנָ֑ה וַיּ֥וֹלֶד בָּנִ֖ים וּבָנֽוֹת׃ יד וַיִּֽהְיוּ֙ כָּל־יְמֵ֣י קֵינָ֔ן עֶ֣שֶׂר שָׁנִ֔ים וּתְשַׁ֥ע מֵא֖וֹת שָׁנָ֑ה וַיָּמֹֽת׃ טו וַיְחִ֣י מַֽהֲלַלְאֵ֔ל חָמֵ֥שׁ שָׁנִ֖ים וְשִׁשִּׁ֣ים שָׁנָ֑ה וַיּ֖וֹלֶד אֶת־יָֽרֶד׃ טז וַיְחִ֣י מַֽהֲלַלְאֵ֗ל אַֽחֲרֵי֙ הֽוֹלִיד֣וֹ אֶת־יֶ֔רֶד שְׁלֹשִׁ֣ים שָׁנָ֔ה וּשְׁמֹנֶ֥ה מֵא֖וֹת שָׁנָ֑ה וַיּ֥וֹלֶד בָּנִ֖ים וּבָנֽוֹת׃ יז וַיִּֽהְיוּ֙ כָּל־יְמֵ֣י מַֽהֲלַלְאֵ֔ל חָמֵ֤שׁ וְתִשְׁעִים֙ שָׁנָ֔ה וּשְׁמֹנֶ֥ה מֵא֖וֹת שָׁנָ֑ה וַיָּמֹֽת׃ יח וַֽיְחִי־יֶ֕רֶד שְׁתַּ֧יִם וְשִׁשִּׁ֛ים שָׁנָ֖ה וּמְאַ֣ת שָׁנָ֑ה וַיּ֖וֹלֶד אֶת־חֲנֽוֹךְ׃ יט וַֽיְחִי־יֶ֗רֶד אַֽחֲרֵי֙ הֽוֹלִיד֣וֹ אֶת־חֲנ֔וֹךְ שְׁמֹנֶ֥ה מֵא֖וֹת שָׁנָ֑ה וַיּ֥וֹלֶד בָּנִ֖ים וּבָנֽוֹת׃ כ וַיִּֽהְיוּ֙ כָּל־יְמֵי־יֶ֔רֶד שְׁתַּ֤יִם וְשִׁשִּׁים֙ שָׁנָ֔ה וּתְשַׁ֥ע מֵא֖וֹת שָׁנָ֑ה וַיָּמֹֽת׃ כא וַיְחִ֣י חֲנ֔וֹךְ חָמֵ֥שׁ וְשִׁשִּׁ֖ים שָׁנָ֑ה וַיּ֖וֹלֶד אֶת־מְתוּשָֽׁלַח׃ כב וַיִּתְהַלֵּ֨ךְ חֲנ֜וֹךְ אֶת־הָֽאֱלֹהִ֗ים אַֽחֲרֵי֙ הֽוֹלִיד֣וֹ אֶת־מְתוּשֶׁ֔לַח שְׁלֹ֥שׁ מֵא֖וֹת שָׁנָ֑ה וַיּ֥וֹלֶד בָּנִ֖ים וּבָנֽוֹת׃ כג וַיְהִ֖י כָּל־יְמֵ֣י חֲנ֑וֹךְ חָמֵ֤שׁ וְשִׁשִּׁים֙ שָׁנָ֔ה וּשְׁלֹ֥שׁ מֵא֖וֹת שָׁנָֽה׃ כד וַיִּתְהַלֵּ֥ךְ חֲנ֖וֹךְ אֶת־הָֽאֱלֹהִ֑ים וְאֵינֶ֕נּוּ כִּֽי־לָקַ֥ח אֹת֖וֹ אֱלֹהִֽים׃ כה וַיְחִ֣י מְתוּשֶׁ֔לַח שֶׁ֧בַע וּשְׁמֹנִ֛ים שָׁנָ֖ה וּמְאַ֣ת שָׁנָ֑ה וַיּ֖וֹלֶד אֶת־לָֽמֶךְ׃ כו וַיְחִ֣י מְתוּשֶׁ֗לַח אַֽחֲרֵי֙ הֽוֹלִיד֣וֹ אֶת־לֶ֔מֶךְ שְׁתַּ֤יִם וּשְׁמוֹנִים֙ שָׁנָ֔ה וּשְׁבַ֥ע מֵא֖וֹת שָׁנָ֑ה וַיּ֥וֹלֶד בָּנִ֖ים וּבָנֽוֹת׃ כז וַיִּֽהְיוּ֙ כָּל־יְמֵ֣י מְתוּשֶׁ֔לַח תֵּ֤שַׁע וְשִׁשִּׁים֙ שָׁנָ֔ה וּתְשַׁ֥ע מֵא֖וֹת שָׁנָ֑ה וַיָּמֹֽת׃ כח וַֽיְחִי־לֶ֕מֶךְ שְׁתַּ֧יִם וּשְׁמֹנִ֛ים שָׁנָ֖ה וּמְאַ֣ת שָׁנָ֑ה וַיּ֖וֹלֶד בֵּֽן׃ כט וַיִּקְרָ֧א אֶת־שְׁמ֛וֹ נֹ֖חַ לֵאמֹ֑ר זֶ֠֞ה יְנַֽחֲמֵ֤נוּ מִֽמַּעֲשֵׂ֨נוּ֙ וּמֵֽעִצְּב֣וֹן יָדֵ֔ינוּ מִן־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֵֽרְרָ֖הּ יֽי׃ ל וַֽיְחִי־לֶ֗מֶךְ אַֽחֲרֵי֙ הֽוֹלִיד֣וֹ אֶת־נֹ֔חַ חָמֵ֤שׁ וְתִשְׁעִים֙ שָׁנָ֔ה וַֽחֲמֵ֥שׁ מֵאֹ֖ת שָׁנָ֑ה וַיּ֥וֹלֶד בָּנִ֖ים וּבָנֽוֹת׃ לא וַֽיְהִי֙ כָּל־יְמֵי־לֶ֔מֶךְ שֶׁ֤בַע וְשִׁבְעִים֙ שָׁנָ֔ה וּשְׁבַ֥ע מֵא֖וֹת שָׁנָ֑ה וַיָּמֹֽת׃ לב וַֽיְהִי־נֹ֕חַ בֶּן־חֲמֵ֥שׁ מֵא֖וֹת שָׁנָ֑ה וַיּ֣וֹלֶד נֹ֔חַ אֶת־שֵׁ֖ם אֶת־חָ֥ם וְאֶת־יָֽפֶת׃

[1] This is the record of Adam’s line. When God created man, He made him in the likeness of God;

[2] Male and female He created them. And when they were created, He blessed them and called them Man.

[3] When Adam had lived 130 years, he begot a son in his likeness after his image, and he named him Seth.

[4] After the birth of Seth, Adam lived 800 years and begot sons and daughters.

[5] All the days that Adam lived came to 930 years; then he died.

[6] When Seth had lived 105 years, he begot Enosh.

[7] After the birth of Enosh, Seth lived 807 years and begot sons and daughters.

[8] All the days of Seth came to 912 years; then he died.

[9] When Enosh had lived 90 years, he begot Kenan.

[10] After the birth of Kenan, Enosh lived 815 years and begot sons and daughters.

[11] All the days of Enosh came to 905 years; then he died.

[12] When Kenan had lived 70 years, he begot Mahalalel.

[13] After the birth of Mahalalel, Kenan lived 840 years and begot sons and daughters. [14] All the days of Kenan came to 910 years; then he died.

[15] When Mahalalel had lived 65 years, he begot Jared.

[16] After the birth of Jared, Mahalalel lived 830 years and begot sons and daughters.

[17] All the days of Mahalalel came to 895 years; then he died.

[18] When Jared had lived 162 years, he begot Enoch.

[19] After the birth of Enoch, Jared lived 800 years and begot sons and daughters.

[20] All the days of Jared came to 962 years; then he died.

[21] When Enoch had lived 65 years, he begot Methuselah.

[22] After the birth of Methuselah, Enoch walked with God 300 years; and he begot sons and daughters.

[23] All the days of Enoch came to 365 years.

[24] Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, for God took him.

[25] When Methuselah had lived 187 years, he begot Lamech.

[26] After the birth of Lamech, Methuselah lived 782 years and begot sons and daughters.

[27] All the days of Methuselah came to 969 years; then he died.

[28] When Lamech had lived 182 years, he begot a son.

[29] And he named him Noah, saying, “This one will provide us relief from our work and from the toil of our hands, out of the very soil which the Lord placed under a curse”.

[30] After the birth of Noah, Lamech lived 595 years and begot sons and daughters.

[31] All the days of Lamech came to 777 years; then he died.

[32] When Noah had lived 500 years, Noah begot Shem, Ham, and Japheth.

[1] This is the record of Adam’s lineLiterally “This is the book of the generations of Adam”. There is an obvious parallel here to the verse, “Such is the story (literally “generations”) of heaven and earth when they were created” (2:4), which introduced the history of the development of the world immediately after the Creation. Likewise, here begins a new characterization of the history of mankind.

RecordThe Hebrew word is toledot, “generations”, one of the most important concepts in the Torah. It can refer either to a given person’s origin (his ancestry) or to his posterity – his descendants as well as his accomplishments. The concept of toledot positions man as a link in the chain of generations, orienting him to be responsible not only for himself, but also for the entire chain –the segment of the chain that he has inherited, and also the part that he has produced (or will produce).

The record of Adam’s lineUnlike in nature, where the birth of new generations is the central concept, for mankind reflection is equally important – thinking about one’s chosen path, and comparing the present to the past as a means of evaluating progress. Therefore, what is most significant for any individual is not just the creation of his line, but the “record” of that line.

The Talmud, in discussing the question of “which is the most important verse in the Torah?”, suggests two candidates: “Love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:18), and our verse here, “This is the record of Adam’s line.” The development of civilization as a result of the change of generations is an essential element of the Torah’s Divine teachings, for only through this process can a person advance spiritually and come closer to God.

[2] Male and female He created them … He blessed them and called them Man“He called them”; that is, them both and not just one of them. Only through their union do a man and a woman become fully human.

[1] This is the record of Adam’s line … He made him in the likeness of God … Adam begot a son in His likeness after His image, and he named him SethThe starting point for Seth’s civilization (unlike the descendants of Cain’s civilization) is man’s likeness to God as an idea to be transmitted to subsequent generations – the idea of perceiving the world as “the record of the birth of mankind, who were created in God’s likeness.”

[9] When Enosh had lived 90 years, he begot KenanThe name “Kenan” is very similar to “Cain” (in the Hebrew, only the last letter of “Cain” needs to be repeated to form “Kenan”). Namely, Kenan carries some of Cain’s features. A convergence is taking place here: Cain’s civilization assimilates some of Abel’s features, and Seth’s civilization incorporates the positive elements of Cain’s culture.

[24] Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, for God took himThe most essential value of Seth’s civilization is its communication with God.

[28] When Lamech had lived 182 years, he begot a son. [29] And he named him Noah, saying, “This one will provide us relief from our work and from the toil of our hands, out of the very soil which the Lord placed under a curse”This verse clearly connects the name Noah with the idea of nachem, “to comfort.” This concept is critical to understanding the entire story of the Flood, which begins very soon.

But the connection between Noah and nachem is only partial (only the first two of the three letters of the root nachem appear in “Noah”). Had Lamech meant to emphasize this connection, he should probably have named his son “Nechamah” (consolation) or “Menachem” (consoler). But the name “Noah” carries the additional meaning of “lightness” or “simplicity.” This idea is crucial for understanding the story of the Flood, and for “providing relief from the toil of our hands upon the soil which the Lord has cursed.” We shall discuss this in more detail below.

5.4. The Crisis of Humanity Leading up to the Flood (6:1-8)

א וַֽיְהִי֙ כִּֽי־הֵחֵ֣ל הָֽאָדָ֔ם לָרֹ֖ב עַל־פְּנֵ֣י הָֽאֲדָמָ֑ה וּבָנ֖וֹת יֻלְּד֥וּ לָהֶֽם׃ ב וַיִּרְא֤וּ בְנֵי־הָֽאֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת־בְּנ֣וֹת הָֽאָדָ֔ם כִּ֥י טֹבֹ֖ת הֵ֑נָּה וַיִּקְח֤וּ לָהֶם֙ נָשִׁ֔ים מִכֹּ֖ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר בָּחָֽרוּ׃ ג וַיֹּ֣אמֶר י֗י לֹֽא־יָד֨וֹן רוּחִ֤י בָֽאָדָם֙ לְעֹלָ֔ם בְּשַׁגַּ֖ם ה֣וּא בָשָׂ֑ר וְהָי֣וּ יָמָ֔יו מֵאָ֥ה וְעֶשְׂרִ֖ים שָׁנָֽה׃ ד הַנְּפִלִ֞ים הָי֣וּ בָאָרֶץ֮ בַּיָּמִ֣ים הָהֵם֒ וְגַ֣ם אַֽחֲרֵי־כֵ֗ן אֲשֶׁ֨ר יָבֹ֜אוּ בְּנֵ֤י הָֽאֱלֹהִים֙ אֶל־בְּנ֣וֹת הָֽאָדָ֔ם וְיָֽלְד֖וּ לָהֶ֑ם הֵ֧מָּה הַגִּבֹּרִ֛ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר מֵֽעוֹלָ֖ם אַנְשֵׁ֥י הַשֵּֽׁם׃ ה וַיַּ֣רְא י֔י כִּ֥י רַבָּ֛ה רָעַ֥ת הָֽאָדָ֖ם בָּאָ֑רֶץ וְכָל־יֵ֨צֶר֙ מַחְשְׁבֹ֣ת לִבּ֔וֹ רַ֥ק רַ֖ע כָּל־הַיּֽוֹם׃ ו וַיִּנָּ֣חֶם י֔י כִּֽי־עָשָׂ֥ה אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֖ם בָּאָ֑רֶץ וַיִּתְעַצֵּ֖ב אֶל־לִבּֽוֹ׃ ז וַיֹּ֣אמֶר י֗י אֶמְחֶ֨ה אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֤ם אֲשֶׁר־בָּרָ֨אתִי֙ מֵעַל֙ פְּנֵ֣י הָֽאֲדָמָ֔ה מֵֽאָדָם֙ עַד־בְּהֵמָ֔ה עַד־רֶ֖מֶשׂ וְעַד־ע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמָ֑יִם כִּ֥י נִחַ֖מְתִּי כִּ֥י עֲשִׂיתִֽם׃ ח וְנֹ֕חַ מָ֥צָא חֵ֖ן בְּעֵינֵ֥י יֽי׃

[1] When men began to increase on earth and daughters were born to them,

[2] The sons of the powerful saw how beautiful the daughters of men were and took wives from among those that pleased them.

[3] The Lord said, “My breath shall not abide in man forever, since he too is flesh; let the days allowed him be one hundred and twenty years.”

[4] It was then, and later too, that the Nephilim appeared on earth – when the sons of the powerful cohabited with the daughters of men, who bore them offspring. They were the heroes of old, the men of renown.

[5] The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness was on earth, and how every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time.

[6] And the Lord regretted that He had made man on earth, and His heart was saddened.

[7] The Lord said, “I will blot out from the earth the men whom I created – men together with beasts, creeping things, and birds of the sky; for I regret that I made them”.

[8] But Noah found favor with the Lord.

[1] When men began to increase on earthAs the result of its numerical increase, mankind is moving away from the family structure and moving on to organization of society on a larger scale.

And daughters were born to themNeedless to say, daughters had been born all along. What is meant is that some of those daughters now acquired a new and special social status, which led also to attendant social conflicts concerning them.

[2] The sons of the powerful saw how beautiful the daughters of men were and took wives from among those that pleased themThis verse speaks of the moral crisis leading up to the Flood, but its exact interpretation is unclear, and there are several ways of understanding it.

In the original Hebrew of the text, “sons of the powerful” is benei ha-elohim, “sons of Elohim.” Since the word elohim can refer either to God or to humans of elevated social status (such as rulers or judges; see Exodus 4:16, 7:1, 21:6), just who were these “sons of elohim”? Whose sons were they, actually?

Several interpretations of the term “sons of elohim” have been suggested, as follows:

I. The benei ha-elohim are the “sons of distinguished, noble people,” and the benot ha-adam, the “daughters of men” whom they married are girls from the common people. The crime of the sons of the nobility was that they took daughters “from among those that pleased them”, that is, by force, without seeking the consent of the girls themselves.

II. These benei ha-elohim, “the sons of God,” were the descendants of Seth. They are called “the sons of God” because the understanding of the Divine among mankind was preserved in Seth’s descendants. In this case the benot ha-adam, “daughters of men,” are daughters of the descendants of Cain, and the crime of Seth’s sons is that they were so attracted to the girls’ physical beauty (they “saw how beautiful the daughters of men were”) that they allowed their children to intermarry with Cain’s descendants. The result was that the children born from these unions adopted Cain’s culture, and were educated in improper elements of human behavior. Thus there no longer remained any hope for the salvation of mankind.

III. The Midrash suggests a third interpretation. The “sons of God” are angels who descended to earth as emissaries of the Almighty. But instead of fulfilling the task that God had assigned to them, those angels took to marrying human women. (It is important to understand that such Midrashim are not to be taken literally.)

[3] The Lord said, “My breath shall not abide in man forever, since he too is flesh; let the days allowed him be one hundred and twenty years”These words can be understood in two ways: (a) God is setting a limit on human life expectancy. Henceforth no human can live longer than 120 years. Or (b) God is establishing an interval of 120 years for humanity to repent and correct itself. If they fail to do so, they will then be destroyed by the Flood.

[4] It was then, and later too, that the Nephilim appeared on earth–when the sons of the powerful cohabited with the daughters of men, who bore them offspring. They were the heroes of old, the men of renownAfter God set a limit of 120 years for mankind, the Torah further tells us about the birth of these “giants,” but it is not clear from the text whether this was a positive circumstance or a negative one.

Grammatically, the word Nephilim can be understood in two ways:

I. As “giants,” or “greats,” referring to Shem, Ham, and Japheth, the sons of Noah. (Since their mother Naamah came from Cain’s descendants, this marriage was also a situation of “the divine beings cohabited with the daughters of men.”) Until Noah’s three sons grew up and became independent, the Flood could not happen, because there would have been no one from whom to recreate humankind anew. God therefore allocated 120 years for their birth and maturation.

II. As “the fallen” − who themselves fell and also caused the world’s downfall, because the world disintegrates when high-ranking officials neglect their duties and oppress ordinary people.

[5] The Lord saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time. [6] And the Lord regretted that He had made man on earth, and His heart was saddened. [7] The Lord said, “I will blot out from the earth the men whom I created – men together with beasts, creeping things, and birds of the sky; for I regret that I made them”God has now finally made His decision concerning the Flood.

The word nachem, “to regret,” used twice in this passage, is the very same word as nachem, “to console,” used by Lamech above (5:29) in naming his son Noah. We will have more to say about this concept a little later.

[8] But Noah found favor with the Lord“Noah found favor” means that on his actual merits alone Noah did not deserve to be spared in the flood.


Chapter 6. A General Overview of the Story of the Flood

Noah is the second weekly portion of the Torah, and also the second portion having a thoroughly universal (i.e., not specifically Jewish) character. It presents a view of humanity as consisting of nations, and not merely individuals. Although toledot, “posterity” (see 5:1), is the first significant word of this portion, the name of the portion is “Noah,” not “Toledot.” This is because each of the Torah’s weekly portions takes its name not from its first word, or even its first significant word, but from one of its first several words that best represents the entire weekly portion.

 After providing a general overview of the story of the Flood with only minimal remarks, we will then try to gain a better understanding by delving more deeply into the story.

6.1. Noah’s Ark (6:9-22)

ט אֵ֚לֶּה תּֽוֹלְדֹ֣ת נֹ֔חַ נֹ֗חַ אִ֥ישׁ צַדִּ֛יק תָּמִ֥ים הָיָ֖ה בְּדֹֽרֹתָ֑יו אֶת־הָֽאֱלֹהִ֖ים הִֽתְהַלֶּךְ־נֹֽחַ׃ י וַיּ֥וֹלֶד נֹ֖חַ שְׁלֹשָׁ֣ה בָנִ֑ים אֶת־שֵׁ֖ם אֶת־חָ֥ם וְאֶת־יָֽפֶת׃ יא וַתִּשָּׁחֵ֥ת הָאָ֖רֶץ לִפְנֵ֣י הָֽאֱלֹהִ֑ים וַתִּמָּלֵ֥א הָאָ֖רֶץ חָמָֽס׃ יב וַיַּ֧רְא אֱלֹהִ֛ים אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ וְהִנֵּ֣ה נִשְׁחָ֑תָה כִּֽי־הִשְׁחִ֧ית כָּל־בָּשָׂ֛ר אֶת־דַּרְכּ֖וֹ עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃ יג וַיֹּ֨אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֜ים לְנֹ֗חַ קֵ֤ץ כָּל־בָּשָׂר֙ בָּ֣א לְפָנַ֔י כִּֽי־מָלְאָ֥ה הָאָ֛רֶץ חָמָ֖ס מִפְּנֵיהֶ֑ם וְהִנְנִ֥י מַשְׁחִיתָ֖ם אֶת־הָאָֽרֶץ׃ יד עֲשֵׂ֤ה לְךָ֙ תֵּבַ֣ת עֲצֵי־גֹ֔פֶר קִנִּ֖ים תַּֽעֲשֶׂ֣ה אֶת־הַתֵּבָ֑ה וְכָֽפַרְתָּ֥ אֹתָ֛הּ מִבַּ֥יִת וּמִח֖וּץ בַּכֹּֽפֶר׃ טו וְזֶ֕ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר תַּֽעֲשֶׂ֖ה אֹתָ֑הּ שְׁלֹ֧שׁ מֵא֣וֹת אַמָּ֗ה אֹ֚רֶךְ הַתֵּבָ֔ה חֲמִשִּׁ֤ים אַמָּה֙ רָחְבָּ֔הּ וּשְׁלֹשִׁ֥ים אַמָּ֖ה קֽוֹמָתָֽהּ׃ טז צֹ֣הַר ׀ תַּֽעֲשֶׂ֣ה לַתֵּבָ֗ה וְאֶל־אַמָּה֙ תְּכַלֶּ֣נָּה מִלְמַ֔עְלָה וּפֶ֥תַח הַתֵּבָ֖ה בְּצִדָּ֣הּ תָּשִׂ֑ים תַּחְתִּיִּ֛ם שְׁנִיִּ֥ם וּשְׁלִשִׁ֖ים תַּֽעֲשֶֽׂהָ׃ יז וַֽאֲנִ֗י הִנְנִי֩ מֵבִ֨יא אֶת־הַמַּבּ֥וּל מַ֨יִם֙ עַל־הָאָ֔רֶץ לְשַׁחֵ֣ת כָּל־בָּשָׂ֗ר אֲשֶׁר־בּוֹ֙ ר֣וּחַ חַיִּ֔ים מִתַּ֖חַת הַשָּׁמָ֑יִם כֹּ֥ל אֲשֶׁר־בָּאָ֖רֶץ יִגְוָֽע׃ יח וַהֲקִֽמֹתִ֥י אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֖י אִתָּ֑ךְ וּבָאתָ֙ אֶל־הַתֵּבָ֔ה אַתָּ֕ה וּבָנֶ֛יךָ וְאִשְׁתְּךָ֥ וּנְשֵֽׁי־בָנֶ֖יךָ אִתָּֽךְ׃ יט וּמִכָּל־הָ֠חַי מִֽכָּל־בָּשָׂ֞ר שְׁנַ֧יִם מִכֹּ֛ל תָּבִ֥יא אֶל־הַתֵּבָ֖ה לְהַֽחֲיֹ֣ת אִתָּ֑ךְ זָכָ֥ר וּנְקֵבָ֖ה יִֽהְיֽוּ׃ כ מֵֽהָע֣וֹף לְמִינֵ֗הוּ וּמִן־הַבְּהֵמָה֙ לְמִינָ֔הּ מִכֹּ֛ל רֶ֥מֶשׂ הָֽאֲדָמָ֖ה לְמִינֵ֑הוּ שְׁנַ֧יִם מִכֹּ֛ל יָבֹ֥אוּ אֵלֶ֖יךָ לְהַֽחֲיֽוֹת׃ כא וְאַתָּ֣ה קַח־לְךָ֗ מִכָּל־מַֽאֲכָל֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יֵֽאָכֵ֔ל וְאָֽסַפְתָּ֖ אֵלֶ֑יךָ וְהָיָ֥ה לְךָ֛ וְלָהֶ֖ם לְאָכְלָֽה׃ כב וַיַּ֖עַשׂ נֹ֑חַ כְּ֠כֹל אֲשֶׁ֨ר צִוָּ֥ה אֹת֛וֹ אֱלֹהִ֖ים כֵּ֥ן עָשָֽׂה׃

[9] This is the line of Noah. Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God.

[10] Noah begot three sons: Shem, Ham, and Japheth.

[11] The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with lawlessness.

[12] When God saw how corrupt the earth was, for all flesh had corrupted its ways on earth,

[13] God said to Noah, “I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth.

[14] Make yourself an ark of gopher wood; make it an ark with compartments, and cover it inside and out with pitch.

[15] This is how you shall make it: the length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, its width fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits.

[16] Make an opening for daylight in the ark, and terminate it within a cubit of the top. Put the entrance to the ark in its side; make it with bottom, second, and third decks.

[17] “For My part, I am about to bring the Flood-waters upon the earth – to destroy all flesh under the sky in which there is breath of life; everything on earth shall perish.

[18] But I will establish My covenant with you, and you shall enter the ark, with your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives.

[19] And of all that lives, of all flesh, you shall take two of each into the ark to keep alive with you; they shall be male and female.

[20] From birds of every kind, cattle of every kind, every kind of creeping thing on earth, two of each shall come to you to stay alive.

[21] For your part, take of everything that is eaten and store it away, to serve as food for you and for them”.

[22] Noah did so; just as God commanded him, so he did.

[9] This is the line of Noah. Noah was a righteous manAfter the word toledot, “offspring,” a list of descendants would usually appear. Noah, above all, “gave birth to” his own righteousness. This can be understood both in a positive sense, in that he was “a very righteous person,” and as a criticism: Noah was focused on himself and on his own righteousness. Other people were not important to him.

He was blameless in his ageThis is a limiting characteristic. Yes, Noah was blameless, but only within his own age.

Noah walked with GodThis turn of phrase can be understood two ways:

(1) Noah walked with God, but not with people. He cared about his own righteousness, not about his fellow humans.

(2) Noah walked with God – with God, rather than before God; that is, he did what he was told, but made no effort to “walk before (i.e., ahead of) God” as Abraham did (17:1, see commentary there). Abraham takes issue with God and argues with Him about the destruction of the city of Sodom. But Noah, with no complaint whatsoever, simply accepts the news of the destruction of all of humankind without challenging it.

[10] Noah begot three sonsShem, Ham, and JaphethFrom the perspective of the Torah three races will be born from those three sons: the Japhetic peoples of the white race inhabiting Europe; the Semites of the yellow race inhabiting Asia; and the Hamites of the black race inhabiting Africa. (Of course, this is only an approximate description.) The Land of Israel is at the junction point of all these three regions, since the Divine light must emanate from Israel to all mankind.

[11] The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with lawlessness. [12] When God saw how corrupt the earth was, for all flesh had corrupted its ways on earth, [13] God said to Noah, “I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them.”Here several times the Torah identifies the two primary sins that led to the Flood: corruption (“all flesh had corrupted its ways on earth” in relation to the Almighty) and evildoing (perversion of every man’s behavior toward his fellow man). We will examine this issue in greater detail below.

[17] I am about to bring the Flood – waters upon the earthAdding the words “waters upon the earth” is necessary in order to indicate that the essential meaning of the Flood was not in the flood itself, but in “obliterating the final structure.” Later we will cover this point in greater detail.

[18] And you shall enter the ark, with your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wivesThe men and the women are mentioned separately. In the ark they remain apart, for intimacy is forbidden to them.

[22] Noah did so; just as God commanded him, so he didNoah executes orders precisely. He asks no questions, and does not object.

6.2. The Flood Begins (7:1-24)

א וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יי֙ לְנֹ֔חַ בֹּֽא־אַתָּ֥ה וְכָל־בֵּֽיתְךָ֖ אֶל־הַתֵּבָ֑ה כִּֽי־אֹתְךָ֥ רָאִ֛יתִי צַדִּ֥יק לְפָנַ֖י בַּדּ֥וֹר הַזֶּֽה׃ ב מִכֹּ֣ל ׀ הַבְּהֵמָ֣ה הַטְּהוֹרָ֗ה תִּֽקַּח־לְךָ֛ שִׁבְעָ֥ה שִׁבְעָ֖ה אִ֣ישׁ וְאִשְׁתּ֑וֹ וּמִן־הַבְּהֵמָ֡ה אֲ֠שֶׁר לֹ֣א טְהֹרָ֥ה הִ֛וא שְׁנַ֖יִם אִ֥ישׁ וְאִשְׁתּֽוֹ׃ ג גַּ֣ם מֵע֧וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֛יִם שִׁבְעָ֥ה שִׁבְעָ֖ה זָכָ֣ר וּנְקֵבָ֑ה לְחַיּ֥וֹת זֶ֖רַע עַל־פְּנֵ֥י כָל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃ ד כִּי֩ לְיָמִ֨ים ע֜וֹד שִׁבְעָ֗ה אָֽנֹכִי֙ מַמְטִ֣יר עַל־הָאָ֔רֶץ אַרְבָּעִ֣ים י֔וֹם וְאַרְבָּעִ֖ים לָ֑יְלָה וּמָחִ֗יתִי אֶֽת־כָּל־הַיְקוּם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשִׂ֔יתִי מֵעַ֖ל פְּנֵ֥י הָֽאֲדָמָֽה׃ ה וַיַּ֖עַשׂ נֹ֑חַ כְּכֹ֥ל אֲשֶׁר־צִוָּ֖הוּ יֽי׃ ו וְנֹ֕חַ בֶּן־שֵׁ֥שׁ מֵא֖וֹת שָׁנָ֑ה וְהַמַּבּ֣וּל הָיָ֔ה מַ֖יִם עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃ ז וַיָּ֣בֹא נֹ֗חַ וּ֠בָנָיו וְאִשְׁתּ֧וֹ וּנְשֵֽׁי־בָנָ֛יו אִתּ֖וֹ אֶל־הַתֵּבָ֑ה מִפְּנֵ֖י מֵ֥י הַמַּבּֽוּל׃ ח מִן־הַבְּהֵמָה֙ הַטְּהוֹרָ֔ה וּמִ֨ן־הַבְּהֵמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֵינֶ֖נָּה טְהֹרָ֑ה וּמִ֨ן־הָע֔וֹף וְכֹ֥ל אֲשֶׁר־רֹמֵ֖שׂ עַל־הָֽאֲדָמָֽה׃ ט שְׁנַ֨יִם שְׁנַ֜יִם בָּ֧אוּ אֶל־נֹ֛חַ אֶל־הַתֵּבָ֖ה זָכָ֣ר וּנְקֵבָ֑ה כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֛ר צִוָּ֥ה אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶת־נֹֽחַ׃ י וַיְהִ֖י לְשִׁבְעַ֣ת הַיָּמִ֑ים וּמֵ֣י הַמַּבּ֔וּל הָי֖וּ עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃ יא בִּשְׁנַ֨ת שֵׁשׁ־מֵא֤וֹת שָׁנָה֙ לְחַיֵּי־נֹ֔חַ בַּחֹ֨דֶשׁ֙ הַשֵּׁנִ֔י בְּשִׁבְעָֽה־עָשָׂ֥ר י֖וֹם לַחֹ֑דֶשׁ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַזֶּ֗ה נִבְקְעוּ֙ כָּֽל־מַעְיְנֹת֙ תְּה֣וֹם רַבָּ֔ה וַֽאֲרֻבֹּ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם נִפְתָּֽחוּ׃ יב וַיְהִ֥י הַגֶּ֖שֶׁם עַל־הָאָ֑רֶץ אַרְבָּעִ֣ים י֔וֹם וְאַרְבָּעִ֖ים לָֽיְלָה׃ יג בְּעֶ֨צֶם הַיּ֤וֹם הַזֶּה֙ בָּ֣א נֹ֔חַ וְשֵׁם־וְחָ֥ם וָיֶ֖פֶת בְּנֵי־נֹ֑חַ וְאֵ֣שֶׁת נֹ֗חַ וּשְׁלֹ֧שֶׁת נְשֵֽׁי־בָנָ֛יו אִתָּ֖ם אֶל־הַתֵּבָֽה׃ יד הֵ֜מָּה וְכָל־הַֽחַיָּ֣ה לְמִינָ֗הּ וְכָל־הַבְּהֵמָה֙ לְמִינָ֔הּ וְכָל־הָרֶ֛מֶשׂ הָֽרֹמֵ֥שׂ עַל־הָאָ֖רֶץ לְמִינֵ֑הוּ וְכָל־הָע֣וֹף לְמִינֵ֔הוּ כֹּ֖ל צִפּ֥וֹר כָּל־כָּנָֽף׃ טו וַיָּבֹ֥אוּ אֶל־נֹ֖חַ אֶל־הַתֵּבָ֑ה שְׁנַ֤יִם שְׁנַ֨יִם֙ מִכָּל־הַבָּשָׂ֔ר אֲשֶׁר־בּ֖וֹ ר֥וּחַ חַיִּֽים׃ טז וְהַבָּאִ֗ים זָכָ֨ר וּנְקֵבָ֤ה מִכָּל־בָּשָׂר֙ בָּ֔אוּ כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֛ר צִוָּ֥ה אֹת֖וֹ אֱלֹהִ֑ים וַיִּסְגֹּ֥ר י֖י בַּֽעֲדֽוֹ׃ יז וַיְהִ֧י הַמַּבּ֛וּל אַרְבָּעִ֥ים י֖וֹם עַל־הָאָ֑רֶץ וַיִּרְבּ֣וּ הַמַּ֗יִם וַיִּשְׂאוּ֙ אֶת־הַתֵּבָ֔ה וַתָּ֖רָם מֵעַ֥ל הָאָֽרֶץ׃ יח וַיִּגְבְּר֥וּ הַמַּ֛יִם וַיִּרְבּ֥וּ מְאֹ֖ד עַל־הָאָ֑רֶץ וַתֵּ֥לֶךְ הַתֵּבָ֖ה עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הַמָּֽיִם׃ יט וְהַמַּ֗יִם גָּ֥בְר֛וּ מְאֹ֥ד מְאֹ֖ד עַל־הָאָ֑רֶץ וַיְכֻסּ֗וּ כָּל־הֶֽהָרִים֙ הַגְּבֹהִ֔ים אֲשֶׁר־תַּ֖חַת כָּל־הַשָּׁמָֽיִם׃ כ חֲמֵ֨שׁ עֶשְׂרֵ֤ה אַמָּה֙ מִלְמַ֔עְלָה גָּֽבְר֖וּ הַמָּ֑יִם וַיְכֻסּ֖וּ הֶֽהָרִֽים׃ כא וַיִּגְוַ֞ע כָּל־בָּשָׂ֣ר ׀ הָֽרֹמֵ֣שׂ עַל־הָאָ֗רֶץ בָּע֤וֹף וּבַבְּהֵמָה֙ וּבַ֣חַיָּ֔ה וּבְכָל־הַשֶּׁ֖רֶץ הַשֹּׁרֵ֣ץ עַל־הָאָ֑רֶץ וְכֹ֖ל הָֽאָדָֽם׃ כב כֹּ֡ל אֲשֶׁר֩ נִשְׁמַת־ר֨וּחַ חַיִּ֜ים בְּאַפָּ֗יו מִכֹּ֛ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר בֶּחָֽרָבָ֖ה מֵֽתוּ׃ כג וַיִּ֜מַח אֶֽת־כָּל־הַיְק֣וּם ׀ אֲשֶׁ֣ר ׀ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י הָֽאֲדָמָ֗ה מֵֽאָדָ֤ם עַד־בְּהֵמָה֙ עַד־רֶ֨מֶשׂ֙ וְעַד־ע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וַיִּמָּח֖וּ מִן־הָאָ֑רֶץ וַיִּשָּׁ֧אֶר אַךְ־נֹ֛חַ וַֽאֲשֶׁ֥ר אִתּ֖וֹ בַּתֵּבָֽה׃ כד וַיִּגְבְּר֥וּ הַמַּ֖יִם עַל־הָאָ֑רֶץ חֲמִשִּׁ֥ים וּמְאַ֖ת יֽוֹם׃

[1] Then the Lord said to Noah, “Go into the ark, with all your household, for you alone have I found righteous before Me in this generation.

[2] Of every clean animal you shall take seven pairs, males and their mates, and of every animal that is not clean, two, a male and its mate;

[3] Of the birds of the sky also, seven pairs, male and female, to keep seed alive upon all the earth.

[4] For in seven days’ time I will make it rain upon the earth, forty days and forty nights, and I will blot out from the earth all existence that I created”.

[5] And Noah did just as the Lord commanded him.

[6] Noah was six hundred years old when the Flood came, waters upon the earth.

[7] Noah, with his sons, his wife, and his sons’ wives, went into the ark because of the waters of the Flood.

[8] Of the clean animals, of the animals that are not clean, of the birds, and of everything that creeps on the ground,

[9] Two of each, male and female, came to Noah into the ark, as God had commanded Noah.

[10] And on the seventh day the waters of the Flood came upon the earth.

[11] In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst apart, and the floodgates of the sky broke open.

[12] The rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights.

[13] That same day Noah and Noah’s sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth, went into the ark, with Noah’s wife and the three wives of his sons.

[14] They and all beasts of every kind, all cattle of every kind, all creatures of every kind that creep on the earth, and all birds of every kind, every bird, every winged thing.

[15] They came to Noah into the ark, two each of all flesh in which there was breath of life.

[16] Thus they that entered comprised male and female of all flesh, as God had commanded him. And the Lord shut him in.

[17] The Flood continued forty days on the earth, and the waters increased and raised the ark so that it rose above the earth.

[18] The waters swelled and increased greatly upon the earth, and the ark drifted upon the waters.

[19] When the waters had swelled much more upon the earth, all the highest mountains everywhere under the sky were covered.

[20] Fifteen cubits higher did the waters swell, as the mountains were covered.

[21] And all flesh that stirred on earth perished – birds, cattle, beasts, and all the things that swarmed upon the earth, and all mankind.

[22] All in whose nostrils was the merest breath of life, all that was on dry land, died.

[23] All existence on earth was blotted out – man, cattle, creeping things, and birds of the sky; they were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those with him in the ark.

[24] And when the waters had swelled on the earth one hundred and fifty days.

[2] Of every clean animal you shall take seven pairs … and of every animal that is not clean, two … [3] Of the birds of the sky also, seven pairs … [4] For in seven days’ time I will make it rain upon the earthSome of the clean cattle will be needed later for making a sacrifice (8:20), which is why Noah must take more than just the two needed for future reproduction.

(The number “seven” is chosen, quite possibly, as realizing the instruction, “For in seven days’ time I will make it rain upon the earth.” Also, the number seven in Judaism very often represents nature, as opposed to the number eight, which symbolizes that which is beyond nature. The two sevens here could be an allusion to the fact that in the course of the Flood, the world – indeed, nature itself – will undergo a radical change.)

Thus, the concept of clean and unclean animals relates here to the opportunity for the Jewish people – as the priests of mankind (Exod. 19:6) – to bring sacrifices in the future. Exactly the same criteria of “cleanness” determine the fitness of the various categories of animals to be used for food (see Lev. 11:8).

[5] And Noah did just as the Lord commanded him … [16] And the Lord shut him inNoah follows orders precisely, but he so lacks self-sufficiency, and is so helpless, that he cannot even close the entrance to the Ark when the time comes. God must do it for him.

[7] Noah, with his sons, his wife, and his sons’ wives, went into the arkThe men separately and the women separately.

[23] All existence on earth was blotted out … And when the waters had swelled on the earth one hundred and fifty days … Even after all the people and animals outside the ark were already dead, the water continued to rise. Thus, the significance of the Flood was not only in the death of the evildoers.

Only Noah was leftThe word ach, “only,” is superfluous, adding nothing to the story. The Midrash understands it as a “reduction” – i.e., a limiting qualifier: “Noah was just barely alive,” for he, too, almost died. We shall consider this Midrash in more detail below.

6.3. The End of the Flood (8:1-22)

א וַיִּזְכֹּ֤ר אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת־נֹ֔חַ וְאֵ֤ת כָּל־הַֽחַיָּה֙ וְאֶת־כָּל־הַבְּהֵמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר אִתּ֖וֹ בַּתֵּבָ֑ה וַיַּֽעֲבֵ֨ר אֱלֹהִ֥ים ר֨וּחַ֙ עַל־הָאָ֔רֶץ וַיָּשֹׁ֖כּוּ הַמָּֽיִם׃ ב וַיִּסָּֽכְרוּ֙ מַעְיְנֹ֣ת תְּה֔וֹם וַֽאֲרֻבֹּ֖ת הַשָּׁמָ֑יִם וַיִּכָּלֵ֥א הַגֶּ֖שֶׁם מִן־הַשָּׁמָֽיִם׃ ג וַיָּשֻׁ֧בוּ הַמַּ֛יִם מֵעַ֥ל הָאָ֖רֶץ הָל֣וֹךְ וָשׁ֑וֹב וַיַּחְסְר֣וּ הַמַּ֔יִם מִקְצֵ֕ה חֲמִשִּׁ֥ים וּמְאַ֖ת יֽוֹם׃ ד וַתָּ֤נַח הַתֵּבָה֙ בַּחֹ֣דֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔י בְּשִׁבְעָֽה־עָשָׂ֥ר י֖וֹם לַחֹ֑דֶשׁ עַ֖ל הָרֵ֥י אֲרָרָֽט׃ ה וְהַמַּ֗יִם הָיוּ֙ הָל֣וֹךְ וְחָס֔וֹר עַ֖ד הַחֹ֣דֶשׁ הָֽעֲשִׂירִ֑י בָּֽעֲשִׂירִי֙ בְּאֶחָ֣ד לַחֹ֔דֶשׁ נִרְא֖וּ רָאשֵׁ֥י הֶֽהָרִֽים׃ ו וַיְהִ֕י מִקֵּ֖ץ אַרְבָּעִ֣ים י֑וֹם וַיִּפְתַּ֣ח נֹ֔חַ אֶת־חַלּ֥וֹן הַתֵּבָ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשָֽׂה׃ ז וַיְשַׁלַּ֖ח אֶת־הָֽעֹרֵ֑ב וַיֵּצֵ֤א יָצוֹא֙ וָשׁ֔וֹב עַד־יְבֹ֥שֶׁת הַמַּ֖יִם מֵעַ֥ל הָאָֽרֶץ׃ ח וַיְשַׁלַּ֥ח אֶת־הַיּוֹנָ֖ה מֵֽאִתּ֑וֹ לִרְאוֹת֙ הֲקַ֣לּוּ הַמַּ֔יִם מֵעַ֖ל פְּנֵ֥י הָֽאֲדָמָֽה׃ ט וְלֹֽא־מָצְאָה֩ הַיּוֹנָ֨ה מָנ֜וֹחַ לְכַף־רַגְלָ֗הּ וַתָּ֤שָׁב אֵלָיו֙ אֶל־הַתֵּבָ֔ה כִּי־מַ֖יִם עַל־פְּנֵ֣י כָל־הָאָ֑רֶץ וַיִּשְׁלַ֤ח יָדוֹ֙ וַיִּקָּחֶ֔הָ וַיָּבֵ֥א אֹתָ֛הּ אֵלָ֖יו אֶל־הַתֵּבָֽה׃ י וַיָּ֣חֶל ע֔וֹד שִׁבְעַ֥ת יָמִ֖ים אֲחֵרִ֑ים וַיֹּ֛סֶף שַׁלַּ֥ח אֶת־הַיּוֹנָ֖ה מִן־הַתֵּבָֽה׃ יא וַתָּבֹ֨א אֵלָ֤יו הַיּוֹנָה֙ לְעֵ֣ת עֶ֔רֶב וְהִנֵּ֥ה עֲלֵה־זַ֖יִת טָרָ֣ף בְּפִ֑יהָ וַיֵּ֣דַע נֹ֔חַ כִּי־קַ֥לּוּ הַמַּ֖יִם מֵעַ֥ל הָאָֽרֶץ׃ יב וַיִּיָּ֣חֶל ע֔וֹד שִׁבְעַ֥ת יָמִ֖ים אֲחֵרִ֑ים וַיְשַׁלַּח֙ אֶת־הַיּוֹנָ֔ה וְלֹֽא־יָסְפָ֥ה שׁוּב־אֵלָ֖יו עֽוֹד׃ יג וַ֠יְהִי בְּאַחַ֨ת וְשֵׁשׁ־מֵא֜וֹת שָׁנָ֗ה בָּֽרִאשׁוֹן֙ בְּאֶחָ֣ד לַחֹ֔דֶשׁ חָֽרְב֥וּ הַמַּ֖יִם מֵעַ֣ל הָאָ֑רֶץ וַיָּ֤סַר נֹ֨חַ֙ אֶת־מִכְסֵ֣ה הַתֵּבָ֔ה וַיַּ֕רְא וְהִנֵּ֥ה חָֽרְב֖וּ פְּנֵ֥י הָֽאֲדָמָֽה׃ יד וּבַחֹ֨דֶשׁ֙ הַשֵּׁנִ֔י בְּשִׁבְעָ֧ה וְעֶשְׂרִ֛ים י֖וֹם לַחֹ֑דֶשׁ יָֽבְשָׁ֖ה הָאָֽרֶץ׃ טו וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶל־נֹ֥חַ לֵאמֹֽר׃ טז צֵ֖א מִן־הַתֵּבָ֑ה אַתָּ֕ה וְאִשְׁתְּךָ֛ וּבָנֶ֥יךָ וּנְשֵֽׁי־בָנֶ֖יךָ אִתָּֽךְ׃ יז כָּל־הַֽחַיָּ֨ה אֲשֶֽׁר־אִתְּךָ֜ מִכָּל־בָּשָׂ֗ר בָּע֧וֹף וּבַבְּהֵמָ֛ה וּבְכָל־הָרֶ֛מֶשׂ הָֽרֹמֵ֥שׂ עַל־הָאָ֖רֶץ הוצא (הַיְצֵ֣א) אִתָּ֑ךְ וְשָֽׁרְצ֣וּ בָאָ֔רֶץ וּפָר֥וּ וְרָב֖וּ עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃ יח וַיֵּ֖צֵא־נֹ֑חַ וּבָנָ֛יו וְאִשְׁתּ֥וֹ וּנְשֵֽׁי־בָנָ֖יו אִתּֽוֹ׃ יט כָּל־הַֽחַיָּ֗ה כָּל־הָרֶ֨מֶשׂ֙ וְכָל־הָע֔וֹף כֹּ֖ל רוֹמֵ֣שׂ עַל־הָאָ֑רֶץ לְמִשְׁפְּחֹ֣תֵיהֶ֔ם יָֽצְא֖וּ מִן־הַתֵּבָֽה׃ כ וַיִּ֥בֶן נֹ֛חַ מִזְבֵּ֖חַ לַֽי֑י וַיִּקַּ֞ח מִכֹּ֣ל ׀ הַבְּהֵמָ֣ה הַטְּהֹרָ֗ה וּמִכֹּל֙ הָע֣וֹף הַטָּה֔וֹר וַיַּ֥עַל עֹלֹ֖ת בַּמִּזְבֵּֽחַ׃ כא וַיָּ֣רַח יי֮ אֶת־רֵ֣יחַ הַנִּיחֹחַ֒ וַיֹּ֨אמֶר י֜י אֶל־לִבּ֗וֹ לֹֽא־אֹ֠סִף לְקַלֵּ֨ל ע֤וֹד אֶת־הָֽאֲדָמָה֙ בַּֽעֲב֣וּר הָֽאָדָ֔ם כִּ֠י יֵ֣צֶר לֵ֧ב הָֽאָדָ֛ם רַ֖ע מִנְּעֻרָ֑יו וְלֹֽא־אֹסִ֥ף ע֛וֹד לְהַכּ֥וֹת אֶת־כָּל־חַ֖י כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשִֽׂיתִי׃ כב עֹ֖ד כָּל־יְמֵ֣י הָאָ֑רֶץ זֶ֡רַע וְ֠קָצִיר וְקֹ֨ר וָחֹ֜ם וְקַ֧יִץ וָחֹ֛רֶף וְי֥וֹם וָלַ֖יְלָה לֹ֥א יִשְׁבֹּֽתוּ׃

 [1] God remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the cattle that were with him in the ark, and God caused a wind to blow across the earth, and the waters subsided.

[2] The fountains of the deep and the floodgates of the sky were stopped up, and the rain from the sky was held back;

[3] The waters then receded steadily from the earth. At the end of one hundred and fifty days the waters diminished,

[4] So that in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat.

[5] The waters went on diminishing until the tenth month; in the tenth month, on the first of the month, the tops of the mountains became visible.

[6] At the end of forty days, Noah opened the window of the ark that he had made

[7] And sent out the raven; it went to and fro until the waters had dried up from the earth.

[8] Then he sent out the dove to see whether the waters had decreased from the surface of the ground.

[9] But the dove could not find a resting place for its foot, and returned to him to the ark, for there was water over all the earth. So putting out his hand, he took it into the ark with him.

[10] He waited another seven days, and again sent out the dove from the ark.

[11] The dove came back to him toward evening, and there in its bill was a plucked-off olive leaf! Then Noah knew that the waters had decreased on the earth.

[12] He waited still another seven days and sent the dove forth; and it did not return to him any more.

[13] In the six hundred and first year, in the first month, on the first of the month, the waters began to dry from the earth; and when Noah removed the covering of the ark, he saw that the surface of the ground was drying.

[14] And in the second month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, the earth was dry.

[15] God spoke to Noah, saying,

[16] “Come out of the ark, together with your wife, your sons, and your sons’ wives.

[17] Bring out with you every living thing of all flesh that is with you: birds, animals, and everything that creeps on earth; and let them swarm on the earth and be fertile and increase on earth.”

[18] So Noah came out, together with his sons, his wife, and his sons’ wives.

[19] Every animal, every creeping thing, and every bird, everything that stirs on earth came out of the ark by families.

[20] Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and, taking of every clean animal and of every clean bird, he offered burnt offerings on the altar.

[21] The Lord smelled the pleasing odor, and the Lord said to Himself: “Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living being, as I have done.

[22] So long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night shall not cease.”

[6] At the end of forty days, Noah opened the window of the ark that he had madeNoah himself opens the window; he does not wait for God to do it for him. After spending months in the ark, Noah gradually becomes self-sufficient.

[15] God spoke to Noah, saying, [16] “Come out of the ark, together with your wife, your sons, and your sons’ wivesHusbands and wives leave the ark together. That is, intimacy and childbearing are now again permitted.

[18] So Noah came out, together with his sons, his wife, and his sons’ wivesBut even so, Noah and his family at first do not accept that permission. The men and the women leave the ark separately.

[21] And the Lord said to Himself: “Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youthAt the beginning of the Flood story, this tendency of man to evil (6:5) is the basis for his destruction. But here, on the contrary, it serves as the basis for forgiveness. Later we will discuss this issue in more detail.

6.4. The Rainbow as a Sign of God’s Covenant (9:1-17)

א וַיְבָ֣רֶךְ אֱלֹהִ֔ים אֶת־נֹ֖חַ וְאֶת־בָּנָ֑יו וַיֹּ֧אמֶר לָהֶ֛ם פְּר֥וּ וּרְב֖וּ וּמִלְא֥וּ אֶת־הָאָֽרֶץ׃ ב וּמוֹרַֽאֲכֶ֤ם וְחִתְּכֶם֙ יִֽהְיֶ֔ה עַ֚ל כָּל־חַיַּ֣ת הָאָ֔רֶץ וְעַ֖ל כָּל־ע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמָ֑יִם בְּכֹל֩ אֲשֶׁ֨ר תִּרְמֹ֧שׂ הָֽאֲדָמָ֛ה וּֽבְכָל־דְּגֵ֥י הַיָּ֖ם בְּיֶדְכֶ֥ם נִתָּֽנוּ׃ ג כָּל־רֶ֨מֶשׂ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר הוּא־חַ֔י לָכֶ֥ם יִֽהְיֶ֖ה לְאָכְלָ֑ה כְּיֶ֣רֶק עֵ֔שֶׂב נָתַ֥תִּי לָכֶ֖ם אֶת־כֹּֽל׃ ד אַךְ־בָּשָׂ֕ר בְּנַפְשׁ֥וֹ דָמ֖וֹ לֹ֥א תֹאכֵֽלוּ׃ ה וְאַ֨ךְ אֶת־דִּמְכֶ֤ם לְנַפְשֹֽׁתֵיכֶם֙ אֶדְרֹ֔שׁ מִיַּ֥ד כָּל־חַיָּ֖ה אֶדְרְשֶׁ֑נּוּ וּמִיַּ֣ד הָֽאָדָ֗ם מִיַּד֙ אִ֣ישׁ אָחִ֔יו אֶדְרֹ֖שׁ אֶת־נֶ֥פֶשׁ הָֽאָדָֽם׃ ו שֹׁפֵךְ֙ דַּ֣ם הָֽאָדָ֔ם בָּֽאָדָ֖ם דָּמ֣וֹ יִשָּׁפֵ֑ךְ כִּ֚י בְּצֶ֣לֶם אֱלֹהִ֔ים עָשָׂ֖ה אֶת־הָֽאָדָֽם׃ ז וְאַתֶּ֖ם פְּר֣וּ וּרְב֑וּ שִׁרְצ֥וּ בָאָ֖רֶץ וּרְבוּ־בָֽהּ׃ ח וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶל־נֹ֔חַ וְאֶל־בָּנָ֥יו אִתּ֖וֹ לֵאמֹֽר׃ ט וַֽאֲנִ֕י הִנְנִ֥י מֵקִ֛ים אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֖י אִתְּכֶ֑ם וְאֶֽת־זַרְעֲכֶ֖ם אַֽחֲרֵיכֶֽם׃ י וְאֵ֨ת כָּל־נֶ֤פֶשׁ הַֽחַיָּה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אִתְּכֶ֔ם בָּע֧וֹף בַּבְּהֵמָ֛ה וּֽבְכָל־חַיַּ֥ת הָאָ֖רֶץ אִתְּכֶ֑ם מִכֹּל֙ יֹֽצְאֵ֣י הַתֵּבָ֔ה לְכֹ֖ל חַיַּ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃ יא וַהֲקִֽמֹתִ֤י אֶת־בְּרִיתִי֙ אִתְּכֶ֔ם וְלֹֽא־יִכָּרֵ֧ת כָּל־בָּשָׂ֛ר ע֖וֹד מִמֵּ֣י הַמַּבּ֑וּל וְלֹֽא־יִהְיֶ֥ה ע֛וֹד מַבּ֖וּל לְשַׁחֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃ יב וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֗ים זֹ֤את אֽוֹת־הַבְּרִית֙ אֲשֶׁר־אֲנִ֣י נֹתֵ֗ן בֵּינִי֙ וּבֵ֣ינֵיכֶ֔ם וּבֵ֛ין כָּל־נֶ֥פֶשׁ חַיָּ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אִתְּכֶ֑ם לְדֹרֹ֖ת עוֹלָֽם׃ יג אֶת־קַשְׁתִּ֕י נָתַ֖תִּי בֶּֽעָנָ֑ן וְהָֽיְתָה֙ לְא֣וֹת בְּרִ֔ית בֵּינִ֖י וּבֵ֥ין הָאָֽרֶץ׃ יד וְהָיָ֕ה בְּעַֽנְנִ֥י עָנָ֖ן עַל־הָאָ֑רֶץ וְנִרְאֲתָ֥ה הַקֶּ֖שֶׁת בֶּֽעָנָֽן׃ טו וְזָֽכַרְתִּ֣י אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֗י אֲשֶׁ֤ר בֵּינִי֙ וּבֵ֣ינֵיכֶ֔ם וּבֵ֛ין כָּל־נֶ֥פֶשׁ חַיָּ֖ה בְּכָל־בָּשָׂ֑ר וְלֹֽא־יִֽהְיֶ֨ה ע֤וֹד הַמַּ֨יִם֙ לְמַבּ֔וּל לְשַׁחֵ֖ת כָּל־בָּשָֽׂר׃ טז וְהָֽיְתָ֥ה הַקֶּ֖שֶׁת בֶּֽעָנָ֑ן וּרְאִיתִ֗יהָ לִזְכֹּר֙ בְּרִ֣ית עוֹלָ֔ם בֵּ֣ין אֱלֹהִ֔ים וּבֵין֙ כָּל־נֶ֣פֶשׁ חַיָּ֔ה בְּכָל־בָּשָׂ֖ר אֲשֶׁ֥ר עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃ יז וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶל־נֹ֑חַ זֹ֤את אֽוֹת־הַבְּרִית֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר הֲקִמֹ֔תִי בֵּינִ֕י וּבֵ֥ין כָּל־בָּשָׂ֖ר אֲשֶׁ֥ר עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

[1] God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, “Be fertile and increase, and fill the earth.

[2] The fear and the dread of you shall be upon all the beasts of the earth and upon all the birds of the sky – everything with which the earth is astir – and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hand.

[3] Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat; as with the green grasses, I give you all these.

[4] You must not, however, eat flesh with its life-blood in it.

[5] But for your own life-blood I will require a reckoning: I will require it of every beast; of man, too, will I require a reckoning for human life, of every man for that of his fellow man!

[6] Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in His image did God make man.

[7] Be fertile, then, and increase; abound on the earth and increase on it.”

[8] And God said to Noah and to his sons with him,

[9] “I now establish My covenant with you and your offspring to come,

[10] And with every living thing that is with you – birds, cattle, and every wild beast as well – all that have come out of the ark, every living thing on earth.

[11] I will maintain My covenant with you: never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”

[12] God further said, “This is the sign that I set for the covenant between Me and you, and every living creature with you, for all ages to come.

[13] I have set My bow in the clouds, and it shall serve as a sign of the covenant between Me and the earth.

[14] When I bring clouds over the earth, and the bow appears in the clouds,

[15] I will remember My covenant between Me and you and every living creature among all flesh, so that the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.

[16] When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures, all flesh that is on earth.”

[17] “That,” God said to Noah, “shall be the sign of the covenant that I have established between Me and all flesh that is on earth.”

[1] God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, “Be fertile and increase, and fill the earthAfter the Flood, Noah and his family are afraid to have children. God therefore repeats His command to “be fruitful and multiply” (see 1:28).

[3] Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat; as with the green grasses, I give you all thesePrior to the Flood humans were allowed to eat only plants. Now they are allowed to eat animals as well, but there are some limitations.

[4] You must not, however, eat flesh with its life-blood in itThe prohibition of eating any part of an animal that is still alive is universal, and applies to all of humanity. (In this verse and the next, the word “blood” means “life.”)

6.5. Noah and His Sons in the Aftermath of the Flood (9:18-29)

יח וַיִּֽהְי֣וּ בְנֵי־נֹ֗חַ הַיֹּֽצְאִים֙ מִן־הַתֵּבָ֔ה שֵׁ֖ם וְחָ֣ם וָיָ֑פֶת וְחָ֕ם ה֖וּא אֲבִ֥י כְנָֽעַן׃ יט שְׁלֹשָׁ֥ה אֵ֖לֶּה בְּנֵי־נֹ֑חַ וּמֵאֵ֖לֶּה נָֽפְצָ֥ה כָל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃ כ וַיָּ֥חֶל נֹ֖חַ אִ֣ישׁ הָֽאֲדָמָ֑ה וַיִּטַּ֖ע כָּֽרֶם׃ כא וַיֵּ֥שְׁתְּ מִן־הַיַּ֖יִן וַיִּשְׁכָּ֑ר וַיִּתְגַּ֖ל בְּת֥וֹךְ אָֽהֳלֹֽה׃ כב וַיַּ֗רְא חָ֚ם אֲבִ֣י כְנַ֔עַן אֵ֖ת עֶרְוַ֣ת אָבִ֑יו וַיַּגֵּ֥ד לִשְׁנֵֽי־אֶחָ֖יו בַּחֽוּץ׃ כג וַיִּקַּח֩ שֵׁ֨ם וָיֶ֜פֶת אֶת־הַשִּׂמְלָ֗ה וַיָּשִׂ֨ימוּ֙ עַל־שְׁכֶ֣ם שְׁנֵיהֶ֔ם וַיֵּֽלְכוּ֙ אֲחֹ֣רַנִּ֔ית וַיְכַסּ֕וּ אֵ֖ת עֶרְוַ֣ת אֲבִיהֶ֑ם וּפְנֵיהֶם֙ אֲחֹ֣רַנִּ֔ית וְעֶרְוַ֥ת אֲבִיהֶ֖ם לֹ֥א רָאֽוּ׃ כד וַיִּ֥יקֶץ נֹ֖חַ מִיֵּינ֑וֹ וַיֵּ֕דַע אֵ֛ת אֲשֶׁר־עָ֥שָׂה ל֖וֹ בְּנ֥וֹ הַקָּטָֽן׃ כה וַיֹּ֖אמֶר אָר֣וּר כְּנָ֑עַן עֶ֥בֶד עֲבָדִ֖ים יִֽהְיֶ֥ה לְאֶחָֽיו׃ כו וַיֹּ֕אמֶר בָּר֥וּךְ י֖י אֱלֹ֣הֵי שֵׁ֑ם וִיהִ֥י כְנַ֖עַן עֶ֥בֶד לָֽמוֹ׃ כז יַ֤פְתְּ אֱלֹהִים֙ לְיֶ֔פֶת וְיִשְׁכֹּ֖ן בְּאָֽהֳלֵי־שֵׁ֑ם וִיהִ֥י כְנַ֖עַן עֶ֥בֶד לָֽמוֹ׃ כח וַֽיְחִי־נֹ֖חַ אַחַ֣ר הַמַּבּ֑וּל שְׁלֹ֤שׁ מֵאוֹת֙ שָׁנָ֔ה וַֽחֲמִשִּׁ֖ים שָׁנָֽה׃ כט וַיִּֽהְיוּ֙ כָּל־יְמֵי־נֹ֔חַ תְּשַׁ֤ע מֵאוֹת֙ שָׁנָ֔ה וַֽחֲמִשִּׁ֖ים שָׁנָ֑ה וַיָּמֹֽת׃

[18] The sons of Noah who came out of the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth – Ham being the father of Canaan.

[19] These three were the sons of Noah, and from these the whole world branched out.

[20] Noah, the tiller of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard.

[21] He drank of the wine and became drunk, and he uncovered himself within his tent.

[22] Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers outside.

[23] But Shem and Japheth took a cloth, placed it against both their backs and, walking backward, they covered their father’s nakedness; their faces were turned the other way, so that they did not see their father’s nakedness.

[24] When Noah woke up from his wine and learned what his youngest son had done to him,

[25] He said, “Cursed be Canaan; the lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.”

[26] And he said, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem; let Canaan be a slave to them.

[27] May God enlarge Japheth, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem; and let Canaan be a slave to them.”

[28] Noah lived after the Flood 350 years.

[29] And all the days of Noah came to 950 years; then he died.

[20] Noah, the tiller of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard Literally, “Noah, the man of the earth, began.” After the Flood, Noah restores man’s collaboration with the earth. He becomes the “man of the earth” who deals with the real problems of the world around him.

Noah … was the first to plant a vineyard Not only a vineyard is meant. Noah essentially restores agriculture in its entirety. The emphasis on grapes (wine) here indicates that Noah is not prepared to be satisfied with only the minimum requirements of life. His attitude is one of taking joy in life. And this is a positive thing.

[21] He … became drunk, and he uncovered himself within his tent However, too quick a transition to the positive can have exactly the opposite effect. The transition from detachment from the outside world (typical of Noah before the Flood) to engagement with the world (Noah after the Flood) happens too quickly, without proper preparation on Noah’s part, and this brings Noah to crisis and collapse. Noah himself can no longer rectify the situation – only his children can accomplish that.

[22] Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers outside. … [24] When Noah woke up from his wine and learned what his youngest son had done to him, [25] He said, “Cursed be Canaan; the lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers” Although Ham committed the act (a simple reading of the text would indicate that he is guilty of publicizing his father’s disgrace) it is Ham’s son Canaan who is cursed. Apparently, Canaan was the initiator of Ham’s actions.

[26] And he said, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem; let Canaan be a slave to them. [27] May God enlarge Japheth, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem The civilization of the Semitic peoples is based on two things: The concept of a “tent” (the ordering of proper relations among people, and especially closely related people; that is, ethics) and an in-depth understanding of Divinity, i.e., the fact that “the Lord is the God of Shem.”

The basis of the civilization of the Japhetic peoples is the concept of “expansiveness” – the expansion of territory and space, science and art, and aesthetics.

Among the descendants of Japheth, the above blessings manifest most prominently in the Greeks, and among the descendants of Shem – in the people of Israel . Today, thousands of years after Noah, we see the realization of these blessings. As concerns “conquering space” – in all senses of the term – and aesthetics, the Japhetic (European) nations are the leaders of humanity. But those same nations have adopted from the Jews everything that relates to the essential questions of ethics and religion. Indeed, in this sense “Japheth dwells in the tents of Shem.”

Chapter 7. The Meaning of the Flood

7.1. Defining the Problem: Did God Act Properly?

What is the meaning of the Flood? Why did it happen? And how did the world change as a result of the Flood?

The simple explanation – that people began to behave badly and God decided to punish and destroy them – is clearly not sufficient. Evil itself was not destroyed; even after the Flood the world is full of evil. Moreover, if it was simply a matter of God punishing the evildoers, then what He did was just too cruel – destroying all of mankind, the good and the bad, without distinction. Moreover, isn’t it God Himself Who creates people such as they are – good or bad? Where is Divine justice and mercy?

Note that from a religious point of view, we should not ignore our intuitive human sense of justice, to instead take the position that whatever God has decided is ipso facto just – by definition. On the contrary, Judaism views the intuitive human sense of justice as one of the manifestations of the image of God in man. Our need to seek and find justice in historical processes – that is, in God’s actions – is a fundamental religious sense. It is wrong to suppress that feeling.

Very often the source of the conflict between our conscience and the sacred texts is not that our moral sense is leading us astray (although that does in fact happen quite often). Rather, the source of the conflict is that we misunderstand the Torah. In order to advance in our understanding, we must not be afraid to pose difficult questions, and to delve into the themes of the Torah in search of the answers to those questions.

7.2. What did the flood accomplish, given that the human inclination to evil remained unchanged?

After the Flood, the evil inclination in man did not disappear, nor did it seem to have even changed at all.

The causes of the Flood are described in the Torah as follows: “The Lord saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time. And the Lord regretted that He had made man on earth, and His heart was saddened. The Lord said, ‘I will blot out from the earth the men whom I created – men together with beasts, creeping things, and birds of the sky; for I regret that I made them.’ But Noah found favor with the Lord” (6:5-8).

The above passage serves as a preface to the story of the Flood. People are mired in evil, and the thoughts entertained by the human heart are categorically “evil all the time.” Humanity must therefore be destroyed.

But even after the Flood the situation has still not changed much: “The Lord smelled the pleasing odor, and the Lord said to Himself: ‘Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living being, as I have done. So long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night shall not cease’” (8:21-22).

Thus, from the same premise – man’s inclination to evil – opposite conclusions are drawn. Before the Flood, man’s inclination to evil requires that he be destroyed. But after the Flood a completely different conclusion is drawn, namely, that because man is prone to evil, he must be allowed to live. How can we explain this 180-degree about-face? And was man after the Flood really the same as he had been before?

7.3. Did God actually regret having created man?

The Torah uses a rather strange expression to describe God’s decision to bring the Flood: “And the Lord regretted that he had made man on earth” (6:6). Do these words mean that God was disappointed in the human race, and He therefore decided to destroy them? Did God not know from the outset that things would turn out that way, or at least that they might? Applying to God the concept of regret seems strange to begin with. Nonetheless, the given passage (“The Lord regretted that he had made man”) is a key to understanding the causes of the Flood.

7.4. The Meaning of the Name “Noah”

Noah is the main character in the story of the Flood. The prophet Isaiah (54:9) calls the Flood the “waters of Noah,” which emphasizes his central role, and even his personal responsibility for what happened in the Flood.

Who was Noah?

The name “Noah” literally translates as “easy,” or “convenient.” But the Torah explains the name somewhat differently. “When Lamech had lived 182 years, he begot a son. And he named him Noah, saying, ‘This one will console us (yenahamenu) from our work and from the toil of our hands, out of the very soil which the Lord placed under a curse’” (5:28-29). Thus, Lamech derived the name “Noah” from the Hebrew root nachem, translated here as “(to) console.” Accordingly, Noah’s task is to “console humankind that suffers from their toil upon the earth that the Lord has cursed.” And that consolation was in fact realized when after the Flood God said: “Never again will I doom the earth because of man” (8:21).

Why did God curse the earth, and what was the nature of that curse?

7.5. The Curse of the Earth

Adam in the Garden of Eden was at such a level that with his knowledge and will he could directly control the Universe. After being expelled, he lost that initial level, but not entirely: his spiritual parameters remained directly connected to the outside world. Humans could no longer directly control the Universe with their spirituality, but the influence of that spirituality on the earth’s produce remained. And since humanity did not behave adequately, this influence was expressed not in a blessing, but in a curse.

As God expelled Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, He said the following words: “Cursed be the ground because of you” (3:17). When you work the land hoping to reap its produce, it will sprout for you only thorns and thistles.

Then, after Cain killed his brother Abel, the curse of the land further intensified: “Therefore, you shall be more cursed than the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. If you till the soil, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. You shall become a ceaseless wanderer on earth” (4:11-12).

But humanity continued to behave badly, with tensions in the relationship between man and the earth becoming critical.

The curse, then, is found in the ability of the land to punish a person for his crimes by producing “thistles and thorns” instead of a bountiful harvest. In other words, the earth then was morally sensitive, reacting to the moral level in man. A farmer in that era, to be successful, needed not only to understand the principles of agronomy – above all, he had to be a worthy human being.

That the earth would react so acutely to the level of human righteousness was not per se a bad thing. On the contrary, there was an increased level of opportunity – but that meant equally the ability to achieve blessings and the possibility of losing benefits. And since human behavior continued to spiral downward, those possibilities went in the direction of a “curse upon the earth.”

7.6. “Noah” as “Undoing the Curse”

The whole story about the Flood is built around the concept of nechamah, “consolation,” but the meaning of this concept requires further clarification. The expression nichum avelim, “consoling the mourners,” can serve as one example of the use of this concept. When a person’s close relative dies, friends and relatives come to comfort him. The purpose of this consolation is not to help the mourner to avoid confronting the reality of death, to distract him from his grief, or to make him forget about the dead. On the contrary, according to Jewish tradition, consoling a mourner means, above all, just to sit with the mourner in silence. Because for a mourner, being consoled means being reconciled to the reality of death. Consoling a mourner reconciles him with reality. And nechamah, as a general term, means being reconciled to some difficult reality.

Now we can better understand what Lamech meant when he spoke of consolation “from our work and from the toil of our hands, out of the very soil which the Lord placed under a curse” (5:29). “Consolation”, as we have just said, means to be reconciled with reality. Lamech is hoping that Noah will be able to reconcile God with the low moral level of man. By effecting this reconciliation, Noah will make our work easier, and will make life on earth easier, that is, it will make our lives more noach. “We are imperfect, so do not demand too much from us. Let the power of our influence on the earth be limited – otherwise the curse will only increase, and it will soon become impossible for anyone to live.”

In other words, had the Almighty not intervened, had He not sent the Flood to change the world, then this world would have collapsed on its own. The Flood was therefore not just an act of punishment, but an act of mercy. This is emphasized in the verse: “The Lord saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth… And the Lord said, “I will blot out from the earth the men whom I created” (6:5). Here “the Lord” is expressed in Hebrew using God’s four-letter name, the Tetragrammaton. The entire Flood story refers to God only as the “Lord”; that is, the Tetragrammaton is used throughout – which, as we have mentioned previously, is the Divine Name of mercy rather than of judgment. Divine Mercy intervened in the Flood story for the preservation of the Universe, so that man would not be allowed to destroy it.

7.7. Reconciliation with man

We can now better understand the verse which speaks of the causes of the Flood: “And the Lord regretted that He had made man on earth, and His heart was saddened.” (6:6). Since vayinnachem, “regretted,” derives from the same Hebrew root as nechamah, “consolation,” we can translate this verse as, “And the Lord was consoled, being reconciled with the fact that He made man on earth.”

God was reconciled to the fact that man could not cope with the immense power given to him, and that it is impossible to demand of him an immediately high level of morality. The situation therefore required God’s intervention and correction: weakening man’s connection with the earth, and reducing his level of influence on the world. God needed to be reconciled to the fact that man exists on earth such as he is. And therefore His heart was saddened.

The reason for that grief is not only that God had to destroy a whole generation of people, but – first and foremost – that it was necessary to reduce man’s level by depriving him of the ability to exert direct spiritual influence on the world around him, and by making the earth immune to the level of human righteousness. This restriction becomes yet another concealment of the Divine Countenance, and yet another level of exile that would follow immediately after Adam’s expulsion from the Garden. Ground level gets lower, and the Divine Presence (Sheñhinah) is further removed from our lower world and ascends to higher worlds.

When Adam was still in the Garden of Eden, the Divine Presence was “below,” i.e., it was obvious. With the expulsion from the Garden, the Divine Presence “rose upward.” And with the Flood, it rose yet higher, becoming even less tangible in the lower world. God became even more hidden from the world, and it was difficult for God, as it were, to make peace with that concealment. And exactly the same way, in the verse, “The Lord said, ‘I will blot out from the earth the men whom I created … for I regret that I made them’” (6:7), the word nichamti, “regretted,” “repented,” which one? has the meaning, “I am consoled and have made peace with their being that way, because I created them.”

God regretted and repented – in the sense that He reconciled with man’s weaknesses.

7.8. “Divine repentance” and the Internal Contradiction of Theology

Let us stop to examine once more the problem of saying that God repents, or changes His mind.

On the one hand, we find in Scripture (I Sam. 15:29) a statement that seems diametrically opposed to any such idea. “The Glory of Israel does not deceive or change His mind (repent), for He is not human that He should change His mind.” Theologically, the application of this concept to the Omniscient God, who knows the future in advance, is indeed problematic. But on the other hand, the Torah says of God many times that He changed His mind (i.e., His decision. Note in passing, that God’s repentance is explicitly discussed in the Book of Samuel (I Sam. 15:11), immediately before Samuel says of God that He does not repent. Thus, underscoring that “God does not repent” is a problem belonging to Samuel himself, and not regarding how we understand God).

How are we to reconcile this apparent contradiction? The answer, it seems, is that the Divine does not neatly fit into the formal structure of Boolean logic. Moreover, in our perception of God there inevitably are aspects that are logically incompatible. For the Divine is infinite, while our understanding – our every thought and concept – is finite and limited. No intellectual system is capable of embracing Divinity in its entirety; there will always be details that do not fit into any given scheme, and even logically contradict it.

Theology may try to resolve this contradiction by saying that God does not actually change His mind; it only appears so to us. In the story of the Golden Calf, for example (Exodus 32:14), after Moses prays for Israel , the Torah says “And the Lord renounced the punishment He had planned to bring upon His people” (but a word of the same root, hinachem, is used; literally, “and the Lord changed His mind”). As concerns the punishment of the Jewish people, theology might very well say that God was planning all along to forgive the Jews, and was only testing Moses, but the Torah uses the word vayinachem (“changed his mind”) because it is the way of the Torah to express ideas in conventional human terms.

The same explanation could probably be applied to virtually every instance where the Torah says that “God changed His mind.” However, theology’s smoothing over of the rough edges in this manner does not solve the original problem, because the question of why the Torah would say here that “God changed His mind” nonetheless remains, in spite of all the difficulties that such a statement entails.

The most plausible answer is that the Torah is written to serve, first and foremost, not as a philosophical treatise about God, but as a set of lessons for teaching us proper behavior in life. When the Torah says that “God changed His mind,” it wants to teach us that in orienting our thinking to man’s likeness to God, we can change our point of view in the course of life, just as God does. We should not consider our own change of position as a weakness, because, on the contrary, it indicates flexibility and a willingness to change. Since the world that God created is dynamic and always changing, any approach to the world would be inadequate if it did not give us the option to “change one’s mind.”

7.9. Correction by Flood

Thus, the Flood changed the system of relations between man and the world, and corrected and facilitated the future life of mankind. But that generation of people had to be destroyed, because they were incorrigible. God chose Noah to create a new line of humans, who would have limited possibilities to influence the world, but also would not have sufficient power to destroy the Universe.

In the generations from Adam to Noah, the world had collapsed and gone to ruin because the earth was responding to man’s spiritual level. The Flood was the only way to reverse this trend.

7.10. The Distortion of Justice and the Death of Society (6:11-13)

יא וַתִּשָּׁחֵ֥ת הָאָ֖רֶץ לִפְנֵ֣י הָֽאֱלֹהִ֑ים וַתִּמָּלֵ֥א הָאָ֖רֶץ חָמָֽס׃ יב וַיַּ֧רְא אֱלֹהִ֛ים אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ וְהִנֵּ֣ה נִשְׁחָ֑תָה כִּֽי־הִשְׁחִ֧ית כָּל־בָּשָׂ֛ר אֶת־דַּרְכּ֖וֹ עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃ יג וַיֹּ֨אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֜ים לְנֹ֗חַ קֵ֤ץ כָּל־בָּשָׂר֙ בָּ֣א לְפָנַ֔י כִּֽי־מָלְאָ֥ה הָאָ֛רֶץ חָמָ֖ס מִפְּנֵיהֶ֑ם וְהִנְנִ֥י מַשְׁחִיתָ֖ם אֶת־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

[11] The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with lawlessness.

[12] When God saw how corrupt the earth was, for all flesh had corrupted its ways on earth,

[13] God said to Noah, “I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth.

The whole passage is built around two key words: shachat – “depravity” or “perversion,” and chamas – “robbery” or “evildoing.” These words are repeated here in various derivative grammatical forms, forming the axis of the story.

Shachat is a crime against the Almighty: idolatry, sexual perversion, murder, and the like. Shachat (like chamas) means, first and foremost, such crimes that are considered the norm in a given society. The Midrash says: “Where there is shachat, all – both the ungodly and the righteous – are subject to destruction.” As a reaction to humans “corrupting their ways,” the punishment itself likewise “corrupts its ways,” that is, confusion comes to the world and punishment no longer distinguishes between the righteous and the ungodly. All are destroyed.

The reason that the righteous are punished along with the wicked in this way is that as a general rule, the righteous are judged not merely by their own by personal righteousness, but by the degree of their influence on society. Unlike the evildoer, who is required by God, to correct himself before anything else, a righteous person is expected to correct the world around him. The righteous are given greater spiritual powers, and are therefore responsible for others in their circle. In this sense, Noah was hardly a person of exalted stature.

Chamas, “evildoing,” means “crimes that are not viewed as crimes”; that is, situations of human behavior that is obviously criminal, and yet the given society does not perceive such actions as crimes. The Midrash cites various examples. These include continuously robbing people of small sums that the court will not deal with, and thus no one is ever held to account for the crime; “sale” by coercion – forcing something totally useless on the buyer, and taking his money “in payment for the goods”; or vice versa, when something valuable is taken by force from the “seller” and only token “compensation” is paid.

When people are abused but society considers it just business as usual, this is chamas. Such a society must die, because their deeds are not recognized as crimes, and therefore the impulse to repent never arises. That is why the crime of chamas has such terrible consequences.

An example of chamas can be seen in the story of Sodom. The dominant crime of the people of Sodom was not that they performed robbery and murder (for this happens everywhere). Rather, the gravity of the crime was that such acts were deemed in that society to be perfectly normal. Had there been individuals among them bemoaning Sodom’s sins and calling others to repentance, the situation could have been salvaged. Even if those reformers were not heard at that moment, repentance would have been possible in principle at least, and the city could have been spared from death.

Even in evil societies there were righteous individuals: Lot in Sodom, and Noah in the generation of the Flood. But Lot and Noah kept silent, for they were personally incapable of denouncing the crimes of their fellow citizens or standing up to them, and they therefore could not save their respective societies.

And so, says the Midrash, Noah too deserved death, and was spared only by God’s mercy. “But Noah found favor with the Lord” (6:8). Noah was saved only because he found favor with God, and not because he deserved to be saved as a matter of strict justice. Noah did not himself effect salvation – he was only the object of salvation, because he was indispensable for the next stage of human development.

7.11. Noah and Abraham: Two Kinds of Righteousness (6:9)

ט אֵ֚לֶּה תּֽוֹלְדֹ֣ת נֹ֔חַ נֹ֗חַ אִ֥ישׁ צַדִּ֛יק תָּמִ֥ים הָיָ֖ה בְּדֹֽרֹתָ֑יו אֶת־הָֽאֱלֹהִ֖ים הִֽתְהַלֶּךְ־נֹֽחַ׃

[9] This is the line of Noah. – Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God.

When we compare Noah to other righteous men in the Torah, we see a huge difference. We are told repeatedly about Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses that they have “merit” – a huge legacy of righteousness that continues to exert positive influence on us today, even after almost four thousand years. But with Noah the situation is different. He was saved not on his own merits, but only because the Almighty condescended to spare him. Noah deserved to die in the Flood, and was saved only by God’s grace.

As we have already noted, Abraham walked “before (that is, ahead of) God” (17:1, see commentary). But Noah only “walked with God,” alongside Him.

Noah “walked with God” – as a child walks alongside the parent, veering neither to the right nor to the left. The Midrash notes that Noah refused to communicate with the evildoers of his generation. Indeed, he fulfilled the letter of the law, but no more than that. Noah was concerned only with his own personal righteousness. He was not engaged in correcting the outside world.

Jewish tradition calls this kind of person “a righteous man in a fur coat” (in Yiddish, tsaddik im peltz). Instead of building a fire to warm himself and everyone else – as Abraham did when he carried the idea of ​​God to humanity – a tsaddik im peltz dons a fur coat, thus warming only himself. The “righteous man in a fur coat” is by no means an egoist – he will of course not refuse anyone who appeals to him for help, although on his own initiative he shows little zeal for the sake of others. But the Torah expects such self-sacrifice from those who have been given the distinction of being considered righteous.

When God tells Noah to build the Ark for himself and his family, Noah fully obeys the order. He is not indignant on behalf of the human race; he does not argue with God. He does not say: “What do you mean? Are you really going to destroy the entire human race? No, let’s instead help them mend their ways.” Noah does or says nothing of the kind, he simply accepts the Divine Judgment. Because God is great, right? And His decisions are therefore always just.

That kind of passivity is the approach of the “righteous man in a fur coat”. It is the sin of the righteous.

Abraham behaves differently. When God informs Abraham of His intentions to destroy Sodom, Abraham raises his objections to God – vehemently and persistently! “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? What if there should be fifty innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly? … What if the fifty innocent should lack five? Will You destroy the whole city for want of the five?” … “What if forty should be found there?” … What if thirty should be found there?” … What if twenty should be found there?” … What if ten should be found there?” (18:23-32).

Abraham argues with God, but Noah passively and docilely accepts everything God tells him. Abraham therefore walks “before God,” but Noah is only “with God.” By demanding the Almighty to show mercy, Abraham actively brings salvation to the world; he is himself the initiator and the cause of salvation. But Noah does nothing but obey. Noah is therefore only the “object” of salvation.

Of course, God is just and all His decisions are just. But He has also given us morally sensitive souls for the very purpose of arguing with God when we feel that the issues warrant it. When a person argues persuasively, God changes his decision, because when man steps up to argue, that itself shows that change has already taken place in the world. We see an example of this in God’s dialogue with Moses in the incident of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32:14). This is the only way that God can raise us, as human beings, to ever higher levels of personal development – by encouraging and requiring us to debate, disagree, and discuss.

7.12. Building the Ark as an Attempt to Influence Humanity

Noah’s Ark is described in the Torah as follows: “The length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, its width fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits. Make an opening for daylight in the ark, and terminate it within a cubit of the top … make it with bottom, second, and third decks” (6:15).

Thus, Noah’s ark was no ordinary ship, but a floating three-story pyramid. The Midrash describes the ark as a completely autonomous structure. The lower level was where foodstuffs were kept, and animal waste was stored. The animals inhabited the middle level, and the upper level is where Noah and his family lived.

Clearly, the purpose of the ark was not only to save Noah and the animals. God commanded Noah to build that huge floating hulk as a last attempt to save all of humanity from annihilation.

God informed Noah of the upcoming flood 120 years in advance. “The Lord said, “My breath shall not abide in man forever, since he too is flesh; let the days allowed him be one hundred and twenty years” (6:3). He then immediately ordered Noah to begin building the ark. For all those 120 years Noah was engaged in a highly unusual job, during which time he also had to answer questions from perplexed citizens about the future flood that would destroy humanity because it was leading an unseemly life.

Noah’s actions created conflict and placed him at the center of public debate. Thus, the purpose of constructing the ark was not only to rescue Noah; rather (and even more so), it was an attempt to reeducate the people. God charged Noah with going out to the people, and making efforts to reform humanity.

The futility of that attempt was not a foregone conclusion by any means. Quite the contrary, the attempt was fraught with hope that the people would listen to Noah and try to improve, and then there would have been no need for a flood. According to the Midrash, the Almighty had predetermined that a very great abundance of water would pour down on the earth that year. The only question was, would it be waters of blessing and Torah wisdom (for the Torah is compared to water), or would it be flood waters that would purge and destroy? The answer depended only on what mankind would choose – righteousness or evil.

7.13. Why did the Flood last an entire year? (7:23-24)

כג וַיִּ֜מַח אֶֽת־כָּל־הַיְק֣וּם ׀ אֲשֶׁ֣ר ׀ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י הָֽאֲדָמָ֗ה מֵֽאָדָ֤ם עַד־בְּהֵמָה֙ עַד־רֶ֨מֶשׂ֙ וְעַד־ע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וַיִּמָּח֖וּ מִן־הָאָ֑רֶץ וַיִּשָּׁ֧אֶר אַךְ־נֹ֛חַ וַֽאֲשֶׁ֥ר אִתּ֖וֹ בַּתֵּבָֽה׃ כד וַיִּגְבְּר֥וּ הַמַּ֖יִם עַל־הָאָ֑רֶץ חֲמִשִּׁ֥ים וּמְאַ֖ת יֽוֹם׃

[23] All existence on earth was blotted out–man, cattle, creeping things, and birds of the sky; they were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those with him in the ark.

[24] And when the waters had swelled on the earth one hundred and fifty days,

In addition to the many decades Noah spent constructing the ark, the time that the ark continued to sail on the floodwaters also served the same purpose of reeducating Noah. An hour would have been quite sufficient for the Flood to destroy all living things on earth, but the flood lasted much, much longer – almost a year. Why, after all life outside the ark had already been destroyed, did Noah have to sail the waves for almost another whole year? And what was Noah doing in the ark all that time?

We have already noted that the word “ah,” “only,” used in verse 23 can also mean “hardly,” or “barely,” The verse can thus be translated differently: “Noah just barely remained alive with others who were in the ark.” Noah himself was barely alive, and could easily have died.

The Midrash explains that Noah and his family spent an entire year in the ark tending to the needs of the animals. They ran up and down the levels of the ark, carrying food to the animals and cleaning up behind them. Noah delayed on one occasion and was late in feeding the lion, whereupon the lion became incensed and mauled Noah almost to the point of death.

Thus, the ark was for Noah not only a refuge from the Flood, but a place of correction resembling a forced-labor camp. For Noah, a righteous man preoccupied exclusively with himself, the primary aspect of the correction was the lesson of taking responsibility for the entire world (which at that time was the ark). When Noah learned this lesson, after living in the ark for a full year, the Flood ended.

7.14. Suspension of Life in the Ark and the Reeducation of Noah

יח וַהֲקִֽמֹתִ֥י אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֖י אִתָּ֑ךְ וּבָאתָ֙ אֶל־הַתֵּבָ֔ה אַתָּ֕ה וּבָנֶ֛יךָ וְאִשְׁתְּךָ֥ וּנְשֵֽׁי־בָנֶ֖יךָ אִתָּֽךְ׃

(6:18) But I will establish My covenant with you, and you shall enter the ark, with your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives.

יג בְּעֶ֨צֶם הַיּ֤וֹם הַזֶּה֙ בָּ֣א נֹ֔חַ וְשֵׁם־וְחָ֥ם וָיֶ֖פֶת בְּנֵי־נֹ֑חַ וְאֵ֣שֶׁת נֹ֗חַ וּשְׁלֹ֧שֶׁת נְשֵֽׁי־בָנָ֛יו אִתָּ֖ם אֶל־הַתֵּבָֽה׃

(7:13) That same day Noah and Noah’s sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth, went into the ark, with Noah’s wife and the three wives of his sons –

טז צֵ֖א מִן־הַתֵּבָ֑ה אַתָּ֕ה וְאִשְׁתְּךָ֛ וּבָנֶ֥יךָ וּנְשֵֽׁי־בָנֶ֖יךָ אִתָּֽךְ׃

(8:16) “Come out of the ark, together with your wife, your sons, and your sons’ wives.

יח וַיֵּ֖צֵא־נֹ֑חַ וּבָנָ֛יו וְאִשְׁתּ֥וֹ וּנְשֵֽׁי־בָנָ֖יו אִתּֽוֹ׃

(8:18) So Noah came out, together with his sons, his wife, and his sons’ wives.

א וַיְבָ֣רֶךְ אֱלֹהִ֔ים אֶת־נֹ֖חַ וְאֶת־בָּנָ֑יו וַיֹּ֧אמֶר לָהֶ֛ם פְּר֥וּ וּרְב֖וּ וּמִלְא֥וּ אֶת־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

(9:1) God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, “Be fertile and increase, and fill the earth.

The Flood was more than just water covering the earth. The flood suspended the normal functioning of the entire world, a hiatus that was necessary for transforming the world and for creating a whole new “breed” of man. This finds expression, specifically, in the cessation of married family life in the ark. We have already mentioned that men and women had to enter the ark separately (6:18). And as long as they were in the ark, the men lived separately from the women.

But when the time came to leave the ark, the men and women were told to do so together (8:16). Thus, intimate relations that had to be suspended during the Flood were now once again permitted. However, although God instructed Noah and his family to emerge from the ark in pairs, they were afraid of returning to normal family life, and they therefore left the Ark just as they had lived in it (8:18) – men and women separately. God therefore renewed for them the Divine command to “be fruitful and multiply” (9:1).

Another aspect of the suspension of nature during the Flood is derived by the Midrash from the following verse: “So long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night shall not cease” (8:22). The Midrash explains that the normal cycles of time would never cease after the Flood, but during the Flood those cycles – summer and winter, day and night, and so on – were in fact suspended.

The normal rhythms of life were suspended even inside the ark, for as already mentioned, the women neither conceived nor gave birth inside the ark, just as summer and winter, night and day were suspended outside of it. Noah and his family were reeducated in the ark, and the nature of the earth was suspended and reorganized outside the ark.

Food was first stored on the ground floor, which is where Noah also dumped animal waste. He could not simply throw that waste off the ark, because the ark was an autonomous entity, completely separated from the outside world. The whole world was reduced to the size of an ark, so that Noah could learn to take care of others.

When the whole world found itself literally “in the same boat” with him, Noah was able to realize the importance of loving one’s neighbor. In the ark, Noah gained a new understanding of righteousness as responsibility for others. Only after that did the space of the ark expand back to the full size of the earth.

The verse preceding the end of the Flood says: “God remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the cattle that were with him in the ark” (8:1). What is the meaning of “God remembered”? Does God ever forget anything? Obviously not. But “remembered” means, simply, that the time had come for God to have Noah exit from the ark onto dry land, since Noah had now sufficiently corrected himself such that any new flood could be avoided.

7.15. After the Flood (8:20-21)

כ וַיִּ֥בֶן נֹ֛חַ מִזְבֵּ֖חַ לַֽי֑י וַיִּקַּ֞ח מִכֹּ֣ל ׀ הַבְּהֵמָ֣ה הַטְּהֹרָ֗ה וּמִכֹּל֙ הָע֣וֹף הַטָּה֔וֹר וַיַּ֥עַל עֹלֹ֖ת בַּמִּזְבֵּֽחַ׃ כא וַיָּ֣רַח יי֮ אֶת־רֵ֣יחַ הַנִּיחֹחַ֒ וַיֹּ֨אמֶר י֜י אֶל־לִבּ֗וֹ לֹֽא־אֹ֠סִף לְקַלֵּ֨ל ע֤וֹד אֶת־הָֽאֲדָמָה֙ בַּֽעֲב֣וּר הָֽאָדָ֔ם כִּ֠י יֵ֣צֶר לֵ֧ב הָֽאָדָ֛ם רַ֖ע מִנְּעֻרָ֑יו וְלֹֽא־אֹסִ֥ף ע֛וֹד לְהַכּ֥וֹת אֶת־כָּל־חַ֖י כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשִֽׂיתִי׃

[20] Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and, taking of every clean animal and of every clean bird, he offered burnt offerings on the altar.

[21] The Lord smelled the pleasing odor, and the Lord said to Himself: “Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living being, as I have done.

After leaving the ark, Noah, before doing anything else, offered a sacrifice.

The Torah distinguishes between several different types of sacrifices. Here Noah’s sacrifice is “burnt offerings” that are entirely burned on the altar. This kind of sacrifice is brought as a sign of “replacing oneself,” a symbol of understanding that the person himself should have been sacrificed, rather than the animal, and that only the mercy of the Almighty allows him to continue to live.

Thus the burnt offering testifies that Noah was aware that his salvation was an act of Divine mercy. Noah understood that he was not saved on his own merits, nor as a reward for having executed divine orders. He is not saved because of something he did in the past, but for the sake of something that lay in the future – creating a new humanity, for whom life is impossible without concern for one’s fellow man. Now that Noah understands this, he can be allowed to leave the ark.

[21] The Lord smelled the pleasing odorGod confirmed that Noah had reached the required level of understanding.

[21] Never again will I doom the earthThe high level of connection with the earth that man previously had is no more. In Noah was realized (albeit in a completely different way than was originally expected) the prophetic prayer of his father Lamech: to comfort, simplify, and reconcile with the world. Noah realized his name by making the world more “simple and convenient.” But the price that had to be paid for this simplicity was the Flood.

Perhaps the lesson for us today is that we should not complain about life being too complicated. The desire to have an easier life can lead directly to a Flood or some other catastrophe.

7.16. The Meaning of the Word mabbul, “Flood” (6:17)

יז וַֽאֲנִ֗י הִנְנִי֩ מֵבִ֨יא אֶת־הַמַּבּ֥וּל מַ֨יִם֙ עַל־הָאָ֔רֶץ לְשַׁחֵ֣ת כָּל־בָּשָׂ֗ר אֲשֶׁר־בּוֹ֙ ר֣וּחַ חַיִּ֔ים מִתַּ֖חַת הַשָּׁמָ֑יִם כֹּ֥ל אֲשֶׁר־בָּאָ֖רֶץ יִגְוָֽע׃

[17] “For My part, I am about to bring the Flood – waters upon the earth – to destroy all flesh under the sky in which there is breath of life; everything on earth shall perish.”

[17] I am about to bring the Flood-waters upon the earthAfter the word “Flood” there is an addition for the sake of refinement, “water on the earth.” This means that the mabbul, the Flood, is not the same as any other simple inundation of water. Water is only one of the parameters, and the Flood itself is something quite unique.

In Hebrew, mabbul is associated with the root beit-lamed, from which are derived, for example, the words balal and bilbel – “confuse” and “mix,” as well as the name Bavel, Babylon (“because there the Lord confounded the speech of the whole earth” – 11:9), and the verb bala – to decay.

What is the significance of the concept of decay? When a thing is new, it has both coarse and fine structure. Take clothing as an example. It has not only sleeves and pockets, but also finishing, details, and patterns. When clothing decays, it retains a coarse structure, but loses its subtleties and details, and becomes more “simple.” This loss of fine structure, which results in the intermingling of everything into one confused mass, is the general meaning of the bet-lamed root.

Thus, the mabbul, the Flood, is the destruction of the “fine structure” of the Universe. The fine structure of the earth means its susceptibility to the level of human righteousness. This is what was destroyed in the Flood. Inundation by water was only a means to realizing the Flood itself. Only the water was predetermined. But it then turned into death by causing drowning, because of the sins of the people.

Since the Flood destroyed man’s spiritual influence on the earth, God will have no need to destroy the world again, and He promises that there will be never be another flood. We can now understand the meaning of “Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth” (8:21). Although man is still prone to evil even after the Flood, he no longer has such a formidable ability to influence the world. Because the “thin structure” of man’s interaction with the earth is no longer effective, the world cannot be completely destroyed, and a situation requiring almost total destruction of humanity is no longer possible.

7.17. The Rainbow in the Cloud (9:13-17)

יג אֶת־קַשְׁתִּ֕י נָתַ֖תִּי בֶּֽעָנָ֑ן וְהָֽיְתָה֙ לְא֣וֹת בְּרִ֔ית בֵּינִ֖י וּבֵ֥ין הָאָֽרֶץ׃ יד וְהָיָ֕ה בְּעַֽנְנִ֥י עָנָ֖ן עַל־הָאָ֑רֶץ וְנִרְאֲתָ֥ה הַקֶּ֖שֶׁת בֶּֽעָנָֽן׃ טו וְזָֽכַרְתִּ֣י אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֗י אֲשֶׁ֤ר בֵּינִי֙ וּבֵ֣ינֵיכֶ֔ם וּבֵ֛ין כָּל־נֶ֥פֶשׁ חַיָּ֖ה בְּכָל־בָּשָׂ֑ר וְלֹֽא־יִֽהְיֶ֨ה ע֤וֹד הַמַּ֨יִם֙ לְמַבּ֔וּל לְשַׁחֵ֖ת כָּל־בָּשָֽׂר׃ טז וְהָֽיְתָ֥ה הַקֶּ֖שֶׁת בֶּֽעָנָ֑ן וּרְאִיתִ֗יהָ לִזְכֹּר֙ בְּרִ֣ית עוֹלָ֔ם בֵּ֣ין אֱלֹהִ֔ים וּבֵין֙ כָּל־נֶ֣פֶשׁ חַיָּ֔ה בְּכָל־בָּשָׂ֖ר אֲשֶׁ֥ר עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃ יז וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶל־נֹ֑חַ זֹ֤את אֽוֹת־הַבְּרִית֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר הֲקִמֹ֔תִי בֵּינִ֕י וּבֵ֥ין כָּל־בָּשָׂ֖ר אֲשֶׁ֥ר עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

[13] I have set My bow in the clouds, and it shall serve as a sign of the covenant between Me and the earth.

[14] When I bring clouds over the earth, and the bow appears in the clouds,

[15] I will remember My covenant between Me and you and every living creature among all flesh, so that the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.

[16] When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures, all flesh that is on earth.

[17] “That,” God said to Noah, “shall be the sign of the covenant that I have established between Me and all flesh that is on earth.”

The rainbow in particular is chosen as a sign of the covenant, because its colors are the entire spectrum from red to indigo-violet. In Hebrew, adom, “red,” is associated with the word adamah, “earth,” which represents the lower levels of being, or materiality. The indigo-violet techelet, which is also associated with the word tachlit, “goal” (striving toward something higher), is the color of the sky, and also the color of the blue thread that must be woven as tassels on the corners of four-cornered garments (Num. 15:37 ff.), symbolizing the goal that leads a person to the Almighty (See Numbers 15:37 and commentaries there).

The rainbow extends from adom to techelet, from the low, material level to the high and spiritual, and thus symbolizes many facets of the new post-Flood humanity. It is as if the Almighty were saying: “I have reconciled with man’s imperfections. I have removed his special powers; now let him be multi-faceted. There are the evildoers and there are the righteous. For the sake of the righteous I must not destroy the evildoers. Humanity is now a multi-faceted, polychromatic community.”

An important question arises in this connection: Where was the rainbow before the Flood? Were rainbows perhaps not seen then at all? Or did they appear, but were simply not yet a symbol of God’s covenant? Although in Jewish tradition we find both approaches, most opinions agree that before the Flood rainbows did not exist.

The world before the Flood was, in a sense, black and white. Evil was then so powerful that every human being was either a villain or a righteous man. And Noah, who was righteous but only relatively speaking, was nonetheless in the world of all black and white considered completely pure. But at the same time, he was truly limited.

After the Flood, the world went from monochrome to color, and everything was far less unambiguous. The rainbow is a symbol of this diversity.

7.18. Noah and His Sons in the New World (9:20-23)

כ וַיָּ֥חֶל נֹ֖חַ אִ֣ישׁ הָֽאֲדָמָ֑ה וַיִּטַּ֖ע כָּֽרֶם׃ כא וַיֵּ֥שְׁתְּ מִן־הַיַּ֖יִן וַיִּשְׁכָּ֑ר וַיִּתְגַּ֖ל בְּת֥וֹךְ אָֽהֳלֹֽה׃ כב וַיַּ֗רְא חָ֚ם אֲבִ֣י כְנַ֔עַן אֵ֖ת עֶרְוַ֣ת אָבִ֑יו וַיַּגֵּ֥ד לִשְׁנֵֽי־אֶחָ֖יו בַּחֽוּץ׃ כג וַיִּקַּח֩ שֵׁ֨ם וָיֶ֜פֶת אֶת־הַשִּׂמְלָ֗ה וַיָּשִׂ֨ימוּ֙ עַל־שְׁכֶ֣ם שְׁנֵיהֶ֔ם וַיֵּֽלְכוּ֙ אֲחֹ֣רַנִּ֔ית וַיְכַסּ֕וּ אֵ֖ת עֶרְוַ֣ת אֲבִיהֶ֑ם וּפְנֵיהֶם֙ אֲחֹ֣רַנִּ֔ית וְעֶרְוַ֥ת אֲבִיהֶ֖ם לֹ֥א רָאֽוּ׃

[20] Noah, the tiller of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard.

[21] He drank of the wine and became drunk, and he uncovered himself within his tent.

[22] Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers outside.

[23] But Shem and Japheth took a cloth, placed it against both their backs and, walking backward, they covered their father’s nakedness; their faces were turned the other way, so that they did not see their father’s nakedness.

[20] Noah, the tiller of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyardNoah began with an action that what was fully permissible – we could even say it was a positively motivated action. He planted a vineyard, made wine, and drank. All of that is permissible. But then he quickly met his downfall, for his actions crossed the line into the unlawful.

The problem was that Noah could not hold his own in a multicolored world, where there is a sea of ​​intermediate shades and everything is ambiguous. Noah could remain righteous only in the simplest possible world, where everything is unambiguously either black or white.

[23] But Shem and Japheth took a cloth, placed it against both their backs and, walking backward, covered their father’s nakedness; their faces were turned the other way, so that they did not see their father’s nakednessShem and Japheth, unlike their father Noah, are people of a different, new world. What’s going on here? A son hears that his father lies naked in his tent. What should be done? It all seems simple enough: grab a cloth and go and cover him. Shem and Japheth, however, do not act “simply.” They give thought to the details and the consequences, they check their own behavior, and they therefore walk backwards, turning their faces away.

Noah’s sons understand that in a complex, ambiguous world it is very easy to gravitate from what is right to what is wrong. Thus, they personify a new kind of righteousness that has staying power in this new, more complex, multifaceted world.

7.19. The Flood and the Land of Israel

According to the Midrash, although the Flood affected the entire world, there was one place that was untouched by the ravages of the Flood: the Land of Israel. Yes, there was an inundation of water there, even a flood, but there was no mabbul (see 13.16) in the Holy Land that muddled and erased the “fine structure.” To this very day, the Land of Israel remains an “antediluvian” country.

This means that the pre-Flood ability of the earth to respond to the spiritual state of society has been preserved in the Land of Israel (and only there). And precisely in this does the sanctity of the Holy Land lie. Although this property does not manifest itself as clearly as it did everywhere before the Flood, here the earth itself perceives the holiness of society and of man, and materializes it.

If the Jewish people – to whom alone the Land of Israel truly reacts – start to behave incorrectly, then the Earth stops producing crops, and it proceeds to expel its inhabitants (a circumstance that is analogous to God’s expulsion of humanity from the earth during the Flood). Only when the Jews in exile correct their behavior does the land take them back and restore their crops.

Chapter 8. Descendants of Noah’s Sons

8.1. The Descendants of Japheth (10:1-5)

א וְאֵ֨לֶּה֙ תּֽוֹלְדֹ֣ת בְּנֵי־נֹ֔חַ שֵׁ֖ם חָ֣ם וָיָ֑פֶת וַיִּוָּֽלְד֥וּ לָהֶ֛ם בָּנִ֖ים אַחַ֥ר הַמַּבּֽוּל׃ ב בְּנֵ֣י יֶ֔פֶת גֹּ֣מֶר וּמָג֔וֹג וּמָדַ֖י וְיָוָ֣ן וְתֻבָ֑ל וּמֶ֖שֶׁךְ וְתִירָֽס׃ ג וּבְנֵ֖י גֹּ֑מֶר אַשְׁכְּנַ֥ז וְרִיפַ֖ת וְתֹֽגַרְמָֽה׃ ד וּבְנֵ֥י יָוָ֖ן אֱלִישָׁ֣ה וְתַרְשִׁ֑ישׁ כִּתִּ֖ים וְדֹֽדָנִֽים׃ ה מֵ֠אֵלֶּה נִפְרְד֞וּ אִיֵּ֤י הַגּוֹיִם֙ בְּאַרְצֹתָ֔ם אִ֖ישׁ לִלְשֹׁנ֑וֹ לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָ֖ם בְּגֽוֹיֵהֶֽם׃

[1] These are the lines of Shem, Ham, and Japheth, the sons of Noah: sons were born to them after the Flood.

[2] The descendants of Japheth: Gomer, Magog, Madai, Javan, Tubal, Meshech, and Tiras.

[3] The descendants of Gomer: Ashkenaz, Riphath, and Togarmah.

[4] The descendants of Javan: Elishah and Tarshish, the Kittim and the Dodanim.

[5] From these the maritime nations branched out. [These are the descendants of Japheth] by their lands – each with its language – their clans and their nations.

[1] Sons were born to them after the FloodThis is not mere chronological information (since we already know that before the Flood Noah’s sons had no children). Rather, it is an indication of the new, post-Flood character of the new humanity.

[5] By their lands – each with its language – their clans and their nationsThe dispersal of nations occurred immediately after the Flood, even before the incident of the Tower of Babel. Already then, every nation had its own land and its own language. The same is said about the sons of Ham and Shem (10:20 and 10:32).

8.2. The Descendants of Ham (10:6-20)

ו וּבְנֵ֖י חָ֑ם כּ֥וּשׁ וּמִצְרַ֖יִם וּפ֥וּט וּכְנָֽעַן׃ ז וּבְנֵ֣י כ֔וּשׁ סְבָא֙ וַֽחֲוִילָ֔ה וְסַבְתָּ֥ה וְרַעְמָ֖ה וְסַבְתְּכָ֑א וּבְנֵ֥י רַעְמָ֖ה שְׁבָ֥א וּדְדָֽן׃ ח וְכ֖וּשׁ יָלַ֣ד אֶת־נִמְרֹ֑ד ה֣וּא הֵחֵ֔ל לִֽהְי֥וֹת גִּבֹּ֖ר בָּאָֽרֶץ׃ ט הֽוּא־הָיָ֥ה גִבֹּֽר־צַ֖יִד לִפְנֵ֣י י֑י עַל־כֵּן֙ יֵֽאָמַ֔ר כְּנִמְרֹ֛ד גִּבּ֥וֹר צַ֖יִד לִפְנֵ֥י יֽי׃ י וַתְּהִ֨י רֵאשִׁ֤ית מַמְלַכְתּוֹ֙ בָּבֶ֔ל וְאֶ֖רֶךְ וְאַכַּ֣ד וְכַלְנֵ֑ה בְּאֶ֖רֶץ שִׁנְעָֽר׃ יא מִן־הָאָ֥רֶץ הַהִ֖וא יָצָ֣א אַשּׁ֑וּר וַיִּ֨בֶן֙ אֶת־נִ֣ינְוֵ֔ה וְאֶת־רְחֹבֹ֥ת עִ֖יר וְאֶת־כָּֽלַח׃ יב וְֽאֶת־רֶ֔סֶן בֵּ֥ין נִֽינְוֵ֖ה וּבֵ֣ין כָּ֑לַח הִ֖וא הָעִ֥יר הַגְּדֹלָֽה׃ יג וּמִצְרַ֡יִם יָלַ֞ד אֶת־לוּדִ֧ים וְאֶת־עֲנָמִ֛ים וְאֶת־לְהָבִ֖ים וְאֶת־נַפְתֻּחִֽים׃ יד וְֽאֶת־פַּתְרֻסִ֞ים וְאֶת־כַּסְלֻחִ֗ים אֲשֶׁ֨ר יָֽצְא֥וּ מִשָּׁ֛ם פְּלִשְׁתִּ֖ים וְאֶת־כַּפְתֹּרִֽים׃ טו וּכְנַ֗עַן יָלַ֛ד אֶת־צִידֹ֥ן בְּכֹר֖וֹ וְאֶת־חֵֽת׃ טז וְאֶת־הַיְבוּסִי֙ וְאֶת־הָ֣אֱמֹרִ֔י וְאֵ֖ת הַגִּרְגָּשִֽׁי׃ יז וְאֶת־הַֽחִוִּ֥י וְאֶת־הַֽעַרְקִ֖י וְאֶת־הַסִּינִֽי׃ יח וְאֶת־הָֽאַרְוָדִ֥י וְאֶת־הַצְּמָרִ֖י וְאֶת־הַֽחֲמָתִ֑י וְאַחַ֣ר נָפֹ֔צוּ מִשְׁפְּח֖וֹת הַֽכְּנַעֲנִֽי׃ יט וַיְהִ֞י גְּב֤וּל הַֽכְּנַעֲנִי֙ מִצִּידֹ֔ן בֹּֽאֲכָ֥ה גְרָ֖רָה עַד־עַזָּ֑ה בֹּֽאֲכָ֞ה סְדֹ֧מָה וַֽעֲמֹרָ֛ה וְאַדְמָ֥ה וּצְבֹיִ֖ם עַד־לָֽשַׁע׃ כ אֵ֣לֶּה בְנֵי־חָ֔ם לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָ֖ם לִלְשֹֽׁנֹתָ֑ם בְּאַרְצֹתָ֖ם בְּגֽוֹיֵהֶֽם׃

[6] The descendants of Ham: Cush , Mizraim, Put, and Canaan.

[7] The descendants of Cush : Seba, Havilah, Sabtah, Raamah, and Sabteca. The descendants of Raamah: Sheba and Dedan.

[8] Cush also begot Nimrod, who was the first man of might on earth.

[9] He was a mighty hunter by the grace of the Lord; hence the saying, “Like Nimrod a mighty hunter by the grace of the Lord”.

[10] The mainstays of his kingdom were Babylon, Erech, Accad, and Calneh in the land of Shinar.

[11] From that land Asshur went forth and built Nineveh, Rehoboth-ir, Calah,

[12] and Resen between Nineveh and Calah, that is the great city.

[13] And Mizraim begot the Ludim, the Anamim, the Lehabim, the Naphtuhim,

[14] the Pathrusim, the Casluhim, and the Caphtorim, whence the Philistines came forth.

[15] Canaan begot Sidon, his first-born, and Heth;

[16] and the Jebusites, the Amorites, the Girgashites,

[17] the Hivites, the Arkites, the Sinites,

[18] the Arvadites, the Zemarites, and the Hamathites. Afterward the clans of the Canaanites spread out.

[19] (The [original] Canaanite territory extended from Sidon as far as Gerar, near Gaza, and as far as Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboiim, near Lasha.

[20] These are the descendants of Ham, according to their clans and languages, by their lands and nations.

[8] Cush also begot Nimrod, who was the first man of might on earthThis is the first time in the Torah that a given person is described as being superior to others.

[9] He was a mighty hunter by the grace of the Lord Nimrod, at least in the beginning, saw his abilities as a gift from the Almighty. From this passage he does not appear to have “led a rebellion against God”, as the Midrash depicts him.

[10] The mainstays of his kingdom were Babylon… Having gained an advantage over other people, Nimrod immediately became king, that is, he had power over others.

In the land of Shinar A little later (11:2), we are told that the Tower of Babel was built “in the land of Shinar”. The Midrash therefore identifies Nimrod as the construction manager for the Tower of Babel.

[11] From that land Asshur went forth Not everyone was prepared to obey Nimrod in Babylon, which was located in the southern part of Mesopotamia. Assyria occupied its northern territory.

8.3. Shem’s Descendants (10:21-32)

כא וּלְשֵׁ֥ם יֻלַּ֖ד גַּם־ה֑וּא אֲבִי֙ כָּל־בְּנֵי־עֵ֔בֶר אֲחִ֖י יֶ֥פֶת הַגָּדֽוֹל׃ כב בְּנֵ֥י שֵׁ֖ם עֵילָ֣ם וְאַשּׁ֑וּר וְאַרְפַּכְשַׁ֖ד וְל֥וּד וַֽאֲרָֽם׃ כג וּבְנֵ֖י אֲרָ֑ם ע֥וּץ וְח֖וּל וְגֶ֥תֶר וָמַֽשׁ׃ כד וְאַרְפַּכְשַׁ֖ד יָלַ֣ד אֶת־שָׁ֑לַח וְשֶׁ֖לַח יָלַ֥ד אֶת־עֵֽבֶר׃ כה וּלְעֵ֥בֶר יֻלַּ֖ד שְׁנֵ֣י בָנִ֑ים שֵׁ֣ם הָֽאֶחָ֞ד פֶּ֗לֶג כִּ֤י בְיָמָיו֙ נִפְלְגָ֣ה הָאָ֔רֶץ וְשֵׁ֥ם אָחִ֖יו יָקְטָֽן׃ כו וְיָקְטָ֣ן יָלַ֔ד אֶת־אַלְמוֹדָ֖ד וְאֶת־שָׁ֑לֶף וְאֶת־חֲצַרְמָ֖וֶת וְאֶת־יָֽרַח׃ כז וְאֶת־הֲדוֹרָ֥ם וְאֶת־אוּזָ֖ל וְאֶת־דִּקְלָֽה׃ כח וְאֶת־עוֹבָ֥ל וְאֶת־אֲבִֽימָאֵ֖ל וְאֶת־שְׁבָֽא׃ כט וְאֶת־אוֹפִ֥ר וְאֶת־חֲוִילָ֖ה וְאֶת־יוֹבָ֑ב כָּל־אֵ֖לֶּה בְּנֵ֥י יָקְטָֽן׃ ל וַיְהִ֥י מֽוֹשָׁבָ֖ם מִמֵּשָׁ֑א בֹּֽאֲכָ֥ה סְפָ֖רָה הַ֥ר הַקֶּֽדֶם׃ לא אֵ֣לֶּה בְנֵי־שֵׁ֔ם לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָ֖ם לִלְשֹֽׁנֹתָ֑ם בְּאַרְצֹתָ֖ם לְגֽוֹיֵהֶֽם׃ לב אֵ֣לֶּה מִשְׁפְּחֹ֧ת בְּנֵי־נֹ֛חַ לְתֽוֹלְדֹתָ֖ם בְּגֽוֹיֵהֶ֑ם וּמֵאֵ֜לֶּה נִפְרְד֧וּ הַגּוֹיִ֛ם בָּאָ֖רֶץ אַחַ֥ר הַמַּבּֽוּל׃

[21] Sons were also born to Shem, ancestor of all the descendants of Eber and older brother of Japheth.

[22] The descendants of Shem: Elam , Asshur, Arpachshad, Lud, and Aram .

[23] The descendants of Aram : Uz, Hul, Gether, and Mash.

[24] Arpachshad begot Shelah, and Shelah begot Eber.

[25] Two sons were born to Eber: the name of the first was Peleg, for in his days the earth was divided; and the name of his brother was Joktan.

[26] Joktan begot Almodad, Sheleph, Hazarmaveth, Jerah,

[27] Hadoram, Uzal, Diklah,

[28] Obal, Abimael, Sheba ,

[29] Ophir, Havilah, and Jobab; all these were the descendants of Joktan.

[30] Their settlements extended from Mesha as far as Sephar, the hill country to the east.

[31] These are the descendants of Shem according to their clans and languages, by their lands, according to their nations.

[32] These are the groupings of Noah’s descendants, according to their origins, by their nations; and from these the nations branched out over the earth after the Flood.

[21] Sons were also born to Shem, ancestor of all the descendants of Eber Although Eber was only one of Shem’s great-grandchildren, his strong connection with Shem, which will become apparent in the history of Abraham’s family, is emphasized here.

[32] And from these the nations branched out over the earth after the Flood The Torah once again emphasizes that immediately after the Flood, even before the “mingling of tongues” at the Tower of Babel, there are different nations, each with its own language, and they are settled over the entire earth.

Chapter 9. The Generations of the Tower of Babel

9.1. The Building of the Tower of Babel (11:1-4)

א וַיְהִ֥י כָל־הָאָ֖רֶץ שָׂפָ֣ה אֶחָ֑ת וּדְבָרִ֖ים אֲחָדִֽים׃ ב וַיְהִ֖י בְּנָסְעָ֣ם מִקֶּ֑דֶם וַֽיִּמְצְא֥וּ בִקְעָ֛ה בְּאֶ֥רֶץ שִׁנְעָ֖ר וַיֵּ֥שְׁבוּ שָֽׁם׃ ג וַיֹּֽאמְר֞וּ אִ֣ישׁ אֶל־רֵעֵ֗הוּ הָ֚בָה נִלְבְּנָ֣ה לְבֵנִ֔ים וְנִשְׂרְפָ֖ה לִשְׂרֵפָ֑ה וַתְּהִ֨י לָהֶ֤ם הַלְּבֵנָה֙ לְאָ֔בֶן וְהַ֣חֵמָ֔ר הָיָ֥ה לָהֶ֖ם לַחֹֽמֶר׃ ד וַיֹּֽאמְר֞וּ הָ֣בָה ׀ נִבְנֶה־לָּ֣נוּ עִ֗יר וּמִגְדָּל֙ וְרֹאשׁ֣וֹ בַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וְנַֽעֲשֶׂה־לָּ֖נוּ שֵׁ֑ם פֶּן־נָפ֖וּץ עַל־פְּנֵ֥י כָל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

[1] Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words.

[2] And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there.

[3] They said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and burn them hard” – Brick served them as stone, and bitumen served them as mortar.

[4] And they said, “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world.”

[1] Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words As noted earlier (10:5, 20, 32), the nations split apart immediately after the Flood, even before the building of the Tower. How, then, is that to be reconciled with the one language for all mentioned here? The answer is that the word “language” is being used in two different senses.

Hebrew has two different words for “language”: lashon, which also means “tongue” (the organ inside the mouth), and safah, which also means “lip.” The expression in chapter 10, “branched out each with its language,” uses the word lashon, but in “Everyone on earth had the same language” here in Chapter 11, the Hebrew word is safah.

Just as the tongue is inside the human body, while the lips are outside, the two forms of language represented by those same words are likewise not at all identical. Lashon, the “language for internal use,” is a system of concepts for describing reality that is needed to formulate models of the surrounding world, and which forms the basis of a functioning society. Each nation had such an internal language specific to it that it used to describe its affairs in terms of its own specific culture. But there was also a single “external communication language,” safah, common to all the nations of the earth, which they used for intercommunication. In the aftermath of the incident of the Tower of Babel it was this language of external communication that disintegrated, leaving each nation with its own conception of the world, as the nations were dispersed to their respective countries.

And the same wordsLiterally, “and few words.” The existence of a common communication language, in addition to the independent, individual language ​​of each nation and culture, is not per se a bad thing. The problem is only that such a language is poor, having only “few words.” Due to the poverty and the primitive nature of this common language, it was impossible to build anything except a rigid “vertical of power” and a simple command structure. It was impossible to express fine-grained thoughts in that language, nor could it be used to describe cultural subtleties or to establish genuine mutual understanding among nations; it served only as the language of government. In other words, the people had so perverted this means of communication that it no longer had any right to exist.

[3] They said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and burn them hard.” – Brick served them as stone, and bitumen served them as mortar This monumental technological revolution, homogeneous bricks instead of a motley assortment of stones, was bound together with a new connecting element (tar is far more adhesive than clay) and led to drastically improved construction quality and human living conditions. These new achievements, however, were used for an entirely different purpose.

[4] And they said, “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world” The goal of building the tower was not to reach the heavens, which, although a feature of the project, was not its actual objective. That goal, as clearly stated, was different –namely, to prevent the break-up of mankind. After the departure of Assyria (10:11), whose example could easily have set a precedent, Nimrod is determined to strengthen his kingdom in order to prevent the departure of yet other nations. To accomplish this he needs to create a unifying idea: “To make a name for ourselves.” The construction of the great “city, and a tower with its top in the sky” became that idea; that is, it was envisioned as a project that would draw all nations into a shared undertaking and effect cohesion among the nations.

A tower with its top in the sky The goal had to be a colossal, but also unattainable one. Only such an enormous, unrealizable project could consistently maintain the intensity needed to ensure universal involvement in the process. Captivating a population with grandiose designs is far easier than directing them to solve practical tasks of much smaller scale.

9.2. The Destruction of the Tower of Babel (11:5-9)

ה וַיֵּ֣רֶד י֔י לִרְאֹ֥ת אֶת־הָעִ֖יר וְאֶת־הַמִּגְדָּ֑ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר בָּנ֖וּ בְּנֵ֥י הָֽאָדָֽם׃ ו וַיֹּ֣אמֶר י֗י הֵ֣ן עַ֤ם אֶחָד֙ וְשָׂפָ֤ה אַחַת֙ לְכֻלָּ֔ם וְזֶ֖ה הַֽחִלָּ֣ם לַֽעֲשׂ֑וֹת וְעַתָּה֙ לֹֽא־יִבָּצֵ֣ר מֵהֶ֔ם כֹּ֛ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר יָֽזְמ֖וּ לַֽעֲשֽׂוֹת׃ ז הָ֚בָה נֵֽרְדָ֔ה וְנָֽבְלָ֥ה שָׁ֖ם שְׂפָתָ֑ם אֲשֶׁר֙ לֹ֣א יִשְׁמְע֔וּ אִ֖ישׁ שְׂפַ֥ת רֵעֵֽהוּ׃ ח וַיָּ֨פֶץ י֥י אֹתָ֛ם מִשָּׁ֖ם עַל־פְּנֵ֣י כָל־הָאָ֑רֶץ וַֽיַּחְדְּל֖וּ לִבְנֹ֥ת הָעִֽיר׃ ט עַל־כֵּ֞ן קָרָ֤א שְׁמָהּ֙ בָּבֶ֔ל כִּי־שָׁ֛ם בָּלַ֥ל י֖י שְׂפַ֣ת כָּל־הָאָ֑רֶץ וּמִשָּׁם֙ הֱפִיצָ֣ם י֔י עַל־פְּנֵ֖י כָּל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

[5] The Lord came down to look at the city and tower that man had built,

[6] and the Lord said, “If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach.

[7] Let us, then, go down and confound their speech there, so that they shall not understand one another’s speech.”

[8] Thus the Lord scattered them from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city.

[9] That is why it was called Babel, because there the Lord confounded the speech of the whole earth; and from there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

[5] The Lord came down to look at the city and tower that man had built This descent can be understood as Divine judgment, but also as Divine revelation (cf., “And the Lord came down on Mouninai,” Exodus 19:20). By virtue of this descent the people attained such spiritual heights as would have been impossible through “the same language and few words” alone. Thus, it was that Divine revelation specifically that led to mutual miscomprehension, and consequently, to their abandonment of the primitive common command language, and to their ceasing construction of the Tower.

That approach, which understands God’s descent as mercy (revelation) rather than judgment, is indicated by the use in this entire passage of the Divine Name (“The Lord,” the Tetragrammaton), which is traditionally understood as expressing the attribute of mercy, as opposed to Elohim (“God”), which is associated with rigor and judgment.

[6] And the Lord said, “If, as one peopleAbove (10:32, and earlier, where the Torah describes the division of nations after the Flood, which preceded the account of the Tower of Babel), goy is the word used to denote the concept of “nation.” Here, however, the Hebrew word is am, which means “people” in the sense of a political state. Mankind at that time was already a multitude of established ethnic groups, politically united into one Babylonian kingdom. Once this political unity collapsed, those ethnic groups diverged into their respective countries.

With one language for all, this is how they have begun to act Having a common channel of communication, they began using it improperly.

Then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach The unattainable was not the building of the “tower with its top in the sky”. (Reaching the sky is of course impossible, and the ancients were no more foolish than we are.) But building the tower was only a means toward implementing the plan, whose goal was to not “be scattered all over the world”; that is, to remain under a unified Babylonian power. That goal, with the endless building of the tower, was completely realizable.

Such unity wholly impedes the advancement and development of society. The task envisioned by God for humanity is in development and diversification, surely not in homogeneity. Development requires that different nations and cultures compete, rather than execute a common project. God therefore confounds their languages and drives off the nations in different directions.

Upon experiencing the Divine manifestation, a person can express his new, complex feelings and impressions only through lashon. Each nation has its own – a language that is rich, but incomprehensible to others. A poor common language is insufficient for describing the reality in which God is revealed. Each nation feels its own unique aspect of this revealed Divinity, which becomes for it more valuable than the common language and whatever importance it had previously acquired.

[7] So that they shall not understand one another’s speech In a technical sense the common language might not have completely disappeared, and they continued to understand each other’s words, but nonetheless could come to no true mutual understanding. The level reached by individual cultures so exceeded the ability of a limited common language to express it that intercommunication became almost impossible. The result was their complete disseverance.

[8] Thus the Lord scattered them from there over the face of the whole earth This scattering was actually a positive circumstance, for it laid the foundations for the further development and progress of humanity.

9.3. The Genealogy of Shem, Through Abraham (11:10-27)

י אֵ֚לֶּה תּֽוֹלְדֹ֣ת שֵׁ֔ם שֵׁ֚ם בֶּן־מְאַ֣ת שָׁנָ֔ה וַיּ֖וֹלֶד אֶת־אַרְפַּכְשָׁ֑ד שְׁנָתַ֖יִם אַחַ֥ר הַמַּבּֽוּל׃ יא וַֽיְחִי־שֵׁ֗ם אַֽחֲרֵי֙ הֽוֹלִיד֣וֹ אֶת־אַרְפַּכְשָׁ֔ד חֲמֵ֥שׁ מֵא֖וֹת שָׁנָ֑ה וַיּ֥וֹלֶד בָּנִ֖ים וּבָנֽוֹת׃ יב וְאַרְפַּכְשַׁ֣ד חַ֔י חָמֵ֥שׁ וּשְׁלֹשִׁ֖ים שָׁנָ֑ה וַיּ֖וֹלֶד אֶת־שָֽׁלַח׃ יג וַיְחִ֣י אַרְפַּכְשַׁ֗ד אַֽחֲרֵי֙ הֽוֹלִיד֣וֹ אֶת־שֶׁ֔לַח שָׁלֹ֣שׁ שָׁנִ֔ים וְאַרְבַּ֥ע מֵא֖וֹת שָׁנָ֑ה וַיּ֥וֹלֶד בָּנִ֖ים וּבָנֽוֹת׃ יד וְשֶׁ֥לַח חַ֖י שְׁלֹשִׁ֣ים שָׁנָ֑ה וַיּ֖וֹלֶד אֶת־עֵֽבֶר׃ טו וַֽיְחִי־שֶׁ֗לַח אַֽחֲרֵי֙ הֽוֹלִיד֣וֹ אֶת־עֵ֔בֶר שָׁלֹ֣שׁ שָׁנִ֔ים וְאַרְבַּ֥ע מֵא֖וֹת שָׁנָ֑ה וַיּ֥וֹלֶד בָּנִ֖ים וּבָנֽוֹת׃ טז וַֽיְחִי־עֵ֕בֶר אַרְבַּ֥ע וּשְׁלֹשִׁ֖ים שָׁנָ֑ה וַיּ֖וֹלֶד אֶת־פָּֽלֶג׃ יז וַֽיְחִי־עֵ֗בֶר אַֽחֲרֵי֙ הֽוֹלִיד֣וֹ אֶת־פֶּ֔לֶג שְׁלֹשִׁ֣ים שָׁנָ֔ה וְאַרְבַּ֥ע מֵא֖וֹת שָׁנָ֑ה וַיּ֥וֹלֶד בָּנִ֖ים וּבָנֽוֹת׃ יח וַֽיְחִי־פֶ֖לֶג שְׁלֹשִׁ֣ים שָׁנָ֑ה וַיּ֖וֹלֶד אֶת־רְעֽוּ׃ יט וַֽיְחִי־פֶ֗לֶג אַֽחֲרֵי֙ הֽוֹלִיד֣וֹ אֶת־רְע֔וּ תֵּ֥שַׁע שָׁנִ֖ים וּמָאתַ֣יִם שָׁנָ֑ה וַיּ֥וֹלֶד בָּנִ֖ים וּבָנֽוֹת׃ כ וַיְחִ֣י רְע֔וּ שְׁתַּ֥יִם וּשְׁלֹשִׁ֖ים שָׁנָ֑ה וַיּ֖וֹלֶד אֶת־שְׂרֽוּג׃ כא וַיְחִ֣י רְע֗וּ אַֽחֲרֵי֙ הֽוֹלִיד֣וֹ אֶת־שְׂר֔וּג שֶׁ֥בַע שָׁנִ֖ים וּמָאתַ֣יִם שָׁנָ֑ה וַיּ֥וֹלֶד בָּנִ֖ים וּבָנֽוֹת׃ כב וַיְחִ֥י שְׂר֖וּג שְׁלֹשִׁ֣ים שָׁנָ֑ה וַיּ֖וֹלֶד אֶת־נָחֽוֹר׃ כג וַיְחִ֣י שְׂר֗וּג אַֽחֲרֵ֛י הֽוֹלִיד֥וֹ אֶת־נָח֖וֹר מָאתַ֣יִם שָׁנָ֑ה וַיּ֥וֹלֶד בָּנִ֖ים וּבָנֽוֹת׃ כד וַיְחִ֣י נָח֔וֹר תֵּ֥שַׁע וְעֶשְׂרִ֖ים שָׁנָ֑ה וַיּ֖וֹלֶד אֶת־תָּֽרַח׃ כה וַיְחִ֣י נָח֗וֹר אַֽחֲרֵי֙ הֽוֹלִיד֣וֹ אֶת־תֶּ֔רַח תְּשַֽׁע־עֶשְׂרֵ֥ה שָׁנָ֖ה וּמְאַ֣ת שָׁנָ֑ה וַיּ֥וֹלֶד בָּנִ֖ים וּבָנֽוֹת׃ כו וַֽיְחִי־תֶ֖רַח שִׁבְעִ֣ים שָׁנָ֑ה וַיּ֨וֹלֶד֙ אֶת־אַבְרָ֔ם אֶת־נָח֖וֹר וְאֶת־הָרָֽן׃ כז וְאֵ֨לֶּה֙ תּֽוֹלְדֹ֣ת תֶּ֔רַח תֶּ֚רַח הוֹלִ֣יד אֶת־אַבְרָ֔ם אֶת־נָח֖וֹר וְאֶת־הָרָ֑ן וְהָרָ֖ן הוֹלִ֥יד אֶת־לֽוֹט׃

[10] This is the line of Shem. Shem was 100 years old when he begot Arpachshad, two years after the Flood.

[11] After the birth of Arpachshad, Shem lived 500 years and begot sons and daughters.

[12] When Arpachshad had lived 35 years, he begot Shelah.

[13] After the birth of Shelah, Arpachshad lived 403 years and begot sons and daughters.

[14] When Shelah had lived 30 years, he begot Eber.

[15] After the birth of Eber, Shelah lived 403 years and begot sons and daughters.

[16] When Eber had lived 34 years, he begot Peleg.

[17] After the birth of Peleg, Eber lived 430 years and begot sons and daughters.

[18] When Peleg had lived 30 years, he begot Reu.

[19] After the birth of Reu, Peleg lived 209 years and begot sons and daughters.

[20] When Reu had lived 32 years, he begot Serug.

[21] After the birth of Serug, Reu lived 207 years and begot sons and daughters.

[22] When Serug had lived 30 years, he begot Nahor.

[23] After the birth of Nahor, Serug lived 200 years and begot sons and daughters.

[24] When Nahor had lived 29 years, he begot Terah.

[25] After the birth of Terah, Nahor lived 119 years and begot sons and daughters.

[26] When Terah had lived 70 years, he begot Abram, Nahor, and Haran.

[27] Now this is the line of Terah: Terah begot Abram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran begot Lot.

Only a partial family tree is provided, the line from Shem to the family of Abraham, around which the story will continue to unfold.

But here we must return to Eber, about whom it was said above (10:21): “Shem, father of all the sons of Eber.” It is from Eber that the word ivri, “Hebrew,” is derived. We shall see later how important that Hebrew (in this case proto-Jewish) identity has itself become. Both Abraham and Joseph are called Hebrews (14:13, 41:12), while the entire country is called the “land of the Hebrews” (40:15). The Midrash explains that Noah, Shem, and Eber were “early monotheists” – “the first Patriarchs,” as it were – and Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob continued to advance their legacy.

The passage “Eber had two sons, the name of one Peleg, because in his days the land was divided” (10:25) is a reference to the story of the Tower of Babel. To Eber, the division of the nations was an experience so compelling that he named his son “Peleg” (which means “division”), as if to say, “may this division lead to multiplication.” One kind of division occurs when everything irrevocably falls apart. But there is another kind of division that is the result of multiplication. The name “Peleg” expresses Eber’s hope for a division of the latter type.

Because the hopes of the “early monotheists” for the improvement of mankind were based on its unity and common language, the scattering of peoples that occurred was nothing less than a tragedy for Eber. After their division into nations, these lonely monotheists could have no influence, because the new reality was that it was necessary to be a people in order to influence others. Although their own attempts were fruitless, they bequeathed to us the word ivrim, “Hebrews,” which tells us that their heritage is very much alive. They were the teachers of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who were the progenitors of the “chosen people,” a people capable of improving other communities of humankind.

9.4. The History of the Family of Abraham (11:28-32)

כח וַיָּ֣מָת הָרָ֔ן עַל־פְּנֵ֖י תֶּ֣רַח אָבִ֑יו בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מֽוֹלַדְתּ֖וֹ בְּא֥וּר כַּשְׂדִּֽים׃ כט וַיִּקַּ֨ח אַבְרָ֧ם וְנָח֛וֹר לָהֶ֖ם נָשִׁ֑ים שֵׁ֤ם אֵֽשֶׁת־אַבְרָם֙ שָׂרָ֔י וְשֵׁ֤ם אֵֽשֶׁת־נָחוֹר֙ מִלְכָּ֔ה בַּת־הָרָ֥ן אֲבִֽי־מִלְכָּ֖ה וַֽאֲבִ֥י יִסְכָּֽה׃ ל וַתְּהִ֥י שָׂרַ֖י עֲקָרָ֑ה אֵ֥ין לָ֖הּ וָלָֽד׃ לא וַיִּקַּ֨ח תֶּ֜רַח אֶת־אַבְרָ֣ם בְּנ֗וֹ וְאֶת־ל֤וֹט בֶּן־הָרָן֙ בֶּן־בְּנ֔וֹ וְאֵת֙ שָׂרַ֣י כַּלָּת֔וֹ אֵ֖שֶׁת אַבְרָ֣ם בְּנ֑וֹ וַיֵּֽצְא֨וּ אִתָּ֜ם מֵא֣וּר כַּשְׂדִּ֗ים לָלֶ֨כֶת֙ אַ֣רְצָה כְּנַ֔עַן וַיָּבֹ֥אוּ עַד־חָרָ֖ן וַיֵּ֥שְׁבוּ שָֽׁם׃ לב וַיִּֽהְי֣וּ יְמֵי־תֶ֔רַח חָמֵ֥שׁ שָׁנִ֖ים וּמָאתַ֣יִם שָׁנָ֑ה וַיָּ֥מָת תֶּ֖רַח בְּחָרָֽן׃

[28] Haran died in the lifetime of his father Terah, in his native land, Ur of the Chaldeans.

[29] Abram and Nahor took to themselves wives, the name of Abram’s wife being Sarai and that of Nahor’s wife Milcah, the daughter of Haran, the father of Milcah and Iscah.

[30] Now Sarai was barren, she had no child.

[31] Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot the son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and they set out together from Ur of the Chaldeans for the land of Canaan; but when they had come as far as Haran, they settled there.

[32] The days of Terah came to 205 years; and Terah died in Haran.

[28] Haran died in the lifetime of his father Terah, in his native land, Ur of the ChaldeansFrom the fact that Ur of the Chaldeans is mentioned as the place of birth of Haran, we can infer that Terah’s older children were not born there; that is, Terah’s family arrived in Ur of the Chaldeans somewhat earlier, and Terah himself was born in Charan (where Nahor continued to reside), or perhaps even in Canaan, the Land of the Hebrews (40:15). For that reason, he later wishes to return there.

Ur of the ChaldeansIn Hebrew, ur kasdim. It is a city in Lower Mesopotamia. But ur literally means “furnace,” so the verse can be read as, “and Haran died … in the Chaldean furnace.” The midrashim about Abraham’s childhood (see below) are based on this point.

[29] Abram and Nahor took to themselves wives, the name of Abram’s wife being Sarai and that of Nahor’s wife Milcah, the daughter of Haran, the father of Milcah and IscahThis mention of Iscah seems to have no actual relevance to the story. The Midrash therefore identifies her with Sarah, which would mean that Nahor and Abraham married nieces, the two daughters of Haran. Later (20:12) we learn that Sarah was Abraham’s step (not full) sister / niece. In other words, Terah had two wives. Abram and Nahor were born from the one, and Haran from the other.

[30] Now Sarai was barren, she had no childThe apparent redundancy here of “barren, she had no children” is apparently meant to tell us that Abraham and Sarah had made peace with being childless, seeing their continuation therefore in their disciples, and not in their descendants.

[31] Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot the son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram Nahor is not mentioned among those whom Terah took with him (probably because he continued to live in Charan). But Sarah is mentioned specifically, to tell us that she is an independent personality in her own right.

And they set out together from Ur of the Chaldeans for the land of Canaan; but when they had come as far as Haran, they settled thereThus, Terah had intentions to “go to the land of Canaan” even before Abraham received such instructions from God (12:1). We shall see very soon why this point is significant.


Chapter 10. Chosenness, Faith, and Monotheism

10.1. Chosenness for a Purpose (12:1-3)

א וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יי֙ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵֽאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ׃ ב וְאֶֽעֶשְׂךָ֙ לְג֣וֹי גָּד֔וֹל וַאֲבָ֣רֶכְךָ֔ וַֽאֲגַדְּלָ֖ה שְׁמֶ֑ךָ וֶֽהְיֵ֖ה בְּרָכָֽה׃ ג וַאֲבָֽרְכָה֙ מְבָ֣רְכֶ֔יךָ וּמְקַלֶּלְךָ֖ אָאֹ֑ר וְנִבְרְכ֣וּ בְךָ֔ כֹּ֖ל מִשְׁפְּחֹ֥ת הָֽאֲדָמָֽה׃

[1] The Lord said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.

[2] I will make of you a great nation, And I will bless you; I will make your name great, And you shall be a blessing.

[3] I will bless those who bless you, And curse him that curses you; And all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.”

The story of Abraham begins with God urging him to undertake the creation of a people needed for the spiritual perfection of all mankind.

The reasons that God chose only Abraham for this mission are not explained in Scripture. The Midrash tells many stories about Abraham’s youth, his righteousness, and his merits, but these find no expression in the Torah text itself. This contrasts starkly with, for example, God’s choosing Noah for being “righteous and blameless” (7:9). The reason that God chose Abraham is concretely explained by the Torah much later (18:19), when God says, “For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right.”

Here we see several aspects of God’s choosing Abraham. Firstly, it is based on action (“doing what is just and right”), and not merely on “faith in God.” Secondly, God’s reason for choosing Abraham is not Abraham’s past merits, but the promise that his future holds (or, more precisely, that of his descendants). Abraham, like the Jewish people in general, is chosen for the objective he is charged to accomplish – that is, not as a reward for actions he has already performed, but for the sake of his potential, which will be revealed only in the future.

God wants to help mankind draw nearer to Him, to realize the “ kingdom of God on earth.” For this, He needs helpers who will pass on Divine principles to humanity. God chooses Abraham because he and his descendants, the Jewish people, are capable of accomplishing this.

10.2. Existence Determined by the Future

The idea of favoring the future over the past, and believing that the cardinal events of our lives primarily occur not merely “for a reason” but “for the sake of a goal” permeates the entire Jewish perception of the world.

That idea can be found, for example, in the following midrash about the exodus from Egypt . When at the splitting of the Red Sea the Egyptians were close to drowning, Egypt ’s guardian angel turned to God with the following complaint: “Judge of the world! You are unfair, you play favorites among your children. Why do you allow the Egyptians to drown, but you rescue the Jews? Neither practiced idolatry in Egypt any less than the other!” God answered him: “It is true that in Egypt they behaved in many ways the same. For the Jews, however, I grant a miraculous salvation outside the natural course of events, because of their potential to soon accept the Torah on Mount Sinai (and bring that Torah to humanity). For the Egyptians I perform no such miracle, leaving them subject to only the natural course of events, for they have no such potential. And so they perish under the waves.”

Indeed, in some ways the Jews behaved in Egypt no better than the Egyptians themselves. They deserved the Exodus and the salvation at the Red Sea not for their prior merit, but for the mission that they would accomplish in the future.

Likewise, God has given the Jewish people today the opportunity to build and develop the State of Israel only for the sake of the future Jewish mission, not because of its past merits. The primary force that drives the Jewish people today, as in antiquity, is in the future, not in the past. It is rooted in projected purpose rather than historical causation.

10.3. Faith as the Sense of Purpose and Meaning in the Creation

The distinction between the materialistic (atheistic) and monotheistic religious views of the world is not limited to the questions of whether God exists or what He is. (Such questions are for the most part so complex and theoretically abstract that we are hard-pressed to consider any answer satisfactory.) In concrete, practical terms the difference between the religious and materialistic worldviews is that materialists view the world as driven by cause and effect (they reduce the entire movement of the universe to principles of physical causation), whereas a religious person sees the world teleologically, believing that the universe is moving, first and foremost, toward the fulfillment of its goals (although the presence of physical causes is of course also not denied). Because it is the Almighty Who has established these goals for the world, our dialogue with God becomes the fundamental substance of our lives.

This essential difference of approaches to how one sees the world is not just abstract theory, but is inextricably linked with our entire essence, the Jewish way of life.

Let us try to further elucidate this issue.

In everyday life, we explain the processes occurring all around us in two different ways: causally and teleologically. For example, in response to the question “Why is the car travelling down the road?” two answers are possible: a causal answer (the driver’s foot presses the gas pedal, fuel enters the engine, the wheels spin and push off the ground, and the car moves), and a teleological one (the car moves because the driver wants to go somewhere). That goal – the pursuit of the future – is the primary answer to our original question of why the car moves. For it is that goal that initiates the chain of physical causes, due to which the automobile begins to move.

At the same time, the driver’s wish to travel in one direction and not the other cannot be fully predicted, even if one knows all the material factors motivating him. Because that driver is a person and (unlike the car) he has freedom of choice, rather than being a slave to circumstances.

In ordinary life, if we want to perceive the world adequately, we use both types of explanations. When dealing with inanimate objects we can limit ourselves to causative explanations. But when we need to understand the behavior of living beings and, especially, human beings, then only teleological explanations will suffice (he has desires and motivations that cause him to act in a particular way).

The concept of purpose, and the concept of meaning that is inseparably connected with it as the highest goal, are extremely important for understanding human behavior. Personality cannot be reduced to causation, nor can a person live without that sense of meaning in everything that happens.

But if we consider more global, socio-historical processes in society and in the course of history generally (the entire universe as a whole), we must ask ourselves: Are there only “causes”, or does each of these historical processes have also a purpose and a meaning? The materialist and the religious person will disagree on this issue.

For a materialist, only causation drives the world as a whole. But a monotheistically religious person believes that the history of humankind in general, and our own lives in particular, have purpose and meaning.

Of course, neither the one nor the other viewpoint can be proved or scientifically substantiated; the choice between them is entirely our own.

On this issue note that the idolaters side with the materialists: they see in life only causes, even if those causes are of a “supernatural” quality, such as karma or rock. The concept of “purpose and meaning,” on the other hand, becomes relevant only when we believe that behind all phenomena in the world stands a monotheistic God, the Being who created all humans in His image and likeness, and with whom we are in constant dialogue.

Abraham’s belief in ethical monotheism consisted precisely in that – his sense of goal and meaning, which to him implied also his moral responsibility to realize his own potential and purpose. It was that faith that Abraham wanted to teach to all of humanity.

10.4. Abraham as Chesed, and the Spreading of Monotheism

Abraham devoted his life to spread ethical monotheism among humankind. As we noted earlier, he was by no means the first to profess this religion, for Noah, Shem, and Eber were monotheists even before Abraham was. But Abraham was the first to actively disseminate this idea by initiating a process that continues to this day. Throughout his life, Abraham was active as an itinerant: “And he built there an altar to the Lord and invoked the Lord by name” (12:8, 13:4, 13:18, 14:22, 21:33). This thirst for proliferation is one of the aspects of chesed (acts of kindness) – the desire to give, as already mentioned (above §5.4).

Chesed is the cardinal principle fundamental to any creation, from the creation of the world to the creation of a people. Abraham, the progenitor of all Jews, therefore had to possess this quality in the extreme, as it pertains both to love of God (the spread of monotheism) and to the love of one’s fellow humans. Abraham, however, besides spreading the idea of performing acts of kindness, also perfected that very attribute of kindness that then became the foundation for the future life of the Jewish people. Abraham’s tests and difficulties were therefore related precisely to that attribute of kindness, as we shall discuss in detail below.

10.5. The Essence of Monotheism as Dialogue with God

Let us define more clearly what was the nature of Abraham’s faith, and why it changed all of humankind.

In defining the faith of Abraham as ethical monotheism we often fail to comprehend what the term “monotheism” really means. Why is monotheism so important, and what real difference does it make if we believe in one God, or in several? Why did the adoption of monotheism and the rejection of “polytheism” so strongly influence the world that, practically speaking, it created Western civilization?

The misunderstanding relates firstly to the widespread misconception that the entire essence of monotheism is “faith in one God”. Of course, monotheism asserts that God is the one and the only. But that is only the beginning, and not even the primary essence of monotheism, nor is it the basis for the revolution that it created in the world.

In principle, the Supreme Power of any religious system is always the one and only, besides being also supreme. And even if there were several, the “all-inclusive, highest law of the universe” would have to dominate them all to preserve world balance and the unity of the laws of nature. The difference between monotheistic culture (represented in ancient times by Judaism alone, but today by all of Western civilization) and idolatrous, polytheistic culture (in ancient times all of humankind, and today the “Eastern religions” – Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism) is not in quantitative indicators, but in the nature of this Supreme Power. As understood by polytheism, that supreme power is “rock,” “universal law,” the “law of Heaven,” the “law of Karma,” and so on – that is, an impersonal power, a world law that dominates absolutely everything, but cannot be addressed, nor can one engage with it in dialogue. This force will not participate in dialogue; it dominates, and an individual is personally of no importance to it.

However, in the monotheistic Abrahamic religions, the supreme power is a personal God who created man in His own image and likeness. He is therefore not indifferent to mankind; on the contrary, He loves every human being, wants good for him, cares about him, and seeks to bring him closer to Himself. All the difficulties and problems in our lives are the tasks that God gives us so that by solving them we can advance both ourselves and the rest of the world. This approach leads a person to a completely different worldview, already enshrined in the linguistic apparatus of Western cultures. The very concept of a Supreme Power, that is, God, does not exist with a capital letter in the language of Eastern religions; there are only "gods" there.

It would therefore be more correct to characterize the clash of religions in world history not as monotheism against polytheism, but as personal-monotheistic religions against karmic religions.

Monotheism proclaims that God, having created man in His own image and likeness, endowed him with freedom of choice, diverse skills and abilities, and a mind and feelings, and that He still today engages with man in dialogue. God’s creating man “in his image and likeness” was necessary for that dialogue to be feasible, for, as we know, dialogue is possible only between like interlocutors. All our thoughts and actions are our words in dialogue with God, while everything that happens around us and everything that happens to us – the way the world responds to us – are God’s words addressed to us. Only such a personal monotheism allows you to feel how disparate phenomena occurring in the world have as their cause a single Being and are not random results of the interactions of dissimilar forces.

Ethical monotheism thus views the entire surrounding world as a zone of dialogue between man and God. In this dialogue God demands from each of us ethical, responsible behavior – responsibility before Him. (This feeling is varyingly called responsibility to conscience, to life, to one’s national history, or to humankind. But in practice all these are almost equivalent concepts. It is this global responsibility that forms the basis of all ethics.) In this dialogue, a person throughout his life attains for himself, and reveals for others, diverse manifestations of the Divine light.

The faith that Abraham preached was just such an ethical monotheism. He did not achieve it straightaway; rather, it took time, his own efforts, and Divine support and revelation. By the time he was seventy years old, however – the point where the book of Genesis begins its story of God’s choosing Abraham (12:1) – he was already imbued with that faith.

The spread of faith, however, is not enough to save humanity. Abraham had to create the Jewish people, because only a nation can improve other nations (that is, improve human existence at the social, and not only the individual level). The Torah now proceeds to tell of the trials that the Patriarchs experienced on their way to creating a people.

Chapter 11. The Dynamics of the Patriarchs as Corrections to the Sefirot

11.1. The Lives of the Patriarchs as the Process of Faceting the Sefirot

As mentioned earlier, in the course of the Torah’s narrative each of the Patriarchs (and his sefirah with him) must undergo the dynamics of his correction.

The term “dynamics of correction” means that the sefirah, like a diamond in the rough, must be properly cut if it is to serve its intended purpose. This “cutting” means trimming off any excess to yield the correct shape. For example, if chesed, as the desire to give, to share, to show mercy and grace, goes unchecked beyond all limits, the world will collapse. (As an example at the simplest social level, suppose that for the realization of mercy and grace we were to offer social benefits, sufficient to guarantee a good and easy life to all, free for the asking. An enormous number of people would then stop working, and civilization would perish.) Chesed must therefore be restricted. Abraham learned how to accomplish that, and the process of limiting chesed is Abraham’s personal dynamic. Abraham’s process of restricting his own chesed, and similar processes for Isaac and Jacob, are carried out with the help of nisayon, trials.

The tests of the Patriarchs did not consist in requiring them to exhibit always positive inclinations and never negative ones. We would consider that just a completely normal and common level of difficulty, whereas the Patriarchs were incomparably more advanced. The trials of the Patriarchs are situations in which each has to serve God while correcting himself by working against that positive attribute that was unique to him. The result is a “cut,” a proper restricting of the given attribute. Each of the Patriarchs initially resembles a rough diamond, which only after cutting – the removal of excess material – becomes a true jewel whose value and price steadily increase. For only a cut diamond can serve its intended purpose. Likewise, if we need a large stone of a desired shape and size to be incorporated into the foundation of a building, we will first need to find an even much larger, irregularly shaped stone, and only after its cutting will we have a large, smooth and even stone suitable for use in construction.

Abraham limits chesed by learning to act against chesed. Abraham is by nature the very embodiment of chesed, who longed to show favor to all. God demands that he act against chesed, but only so that Abraham would learn to restrict that attribute. Likewise, Isaac and Jacob in the course of their respective tests learn to limit the qualities inherent in them.

Applying the basic ideas of Kabbalah to an analysis of the lives of the Patriarchs is widespread in Western culture today. Through Hasidism especially, many of these ideas are elucidated in a multitude of books and other publications, thus entering the consciousness of a wide-ranging public. The teachings of Rabbi Y. L. Ashkenazi-Manitou, on which our approach is based, unveil an innovative method for tracing the “faceting” process through each actual event experienced by the Patriarchs as described in the Torah. Indeed, this allows us to achieve a completely new level of understanding.

11.2. The Patriarchs and the Sefirot Tree

Let us consider now in greater detail the sefirot tree” as it relates to the Patriarchs.

The sefirot tree (growing from top to bottom, from the higher worlds to our world – see the illustration in portion 5.6) begins with keter, the crown, corresponding to the concept of will. In Jewish thought the highest of all Divine attributes is the will of the Almighty (and not His wisdom, the sefirah that is choñhmah). Since every human being is built in the image and likeness of the Almighty, willful discretion – that is, freedom of choice – is the leading force, while wisdom manifests itself only as its consequence.

Below keter are choñhmah, binah, and da’at. Those three, which combine to form the concept of sechel, “intellect,” are the three highest (“inner,” hidden) sefirot. We refer to them also by their abbreviation ChaBaD.

Below them are the seven middot (attributes) of “quality” and “manifestation.” These attributes are lower (“external”), corresponding to the seven days of the Creation, and to the seven foundational personalities that shaped the image of the Jewish people.

Directly below ChaBaD are chesed, gevurah, and tiferet (abbreviated as ChaGaT). These are the emotional competencies of the soul.

As noted above, the attribute of chesed (belonging to the right, extroverted line in the structure of the sefirot) means the emotion of aspiring outward, reflected by mercy and grace. On the first day of Creation G-d created light, which seeks to spread outward, “giving itself to the world”; that is, it manifests the attribute of chesed at the level of inanimate nature. Similarly, the primary aspiration of Abraham, the first Patriarch, was to show mercy to everyone around him, both in the material realm, by accepting travelers and helping the poor, and in the spiritual realm, by spreading the teachings of how to approach God and achieve holiness. Thus, Abraham represents the attribute of chesed at the structural level of the Jewish people.

The second of the middot (belonging to the left, introverted line in the structure of the sefirot) is gevurah – strength, power – identical with din, “judgment”. This means striving for preservation, retention, rigidity, self-restraint, law, order, judgment, and justice. Isaac, the bearer of the attribute of gevurah within the structural framework of the Jewish people, devoted his life to preserving and maintaining the teachings of his father Abraham. Similarly, on the second day of the creation of the world, God created the firmament (sky), which holds water and demonstrates gevurah at the level of inanimate nature.

The third of the middot (it is found on the middle, harmonizing line) is tiferet, beauty or splendor. Tiferet is designed to maintain harmony between the attributes of chesed and gevurah, to determine when it is proper to give and to show mercy, and when to hold back, showing only the attribute of judgment.

The tiferet attribute is also called emet, truth. The leading motivation for Jacob’s actions and aspirations was not “spreading” (like Abraham’s) or “preserving” (like Isaac’s), but finding the balance of truth in a world so full of falsehood.

The attributes of the emotional series are the product (“descent downward”) of the corresponding attributes of the intellectual series. Chochmah is a “directing outward” at the intellectual level, and chesed, too, is a “directing outward,” but at the emotional level. Similarly, binah is an intellectual directing inward, and gevurah is an emotional directing inward.

On the middle line, da’at engenders tiferet: only through comprehension at the da’at level and incorporating the knowable can one understand whether to apply mercy or judgment.

11.3. The Trials of the Patriarchs

Abraham, then, represents the attribute of chesed, the desire to give, to show mercy, to be good to all; and his nisayon (test) is the need, by Divine order, to act against his own nature, limiting the chesed within himself.

In the process of being tested, Abraham had to learn to excise from within himself “extraneous” chesed, the chesed of impurity, so that the remaining chesed of holiness” could become the foundation for building the Divine nation, the Jewish people.

The word nisayon means not only “testing,” but also “gaining experience.” Abraham, who is the expression of chesed, gained experience in its proper application. In addition, nisayon is lingustically related to the word nes, which has two meanings: “banner” (a military emblem held aloft on a pole, or other device of orientation) and “miracle” (that which runs counter to natural forces). In the Torah, therefore, nisayon refers to the acquisition of Divine experience, which occurs contrary to the natural course of events (a miracle) and serves as a reference point for the future (it “creates a banner”).

In ordinary life, applying one’s natural, positive qualities to serving God is of course the surest path, both for ordinary people and for the righteous. For the Patriarchs, however, the path to serving God was the one that went contrary to their natural positive inclinations. It was thus by virtue of the trials experienced by the Patriarchs that the Jewish people were formed (nes as “miracle” – the miracle of the creation of the Jewish people). These tests are described in the Torah so that subsequent generations can orient themselves by following the visual example set by the Patriarchs (carried as a banner for orientation). One of the foundations of Jewish tradition is thus the Talmudic principle that “the deeds of the ancestors serve as signals for their descendants”; that is, the narratives found in the Torah serve as examples for future generations.

Abraham is cleansed of “improper, excessive chesed (chesed de-tum’ah, “impure,” i.e, “excess chesed”) which is inherited instead by Ishmael, and “proper chesed” (chesed di-kedushah, “holy chesed”) passes as an inheritance to Isaac, and from there on to Jacob. Similarly, “proper gevurah” (gevurah di-kedushah, “holy gevurah”) is transmitted from Isaac to Jacob and to the Jewish people, while gevurah de-tum’ah, “impure gevurah, excess gevurah” goes to Esav.

Chapter 12. Introductory Remarks on God’s Choosing Abraham

12.1. Midrash: Stories of Abraham’s childhood

To the story of Abraham’s life as recorded in the Torah the Midrash adds several stories about his youth in Ur of the Chaldeans. Later we shall consider the actual meaning of these midrashim within the context of the Torah’s narrative. Here we present only the text itself (in a style that approximates that of the Midrash).

(a) The story of the vanquishing of the sun and moon

Abraham had been hidden in a cave since birth. At the age of three years Abraham left the cave, and upon seeing the world for the first time, he began to reflect on who had created the earth, the sky, and Abraham himself. Enraptured by the sight of the sun, its light and warmth, he offered prayers to the sun that entire day. But when the sun set, and the moon appeared in the sky surrounded by countless stars, Abraham was struck by its beauty and thought, “This luminous body is obviously a deity!” All night he uttered hymns to the moon. But morning came, the moon departed in the west, and the sun reappeared in the east.

“No,” said Abraham, “I was wrong. There is Someone who rules over both the sun and the moon. I will direct my prayers to Him.”

(b) Abraham smashes the idols

Terah, Abraham’s father, was engaged in the manufacture of idols, which he then sold at the market. One day he instructed Abraham to mind the store.

A woman came and gave Abraham a bowl of flour as a gift to the idols. Abraham took a stick, smashed all the idols except one, the very largest, and placed the stick in its hand. Terah was dumbfounded upon his return.

“What is going on here? How did this happen? Who did this?”

“I will tell you,” Abraham answered, “and will conceal nothing. It was like this: A woman brought a bowl of flour and asked me to present it as an offering to the idols. I was about to give them the flour, but the idols argued among themselves about who should partake first. The largest idol rose up and smashed all the others.”

“Surely you mock me,” Terah shouted, “how could they possibly… ?”

“But what are you saying, father?! You would do well to ponder your own words.”

(c) The story of the fiery furnace

For having destroyed those idols, Abraham was brought to judgment by Nimrod, king of Babylon.

Said Nimrod: “Bow to the fire as a deity, and I will spare you.”

Abraham replied: “But water is more powerful than fire, because water extinguishes fire! Shouldn’t we bow instead to the water?”

“Very well. Then, bow to the water.”

“But clouds are more powerful than water, because clouds carry water! Shouldn’t we bow instead to the clouds?”

“Very well. Then, bow to the clouds.”

“But would it not be better to bow to the wind that disperses the clouds?”

“Then bow to the wind!”

“But doesn’t man overpower even the force of the wind?”

“That’s enough! I will force you to bow to the fire. … Throw him into the fire, and we shall see whether the God whom he worships can save him.”

Then they threw Abraham into the furnace, but the Almighty Himself came down and saved Abraham, and he emerged from the furnace unharmed.

Haran (Abraham’s brother), who was also present at these proceedings, said: “If Abraham is saved, then he is right, and I am with Abraham. But if Abraham dies, then Nimrod is right, and I am with Nimrod.”

When he saw that Abraham had been saved, Haran said: “Then I am with Abraham!” They threw him into the furnace, and he died (for he was not so deserving that God would create a miracle just for him). And this is what the Torah means when it says (11:28): “And Haran died during the lifetime of Terah his father, in the land of his birth in Ur of the Chaldeans” (lit., in the Chaldean furnace).

12.2. Hebrews, Israel , and Jews: The Names of the Nation and its Land

The Jewish people have three characteristic names: Hebrews, Israel , and Jews. In other languages the meanings of these words are distinct. (The term “Jews” usually relates to religion, “Hebrews” to the nation, and “ Israel ” to a country or state.) In Hebrew, however, these words are identical in meaning. Already in the book of Esther, written two and a half thousand years ago, we find that the term “Jews” means, precisely, the entire Jewish people. Similarly, the meaning of the word “ Israel ” in its original sense is the people, not the country; that is, it is synonymous with the terms “Hebrews” and “Jews.”. Derived from it are the phrases in the possessive form: Eretz Yisrael (“The Land of Israel”), Medinat Yisrael (“The State of Israel”), and others.

These terms, although synonymous today, developed only over time, and originally had different meanings. The word ivrim, “Hebrews,” came first: it originally described a community much broader than the family of Abraham, namely, all the descendants of Eber.

(There is a widespread belief, based on the word “Hebrew” sharing a root with the word ma’avar, “transition,” that Abraham is called a Hebrew because he relocated from one side of the river (Euphrates) to the other. Or, alternately, that the term “Hebrew” derives from the idea that when the entire world is on the one side, Abraham and the Jewish people are on the other. It is important to understand, however, that this is a midrash (homiletic interpretation), whereas the literal meaning of the word “Hebrew” is simply a descendant of Eber).

The word “ Israel ” appeared later: it was the second name of Jacob, whose descendants were called “the sons of Israel ,” or simply “ Israel ” (like many other nations in the Torah, whose names are those of their founders). And the Jews (the most recent name of the three) were originally descendants of Yehudah, i.e. one of the most prominent of the Twelve Tribes of Israel.

The ethnonym ivri, “Hebrew,” first appears in the book of Genesis as referring to Abraham (14:13), and then later in reference to Joseph, when Potiphar’s wife, coming to accuse him of a grievous offense, tells the members of her household: “He (my husband Potiphar) had to bring us a Hebrew to dally with us!” (39:14). This shows that the meaning of that ethnonym was clear to all the Egyptians present, even if they were not personally familiar with the family of Abraham. Likewise, Pharaoh’s butler says: “A Hebrew youth was there with us (in prison)” (41:12). At the luncheon Joseph prepares for them, he seats his brothers, who do not yet recognize him, separate from the Egyptians, which the Torah explains as follows: “For the Egyptians could not dine with the Hebrews, since that would be abhorrent to the Egyptians” (43:32). Joseph himself tells the cupbearer how he came to be a slave with the following words: “I was kidnapped from the land of the Hebrews” (40:15). We thus see that the ethnonym ivrim is used in a much wider sense than the “descendants of Abraham.” Moreover, Canaan was officially called the “Land of the Hebrews,” otherwise Joseph could not have used that term in conversation with the butler.

All this tells us that the descendants of Eber in ancient times ruled the Holy Land. But then, most likely, the Hebrew community was destroyed, of which certain remnants, the family of Terah in particular, made their way to Ur of the Chaldeans, the city in Babylon. The Torah’s story of Abraham begins from the moment that his father Terah decides to leave Ur of the Chaldeans and return to his original country, that is, to Canaan (although he gets only as far as Charan).

12.3. Abraham and Eber’s Legacy

We shall see later that the descendants of Terah – the family of Nahor and his children – gradually assimilated among the Aramaeans and began to be called Aramaeans, after the name of the country where they took root. Thenceforth, only the family of Abraham were called “Hebrews.”

Note too that according to the chronology of the Torah, Eber was still alive during Abraham’s lifetime. Tradition states that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob studied with Noah, Shem, and Eber. The latter three, however, lived apart, in a “yeshiva,” so that others could come to study with them, but they did not themselves spread the teachings of monotheism.

Comparing the positions of Abraham and Eber, one can see that they differed in two respects. First, unlike Eber, Abraham was an active (one might even say militant) monotheist, The Midrash talks about how Abraham smashes idols, but about Eber it says nothing of the kind. Although a monotheist, Eber was apparently tolerant of idolatry. The Midrash describes Abraham as an uncommonly hospitable host who received all wayfarers, including idolaters, into his home. That is, he was a man of chesed. And yet, although he was tolerant and accepting of all people, he was harsh and intolerant towards idolatry, to the point of “smashing idols.” Secondly, Abraham wanted to restore Eber’s teachings precisely in the country that was the primary center of monotheism, the Land of the Hebrews, which is why he sought to live in Canaan.

Later, yet a third attribute, the most important one, came to distinguish Abraham from Eber. Namely, Abraham was the founder of a nation, albeit one that came into being only over time.

12.4. The Covenant of the Patriarchs

The concept of covenant occupies a prominent position in the book of Genesis, and indeed in all Jewish teachings. A covenant is an extraordinary connection with God, as opposed to that which occurs in the natural course of events. In a certain sense, God manifests Himself in our world in two opposite forms. On the one hand, all of nature and its natural laws are Divine creations and manifestations of God; in this respect the Almighty acts as the “God of nature.” And yet, He is also the “God of the Covenant,” which means that God establishes a special relationship with a person or people that transcends the natural course of events. In other words, that person or nation develops not as do all other persons and nations, but in an exceptional direction, while exerting a significant influence on the surrounding world.

We first encounter this concept in the covenant that God makes with Noah, when the Flood destroys all of humanity, but Noah and his family are chosen by God to alone survive. When Noah leaves the Ark after the flood, God makes a covenant with him and his descendants. “The Covenant of Noah” creates a unique status to which any of Noah’s descendants can aspire. (This is a substantial, independent topic that is beyond the scope of this book.) Later we encounter the Covenant of the Patriarchs that God makes with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and still later, in the book of Exodus, we see the Covenant at Sinai, made with the entire Jewish people.

The Covenant at Sinai is very different from previous covenants, for it is expressed through God’s commandments. It begins with the proclamation of the Ten Commandments, followed by the remaining laws of the Torah formulated in its 613 Commandments. Unlike the Covenant at Sinai, the Covenant with the Patriarchs includes no formal laws. Within its framework, even circumcision is not a duty, but only a symbol of this covenant. In essence, it is a covenant respecting the Jewish people and the Land of Israel.

The Covenant of the Patriarchs is thus distinguished by two important characteristics. Firstly, there are no formalized commandments; these are instead replaced by ideals (mercy and justice primarily), which, while difficult to formalize, are the purpose for which the covenant is established. Secondly, the covenant is associated with the creation of a nation and a country for this people, as repeated several times in the Torah, in God’s address to the Patriarchs: “I will make a nation out of you and will give you this country as your dwelling place, and I shall be your God”.

Thus, the people itself and its national life in the Land of Israel are the primal substance through which God advances all of humanity. The commandments are for this people a means by which they can properly build their lives.

Chapter 13. The Beginning of Abraham’s Journey

13.1. God Chooses Abraham (12:1-3)

א וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יי֙ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵֽאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ׃ ב וְאֶֽעֶשְׂךָ֙ לְג֣וֹי גָּד֔וֹל וַאֲבָ֣רֶכְךָ֔ וַֽאֲגַדְּלָ֖ה שְׁמֶ֑ךָ וֶֽהְיֵ֖ה בְּרָכָֽה׃ ג וַאֲבָֽרְכָה֙ מְבָ֣רְכֶ֔יךָ וּמְקַלֶּלְךָ֖ אָאֹ֑ר וְנִבְרְכ֣וּ בְךָ֔ כֹּ֖ל מִשְׁפְּחֹ֥ת הָֽאֲדָמָֽה׃

[1] The Lord said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.

[2] I will make of you a great nation,

And I will bless you;

I will make your name great,

And you shall be a blessing.

[3] I will bless those who bless you

And curse him that curses you;

And all the families of the earth

Shall bless themselves by you.”

[1] The Lord said to Abram Abram was en route to Canaan with his father Terah even before this (11:31), for that was their family’s self-motivated decision. But now the Almighty chooses Abram, and he must make his way to that land as a part of his covenant with God, making it a completely different kind of journey.

Go forth from your native land and from your father’s houseThe text literally reads: “from your native land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house.” He must dissolve his old ties on three levels: by leaving his family (his father’s house), his ideologically familiar community (his next closest of kin), and the social function that he had been performing in Charan. Without this break – not only with his negative past, but also with his positive past – Abram’s realization of his mission would not have been possible.

Go forth … to the land that I will show youAbram understood straightaway that this meant Canaan. But the expression ar’ekka can be understood not only as “I will show you” (i.e., to you, with “you” as indirect object), but also as “I will show you to others” (“you” as direct object). The whole expression can thus be translated as “To the land in which I will show you [to the rest of the world].” Only when the Jewish people live in the Land of Israel can they, operating as a unit, materially influence the world. The Midrash emphasizes this point, noticing that the expression lech lecha, whose simple meaning is “Go thee forth,” can also be translated more literally as “Go for yourself, for your own benefit,” so as to say, you cannot realize your spiritual potential while living in any other place.

[2] I will make of you a great nationIt is a nation, not merely a religious movement. Abram abandons the framework of his former world to create a new, unprecedented reality, the chosen people. It is at this moment that the Western “Abrahamic” monotheistic tradition is born.

I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing Note here four characteristics of chosenness: the nation’s preeminence, its accomplishments, its renown, and its universal mission to all of humankind.

[3] I will bless those who bless you, and curse him that curses youAbram, and the Jewish people likewise, can neither bless nor curse persons of their own choosing. Contrast this with the diametrically opposite outlook of a similar phrase used in connection with the villain Balaam (Numbers 22:6; see Biblical Dynamics there). Rather, the nations and peoples of the world will themselves be blessed or cursed depending on how they relate to the Jewish people: They who bless the Jews bring upon themselves a blessing, and they who curse them bring upon themselves a curse.

And all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by youHere the term “families” is used (not “nations”), because the Jewish nation is charged with uniting humanity spiritually, and the cooperation between neighboring families is much tighter than among neighboring nations. In Zechariah too (14:17), the nations of the world are called “families of the earth,” a term that expresses the unity of humanity from the messianic perspective.

13.2. God’s Plan and Abraham’s Plan (12:4-5)

ד וַיֵּ֣לֶךְ אַבְרָ֗ם כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֨ר דִּבֶּ֤ר אֵלָיו֙ י֔י וַיֵּ֥לֶךְ אִתּ֖וֹ ל֑וֹט וְאַבְרָ֗ם בֶּן־חָמֵ֤שׁ שָׁנִים֙ וְשִׁבְעִ֣ים שָׁנָ֔ה בְּצֵאת֖וֹ מֵֽחָרָֽן׃ ה וַיִּקַּ֣ח אַבְרָם֩ אֶת־שָׂרַ֨י אִשְׁתּ֜וֹ וְאֶת־ל֣וֹט בֶּן־אָחִ֗יו וְאֶת־כָּל־רְכוּשָׁם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר רָכָ֔שׁוּ וְאֶת־הַנֶּ֖פֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר־עָשׂ֣וּ בְחָרָ֑ן וַיֵּֽצְא֗וּ לָלֶ֨כֶת֙ אַ֣רְצָה כְּנַ֔עַן וַיָּבֹ֖אוּ אַ֥רְצָה כְּנָֽעַן׃

[4] Abram went forth as the Lord had commanded him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he left Haran.

[5] Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the wealth that they had amassed, and the persons that they had acquired in Haran; and they set out for the land of Canaan. When they arrived in the land of Canaan,

[4] Abram went forthSurely Abram was inwardly prepared to fulfill the mission entrusted to him (had he not been ready, it is unlikely that God would have charged him with that mission). That readiness, however, by no means implies that it was an order that Abraham could take in stride. On the contrary, God’s command proved so radical that Abram was unable to immediately assimilate and accept it.

Abram went forth as the Lord had commanded him, and Lot went with him… [5] Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot These passages are usually understood simply as Abram’s fulfillment of God’s instructions. When we compare the two verses, however, we see that they present a significant contradiction. In verse 12:4, “Abram went forth as the Lord had commanded him” everything is exactly as God ordered Abram, and Lot himself went along with him. In verse 12:5, however, “Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot,” a completely different picture is presented, prompting the question: Is it not obvious that Abram’s wife would join him? Why must this be explicitly stated? Moreover, the Torah emphasizes that Abram actively took Lot with him, which is problematic, given that he had been ordered to leave his relatives behind. Why, then, did he take not only all his wealth, but also “the souls they had acquired in Charan,” of whom God had made no mention in His order?

To resolve these inconsistencies, we must consider the verses in a broader context. As noted earlier, the migration to Canaan was not initiated at all by Abram, since verse 12:5 “... and they set out for the land of Canaan. When they arrived in the land of Canaan…” clearly corresponds to verse 11:31: “Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot the son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and they set out together from Ur of the Chaldeans for the land of Canaan; but when they had come as far as Haran, they settled there.”

Thus, in verse 12:5, Abram’s journey to Canaan is presented as his continuation of the journey begun by his father Terah (11:31), and not in any sense as Abram’s fulfillment of a Divine order (12:1). Terah was unable to realize his plan, for he was stranded in Charan, but Abram continued the journey and realized the original plan.

Verses 12:4 and 12:5, then, rather than merely contradicting each other, present two opposing views of the same event. On the one hand, Abram follows God’s instructions in every respect, but on the other hand, he initially has his own plans and is not prepared to modify them: he journeys to Canaan to complete the project begun by his father Terah.

In other words, Abram had his own plans and, although he managed to incorporate them into his fulfillment of God’s order, he did not follow God’s instructions in every respect.

How and why did this come about?

13.3. The Transition from Cosmopolitanism to “Political Universalism”

The spiritual forefather of mankind was originally named Abram, not Abraham. Only at the end of the Lech Lecha portion is the Hebrew letter “heh” added to his name (in English this is represented by the h in “Abraham”).

The Midrash explains the name Abram as Ab Aram – “the father of the Aramaeans,” that is, the spiritual leader of the people of Mesopotamia. And the expression, “the souls they acquired in Charan” refers to Abraham’s many disciples.

Earlier we cited the Midrash that tells how Abram came to monotheism while still in Ur Kasdim, smashing idols and challenging King Nimrod. Abram is thus a dissident who from his youth opposes the official ideology and exhorts the population to renounce idolatry. Later, in Charan, he has a great many disciples. Seen from this perspective, Abram’s departure from Charan represents a typical Jewish dilemma: Should a Jew devote his life to advancing the morality and spirituality of the nations of the world by living among them or would he do better to tackle exclusively Jewish problems while living in the Jews’ own country?

The Midrash considers this dilemma Abram’s first test.

A Jew will consistently strive for universality, for interaction with all of humanity. A desire to bring a blessing upon all of humanity is quite natural for, and typical of, the Jewish national character. There is a temptation, however to equate universalism with cosmopolitanism – that is, the idea that for the sake of being truly worldly it is necessary to abandon all uniquely national interests. God’s instruction to Abram was precisely the opposite: “You must adhere to the national, by striving to create your own people, because it is through the national, and never through the abandonment of it, wherein the path to the universal lies.”

Upon comparing verses 12:4 and 12:5 we see that initially there are two different plans for advancing humankind towards monotheism: God’s plan and Abram’s plan. God’s plan is to create a nation out of Abram: “I will make of you a great nation”. Abram’s plan, however, originally presupposed creation of a religion of ethical monotheism that would reeducate humanity while transcending all nationality. Abram therefore takes his disciples with him, notwithstanding that God had not ordered him to do so.

We shall continue our coverage of this problem below, as part of our discussion of Abraham’s subsequent life crises.

13.4. Abraham’s First Test: The Departure from Charan

Abraham’s primary quality was thus chesed. All his life he taught ethical monotheism to the people around him.

However, Abraham’s main contribution to the advancement of mankind is not merely that he cultivated enlightenment, but that he created the Jewish people, the “faceting” of chesed. As he underwent his tests, Abraham restricted his chesed, excising from within himself the extraneous components and leaving the legitimate core of chesed that would later serve as the basis for the soul of the Jewish nation.

Instead of the raw attribute of chesed – the unrestrained desire to give and show mercy – Abraham had to construct a more correct attribute of chesed, as he learned to give only when giving leads to good, because misplaced kindness can easily lead to evil. To this end, Abraham had to learn to act against his own nature, against chesed, against striving for universal grace.

From the point of view of chesed it seemed natural to Abraham that he should create a group of teachers for the sake of promoting his ideas. Such a group would be open to teaching all people. Promoting this same idea at the national level seems less proper, because a nation is by necessity always a restricted set: some belong to it simply by right of birth, while most others are excluded. Restricting kindness in that way seems inconsistent with the whole idea of chesed. God’s proposal to Abraham to become the founder of a nation, and not merely of a group of disciples, was therefore itself one of Abraham’s ordeals. The test here consisted not only in separating himself from his relatives and from his familiar environment, but also in transitioning to a national mindset, thereby restricting the influence of his ideas by reorienting himself away from all of humanity toward a single people.

Abraham, the spiritual leader of the people of Aram (among the most prominent civilizations of the time), had to abandon his country, whose progress he was engaged in promoting, and the people who considered him their spiritual leader. Lech lecha, addressed by God to Abraham, can be translated as “go for yourself, go to yourself,” that is, abandon the cosmopolitan affairs that occupy you in Babylon and work for the furtherance of your own nation specifically. Restricting himself in this way was for Abraham a significant challenge.

Jewish tradition teaches an important principle: “The deeds of the ancestors serve as indicators for their descendants.” The actions of the Patriarchs are archetypes, models of what happens later to the Jewish people. If we view Abraham’s tests through the lens of past millennia, we see that his departure from Charan was a typically Jewish test. Jews quite often want to help all of humanity at once, but they must abandon that wish and deal instead with specifically Jewish problems.

To properly resolve such conflicts of conscience, we must realize that the transition from a cosmopolitan position to a national one is by no means a betrayal of universalism – on the contrary, it is a movement towards it. Universalism is achieved not through cosmopolitanism, but through properly oriented nationalism. The path to the universal does not lie in the abandonment of the national, but, on the contrary, through a thoroughly national orientation that is open to the world, but autonomous all the same.

Many Jews even today will see this position as far too harsh, but for Abraham it was yet much more difficult to accept the idea that universality is achieved not by spreading God’s teachings at once to all, but by first creating, from the very outset, an exceptional people. Appealing to all of humankind would become possible only much later, by following the path already blazed and trodden by the Jewish people. Only gradually did Abraham come to fully accept God’s plan.

13.5. Changing the World Requires a Nation, and not Merely Disciples

In God’s command to Abraham, “Go forth to the land that I will show you, and I will make of you a great nation”, the key concept is the nation. As already noted, Abraham was not the first monotheist, for even before him the idea of the One God as the basis of morality – that is, the idea of ethical monotheism – was professed by Noah, Shem and Eber. But the idea of creating nothing less than an entire monotheistic people had never been conceived before. It appears in human history only from the moment that God chose Abraham to implement that plan.

The novelty and rarity of this approach lies in the fact that it establishes the goal of achieving holiness on both the individual and national levels. Holiness is not only for righteous individuals who are “immersed in spirituality,” but also for ordinary people who are involved in all aspects of material life within society. Holiness at the individual level was well-known even before then, for there certainly were exceptional, righteous personalities in every age who achieved holiness. But the idea of achieving holiness at the national level was all but unthinkable.

It should be noted that despite the progress of past millennia, pan-national holiness is still for many Jews even today something unusual, unattainable, and even downright difficult to conceive, while individual holiness, on the other hand, is a recognizable and commonplace phenomenon. But since “only like affects like,” for the improvement and spiritual advancement of mankind – that is, all the peoples of the world – the required level of holiness must be achieved by an entire nation. And truly, only then “all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you” (12:3). That is, only when the Jewish people attains national holiness can holiness then be extended to all of humanity.

13.6. The Lech Lecha Portion as Abraham’s Transition to God’s Plan

When one is trying to construct a doctrine, a religion, or a school of philosophy, what one absolutely must have are disciples; having actual children of one’s own is not really necessary. But when one is trying to build a nation, the situation is completely different – one needs descendants.

We see that no legacy remains of the entire coterie of Abraham’s students (who are mentioned in the Torah only in passing). Everything that humankind received from Abraham was transmitted through his son Isaac, and then through Isaac’s son Yaakov and his children.

Initially, however, Abraham did not realize this. Although he had no children, he did have pupils, and he hoped to disseminate his religious system with their help. The absence of children did not at first seem to Abraham a problem, because children are not indispensable for creating religious doctrine. Only later does Abraham come to understand the importance of progeny.

In fact, the entire Lech Lecha portion is about the conflict between these two enterprises: Abraham’s plan to create a religion, and God’s plan to create a people. By the end of that portion, Abraham finally abandons his own plan and fully transitions to realizing God’s plan exclusively.

13.7. The Founding of the City of Shechem (12:6-7)

ו וַיַּֽעֲבֹ֤ר אַבְרָם֙ בָּאָ֔רֶץ עַ֚ד מְק֣וֹם שְׁכֶ֔ם עַ֖ד אֵל֣וֹן מוֹרֶ֑ה וְהַֽכְּנַעֲנִ֖י אָ֥ז בָּאָֽרֶץ׃ ז וַיֵּרָ֤א יי֙ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם וַיֹּ֕אמֶר לְזַ֨רְעֲךָ֔ אֶתֵּ֖ן אֶת־הָאָ֣רֶץ הַזֹּ֑את וַיִּ֤בֶן שָׁם֙ מִזְבֵּ֔חַ לַֽי֖י הַנִּרְאֶ֥ה אֵלָֽיו׃

[6] Abram passed through the land as far as the site of Shechem, at the terebinth of Moreh. The Canaanites were then in the land.

[7] The Lord appeared to Abram and said, “I will assign this land to your heirs.” And he built an altar there to the Lord who had appeared to him.

I will assign this land The word zot, “this,” always refers to something visible, to which you can point. In other words, from the place where Abraham was located, the entire future Land of Israel was visible. Mount Ebal, located at 3,085 feet ( 940 m) above sea level in the area of Shechem, is just such a place: it affords a striking view of over 60 miles ( 100 km) in every direction. On this very mountain almost five hundred years after Abraham, when conquering the Holy Land, Joshua would erect an altar as a memorial to Abraham’s altar (Joshua 8:30). Not too many years ago Joshua’s altar was located and excavated by an Israeli archaeological expedition.

The Canaanites were then in the land Describing how Abraham came to that Land, the Torah immediately informs us what kind of people were then in possession of it. That is, the situation at the time of the described events is contrasted with God’s promise, “I will assign this land to your heirs.” This means that the matter of state authority at the national level in the Holy Land is highly significant from God’s point of view.

Abram passed through the land as far as the site of ShechemNot “as far as Shechem,” but “as far as the site of Shechem.” When Abraham arrived there the city of Shechem apparently did not yet exist. Rather, it was the site of the future Shechem.

I will assign this land to your heirsHere Abraham receives yet another prophecy, more precisely delineating the area of ​​his activity. Earlier, when God said to Abraham, “... I will make of you a great nation” (12:2), Abraham might still have imagined that his disciples would become the foundation of the new nation; perhaps he even considered them his adopted children. Therefore, although Abraham goes to Canaan at God’s direction, he takes with him “acquired souls,” intending to create a people from them, and hoping to integrate his own plans with God’s instructions. But now God speaks to him in more definite terms, informing him that the nation will be built on the foundation of Abraham’s descendants, and not his disciples. We therefore see later (12:8) that Abraham continues the journey with only his family.

Abraham apparently left his disciples, who then most likely founded the city of Shechem, if it did not then exist. They remained in Shechem and further developed themselves while no longer under Abraham’s influence. The observation that Shechem was built and populated by Abraham’s disciples, who had come from Babylon, is critical to our analysis of the history that later unfolds.

13.8. Babylon and Egypt

Babylon and Egypt , two fertile regions and two great civilizations framing the Land of Israel from opposite sides, were inextricably linked with it throughout the ancient era. And from those two civilizations we see, likewise, two rather different Jewish “outcomes.”

Abraham’s origins were in Babylon. He spends some time in Egypt and then moves on. Jacob goes to his uncle Laban in Babylon, but returns from there to Canaan. At the end of his life he and his family descend to Egypt .

Some centuries later the Jewish people made history with the Exodus from Egypt . Many more centuries after that the Babylonian captivity ensues, then ends abruptly seventy years later. At the next turn of history, now already the period we know as “antiquity,” Egypt and Babylon become the primary seats of the Jewish diaspora. Its spiritual center moves to Babylon, where the Babylonian Talmud takes form.

All of ancient Jewish history was in some sense a pendulum swinging to and fro between Egypt and Babylon.

The significance of Babylon and Egypt as the primitive centers of human culture is noted at the very beginning of the Torah (Genesis 2). In the story of Adam and Eve’s brief stay in the Garden of Eden, where the matter of geography would seem completely irrelevant, the Torah says: “A river issues from Eden to water the garden, and it then divides and becomes four branches. The name of the first is Pishon, the one that winds through the whole land of Havilah, where the gold is. The gold of that land is good; bdellium is there, and lapis lazuli. The name of the second river is Gihon, the one that winds through the whole land of Cush. The name of the third river is Tigris, the one that flows east of Asshur. And the fourth river is the Euphrates” (2:10-14).

These four prominent rivers symbolize the four primary orientations into which human culture diffused beyond the single “river issues from Eden.” The confluence of the Tigris (Chiddekel) and the Euphrates is in Mesopotamia, although the former is associated with Assyria, and the latter with Babylon. Gihon is the Nile, which bypasses the land of Cush ( Ethiopia ), and symbolizes Egyptian culture. And the fourth of those rivers, Pishon, is also usually identified with the Nile – the White and Blue Nile rivers.

Because the Land of Israel lies between Egypt and Babylon, throughout the whole of ancient history the Jews found themselves caught between these two great centers of civilization, two zones of influence always in competition with one another.

At the time of the Patriarchs the boundary of that zone of influence passed through the Jordan Valley. Canaan, the mountainous part of the country, was subordinate to Egypt , while the lowland – the Jordan Valley and the vicinity of the Dead Sea, as well as the Transjordan – belonged to Babylon’s sphere of influence.

The fundamental cultural difference between the ancient civilizations of Egypt and Babylon was as follows.

Egypt , with a solar calendar, was a solar civilization. It subsequently became the basis for the ancient Graeco-Roman and Christian civilizations. It manifests its legacy through the West – by expansion, rationality, and openness.

In contrast, Babylon, with its lunar calendar, was a lunar civilization. It gave rise to Islamic culture, which likewise follows a lunar calendar. Islam manifests its heritage through the East – by dreams, languor, and magic.

As we should have expected, Jewish civilization, centered in the Land of Israel midway between the other two, unites and integrates the achievements of both Egypt and Babylon, and compensates for their shortcomings. Indeed, the Jewish calendar is lunar-solar.

13.9. Abraham Between the Sun and the Moon

Let us turn to a midrash which we cited above (§18.1) about the vanquishing of the sun and the moon. Abraham’s reasoning comes across as childish and naive. After first gazing at the sun and concluding that the sun is a deity, he then turns his sights toward the moon and arrives at the same conclusion about the moon. Finally, he reasons that there must be Someone ruling over both the sun and the moon. The entire episode seems so very primitive. The Midrash also informs us that Abraham had emerged from a cave. What kind of cave did Abraham emerge from? And why had he been living in a cave?

To understand this Midrash we must bear in mind that it did not originate at the time of the Patriarchs, but only much later – in the Talmudic era. It is thus not a record of the actual events of Abraham’s childhood, but a unique literary form through which the sages of the Talmud transmit to succeeding generations their understanding of the Torah. The cave of which the Midrash speaks here is Plato’s cave – a metaphor that describes life in this world as a kind of cavelike existence. The cave’s inhabitants see nothing more than shadows on the wall, which offer them only a faint impression of true life as it goes on outside the cave.

Abraham, upon emerging from that “cave” – that is, upon realizing the inadequacy of conventional perspectives – is searching for the true essence of the universe. What does he see? There is the sun and there is the moon. What is meant, of course, is not the physical sun and moon, but the world of ideas that surrounds Abraham: the Egyptian and Babylonian civilizations (the “sun” and “moon,” respectively). Abraham is equally fascinated by both civilizations, for he sees for himself in each something vital. He understands that he must assimilate and incorporate something from them within himself, but at the same time transcend them in order to rise to the Almighty, who rules both the “sun” and the “moon” – that is, both of those civilizations.

Abraham therefore attempts to fashion his monotheistic abstraction so as to be identified – to a certain extent, at least – with both Babylon and Egypt , by incorporating the best of both, and then to eventually return to the source of that single river that flows forth from the Garden of Eden. Near the beginning of Abraham’s sojourn in Babylon, according to the previously mentioned aggadah, he comes in conflict with Nimrod, king of Babylon. Precisely because Abraham considers Babylonian civilization so important, he tries to influence Nimrod, encouraging him to correct the defects of Babylonian culture. But all this ends in failure, and the Terah family departs Babylon.

In its accounts of the monotheists who preceded Abraham – Noah, Shem, and Eber – Jewish tradition mentions no instance of conflict with their surrounding society. They lived their lives privately, teaching their ideas only to those who wished to hear them. Abraham, however, was a rebel, for he could not reconcile with the idolatry that surrounded him. After his conflict with Nimrod, Abraham leaves Babylon, going first to the Land of Israel, and later to Egypt , the land of “solar” ideology. Another conflict then ensues, this time with Pharaoh; Abraham again departs, this time paving the way for his descendants’ Exodus from Egypt . Thus, Abraham laid the groundwork for “extracting sparks” from both Babylon and Egypt , and integrating them into Judaism.

13.10. The Three Jewish Capitals: Shechem, Hebron, and Jerusalem

The dynamics of Abraham’s relationship with Babylon and Egypt is also reflected in the geography of the Holy Land. First, Abraham acquires disciples in Charan, located in the region of Babylon, and he brings them with him to Canaan, but leaves them in Shechem. Thus, Shechem is the “exemplar” of Babylon in the Land of Israel. Shechem will later become the city of Joseph, the capital of Samaria, the territory of the northern tribes and the northern kingdom (the Kingdom of Israel).

Abraham then descends to Egypt , and leaves it with new supporters and followers. He settles them in Hebron, the city that is the antithesis of Shechem, and leaves them there. Hebron is the capital of Judea, the territory of the southern tribes and the Southern (Judean) Kingdom. Hebron is thus the “exemplar” of Egypt in the Land of Israel.

The shared capital that unites Shechem and Hebron is Jerusalem, located on the boundary that divides the northern and southern tribes. Judaism spreads outward from there, for “instruction shall come forth from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem” (Isaiah 2:3). These three cities (two “inner” capitals and one “outer” capital) have been throughout history the most prominent cities of the Holy Land, and remain so to this day.

13.11. Abraham Proceeds to Egypt (12:8-10)

ח וַיַּעְתֵּ֨ק מִשָּׁ֜ם הָהָ֗רָה מִקֶּ֛דֶם לְבֵֽית־אֵ֖ל וַיֵּ֣ט אָֽהֳלֹ֑ה בֵּֽית־אֵ֤ל מִיָּם֙ וְהָעַ֣י מִקֶּ֔דֶם וַיִּֽבֶן־שָׁ֤ם מִזְבֵּ֨חַ֙ לַֽי֔י וַיִּקְרָ֖א בְּשֵׁ֥ם יֽי׃ ט וַיִּסַּ֣ע אַבְרָ֔ם הָל֥וֹךְ וְנָס֖וֹעַ הַנֶּֽגְבָּה׃ י וַיְהִ֥י רָעָ֖ב בָּאָ֑רֶץ וַיֵּ֨רֶד אַבְרָ֤ם מִצְרַ֨יְמָה֙ לָג֣וּר שָׁ֔ם כִּֽי־כָבֵ֥ד הָֽרָעָ֖ב בָּאָֽרֶץ׃

[8] From there he moved on to the hill country east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and he built there an altar to the Lord and invoked the Lord by name.

[9] Then Abram journeyed by stages toward the Negeb.

[10] There was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land.

[8] And [he] pitched his tentThe use of the verb in the singular is understood to indicate that Abraham is no longer accompanied by his numerous students. There is no one with him now but his own family.

And invoked the Lord by name Having left his Babylonian disciples in Shechem, and being now disengaged of them, Abraham strengthens his connection to the land. If at Shechem he only built an altar, now he can also “invoke the Lord by name.”

Bethel on the west and Ai on the east Coming from the north, from Charan, Abraham arrives first at Elon Moreh, Mount Ebal, and the future Shechem. He then moves southward and stops east of Bethel – on the mountain of Baal-hazor, apparently the highest point in Samaria at 3,333 feet ( 1016 m) above sea level. From this mountain one can see the entire country: northward to Mount Hermon, in the south to Mitzpeh Ramon, on the west the entire coastal plain, and on the east – the plateau of the Transjordan. From here, unlike the view from Mount Ebal, you can see even Jerusalem, which sits below the surrounding mountains. Thus, from here a connection is possible with Jerusalem, the heart of the country, and here, therefore, besides erecting an altar, Abraham “invokes the Lord by name.” That is, he can now disseminate ethical monotheism through the connection he has made with the Holy Land. It is here that Abraham pitches his tent, occupying this district that is the very heart of the future Land of Israel.

[9] Then Abram journeyed by stages toward the NegebThe Negeb is a triangular desert region in southern Israel . But the Hebrew word “negeb” when used generically means, simply, “south.” Abraham’s wanderings take him in parallel through the spiritual and physical worlds. The future Jewish nation cannot possibly develop normally until it has assimilated within itself the culture of the world’s opposite pole, Egypt . Abraham, having already absorbed from Babylon those elements of spirituality needed for creating a Jewish synthesis, now sets his sights on Egypt, and moves southward. But he has also a second objective: After failing to convert the people of Babylon to his faith, will he perhaps meet better success in Egypt ?

[10] There was a famine in the land Because Abraham was already progressing toward Egypt of his own accord, God likewise impels him in that direction. A severe famine ensues, and Abraham perforce descends to Egypt .

Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the landOn the surface, God’s actions appear contradictory. First God tells Abraham to make his way to the land of Canaan, but as soon as he arrives, a famine forces Abraham to depart for Egypt . The contradiction, however, is more apparent than real. In God’s plan, the actual goal is neither for Abraham to live in Canaan nor to reward or punish Abraham. The goal is to develop Abraham’s character. For in the process of grappling with the difficulties that God places in his path, Abraham’s character achieves greater perfection.

13.12. Abraham and Sarah in Egypt (12:11-13)

יא וַיְהִ֕י כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֥ר הִקְרִ֖יב לָב֣וֹא מִצְרָ֑יְמָה וַיֹּ֨אמֶר֙ אֶל־שָׂרַ֣י אִשְׁתּ֔וֹ הִנֵּה־נָ֣א יָדַ֔עְתִּי כִּ֛י אִשָּׁ֥ה יְפַת־מַרְאֶ֖ה אָֽתְּ׃ יב וְהָיָ֗ה כִּֽי־יִרְא֤וּ אֹתָךְ֙ הַמִּצְרִ֔ים וְאָֽמְר֖וּ אִשְׁתּ֣וֹ זֹ֑את וְהָֽרְג֥וּ אֹתִ֖י וְאֹתָ֥ךְ יְחַיּֽוּ׃ יג אִמְרִי־נָ֖א אֲחֹ֣תִי אָ֑תְּ לְמַ֨עַן֙ יִֽיטַב־לִ֣י בַֽעֲבוּרֵ֔ךְ וְחָֽיְתָ֥ה נַפְשִׁ֖י בִּגְלָלֵֽךְ׃

[11] As he was about to enter Egypt , he said to his wife Sarai, “I know what a beautiful woman you are”.

[12] If the Egyptians see you, and think, ‘She is his wife,’ they will kill me and let you live.

[13] Please say that you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that I may remain alive thanks to you”.

That Abraham would resort to calling Sarah his sister is very problematic. Some would attempt to rationalize that Abraham was a prophet and thus knew in advance that Sarah was not endangered. But this approach seems to us incorrect. If Abraham is all-knowing, then he faces no difficulty at all in arriving at any decision, nor is Abraham showing any development as a personality. And worse yet, we will derive no lesson whatsoever from any of his actions, since we are not all-knowing, and can therefore learn absolutely nothing from the story. The inevitable result of any such attempt to “whitewash” Abraham’s actions is that the Torah will lose its meaning as a source of guidance. Let us therefore avoid any such assumptions as we try to make sense of Abraham’s actions.

It should be noted that a number of Jewish commentators have criticized Abraham quite harshly for his handling of the situation. Nahmanides, for example, condemns Abraham for claiming that Sarah was his sister, and for even descending to Egypt in the first place. Nahmanides would have had Abraham remain in the land of Canaan, persevering and enduring the famine there. Overall, however, the commentaries typically have no such rigorous expectations of Abraham.

Evidently, Abraham’s appeal to Sarah to pose as his sister was based on the Code of Hammurabi, king of Babylon, which governed every sphere of life at that time and in that region. Although the Torah mentions him nowhere, we know from archeological data that Hammurabi instituted a system of laws that was widely distributed and generally accepted throughout the Middle East of that period. In the Torah, too, we can see that the behavior of the Patriarchs and their relations with their surrounding environment are likewise governed by the influence of that Babylonian legal code.

The Code of Hammurabi specifically states that if a woman has a brother or father, no man may marry her without asking and receiving their permission. If Abraham is regarded as Sarah’s brother, then all parties, believing ipso facto that she is available for marriage, will be answerable only to Abraham for asking her hand in matrimony. And the Egyptians likewise will seek him out and ask his permission to marry Sarah. Whereas, should the Egyptians come to know that in fact he is Sarah’s husband, then Abraham, seen as nothing more than an impassable hindrance to anyone who might wish to marry Sarah, could very well be killed. Thus, Abraham declares that he is Sarah’s brother in order to secure his own safety during their stay in Egypt , and in order to retain control over the outcome of the situation.

Apparently, however, saving himself and his family from hunger is not Abraham’s sole challenge. For we see that Abraham asks Sarah to pose as his sister not only in order that he be spared from death, but also “that it may go well with me because of you.” What exactly is Abraham hoping to receive? And why is he in Egypt at all? It is ostensibly due to the famine. But even before the famine is mentioned (verse 10) the Torah states (verse 9) that “Abraham journeyed by stages toward the Negeb,” that is, toward the south. In other words, the “hunger” here is twofold: an ordinary shortage of food, and Abraham’s desire to acquire Egyptian wisdom. But at the same time, quite plausibly, he desires also to exert influence over the Egyptians.

By passing off Sarah as his sister, Abraham deceives an unwitting population, and quite possibly subjects Sarah to significant danger. All of this seems highly problematic from a moral point of view. In truth, however, there is profound meaning to be found here, all of which we shall discuss in greater detail below.

13.13. Abraham and Pharaoh (12:14-20)

יד וַיְהִ֕י כְּב֥וֹא אַבְרָ֖ם מִצְרָ֑יְמָה וַיִּרְא֤וּ הַמִּצְרִים֙ אֶת־הָ֣אִשָּׁ֔ה כִּֽי־יָפָ֥ה הִ֖וא מְאֹֽד׃ טו וַיִּרְא֤וּ אֹתָהּ֙ שָׂרֵ֣י פַרְעֹ֔ה וַיְהַֽלְל֥וּ אֹתָ֖הּ אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֑ה וַתֻּקַּ֥ח הָֽאִשָּׁ֖ה בֵּ֥ית פַּרְעֹֽה׃ טז וּלְאַבְרָ֥ם הֵיטִ֖יב בַּֽעֲבוּרָ֑הּ וַֽיְהִי־ל֤וֹ צֹאן־וּבָקָר֙ וַֽחֲמֹרִ֔ים וַֽעֲבָדִים֙ וּשְׁפָחֹ֔ת וַֽאֲתֹנֹ֖ת וּגְמַלִּֽים׃ יז וַיְנַגַּ֨ע י֧י ׀ אֶת־פַּרְעֹ֛ה נְגָעִ֥ים גְּדֹלִ֖ים וְאֶת־בֵּית֑וֹ עַל־דְּבַ֥ר שָׂרַ֖י אֵ֥שֶׁת אַבְרָֽם׃ יח וַיִּקְרָ֤א פַרְעֹה֙ לְאַבְרָ֔ם וַיֹּ֕אמֶר מַה־זֹּ֖את עָשִׂ֣יתָ לִּ֑י לָ֚מָּה לֹֽא־הִגַּ֣דְתָּ לִּ֔י כִּ֥י אִשְׁתְּךָ֖ הִֽוא׃ יט לָמָ֤ה אָמַ֨רְתָּ֙ אֲחֹ֣תִי הִ֔וא וָֽאֶקַּ֥ח אֹתָ֛הּ לִ֖י לְאִשָּׁ֑ה וְעַתָּ֕ה הִנֵּ֥ה אִשְׁתְּךָ֖ קַ֥ח וָלֵֽךְ׃ כ וַיְצַ֥ו עָלָ֛יו פַּרְעֹ֖ה אֲנָשִׁ֑ים וַֽיְשַׁלְּח֥וּ אֹת֛וֹ וְאֶת־אִשְׁתּ֖וֹ וְאֶת־כָּל־אֲשֶׁר־לֽוֹ׃

[14] When Abram entered Egypt , the Egyptians saw how very beautiful the woman was.

[15] Pharaoh’s courtiers saw her and praised her to Pharaoh, and the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s palace.

[16] And because of her, it went well with Abram; he acquired sheep, oxen, asses, male and female slaves, she-asses, and camels.

[17] But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his household with mighty plagues on account of Sarai, the wife of Abram.

[18] Pharaoh sent for Abram and said, “What is this you have done to me! Why did you not tell me that she was your wife?

[19] Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her as my wife? Now, here is your wife; take her and begone!”

[20] And Pharaoh put men in charge of him, and they sent him off with his wife and all that he possessed.

[15] Pharaoh’s courtiers saw her and praised her to Pharaoh, and the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s palaceSarah “was taken,” that is, Pharaoh did not seek permission from Sarah’s””brother.” This was a scenario that Abraham could not have foreseen.

[16] And because of her, it went well with Abram; he acquired sheep, oxen, asses, male and female slaves, she-asses, and camelsLeaving behind the many disciples who had accompanied him from Babylon to Shechem, Abraham and his family alone go to Bethel, and then descend to Egypt. But Abraham now again, by the will of Providence, acquires a great number of souls, livestock and property.

And … it went well with Abram; he acquired sheep, oxen, asses, male and female slavesThe slaves of Abraham were not slaves in the Greco-Roman sense (“talking instruments” having no rights); rather, they were his courtiers and entourage – individuals worthy of becoming his new students.

[19] Now, here is your wife; take her and begoneAlthough Pharaoh reproaches Abraham, they part on good terms. Abraham remains a confederate to Pharaoh, and this will later prove particularly significant.

The Midrash adds that among the people whom Pharaoh gave to Abraham was Hagar, the daughter of Pharaoh. Abraham, everywhere “invoking the name of God,” was known as an outstanding personality. Pharaoh senses Abraham’s greatness and wants their families to intermarry. For just that reason, Pharaoh had first tried to marry Sarah, Abraham’s “sister,” but when this proved impossible, he gave his daughter Hagar to Abraham in marriage.

We need not understand this Midrash literally, of course. The intent is that Hagar became an “exemplar” of Egyptian culture within Abraham’s family. Abraham’s connection with Hagar was his connection with Egypt . We will discuss this in more detail below.

Chapter 14. Parting of the Ways with Lot and the War with the Kings

14.1. Abraham and Lot Part Ways (13:1-13)

א וַיַּעַל֩ אַבְרָ֨ם מִמִּצְרַ֜יִם ה֠וּא וְאִשְׁתּ֧וֹ וְכָל־אֲשֶׁר־ל֛וֹ וְל֥וֹט עִמּ֖וֹ הַנֶּֽגְבָּה׃ ב וְאַבְרָ֖ם כָּבֵ֣ד מְאֹ֑ד בַּמִּקְנֶ֕ה בַּכֶּ֖סֶף וּבַזָּהָֽב׃ ג וַיֵּ֨לֶךְ֙ לְמַסָּעָ֔יו מִנֶּ֖גֶב וְעַד־בֵּֽית־אֵ֑ל עַד־הַמָּק֗וֹם אֲשֶׁר־הָ֨יָה שָׁ֤ם אָֽהֳלֹה֙ בַּתְּחִלָּ֔ה בֵּ֥ין בֵּֽית־אֵ֖ל וּבֵ֥ין הָעָֽי׃ ד אֶל־מְקוֹם֙ הַמִּזְבֵּ֔חַ אֲשֶׁר־עָ֥שָׂה שָׁ֖ם בָּרִֽאשֹׁנָ֑ה וַיִּקְרָ֥א שָׁ֛ם אַבְרָ֖ם בְּשֵׁ֥ם יֽי׃ ה וְגַ֨ם־לְל֔וֹט הַֽהֹלֵ֖ךְ אֶת־אַבְרָ֑ם הָיָ֥ה צֹאן־וּבָקָ֖ר וְאֹֽהָלִֽים׃ ו וְלֹֽא־נָשָׂ֥א אֹתָ֛ם הָאָ֖רֶץ לָשֶׁ֣בֶת יַחְדָּ֑ו כִּֽי־הָיָ֤ה רְכוּשָׁם֙ רָ֔ב וְלֹ֥א יָֽכְל֖וּ לָשֶׁ֥בֶת יַחְדָּֽו׃ ז וַֽיְהִי־רִ֗יב בֵּ֚ין רֹעֵ֣י מִקְנֵֽה־אַבְרָ֔ם וּבֵ֖ין רֹעֵ֣י מִקְנֵה־ל֑וֹט וְהַֽכְּנַעֲנִי֙ וְהַפְּרִזִּ֔י אָ֖ז יֹשֵׁ֥ב בָּאָֽרֶץ׃ ח וַיֹּ֨אמֶר אַבְרָ֜ם אֶל־ל֗וֹט אַל־נָ֨א תְהִ֤י מְרִיבָה֙ בֵּינִ֣י וּבֵינֶ֔ךָ וּבֵ֥ין רֹעַ֖י וּבֵ֣ין רֹעֶ֑יךָ כִּֽי־אֲנָשִׁ֥ים אַחִ֖ים אֲנָֽחְנוּ׃ ט הֲלֹ֤א כָל־הָאָ֨רֶץ֙ לְפָנֶ֔יךָ הִפָּ֥רֶד נָ֖א מֵֽעָלָ֑י אִם־הַשְּׂמֹ֣אל וְאֵימִ֔נָה וְאִם־הַיָּמִ֖ין וְאַשְׂמְאִֽילָה׃ י וַיִּשָּׂא־ל֣וֹט אֶת־עֵינָ֗יו וַיַּרְא֙ אֶת־כָּל־כִּכַּ֣ר הַיַּרְדֵּ֔ן כִּ֥י כֻלָּ֖הּ מַשְׁקֶ֑ה לִפְנֵ֣י ׀ שַׁחֵ֣ת י֗י אֶת־סְדֹם֙ וְאֶת־עֲמֹרָ֔ה כְּגַן־יי֙ כְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם בֹּֽאֲכָ֖ה צֹֽעַר׃ יא וַיִּבְחַר־ל֣וֹ ל֗וֹט אֵ֚ת כָּל־כִּכַּ֣ר הַיַּרְדֵּ֔ן וַיִּסַּ֥ע ל֖וֹט מִקֶּ֑דֶם וַיִּפָּ֣רְד֔וּ אִ֖ישׁ מֵעַ֥ל אָחִֽיו׃ יב אַבְרָ֖ם יָשַׁ֣ב בְּאֶֽרֶץ־כְּנָ֑עַן וְל֗וֹט יָשַׁב֙ בְּעָרֵ֣י הַכִּכָּ֔ר וַיֶּֽאֱהַ֖ל עַד־סְדֹֽם׃ יג וְאַנְשֵׁ֣י סְדֹ֔ם רָעִ֖ים וְחַטָּאִ֑ים לַֽי֖י מְאֹֽד׃

[1] From Egypt , Abram went up into the Negeb, with his wife and all that he possessed, together with Lot.

[2] Now Abram was very rich in cattle, silver, and gold.

[3] And he proceeded by stages from the Negeb as far as Bethel, to the place where his tent had been formerly, between Bethel and Ai,

[4] the site of the altar that he had built there at first; and there Abram invoked the Lord by name.

[5] Lot, who went with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents,

[6] so that the land could not support them staying together; for their possessions were so great that they could not remain together.

[7] And there was quarreling between the herdsmen of Abram’s cattle and those of Lot’s cattle. The Canaanites and Perizzites were then dwelling in the land.

[8] Abram said to Lot, “Let there be no strife between you and me, between my herdsmen and yours, for we are kinsmen.

[9] Is not the whole land before you? Let us separate: if you go north, I will go south; and if you go south, I will go north”.

[10] Lot looked about him and saw how well watered was the whole plain of the Jordan, all of it – this was before the Lord had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah – all the way to Zoar, like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt.

[11] So Lot chose for himself the whole plain of the Jordan , and Lot journeyed eastward. Thus they parted from each other;

[12] Abram remained in the land of Canaan, while Lot settled in the cities of the Plain, pitching his tents near Sodom.

[13] Now the inhabitants of Sodom were very wicked sinners against the Lord.

[1] From Egypt, Abram went up into the Negeb, with his wife and all that he possessed, together with LotThe entire Lech Lecha portion, as we have already noted, is a series of tests for Abraham, in which, instead of practicing ordinary chesed – sharing his teachings with any and all – he must narrow the target group through which his legacy will pass to all of humanity. Abraham first withdrew from Babylon, the country where he began his religious activity. Then, upon arriving in the Holy Land, he is separated from his disciples whom he brought from Babylon. And now, after returning from Egypt , the time has come for yet another separation – from Lot.

(1, 2) From Egypt , Abram went up … very rich in cattle, silver, and goldWith this, Abraham laid the model for the Exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt “with great wealth” (15:14).

(3, 4) And he proceeded by stages from the Negeb as far as Bethel, to the place where his tent had been formerly, between Bethel and Ai, the site of the altar that he had built there at first; and there Abram invoked the Lord by nameUpon returning from Egypt Abraham settled in his former location, the region of Bethel and Baal-hazor mountain, where he again invoked the name of the Lord by continuing to preach. But by this time he had completely changed his entourage. After leaving in Shechem the disciples he had brought from Babylon, Abraham now had servant-disciples whom he had brought from Egypt , and he himself had the status of an ally to Pharaoh.

[5] Lot, who went with Abram“Going with Abram” refers not merely to the movement of related parties in unison, but to an actual ideological connection: Lot was Abraham’s closest disciple and follower. Abraham says of Lot: “We are kindred people” (lit., “fraternal”), and this refers not only to lineage. Perhaps Abraham felt a particular obligation to Lot because (according to the Midrash) the death of Haran, Lot’s father, was in a certain sense due to Abraham. The moment comes, however, when Abraham’s further development requires that he separate from Lot.

[6] The land could not support them staying together; for their possessions were so great that they could not remain togetherThe earth was cramped for them not because there was little room for cattle grazing. No matter how large or small a common property might be, that size by itself will not interfere with joint management. No, something else is the problem – the conflict between the attitudes of Abraham and Lot, as reflected in the conflict between their respective shepherd followers.

[7] And there was quarreling between the herdsmen of Abram’s cattle and those of Lot’s cattle: Lot, too, has his “shepherds”; that is, the pupils of his own school.

The Canaanites and Perizzites were then dwelling in the landThe Torah’s remark about the Canaanites and Perizzites seems superfluous here, for it tells us nothing informative and relevant to the storyline. The Midrash therefore sees in these words the actual topic of the dispute. Said Lot’s shepherds: “Yes, the land has been promised to Abraham. But since he is childless, and the land will ultimately go to Lot, we consider it as already belonging to Lot, and we may do on this land as we please. So, go graze your cattle on someone else’s fields.” But Abraham’s shepherds would have none of that, and thus the conflict arose between them. We see that Abraham, besides acting righteously himself, demands righteous behavior also from his shepherds, whereas Lot, although himself righteous, nevertheless allows his shepherds to behave improperly.

Abraham might at first have seen Lot as a potential heir. But the behavior of Lot’s shepherds (and Lot’s own attitude towards them) demonstrated the futility of that hope, and a parting of ways became the only reasonable outcome.

[8] Abram said to Lot, “Let there be no strife between you and me”Had Abraham undertaken to adjudicate the dispute between the shepherds, he could easily have put Lot’s shepherds in their place. Any irreconcilable dispute once begun requires a forceful resolution, but Abraham, champion of the attribute of chesed, wants to avoid enforcing the letter of the law through extreme measures. Seeking only harmony and peace, he says: “Let there be no strife!” He therefore proposes to reach an agreement by dividing the territory, but this later becomes the source of yet greater difficulties. Abraham and Lot were both people of chesed, but in that situation it was Abraham’s chesed itself that prevented him from establishing the proper working relationship with Lot and his shepherds.

For we are kinsmenThe Midrash understands this not merely as a statement of fact (which would make it just a restatement of the obvious), but also as a prediction for the future: Abraham and Lot must in the future be again related. Abraham sensed in Lot a certain potential that would require further development by the Jewish people, which was in fact realized later in the royal Davidic dynasty.

Abram said to Lot … [9] “… Let us separate: if you go north, I will go south; and if you go south, I will go north”The literal translation is, “if you go left, I will go right; and if you go right, I will go left.” The Midrash clarifies what Abraham meant: “If you are on the left, then I will be your support on the right” (and vice versa). Abraham did not wish to be removed any significant distance from Lot.

[11] So Lot chose for himself the whole plain of the Jordan … [12] Abram remained in the land of CanaanAs noted earlier, the boundary between two major zones of influence ran along this line: the Jordan Valley and the lands east of it were under the influence of Babylon, while the central mountainous terrain at the center of the country and the lands to the west were the zone of Egyptian influence. (A steep and often impassable ascent up the mountain from the Jordan Valley westward was the actual border between them.) Abraham, who since the time of his visit to Egypt was a recognized ally to Pharaoh, continued living in the Egyptian zone of influence.

Abraham and his Egyptian student-servants later moved to Hebron (13:17), not too far from Sodom, where Lot settled. Hebron is the city destined to become Egypt ’s “paradigm” in the Land of Israel.

[13] Now the inhabitants of Sodom were very wicked sinners against the LordBut despite this Lot decides to settle there. We need not fault him for this, however, for later we shall see that Lot, who holds the position of judge in Sodom, protects travelers and challenges the Sodomite order. Lot quite possibly was hoping that he could influence and re-educate the people of Sodom.

The Torah here underscores the contrast between Abraham and Lot. While Abraham, as we shall see later, is not prepared to accept “so much as a thread or a sandal strap” from Sodom, Lot has no compunctions even about living there. It is Sodom that highlights their striking differences.

Lot differs from Abraham in two respects, of which one is clearly a flaw, and the second probably even a virtue: [1] his righteousness is shaky, and his chesed often misdirected and “irrelevant”; but [2] he is predisposed to law and order and to promoting constructive government, because he sees in Sodom a positive core, and wishes to advance and improve it. Lot’s “governmental” mindset is a manifestation of the future sefirah of malchut, “kingdom,” from which his scion David will later descend.

14.2. Lot: Superfluous Chesed and the House of David

Lot is a righteous man, but he lacks character. He represents the attribute of improper, excessive chesed. Lot wants to be good to everyone, even agreeing to become a judge in Sodom, despite that city’s monstrous laws. In a critical situation he is prepared, for the protection of his guests, to give the crowd free reign with his own daughters, and yet he cannot even demand proper behavior of his shepherds. Thus, Lot is in the main a good man, but he is incapable of correctly measuring the value of his own actions and those of others; there are no guiding principles on which he can properly build his chesed. Unlike Abraham, Lot’s chesed has no clear ethical direction. For as we know, the mere desire to give is not, per se, kindness. Chesed must be properly used; only then will it work truly for good.

We noted earlier that Abraham takes Lot with him on his way to the land of Canaan, even in the absence of any such instruction from God. Together Lot and Abraham arrive in Egypt , and together they depart from there. And when they go their separate ways, Abraham nonetheless considers it important that he not put too much distance between himself and Lot, and that the two of them will remain in contact. When subsequently Abraham undertakes a battle against the four kings, it is only to liberate Lot. That is, for Lot’s sake Abraham is willing even to risk his own life. Lot is obviously very important to Abraham.

Lot’s two daughters will soon conceive from their father and each will give birth to a son, whose descendants will be the Ammonite and Moabite nations. These two nations were Abraham’s antithesis, being totally devoid of the attribute of chesed, kindness. So much so, in fact, that the Jews were even prohibited from accepting Moabites and Ammonites as converts to Judaism. First among the reasons for this ban, the Torah itself (Deut. 23:4) explains: “No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted into the congregation of the Lord … because they did not meet you with food and water on your journey after you left Egypt .”

However, this ban on conversion to Judaism applies only to Moabite and Ammonite men, but not their women. Thus, the Moabitess Ruth and the Ammonitess Naamah even became part of the royal Davidic dynasty after joining the Jewish people. Ruth married Boaz, as described in detail in the biblical book of Ruth, and their great-grandson was King David, whose son Solomon married Naamah. Thus, the royal Davidic family and the mashiach (Messiah) of Israel are in part descendants of Lot.

Indeed, there was something about Lot that was necessary for establishing the future royal Jewish bloodline, and the shepherds were not completely mistaken in considering Lot as Abraham’s rightful heir. Lot incorporated within himself an additional spark of chesed that was superfluous for the nation as a whole, but was necessary for` building the House of David. And Ruth became Jewish precisely because her chesed surpassed that of everyone else. She extracted, as it were, that exceptional spark of chesed from Lot, and passed it on to the royal Davidic dynasty.

The royal house always needs exceptional chesed as compared with the nation as a whole, in order to compensate for its exceptional gevurah (power, strength). Among the nations, it is most often the kings who are particularly susceptible to this manifestation of gevurah – power and authority – because of their need to coerce, punish, and even execute offenders. Even in childhood the king’s children know that they wield enormous power over their country; this often corrupts even highly upright souls, and the royal race can thus easily undergo moral decay. If this clan is to not degenerate, it needs an additional measure of chesed as compared with ordinary people. The royal “spiritual genotype” must be infused with a desire to give to others that is stronger than their need to take for themselves. The royal Jewish dynasty, the House of David, received this chesed through Ruth, which was then reinforced through Naamah.

Consequently, the House of David has demonstrated uncommon resistance to corruption due to privilege and power, and that is a decisive factor for its special significance in Jewish history. Even in the Davidic dynasty there were villain kings, idolaters, and the like, of course, but overall it managed to uphold a generally honorable standard over the full course of its five-hundred-year reign. Among other clans to whom dominion devolves, even if their eminently righteous first representatives have been granted royal authority by virtue of actual merit, the children or grandchildren soon degrade and lose their spiritual greatness, with no hope of it being restored at any time thereafter.

This is what actually happened to the Hasmonean dynasty that the Maccabean family had founded. The first generation of Hasmoneans, who had raised a rebellion against the Greeks and occupied the royal throne, were thoroughly admirable individuals who were supported by the entire nation. Their descendants, however, forfeited that status due to power’s pernicious influence. They introduced corruption and injustice into the country, and waged completely unnecessary wars of conquest; thus the Hasmoneans’ former spiritual stature was lost. Due to the lofty character of the kingdom of the House of David, Jewish tradition reveres it as an ideal, and in their prayers thrice daily Jews ask God for its speedy restoration. The Hasmoneans, in contrast, are accorded no such honor.

14.3. The Confirmation of God’s Covenant – After Lot’s Departure (13:14-16)

יד וַֽי֞י אָמַ֣ר אֶל־אַבְרָ֗ם אַֽחֲרֵי֙ הִפָּֽרֶד־ל֣וֹט מֵֽעִמּ֔וֹ שָׂ֣א נָ֤א עֵינֶ֨יךָ֙ וּרְאֵ֔ה מִן־הַמָּק֖וֹם אֲשֶׁר־אַתָּ֣ה שָׁ֑ם צָפֹ֥נָה וָנֶ֖גְבָּה וָקֵ֥דְמָה וָיָֽמָּה׃ טו כִּ֧י אֶת־כָּל־הָאָ֛רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־אַתָּ֥ה רֹאֶ֖ה לְךָ֣ אֶתְּנֶ֑נָּה וּֽלְזַרְעֲךָ֖ עַד־עוֹלָֽם׃ טז וְשַׂמְתִּ֥י אֶֽת־זַרְעֲךָ֖ כַּֽעֲפַ֣ר הָאָ֑רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֣ר ׀ אִם־יוּכַ֣ל אִ֗ישׁ לִמְנוֹת֙ אֶת־עֲפַ֣ר הָאָ֔רֶץ גַּֽם־זַרְעֲךָ֖ יִמָּנֶֽה׃

[14] And the Lord said to Abram, after Lot had parted from him, “Raise your eyes and look out from where you are, to the north and south, to the east and west,

[15] for I give all the land that you see to you and your offspring forever.

[16] I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth, so that if one can count the dust of the earth, then your offspring too can be counted.

[14] After Lot had parted from himGod fully endorses that separation. From such weak material as Lot, who is sympathetic to Abraham’s ideas but incapable of realizing them, it is impossible to create a chosen people.

[15] All the landGod’s promise emphasizes the indivisibility of the land (indeed, the view from Baal-hazor, the mountain where Abraham is located at this moment, takes in the entire Land of Israel). The territorial division with Lot is only a temporary phenomenon; in the future the whole Land of Israel must belong to the descendants of Abraham. And yet, since Abraham did in fact divide the land, at different stages of the historical development of the Jewish people God will likewise bring about the Jewish people’s forfeiting ownership of certain parts the land. Specifically, some chapters of the book of Genesis describe the covenant as extending only to Canaan, and then it speaks of “the land of the seven nations.” But sometimes we find that the covenant includes also the lands east of the Jordan River, and then the covenant speaks of “the land of the ten nations.”

14.4. God’s Covenant with Abraham: About the Nation and the Land, but not the Commandments

As already noted, in the course of Abraham’s life God makes several consecutive covenants with him. The first of those occurred in Charan, when God summoned Abraham for a journey to the Holy Land. The second covenant was made in Shechem, and the third after Lot’s departure. In all of those covenants God speaks of the future nation and its land, but nowhere does He mention the Torah, in the sense of a system of commandments.

This is typical of all the covenants God made with the Patriarchs. All those covenants speak of the creation of a populous nation and of their taking possession of the land. They also speak of direct communication with God, and the integration of the ideals of mercy and justice. But the commandments – as specific rules of behavior – will be given only at Sinai through Moses; they are never mentioned in the covenants that God makes with the Patriarchs.

Thus we see the primacy in Judaism of the nation, the land and that nation’s dominion over the land (to be realized through a political state), the Jewish people’s connection with God, and the ideals they are to uphold. Whereas the commandments and laws of the Torah are only a means to achieving them.

This new conception of daily life in the political state as being of primary spiritual importance runs counter to the historical direction that Judaism had followed in the Diaspora. Many religious leaders in the nineteenthth century therefore opposed Zionism, which, in their opinion, aimed to replace the spiritual elements in Judaism with earthly, territorial-national values. In response, one of the leaders of Zionism articulated his own approach as follows: “Every nation has as much sky above its head as it has land beneath its feet.”

14.5. Abraham Relocates to Hebron (13:17-18)

יז ק֚וּם הִתְהַלֵּ֣ךְ בָּאָ֔רֶץ לְאָרְכָּ֖הּ וּלְרָחְבָּ֑הּ כִּ֥י לְךָ֖ אֶתְּנֶֽנָּה׃ יח וַיֶּֽאֱהַ֣ל אַבְרָ֗ם וַיָּבֹ֛א וַיֵּ֛שֶׁב בְּאֵֽלֹנֵ֥י מַמְרֵ֖א אֲשֶׁ֣ר בְּחֶבְר֑וֹן וַיִּֽבֶן־שָׁ֥ם מִזְבֵּ֖חַ לַֽיֽי׃

 [17] Up, walk about the land, through its length and its breadth, for I give it to you”.

[18] And Abram moved his tent, and came to dwell at the terebinths of Mamre, which are in Hebron; and he built an altar there to the Lord.

[17] Up, walk about the land, through its length and its breadth, for I give it to youAbraham was not to remain in one place, or even to remain generally in the central region of the country. He had to himself move about the entire country, so that his descendants could likewise take possession of it. This is an instance of the principle, “the deeds of the ancestors are indicators for their descendants.” What Jewish ancestors do will extend also to their descendants. Thus, for Abraham’s descendants to take possession of the land in the future, Abraham must first travel around the Land of Israel in its entirety.

This is an indicator for modern-day Israel as well. Jews must make it their priority not only to live in the Land of Israel, but also to travel its length and breadth, and to see its sights. In other words, Israeli tourism has religious significance.

[18] And Abram moved his tent, and came to dwell at the terebinths of Mamre, which are in Hebron; and he built an altar there to the Lord Both Hebron and Bethel are situated on the “mountain” (the country’s central mountain ridge), but much further south, closer to Sodom, where Lot settled. More importantly, however, Hebron is a royal city: David was anointed there as king, and there he began his reign. Life in Hebron will require Abraham to manifest gevurah (strength), a quality that God wants to develop in Abraham, because building a nation (and a state much more so) requires gevurah, the balancing and limiting of chesed.

14.6. The War of the Kings (14:1-16)

א וַיְהִ֗י בִּימֵי֙ אַמְרָפֶ֣ל מֶֽלֶךְ־שִׁנְעָ֔ר אַרְי֖וֹךְ מֶ֣לֶךְ אֶלָּסָ֑ר כְּדָרְלָעֹ֨מֶר֙ מֶ֣לֶךְ עֵילָ֔ם וְתִדְעָ֖ל מֶ֥לֶךְ גּוֹיִֽם׃ ב עָשׂ֣וּ מִלְחָמָ֗ה אֶת־בֶּ֨רַע֙ מֶ֣לֶךְ סְדֹ֔ם וְאֶת־בִּרְשַׁ֖ע מֶ֣לֶךְ עֲמֹרָ֑ה שִׁנְאָ֣ב ׀ מֶ֣לֶךְ אַדְמָ֗ה וְשֶׁמְאֵ֨בֶר֙ מֶ֣לֶךְ צְבֹיִ֔ים וּמֶ֥לֶךְ בֶּ֖לַע הִיא־צֹֽעַר׃ ג כָּל־אֵ֨לֶּה֙ חָֽבְר֔וּ אֶל־עֵ֖מֶק הַשִּׂדִּ֑ים ה֖וּא יָ֥ם הַמֶּֽלַח׃ ד שְׁתֵּ֤ים עֶשְׂרֵה֙ שָׁנָ֔ה עָֽבְד֖וּ אֶת־כְּדָרְלָעֹ֑מֶר וּשְׁלֹשׁ־עֶשְׂרֵ֥ה שָׁנָ֖ה מָרָֽדוּ׃ ה וּבְאַרְבַּע֩ עֶשְׂרֵ֨ה שָׁנָ֜ה בָּ֣א כְדָרְלָעֹ֗מֶר וְהַמְּלָכִים֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אִתּ֔וֹ וַיַּכּ֤וּ אֶת־רְפָאִים֙ בְּעַשְׁתְּרֹ֣ת קַרְנַ֔יִם וְאֶת־הַזּוּזִ֖ים בְּהָ֑ם וְאֵת֙ הָֽאֵימִ֔ים בְּשָׁוֵ֖ה קִרְיָתָֽיִם׃ ו וְאֶת־הַֽחֹרִ֖י בְּהַרְרָ֣ם שֵׂעִ֑יר עַ֚ד אֵ֣יל פָּארָ֔ן אֲשֶׁ֖ר עַל־הַמִּדְבָּֽר׃ ז וַ֠יָּשֻׁבוּ וַיָּבֹ֜אוּ אֶל־עֵ֤ין מִשְׁפָּט֙ הִ֣וא קָדֵ֔שׁ וַיַּכּ֕וּ אֶֽת־כָּל־שְׂדֵ֖ה הָעֲמָֽלֵקִ֑י וְגַם֙ אֶת־הָ֣אֱמֹרִ֔י הַיֹּשֵׁ֖ב בְּחַֽצְצֹ֥ן תָּמָֽר׃ ח וַיֵּצֵ֨א מֶֽלֶךְ־סְדֹ֜ם וּמֶ֣לֶךְ עֲמֹרָ֗ה וּמֶ֤לֶךְ אַדְמָה֙ וּמֶ֣לֶךְ צְבֹיִ֔ים וּמֶ֥לֶךְ בֶּ֖לַע הִוא־צֹ֑עַר וַיַּֽעַרְכ֤וּ אִתָּם֙ מִלְחָמָ֔ה בְּעֵ֖מֶק הַשִּׂדִּֽים׃ ט אֵ֣ת כְּדָרְלָעֹ֜מֶר מֶ֣לֶךְ עֵילָ֗ם וְתִדְעָל֙ מֶ֣לֶךְ גּוֹיִ֔ם וְאַמְרָפֶל֙ מֶ֣לֶךְ שִׁנְעָ֔ר וְאַרְי֖וֹךְ מֶ֣לֶךְ אֶלָּסָ֑ר אַרְבָּעָ֥ה מְלָכִ֖ים אֶת־הַֽחֲמִשָּֽׁה׃ י וְעֵ֣מֶק הַשִּׂדִּ֗ים בֶּֽאֱרֹ֤ת בֶּֽאֱרֹת֙ חֵמָ֔ר וַיָּנֻ֛סוּ מֶֽלֶךְ־סְדֹ֥ם וַֽעֲמֹרָ֖ה וַיִּפְּלוּ־שָׁ֑מָּה וְהַנִּשְׁאָרִ֖ים הֶ֥רָה נָּֽסוּ׃ יא וַ֠יִּקְחוּ אֶת־כָּל־רְכֻ֨שׁ סְדֹ֧ם וַֽעֲמֹרָ֛ה וְאֶת־כָּל־אָכְלָ֖ם וַיֵּלֵֽכוּ׃ יב וַיִּקְח֨וּ אֶת־ל֧וֹט וְאֶת־רְכֻשׁ֛וֹ בֶּן־אֲחִ֥י אַבְרָ֖ם וַיֵּלֵ֑כוּ וְה֥וּא יֹשֵׁ֖ב בִּסְדֹֽם׃ יג וַיָּבֹא֙ הַפָּלִ֔יט וַיַּגֵּ֖ד לְאַבְרָ֣ם הָֽעִבְרִ֑י וְהוּא֩ שֹׁכֵ֨ן בְּאֵֽלֹנֵ֜י מַמְרֵ֣א הָֽאֱמֹרִ֗י אֲחִ֤י אֶשְׁכֹּל֙ וַֽאֲחִ֣י עָנֵ֔ר וְהֵ֖ם בַּֽעֲלֵ֥י בְרִית־אַבְרָֽם׃ יד וַיִּשְׁמַ֣ע אַבְרָ֔ם כִּ֥י נִשְׁבָּ֖ה אָחִ֑יו וַיָּ֨רֶק אֶת־חֲנִיכָ֜יו יְלִידֵ֣י בֵית֗וֹ שְׁמֹנָ֤ה עָשָׂר֙ וּשְׁלֹ֣שׁ מֵא֔וֹת וַיִּרְדֹּ֖ף עַד־דָּֽן׃ טו וַיֵּֽחָלֵ֨ק עֲלֵיהֶ֧ם ׀ לַ֛יְלָה ה֥וּא וַֽעֲבָדָ֖יו וַיַּכֵּ֑ם וַֽיִּרְדְּפֵם֙ עַד־חוֹבָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר מִשְּׂמֹ֖אל לְדַמָּֽשֶׂק׃ טז וַיָּ֕שֶׁב אֵ֖ת כָּל־הָֽרְכֻ֑שׁ וְגַם֩ אֶת־ל֨וֹט אָחִ֤יו וּרְכֻשׁוֹ֙ הֵשִׁ֔יב וְגַ֥ם אֶת־הַנָּשִׁ֖ים וְאֶת־הָעָֽם׃

[1] Now, when King Amraphel of Shinar , King Arioch of Ellasar, King Chedorlaomer of Elam , and King Tidal of Goiim

[2] made war on King Bera of Sodom, King Birsha of Gomorrah, King Shinab of Admah, King Shemeber of Zeboiim, and the king of Bela, which is Zoar,

[3] all the latter joined forces at the Valley of Siddim, now the Dead Sea.

[4] Twelve years they served Chedorlaomer, and in the thirteenth year they rebelled.

[5] In the fourteenth year Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him came and defeated the Rephaim at Ashteroth-karnaim, the Zuzim at Ham, the Emim at Shaveh-kiriathaim,

[6] and the Horites in their hill country of Seir as far as El-paran, which is by the wilderness.

[7] On their way back they came to En-mishpat, which is Kadesh, and subdued all the territory of the Amalekites, and also the Amorites who dwelt in Hazazon-tamar.

[8] Then the king of Sodom, the king of Gomorrah, the king of Admah, the king of Zeboiim, and the king of Bela, which is Zoar, went forth and engaged them in battle in the Valley of Siddim:

[9] King Chedorlaomer of Elam , King Tidal of Goiim, King Amraphel of Shinar , and King Arioch of Ellasar–four kings against those five.

[10] Now the Valley of Siddim was dotted with bitumen pits; and the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah, in their flight, threw themselves into them, while the rest escaped to the hill country.

[11] [The invaders] seized all the wealth of Sodom and Gomorrah and all their provisions, and went their way.

[12] They also took Lot, the son of Abram’s brother, and his possessions, and departed; for he had settled in Sodom.

[13] A fugitive brought the news to Abram the Hebrew, who was dwelling at the terebinths of Mamre the Amorite, kinsman of Eshkol and Aner, these being Abram’s allies.

[14] When Abram heard that his kinsman had been taken captive, he mustered his retainers, born into his household, numbering three hundred and eighteen, and went in pursuit as far as Dan.

[15] At night, he and his servants deployed against them and defeated them; and he pursued them as far as Hobah, which is north of Damascus.

[16] He brought back all the possessions; he also brought back his kinsman Lot and his possessions, and the women and the rest of the people.

[1] Now, when King Amraphel of Shinar Immediately after Abraham’s move to Hebron, the Torah tells of the “world war” waged by two coalitions of kings, in which Abraham was also involved. Historically and politically speaking, the cause of this war was a few kings revolting against the domination of a few others. But as concerns Abraham’s dialogue with God, this war was a response from Above to Abraham’s failure to establish a proper hierarchy of relations. Wishing to avoid making difficult decisions, Abraham had given a part of the land to Lot, who then settled in Sodom. The result was that Abraham was now involved in military maneuvers.

Abraham wished to avoid a very minor conflict, and in the end had to face an far more difficult one. This is common in such situations. One’s reluctance to undertake immediate, tough decisions today turns into the need to fight on a larger scale tomorrow.

[4] Twelve years they served ChedorlaomerWithout taking up a detailed historical identification of all these kings, the geography of their kingdoms, and their battle stations, we note generally that the coalition of Chedorlaomer consisted of the kings of various regions of Babylon and the surrounding countries. The name “ Shinar ” is a reference to the story of the Tower of Babel (11:2). Nimrod was previously called the king of Shinar (10:11), and Amraphel is therefore associated with him.

And in the thirteenth year they rebelledThe kings who submitted to the Babylonians and then rebelled are the kings of the city-states located around the Dead Sea, the zones of Babylonian influence.

[5] In the fourteenth year Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him came and defeated the Rephaim at Ashteroth-karnaim, the Zuzim…In the course of suppressing the rebellion, the Babylonian kings wage their military campaign in the vicinity of the Dead Sea and Sodom, but they do not enter the highlands of the Land of Canaan where Abraham lives, because it is Egypt’s zone of influence.

[10] Now the Valley of Siddim was dotted with bitumen pits; and the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah, in their flight, threw themselves into them, while the rest escaped to the hill countryThe Siddim Valley is the southern region of the Dead Sea. It is quite shallow and sometimes dries up, becoming an asphalt marsh. A great many tar pits then form there; it was such pits that swallowed the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah.

The “mountain” to which the survivors fled is the region of Hebron, where Abraham was living at the time. (Because it was Egypt ’s zone of influence, it was possible to hide there from the Babylonian troops.) When all had fled, the Babylonian kings seized the possessions of Sodom and Gomorrah and all the foodstuffs, as well as Lot, Abraham’s nephew, and began their retreat to Babylon.

We note in passing that as a result of this war, all the nations living around the Jordan River and the Dead Sea were destroyed. These areas thus became sparsely populated, and the peoples of Abraham’s family settled there – the descendants of Lot, Ishmael and Esau. This is the reason that the Torah provides such a detailed listing of the characters and geography of this war.

[13] A fugitive brought the news to Abram the Hebrew, who was dwelling at the terebinths of Mamre the Amorite, kinsman of Eshkol and Aner, these being Abram’s allies We suddenly see Abraham in a completely unexpected light. It turns out that he has political and military allies prepared to fight the Babylonians, and this military alliance extends to Hebron and its environs. Abraham himself also has a fairly large number of military forces, which he uses to achieve a victory.

Brought the news to Abram the Hebrew This is the first instance in the Torah where the ethnonym ivri, “Hebrew,” is used. The emphasis placed here on Abraham’s ethnic origins shows that his actions are motivated by political considerations at the national level, and not only by familial ones.

However, as we see often throughout Jewish history, the main challenge of war is not in achieving the victory itself, but in putting the results of that victory to proper use.

14.7. Abraham and the King of Sodom (14:17-24)

יז וַיֵּצֵ֣א מֶֽלֶךְ־סְדֹם֮ לִקְרָאתוֹ֒ אַֽחֲרֵ֣י שׁוּב֗וֹ מֵֽהַכּוֹת֙ אֶת־כְּדָרְלָעֹ֔מֶר וְאֶת־הַמְּלָכִ֖ים אֲשֶׁ֣ר אִתּ֑וֹ אֶל־עֵ֣מֶק שָׁוֵ֔ה ה֖וּא עֵ֥מֶק הַמֶּֽלֶךְ׃ יח וּמַלְכִּי־צֶ֨דֶק֙ מֶ֣לֶךְ שָׁלֵ֔ם הוֹצִ֖יא לֶ֣חֶם וָיָ֑יִן וְה֥וּא כֹהֵ֖ן לְאֵ֥ל עֶלְיֽוֹן׃ יט וַֽיְבָרְכֵ֖הוּ וַיֹּאמַ֑ר בָּר֤וּךְ אַבְרָם֙ לְאֵ֣ל עֶלְי֔וֹן קֹנֵ֖ה שָׁמַ֥יִם וָאָֽרֶץ׃ כ וּבָרוּךְ֙ אֵ֣ל עֶלְי֔וֹן אֲשֶׁר־מִגֵּ֥ן צָרֶ֖יךָ בְּיָדֶ֑ךָ וַיִּתֶּן־ל֥וֹ מַֽעֲשֵׂ֖ר מִכֹּֽל׃ כא וַיֹּ֥אמֶר מֶֽלֶךְ־סְדֹ֖ם אֶל־אַבְרָ֑ם תֶּן־לִ֣י הַנֶּ֔פֶשׁ וְהָֽרְכֻ֖שׁ קַֽח־לָֽךְ׃ כב וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אַבְרָ֖ם אֶל־מֶ֣לֶךְ סְדֹ֑ם הֲרִמֹ֨תִי יָדִ֤י אֶל־יי֙ אֵ֣ל עֶלְי֔וֹן קֹנֵ֖ה שָׁמַ֥יִם וָאָֽרֶץ׃ כג אִם־מִחוּט֙ וְעַ֣ד שְׂרֽוֹךְ־נַ֔עַל וְאִם־אֶקַּ֖ח מִכָּל־אֲשֶׁר־לָ֑ךְ וְלֹ֣א תֹאמַ֔ר אֲנִ֖י הֶֽעֱשַׁ֥רְתִּי אֶת־אַבְרָֽם׃ כד בִּלְעָדַ֗י רַ֚ק אֲשֶׁ֣ר אָֽכְל֣וּ הַנְּעָרִ֔ים וְחֵ֨לֶק֙ הָֽאֲנָשִׁ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר הָֽלְכ֖וּ אִתִּ֑י עָנֵר֙ אֶשְׁכֹּ֣ל וּמַמְרֵ֔א הֵ֖ם יִקְח֥וּ חֶלְקָֽם׃

[17] When he returned from defeating Chedorlaomer and the kings with him, the king of Sodom came out to meet him in the Valley of Shaveh, which is the Valley of the King.

[18] And King Melchizedek of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was a priest of God Most High.

[19] He blessed him, saying,

“Blessed be Abram of God Most High,

Creator of heaven and earth.

[20] And blessed be God Most High,

Who has delivered your foes into your hand”.

And [Abram] gave him a tenth of everything.

[21] Then the king of Sodom said to Abram, “Give me the persons, and take the possessions for yourself”.

[22] But Abram said to the king of Sodom, “I swear to the Lord, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth:

[23] I will not take so much as a thread or a sandal strap of what is yours; you shall not say, ‘It is I who made Abram rich.’

[24] For me, nothing but what my servants have used up; as for the share of the men who went with me–Aner, Eshkol, and Mamre–let them take their share”.

This story is often understood as demonstrating Abraham’s exemplary generosity, that he was free of avarice and unwilling to receive any share of Sodom’s dishonestly acquired property. There is, however, a completely different way of looking at this, which we shall consider below.

[17] When he returned from defeating Chedorlaomer and the kings with him, the king of Sodom came out to meet himAfter the victory, Abraham, who had rescued his neighbors from the invasion, became the dominant military-political figure in the region, and received all rights of power. The neighboring kings therefore welcomed Abraham and were prepared to recognize his supremacy and to give him a triumphal reception.

In the Valley of Shaveh, which is the Valley of the King This is the Valley of Kidron in the vicinity of ​​ Jerusalem.

[18] And King Melchizedek of Salem brought out bread and wine Salem (Hebrew, Shalem) is Jerusalem’s original, more ancient name. As a result of the war, the territory of Abraham’s influence has expanded considerably. Initially, the city of Shechem in the center of Samaria, where his disciples settled, recognized his authority. But also under control of Abraham and his allies was Hebron, the central city of the future province Judea. And now, after defeating the kings who had come from Babylon, the flourishing valley of the Jordan and the regions around the Dead Sea should likewise have come under Abraham’s command. Finally, Melchizedek, king of Jerusalem – the area uniting Judea and Samaria – is willing to recognize his authority. Thus, Abraham could have become the ruler of a rather large kingdom occupying the central part of the country.

[20] And [Abram] gave him a tenth of everything It would now seem that Abraham is very close to the fulfillment of the Divine promise of dominance over the land. But Abraham, who does not yet understand that he must create a people and, therefore, build a state, refuses this opportunity. Abraham has no desire to become a political ruler, who controls the lives of his subjects with his edicts. He still believes that his primary goal is to preach, to bring people closer to God and to a worthy life based solely on their own personal choices. He therefore does not accept that power, but of its own accord it devolves upon him all the same.

The Torah emphasizes that Melchizedek is “the priest of God Most High.” Had Abraham considered himself the progenitor of a nation, and thus a political leader, he would have declared himself the ruler of the land, and appointed Melchizedek as priest of the kingdom rather than giving Melchizedek “a tenth of everything.” But Abraham does nothing of the kind. He behaves not as a leader but as an individual, a private citizen who gives his priest a tenth of everything acquired.

[21] Then the king of Sodom said to Abram, “Give me the persons, and take the possessions for yourself.”The king of Sodom understands the direction in which things are headed. The victor, as it turns out, has no interest in domination! But typical of a Sodom mentality, this arouses in him not a sense of gratitude by any means, but, on the contrary, an attitude of arrogance. He says to Abraham, “Give me the persons, and take the possessions for yourself,” notwithstanding that according to the laws and conventions of war, the property of Sodom and its people should belong to Abraham, as victor. But the king of Sodom, instead of expressing gratitude to Abraham for his salvation and recognizing himself as Abraham’s subordinate, proposes an equal division of the people and spoils, as if his and Abraham’s merits in the victory are equal.

[22] But Abram said to the king of Sodom … [24] For me, nothing Abraham acts honorably of course, taking nothing of the property that belongs to the king of Sodom. But was this unselfish gesture the proper response? Perhaps Abraham should have done the opposite: to declare that both the property and the persons belonged to him, and that the king of Sodom is now obliged to obey him. And then, Abraham – as commander of the entire region – could have, inter alia, replaced Sodom’s abominable laws with more humane ones, or he could have tried at least to minimally reeducate the people of Sodom. But Abraham makes no such attempt, and the result is that Sodom comes to ruin, with Abraham indirectly to blame.

Abraham wishes to teach others a moral lesson: the rejection of dishonest money. Such behavior on the part of an ordinary citizen would be highly admirable, but is completely unbecoming and unacceptable for a king, a political leader, for whom refusing to make demands on Sodom is a sin. Abraham does not want to use political means to achieve spiritual goals, because the policy and government of the state includes violence, which Abraham, the man of chesed, repudiates. He wants the advancement of society to be realized through the personal spiritual growth of its members, in an atmosphere of universal love and friendship, and so he squanders the opportunity for an historic breakthrough. Building the Jewish nation and state will therefore be possible only through the higher advances in spiritual development that will be achieved by Isaac and Jacob.

Chapter 15. The “Covenant Between the Severed Members”

15.1 “Fear not Abraham”: The Problem of Killing on the Battlefield (15:1)


[1] Some time later, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision. He said, “Fear not, Abram, I am a shield to you; Your reward shall be very great.”

After the war with the kings, the Torah moves on to the “Covenant Between the Severed Members.” This story begins with God addressing Abraham, which serves as a proper conclusion to the battle that Abraham had just fought.

[1] Some time later, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision. He said, “Fear not, Abram…” When a person is in danger and goes to war, it is natural that he would be afraid and in need of support. But here God addresses Abraham after those frightful events, when Abraham has already returned from battle. What could Abraham have feared after the victory was already won?

Perhaps Abraham feared that now he had already completely received the reward that God had promised him. God therefore reassures him, “Your reward shall be very great”. Abraham might also have feared that the defeated kings could return to avenge their defeat. The Almighty therefore tells him, “I am a shield to you.”

The Midrash, however, offers a profound rationale for Abraham’s fear in the form of a moral problem: Abraham feared that he had killed some innocent soul in the war, for most likely there were good people among the enemy warriors who did not deserve to die. Besides such killings being a very bad thing in and of itself, to be guilty of such killings can cause a steep decline in one’s spiritual level.

From both a legal and a moral perspective it is of course neither possible nor necessary in military actions to determine the ethical position of each and every enemy soldier. In war one may kill indiscriminately, although there is surely nothing praiseworthy in that. Moreover, refraining entirely from going to war is also not an option. Those being attacked must defend themselves. But at the same time, any war is itself lamentable, and can inflict real spiritual damage on anyone who fights and kills. Abraham’s fears were thus not without foundation. But it is nevertheless important to note that the opposite behavior – refusing to go to war in the event of an attack on oneself or one’s loved ones, and adopting a position of submission and inappropriate pacifism in the face of aggression – will cause a person far worse moral and spiritual damage than waging war ever would.

Thus, Abraham feared not the revenge of his enemies, but his own spiritual degradation due to his having been forced to kill. With the words “Fear not,” God reassures Abram that this would not happen.

It must be emphasized that Abraham’s dread of any unjust killing of enemies would be entirely warranted for an individual in personal conflict with an enemy, but is absolutely unacceptable for a nation and a state.

War is a social reality. Although eliminating war from our world is of course a Jewish Messianic ideal, that ideal is still very far from reality, and its application without regard for reality would be a classic case of false messianism. Were a state to advance the argument that “enemy soldiers are also human beings, each most likely an honorable family man being forced to fight against his own conscience and principles,” then living in such a state would be impossible, for it would soon be destroyed along with its citizens. In other words, by showing mercy to distant strangers, that state will inflict cruelty upon its own citizens. To yield in a quarrel of individuals is indeed noble and sublime, but at the national level, when the issue is one of a state protecting its people, such capitulation would be nothing less than a crime.

Abraham understands, of course, that he was correct to go to war in order to rescue Lot. But at the same time he is troubled when he contemplates the moral and spiritual costs of victory. In a certain sense, Abraham dreads his own victories.

It should be noted that this is in a more general sense a very Jewish feeling. Today’s “Abrahams” in this regard are those Israelis who win victories, but at the same time are embarrassed by their victories. Some Jews are so afraid of their victories – and all “Israeli” victories – that they embrace anti-Zionism and dream of destroying Israel, or whatever it takes to disassociate from “military force” that seems immoral to them. Such a perverted mindset was of course alien to Abraham, who, when it became necessary, did not hesitate to go to war. But he nonetheless entertains just such concerns and doubts.

Another reason, perhaps, for Abraham’s apprehensions was the fact that his victory had dismantled his original plans. As discussed earlier, Abraham was acting within the framework of two competing designs: his own design, and God’s design for him. Abraham’s original intent was to establish universal belief in the One God, to create a cosmopolitan religious system embracing all of humanity. But God’s plan for Abraham is different: to produce from him a nation that will bring monotheism to the world.

Victory in the war with the Babylonian kings has now demolished Abraham’s plan for the spread of a religion that would embrace all of humanity, because Abraham was now in a sharp conflict with half of humanity – with Babylon. He has no choice but to reconsider anew God’s plan for creating a people. And the problem of his own childlessness comes sharply into focus.

15.2. The Problem of Abraham’s Posterity (15:2-3)

ב וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אַבְרָ֗ם אֲדֹנָ֤י יְהוִה֙ מַה־תִּתֶּן־לִ֔י וְאָֽנֹכִ֖י הוֹלֵ֣ךְ עֲרִירִ֑י וּבֶן־מֶ֣שֶׁק בֵּיתִ֔י ה֖וּא דַּמֶּ֥שֶׂק אֱלִיעֶֽזֶר׃ ג וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אַבְרָ֔ם הֵ֣ן לִ֔י לֹ֥א נָתַ֖תָּה זָ֑רַע וְהִנֵּ֥ה בֶן־בֵּיתִ֖י יוֹרֵ֥שׁ אֹתִֽי׃

[2] But Abram said, “O Lord God, what can You give me, seeing that I shall die childless, and the one in charge of my household is Dammesek Eliezer!”

[3] Abram said further, “Since You have granted me no offspring, my steward will be my heir.”

[2] Seeing that I shall die childless, and the one in charge of my household is Dammesek Eliezer!”God’s words “your reward is great” highlight the chasm between His promise to create a people from Abraham’s descendants and the reality of Abraham’s childlessness, such that not even a relative will inherit him, but only his domestic steward. (Abraham and his nephew Lot have already parted company.)

Abraham now for the first time perceives this discrepancy between the promise and the reality as an actual crisis, and so deeply that he himself raises the issue of the need for descendants. This dynamic evolution of Abraham’s views, from his original idea of training disciples to the idea of ​​building a people from progeny, is a necessary step for ensuring that Abraham will in fact finally have those descendants.

[2] But Abram said ... [3] And Abram saidBoth these verses (2 and 3) begin with questions posed by Abraham, but with no intervening response from God. By not responding immediately to Abraham, God constrains him to more clearly formulate his question, with an emphasis on the connection between offspring and heritage, in order that Abraham will more clearly understand the problem. Only after Abraham has undergone this internal advancement will his destiny change.

15.3. Abraham Above the Stars (15:4-5)

ד וְהִנֵּ֨ה דְבַר־י֤י אֵלָיו֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר לֹ֥א יִֽירָשְׁךָ֖ זֶ֑ה כִּי־אִם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יֵצֵ֣א מִמֵּעֶ֔יךָ ה֖וּא יִֽירָשֶֽׁךָ׃ ה וַיּוֹצֵ֨א אֹת֜וֹ הַח֗וּצָה וַיֹּ֨אמֶר֙ הַבֶּט־נָ֣א הַשָּׁמַ֗יְמָה וּסְפֹר֙ הַכּ֣וֹכָבִ֔ים אִם־תּוּכַ֖ל לִסְפֹּ֣ר אֹתָ֑ם וַיֹּ֣אמֶר ל֔וֹ כֹּ֥ה יִֽהְיֶ֖ה זַרְעֶֽךָ׃

[4] The word of the Lord came to him in reply, “That one shall not be your heir; none but your very own issue shall be your heir”.

[5] He took him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them”. And He added, “So shall your offspring be”.

Thus, Abraham’s critical personal advancement was that he abandoned his own plan and accepted the Divine plan. Abraham’s disciples and his nephew Lot are now separated from him not only physically. Henceforth, Abraham no longer sees in them his continuation, and he therefore asks for descendants.

[5] He took him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the starsA simple understanding of this passage is that God took Abraham out of his tent in order to view the stars. However, the strict meaning of the Hebrew word habbet is to gaze down from above onto what is below. The Midrash therefore explains that Abraham, who was an expert in astrology – the “science” of those times – said to God: “After carefully researching my horoscope I know beyond all doubt that according to the stars (i.e., the natural course of events, the laws of nature) I cannot have a child.” God, in response, raised Abraham higher than the heavens, allowing him to look down on the stars from above. This way, God gave Abraham a super-natural view of the laws of the natural world. God told Abraham: “Your name will change (see 17:5), and your horoscope will also change accordingly”.

That “scientific” understanding of his own childlessness was perhaps one factor that drove Abraham toward his plan of creating a religion through a group of disciples. The plans that God was offering him were incomprehensible to Abraham, as if only miraculously feasible. God responds to Abraham by “taking him outside”, cautioning him that one must not give absolute credence to the laws of nature. “Yes, you have in fact calculated your horoscope accurately. But you will rise above those stars and above the laws of nature, and from there will you bring your son into the world. There is a force higher than the stars – Divine Providence – that can alter the course of events.”

This sense that the Jewish people does not – indeed cannot – possibly survive by the laws of nature alone, and that Jewish existence is the result of an ongoing miracle by which God’s people “rise above the stars,” has consistently accompanied the Jewish people throughout its very long history.

15.4. “Because he put his trust in the Lord, He reckoned it to his merit” (15:6)

 ו וְהֶֽאֱמִ֖ן בַּֽי֑י וַיַּחְשְׁבֶ֥הָ לּ֖וֹ צְדָקָֽה׃

[6] And because he put his trust in the Lord, He reckoned it to his merit.

Jewish tradition considers it incorrect to understand this verse as “salvation through faith”: Abraham believed, and God therefore saved him – because such an understanding does not fit the context.

First, it is clear that the issue here is not faith in the conventional sense – belief in the existence of God. Obviously, Abraham already had such faith long before this. Abraham had spoken with God many times and acted on His instructions. It is thus impossible to believe that only now Abraham suddenly “believed in God.”

The Hebrew verb “he’emin (from which “amen” is also derived) does not mean “he believed,” but, rather, “he trusted.” The idea is that Abraham relied on God for the realization of His promise that was contrary to the natural course of events. It is such trust in God (and not “faith” per se) that is a notable religious achievement.

The second problem in understanding this verse is that the translation of the word tzedakah as “righteousness” is highly ambiguous. The Hebrew word tzedakah has two different meanings: [1] righteousness, and [2] a display of mercy, or a gift. Thus, the turn of phrase of this verse can be understood as either “He considered it righteousness,” or “he considered it an act of mercy.”

At the same time – and this is the third problem in understanding this verse – it is not grammatically apparent from the text who was doing the considering, and for whom – God for Abraham, or Abraham for God. If the latter, the verse should be understood differently, as follows: Abraham trusted God (i.e., that his descendants would become an innumerable people) and considered this to be Divine mercy. That is, Abraham did not believe that he could receive such descendants strictly on his own merits.

Thus, this verse admits two parallel interpretations, and incorporates for us two separate lessons: [1] A person who evinces trust in God, by actively demonstrating his awareness that the Almighty will with time provide solutions even to those problems that today seem unsolvable, is credited with having performed an act of righteousness; [2] A person who receives some benefit from God should consider it a gift of God’s beneficence that greatly exceeds what he ought have received based on his merits alone.

This does not mean, of course, that our merits are irrelevant or unimportant to God, for the truth is quite the opposite. One of the reasons God has given us His many commandments is so that by keeping them we will increase our merits before Him. But at the same time, we must realize that the rewards we receive from God are not payment fully commensurate with our actual merits, but a manifestation of Divine grace.

But the idea of “salvation through faith” has no basis whatsoever in the Hebrew Bible.

15.5. Abraham’s Lack of Trust (15:7-8)

ז וַיֹּ֖אמֶר אֵלָ֑יו אֲנִ֣י י֗י אֲשֶׁ֤ר הֽוֹצֵאתִ֨יךָ֙ מֵא֣וּר כַּשְׂדִּ֔ים לָ֧תֶת לְךָ֛ אֶת־הָאָ֥רֶץ הַזֹּ֖את לְרִשְׁתָּֽהּ׃ ח וַיֹּאמַ֑ר אֲדֹנָ֣י יְהוִ֔ה בַּמָּ֥ה אֵדַ֖ע כִּ֥י אִֽירָשֶֽׁנָּה׃

[7] Then He said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to assign this land to you as a possession”.

[8] And he said, “O Lord God, how shall I know that I am to possess it?”

[7] I am the Lord who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to assign this land to you as a possessionThe purpose of Abraham’s leaving Ur of the Chaldeans is precisely to create a people from the descendants of Abraham, who will then take possession of the land. The life of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel and their possession of the Land are the source of Divine light for mankind. Without it the world cannot develop normally.

[8] And he said, “O Lord God, how shall I know that I am to possess it?” Abraham suddenly shows a lack of trust and asks God for signs confirming the promise. But this is very strange. How is it that only a little earlier we were told that Abraham trusted in God that he would have descendants, but now he lacks trust and asks for confirmation that his descendants will possess the land and live on it?

The apparent reason for this change in Abraham’s reaction to God’s promise is that Divine mercy is enough for providing offspring, but an additional condition is necessary for the long-term possession of the land, namely, the specific behavior of those descendants. And for that, Divine mercy is simply not enough.

It is also possible that the very establishment of a state (“possessing the land”) represents a significant moral problem for Abraham. The state tends to degrade and decompose. As a rule, it would seem, living in one’s own country and possessing the land can easily lead to crisis. Not for naught does the Torah say later: “When you have begotten children and children’s children and are long established in the land, should you act wickedly and make for yourselves a sculptured image in any likeness, causing the Lord your God displeasure and vexation” (Deut. 4:25 ).

“Act wickedly” – as the result of living on one’s own land!? A country overflowing with vital forces is nevertheless not itself a moral being; as soon as a person takes root in his land, it can begin to eat away at his morality. This greatly worries Abraham. As an example of this Abraham has, before his very eyes, the Canaanites, who degenerated into one of the most depraved nations precisely because of their stay in the Holy Land, with its enormous vitality. The Torah therefore emphasizes: “You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws” (Lev. 18:2).

Abraham, as it were, says to God: “How wonderful that you will give me descendants, but what shall become of them in the future? Will my descendants be worthy of the gift that you wish to give them? What assurance do I have that the earth will not seize them and corrupt them? Is Your mercy toward them so very great that we can expect them to hold their own in this land?” Although Divine mercy is often given without sufficient merit, a person must nevertheless uphold a certain level of morality in order for that mercy to be granted.

The Midrash criticizes Abraham for not trusting in God’s word, and even attributes the four-hundred-year exile of his descendants to that flaw. Each of Abraham’s four words, ba-mah eda ki irashennah – “how shall I know that I am to possess it?” – corresponds to one hundred years of Egyptian exile.

It would be wrong to assume, however, that Abraham’s descendants were punished simply because he lacked trust in God. More likely, the reason for that lengthy exile is that Abraham’s question demonstrates an actual defect in those descendants themselves that they need to correct, namely, their own deficiency of bitachon, trust in the Almighty. The Jewish people needed one hundred years of correction for each of four degrees of deficiency represented by those four words.

God later responds to Abraham, mentioning (verse 17) “the smoking oven,” a reference to God’s opening words (verse 7) to Abraham: “I am the Lord who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans”; that is, it refers to that very Chaldean furnace (see 18:1(c)) from which Abraham emerged not only unharmed, but even hardened. God seems to say to Abraham: “By the strict laws of nature no one emerges from a fiery furnace unharmed. But you did, thus transcending natural law. And likewise, the four hundred years of Egyptian exile will be like a fiery furnace for your descendants, allowing them to develop supernatural qualities. Your fears are therefore unfounded. The Jewish people will successfully possess this land that I am giving you. No, the land will not enslave them, and as a nation they will even succeed at elevating the land.”

15.6. The Making of a Covenant: The Course of History and the Land of the Ten Nations (15:9-21)

ט וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֵלָ֗יו קְחָ֥ה לִי֙ עֶגְלָ֣ה מְשֻׁלֶּ֔שֶׁת וְעֵ֥ז מְשֻׁלֶּ֖שֶׁת וְאַ֣יִל מְשֻׁלָּ֑שׁ וְתֹ֖ר וְגוֹזָֽל׃ י וַיִּֽקַּֽח־ל֣וֹ אֶת־כָּל־אֵ֗לֶּה וַיְבַתֵּ֤ר אֹתָם֙ בַּתָּ֔וֶךְ וַיִּתֵּ֥ן אִישׁ־בִּתְר֖וֹ לִקְרַ֣את רֵעֵ֑הוּ וְאֶת־הַצִּפֹּ֖ר לֹ֥א בָתָֽר׃ יא וַיֵּ֥רֶד הָעַ֖יִט עַל־הַפְּגָרִ֑ים וַיַּשֵּׁ֥ב אֹתָ֖ם אַבְרָֽם׃ יב וַיְהִ֤י הַשֶּׁ֨מֶשׁ֙ לָב֔וֹא וְתַרְדֵּמָ֖ה נָֽפְלָ֣ה עַל־אַבְרָ֑ם וְהִנֵּ֥ה אֵימָ֛ה חֲשֵׁכָ֥ה גְדֹלָ֖ה נֹפֶ֥לֶת עָלָֽיו׃ יג וַיֹּ֣אמֶר לְאַבְרָ֗ם יָדֹ֨עַ תֵּדַ֜ע כִּי־גֵ֣ר ׀ יִֽהְיֶ֣ה זַרְעֲךָ֗ בְּאֶ֨רֶץ֙ לֹ֣א לָהֶ֔ם וַֽעֲבָד֖וּם וְעִנּ֣וּ אֹתָ֑ם אַרְבַּ֥ע מֵא֖וֹת שָׁנָֽה׃ יד וְגַ֧ם אֶת־הַגּ֛וֹי אֲשֶׁ֥ר יַֽעֲבֹ֖דוּ דָּ֣ן אָנֹ֑כִי וְאַֽחֲרֵי־כֵ֥ן יֵֽצְא֖וּ בִּרְכֻ֥שׁ גָּדֽוֹל׃ טו וְאַתָּ֛ה תָּב֥וֹא אֶל־אֲבֹתֶ֖יךָ בְּשָׁל֑וֹם תִּקָּבֵ֖ר בְּשֵׂיבָ֥ה טוֹבָֽה׃ טז וְד֥וֹר רְבִיעִ֖י יָשׁ֣וּבוּ הֵ֑נָּה כִּ֧י לֹֽא־שָׁלֵ֛ם עֲוֺ֥ן הָֽאֱמֹרִ֖י עַד־הֵֽנָּה׃ יז וַיְהִ֤י הַשֶּׁ֨מֶשׁ֙ בָּ֔אָה וַֽעֲלָטָ֖ה הָיָ֑ה וְהִנֵּ֨ה תַנּ֤וּר עָשָׁן֙ וְלַפִּ֣יד אֵ֔שׁ אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָבַ֔ר בֵּ֖ין הַגְּזָרִ֥ים הָאֵֽלֶּה׃ יח בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֗וּא כָּרַ֧ת י֛י אֶת־אַבְרָ֖ם בְּרִ֣ית לֵאמֹ֑ר לְזַרְעֲךָ֗ נָתַ֨תִּי֙ אֶת־הָאָ֣רֶץ הַזֹּ֔את מִנְּהַ֣ר מִצְרַ֔יִם עַד־הַנָּהָ֥ר הַגָּדֹ֖ל נְהַר־פְּרָֽת׃ יט אֶת־הַקֵּינִי֙ וְאֶת־הַקְּנִזִּ֔י וְאֵ֖ת הַקַּדְמֹנִֽי׃ כ וְאֶת־הַֽחִתִּ֥י וְאֶת־הַפְּרִזִּ֖י וְאֶת־הָֽרְפָאִֽים׃ כא וְאֶת־הָֽאֱמֹרִי֙ וְאֶת־הַֽכְּנַעֲנִ֔י וְאֶת־הַגִּרְגָּשִׁ֖י וְאֶת־הַיְבוּסִֽי׃

[9] He answered, “Bring Me a three-year-old heifer, a three-year-old she-goat, a three-year-old ram, a turtledove, and a young bird”.

[10] He brought Him all these and cut them in two, placing each half opposite the other; but he did not cut up the bird.

[11] Birds of prey came down upon the carcasses, and Abram drove them away.

[12] As the sun was about to set, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a great dark dread descended upon him.

[13] And He said to Abram, “Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years;

[14] but I will execute judgment on the nation they shall serve, and in the end they shall go free with great wealth.

[15] As for you,

You shall go to your fathers in peace;

You shall be buried at a ripe old age.

[16] And they shall return here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete”.

[17] When the sun set and it was very dark, there appeared a smoking oven, and a flaming torch which passed between those pieces.

[18] On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I assign this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates:

[19] the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites,

[20] the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim,

[21] the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites”.

[18] On that day the Lord made a covenant with AbramThis is the berit bein ha-betarim, the “Covenant Between the Severed Members” that God made with Abraham.

[13] And He said to Abram, “Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years … And they shall return here in the fourth generationGod had already told Abraham earlier about the nation that would be created from his descendants, but gave him no explanation as to how this nation would further develop. Now God is inducting Abraham into the mechanism of this historical process. But the good news for Abraham, both personal and national, that “you shall be buried at a ripe old age … and in the end they shall go free with great wealth”, is integrally associated with suffering and persecution here: “Your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed.”

[12] And a great dark dread descended upon him.The images of the “Covenant Between the Severed Members” embrace many long eras of Jewish history, illuminating them with meaning and purpose, and engendering an overwhelming feeling of trepidation in any person aware of his own smallness. Abraham, too, experiences this trepidation, and therefore can take in the Covenant only in a sleeping state. A waking consciousness cannot withstand the tension of a collision with the enormity of history.

Each element of this vision incorporates symbolism and prophecy. Here we will mention only a small selection of those.

[10] He brought Him all these and cut them in two, placing each half opposite the otherThe first action here is the bisection, albeit not complete, of the animals. This symbolizes that the spiritual vitality of the world – the “river issuing from the Garden of Eden” (2:10) – will be divided between different empires, first and foremost between Babylon and Egypt , to be followed later by the collapse of these same empires.

[11] Birds of prey came down upon the carcasses, and Abram drove them awayThe Jews (Abraham) remain in the middle, passing as it were between bisected civilizations, driving off the kites from their remains, and carrying out the task of uniting those civilizations, smelting them in a single furnace.

Humanity after the Tower of Babel was fragmented; its divided parts needed to be reassembled, and that is the Jews’ most essential mission. In this sense, Abraham is an ivri, a Hebrew, who undertakes completion of the work left undone by Eber. Israel ’s destiny is to restore the nations to their original unity by gathering their scattered sparks of holiness, thus making it possible for mankind to win anew its contact with God.

[17] There appeared a smoking oven, and a flaming torch which passed between those pieces.Later in the Torah (Deut. 4:20), Egypt is called the kur ha-barzel, the “iron furnace” for smelting and purifying gold. After passing through the Egyptian furnace, the descendants of Abraham will be capable of understanding the Divine word, will rise above nature, and will be worthy of inheriting the Land of Israel and passing the Divine light to all mankind.

In addition to the “smelting of the nations,” exile has a second function, realized not only in Egypt but in subsequent exiles too, even up to the present day. Namely, to collect the “sparks of holiness” scattered across all nations of the world. The unification of these sparks occurs when the Jews return to the Land of Israel, after which their light, now united, spreads from Israel to all of humanity.

[9] He answered, “Bring Me a three-year-old heifer, a three-year-old she-goat, a three-year-old ram, a turtledove, and a young bird”In the four species of animals that Abraham sacrifices here, tradition sees an indication of four Jewish exiles – four kingdoms that will later rule over Israel : Babylon, Persia , Greece , and Rome. The latter is the current, ongoing exile to the countries of the West, which is, however, now ending before our own eyes.

The Talmud says: “The Almighty gave three gifts to Israel , all of which the Jews acquire through suffering: the Torah, the Land of Israel, and the World to Come.” In this idea there is an apparent contradiction. If it is a gift, then why is it necessary to suffer in order to attain it?

The answer is that these gifts are so valuable precisely because they are acquired through suffering. Had they come without suffering, they would have been easily lost. Paying such a high price for those gifts is necessary for us to establish a truly integral connection with them.

[13] And they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years; [14] but I will execute judgment on the nation they shall serveIf the servitude and suffering of the descendants of Abraham was predetermined from Above, then why are the Egyptians to be blamed for oppressing the Jews, given that they were only fulfilling the Divine will, as it were? The Torah therefore states clearly that the oppressors will be judged. God grants each of us the freedom to choose. If evil comes into the world through someone, then that person will be held accountable for that.

[16] And they shall return here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet completeThat is, the Canaanite nations were not at that time sufficiently guilty of their crimes to deserve expulsion quite yet.

This means that when later the expulsion of the Canaanites did occur, it was not because the Jews had become worthy of receiving the land, but because the moment had come when these peoples were so guilty that they truly deserved to be expelled.

The right of the Jewish people to possess the Land of Israel is constant, regardless of the behavior of other nations. However, our right (which is sometimes rather a duty) to expel these peoples from our land depends solely on the behavior of these peoples themselves; that is, on whether they are righteous or sinful.

[18] From the river of Egypt to the great river, the river EuphratesThat is, from the borders of Egypt to the borders of Babylon. This is the territory from the easternmost branch of the “ Egyptian River” (Wadi El-Arish on the Sinai Peninsula) to the closest point on the Euphrates, in the vicinity of Damascus. The Land of Israel must reach unto the borders of Egypt and Babylon without penetrating or being perceived as invading those countries.

Thus, the concept of “from the Nile to the Euphrates” embodies not only a territorial meaning, but a spiritual one as well: the unification of the Egyptian and Babylonian civilizations. And yet, the spiritual and the material meanings are inseparable. Only when the Jewish state occupies the territory that the Almighty has apportioned to it can it fulfill its world mission.

In past epochs the realms of King David and King Solomon corresponded to those boundaries exactly. Those periods left an indelible impression on humanity’s collective memory, as evidenced in particular by the Psalms written in that era, and the Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes. In later times, however, the entire “land of the ten nations” was never under Jewish dominion, but only the “territory of the seven peoples” as later indicated (Deut. 7:1).

Thus, the essence of the covenant that God made with Abraham is the promise that he would have descendants, and a land through which all the tribes of the earth would be blessed. Abraham assumes the role of being both the foundation and the model for the creation of that nation.

Chapter 16. Sarah and Hagar

16.1. The Discrepancy Between God’s Promise and the Reality (15:18 – 16:1)

יח בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֗וּא כָּרַ֧ת י֛י אֶת־אַבְרָ֖ם בְּרִ֣ית לֵאמֹ֑ר לְזַרְעֲךָ֗ נָתַ֨תִּי֙ אֶת־הָאָ֣רֶץ הַזֹּ֔את מִנְּהַ֣ר מִצְרַ֔יִם עַד־הַנָּהָ֥ר הַגָּדֹ֖ל נְהַר־פְּרָֽת׃

(15:18) On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I assign this land …”

א וְשָׂרַי֙ אֵ֣שֶׁת אַבְרָ֔ם לֹ֥א יָֽלְדָ֖ה ל֑וֹ וְלָ֛הּ שִׁפְחָ֥ה מִצְרִ֖ית וּשְׁמָ֥הּ הָגָֽר׃

(16:1) Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children.

In the Torah text these two verses appear in close succession, in order to emphasize the discrepancy between God’s promise and Abraham’s reality. We have here an instance of the often painful gap between the ideal, “true” state of affairs – in this case, God’s promise to give the land of Israel to Abraham’s descendants – and the reality – Sarah’s failure to conceive and bear children. Such discrepancies are commonly encountered in life: Something is genuinely “true” because it has already been determined in “upper” realms, but in this lower world that we inhabit it has not yet been realized.

When we feel justified in our expectations, but they have not come to fruition, disappointment and crisis often ensue. This type of discontinuity between the expected and the actual can be a source of extreme psychological distress, often leading the persons experiencing it to commit tragically serious mistakes.

In relation to time there are generally two types of sin: the sin of being too late, and the sin of being too early. The sin of the spies (Numbers 13) is an example of the former: they tried to persuade the Jewish people not to enter the land, although the time had come to do exactly that. But more often the sin is of the other type – being prematurely zealous, when the ideal state is already striving to come true, but the reality is not yet ready for it. An example of this type of sin is the sin of Adam and Eve, who prematurely tasted the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Another example of sinning by “being too early” is the Jews’ sin of the golden calf. While Moses was at the top of Mount Sinai, but had not yet received the tablets, the people of Israel waited patiently enough for his return. But once the tablets had already been given in Heaven (i.e., on Mount Sinai) and the time had come for Moses to present those tablets to the Jewish people, they simply could wait no longer, and demanded of Aaron: “Come, make us a god who shall go before us” (Exod. 32:1). In an ideal world Moses would have come down by then, because the tablets had already been received, and he had no more business on that mountain. But he was still in descent, as it takes some time to make that trek, and that delay led the Jews to commit the sin of the golden calf.

Note that the sin of “being too early,” although more common, is less severe than the sin of “being too late”. The sin of the golden calf was forgiven, but the sin of the spies was not; that entire generation died in the wilderness. To “not love” is a more grievous sin than to “love too much.” As the book of Proverbs says (10:12), “Love covers up all sins.”

Returning to our Torah portion, Sarah’s mistake is a sin of “being too early.”

The most serious problem of our lives is our lack of bitachon, our failing to trust in the Almighty. Fearing that a situation has no chance of improving without our impetuous intervention, we undertake improper actions, for which we ultimately pay a very steep price.

16.2. Hagar, Sarah’s Maidservant (16:1)

א וְשָׂרַי֙ אֵ֣שֶׁת אַבְרָ֔ם לֹ֥א יָֽלְדָ֖ה ל֑וֹ וְלָ֛הּ שִׁפְחָ֥ה מִצְרִ֖ית וּשְׁמָ֥הּ הָגָֽר׃

[1] Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. She had an Egyptian maidservant whose name was Hagar.

[1] An Egyptian maidservantWe have already noted that the Torah’s concept of slave does not coincide with the Greek or Roman concepts of slave as “talking instrument” (by Aristotle’s definition). Rather, the “slave” of the Torah is a “patriarchal” slave who should sooner be called a servant – a junior member of the family, as it were. Jewish law required that a slave be given living conditions that were on par with those of his master, who was also prohibited from subjecting the slave to corporal punishment of any kind, overworking him, or endangering his life or limb. The slave was obliged to rest on Shabbat, and to sit at the Passover table with all other members of the family.

In the Torah, Eliezer, who was Abraham’s own servant, manages his household and chooses a wife for Abraham’s son Isaac. In other words, plain and simple, a slave is a disciple. Therefore, the fact that Hagar is called a slave does not put her in the position of a mute creature, but only means that she is subordinate to Sarah.

Whose name was Hagar: The Midrash tells us that Hagar was the daughter of Pharaoh. After seeing the miracles that God had performed for Abraham, Pharaoh gave him his own daughter as a slave girl. We need not understand this Midrash literally, of course, but it is important to consider that Hagar has noble, even regal origins, and in the house of Abraham she is a “representative” of Egypt (even of the elite of Egypt , and of all that is spiritual in that civilization).

16.3. Sarah Gives Hagar to Abraham (16:2-3)

ב וַתֹּ֨אמֶר שָׂרַ֜י אֶל־אַבְרָ֗ם הִנֵּה־נָ֞א עֲצָרַ֤נִי יי֙ מִלֶּ֔דֶת בֹּא־נָא֙ אֶל־שִׁפְחָתִ֔י אוּלַ֥י אִבָּנֶ֖ה מִמֶּ֑נָּה וַיִּשְׁמַ֥ע אַבְרָ֖ם לְק֥וֹל שָׂרָֽי׃ ג וַתִּקַּ֞ח שָׂרַ֣י אֵֽשֶׁת־אַבְרָ֗ם אֶת־הָגָ֤ר הַמִּצְרִית֙ שִׁפְחָתָ֔הּ מִקֵּץ֙ עֶ֣שֶׂר שָׁנִ֔ים לְשֶׁ֥בֶת אַבְרָ֖ם בְּאֶ֣רֶץ כְּנָ֑עַן וַתִּתֵּ֥ן אֹתָ֛הּ לְאַבְרָ֥ם אִישָׁ֖הּ ל֥וֹ לְאִשָּֽׁה׃

[2] And Sarai said to Abram, “Look, the Lord has kept me from bearing. Consort with my maid; perhaps I shall have a son through her”. And Abram heeded Sarai’s request.

[3] So Sarai, Abram’s wife, took her maid, Hagar the Egyptian–after Abram had dwelt in the land of Canaan ten years–and gave her to her husband Abram as concubine.

It has now been ten years since Abraham received the Divine promise that he will have descendants. After such a long interval has passed and the Divine promise is still not realized, a crisis arises.

Now desperate, Sarah resorts to extreme measures. Her confusion and lack of trust in God led to the birth of Ishmael, which becomes a serious complication for Isaac. To resolve this newer crisis, Sarah must again take steps that, although necessary, will lead to an even more dangerous global conflict in the future.

Sarah’s words, “perhaps I shall have a son through her,” demonstrate that she did not consider herself hopelessly barren, but only assumed that Abraham must first have children, and that once there were children in the family she too would give birth.

Or, possibly, Sarah hopes that as her reward for giving her maidservant to Abraham and adopting Hagar’s newborn child, she too will be blessed with children. (Infertility sometimes ceases after the adoption of children. The presence of children in a family can exert a positive psychological influence on a woman, and can in that way effect biological changes in her as well.) But after Sarah gives Hagar to Abraham, events take an entirely different turn from what Sarah was expecting.

16.4. Abraham and Sarah’s Childlessness

God promised offspring to Abraham, but Sarah does not give birth. Which of them is to blame for this?

Later in the Torah we will see an indication that it is Abraham who is the cause of the infertility, because it is in him that the process of spiritual growth necessary for the birth of Isaac is not yet complete. This difference in the levels of Abraham and Sarah finds expression in the different manner in which their names change. From the wording “Your name shall be Abraham…” (17:5) we see that Abraham is given a genuinely new name, but about Sarah the wording is different: “ shall not call her Sarai, but her name shall be Sarah…” (17:5). That is, her true name, which had not been apparent previously, is now being merely revealed. Abraham has changed along with his name change, and is now no longer deficient, whereas Sarah needs only what was hidden within her to be revealed; she herself does not need to change.

However, in the course of these events involving Hagar, Abraham and Sarah themselves have no awareness of all that, and Sarah, feeling inclined to blame herself rather than her husband, says: “Look, the Lord has kept me from bearing” (16:2). Believing that she herself is to blame, Sarah wishes to improve the situation so that Abraham will have at least some descendants. At that moment she lacks the attribute of bitachon, trust in God, and she does what she can: She gives Hagar to Abraham.

The reason for their childlessness was not Sarah’s infertility, but Abraham’s being still unready for the birth of a successor, being at that time still “Abram,” and not yet “Abraham.” The changes that are required for the birth of Isaac need to occur in his person. But Abraham, meanwhile, does not see this, notwithstanding that God has made His promise specifically to him. Therefore, not only does he consent to Sarah’s plan, but, as we shall soon see, he deems it even preferable that creating the future nation should happen through Hagar.

Other Jewish matriarchs were also childless at first, not only Sarah. Their delayed child-bearing was a part of the Divine plan – one of many indications that the people of Israel come into being not by the natural, uninterrupted flow of the birth cycle, but in the broken sequence of that reality, as something that stands above nature, having its own unique destiny.

16.5. The Legal Status of a Child Born of a Maidservant

We have already noted that the legal environment in which the Patriarchs lived, and in which the entire Middle East lived in antiquity, is that of the Code of Hammurabi, a Babylonian king of the 18th century BCE. Although the Code of Hammurabi is not explicitly mentioned in the Torah, it often serves as the backdrop for reported events. Without the knowledge of these laws it is sometimes difficult to correctly understand the text of the Torah.

According to the Code of Hammurabi, when a child is born to a man by his maidservant because of his wife’s childlessness, there are two possible variations of that child’s status. If the mistress remains childless, the maidservant’s child becomes the rightful heir. But if the mistress later gives birth to a child of her own, the man’s child from the maidservant loses all rights of inheritance.

In other words, the birth of Isaac will deprive Ishmael of Abraham’s entire inheritance; he will remain the simple son of a slave. It is precisely this that distinguishes the conflict between Ishmael and Isaac from that between Jacob and Esau, who were clearly both rightful heirs, the dispute being only as to who holds the right of the firstborn.

Therefore, Ishmael after the birth of Isaac tries to ignore him completely, as if he does not exist.

16.6. Hammurabi’s Code: Morality Must Precede Sanctity

Associated with Hammurabi’s code is yet another important issue, around which there is a great deal of speculation. When archaeologists discovered the texts of the Code of Hammurabi in 1901, they found in it many parallels to the laws of the Torah. On that basis certain scholars wished to argue that the Torah is simply a restatement of the Code of Hammurabi. In response, certain Jewish “defenders of the Torah” took an emphatically opposite position, averring that there was no connection whatsoever between the Torah and Hammurabi’s code.

The fact is, however, that from the Jewish point of view it is only normal and natural – and even necessary! – that the foundations of ethics and proper legislation would have appeared in human society before the giving of the Torah.

It is an essential principle of Judaism that derech eretz – lit., “the way of the land,” or the basic humanly ethical principles – must precede the Torah. Or what amounts to the same thing: morality precedes holiness. Unless a level of universally moral and decent human behavior has been first achieved, no conditions can exist for advancing toward holiness.

This principle is usually understood at the individual level. If a person is morally depraved or dishonest, if he is a villain by ordinary human standards, no Torah study will avail to improve him.

One must first be a decent person, and then we can talk about advancing him towards holiness.

But this principle also has a historical aspect: in the history of the development of mankind, moral norms had to appear first, before any conception of holiness. Indeed, until derech eretz – a rudimentary but sufficient moral and legal standard – is achieved, any understanding of the Torah is in principle impossible. From this point of view it is natural that morality and justice would have appeared on a tangible human scale even before the arrival of the Patriarchs. And this was realized in the adoption, specifically, of Hammurabi’s Code, which raised society to a standard of law based on a sense of justice (and not, as before, merely on force). From that time onward it was already possible for the world to receive the Torah.

Drawing these parallels between the Torah and the laws of Hammurabi is not only natural, but even essential, to a person who intuitively understands fundamental ethical laws, derech eretz. Universal moral and legal norms are based not on God’s decrees but on the fact that it is one’s conscience that allows him to distinguish right from wrong.

It is not the Torah’s intent to reform villains, nor can it do so. The Torah is designed to help a person who wishes to travel the road of good to find that road and to understand its rules. Thus, morality is a prerequisite to holiness – both individually and historically.

16.7. Judaism and Polygamy

The Torah, in principle, allows the practice of polygamy. Abraham and Jacob had several wives; the book of Samuel begins with the story of Elkanah (father of the prophet Samuel), who had two wives, Hannah and Peninah. And, of course, who can forget the great many wives that King David and King Solomon had.

In all these cases, however (with the exception of the kings), polygamy was a matter of necessity, not planning; the reason for it was, as a rule, the inability of a first wife to bear children. Thus, the guiding principle of the Torah regarding this matter is that polygamy is not encouraged, but it is permitted. The ideal marriage according to the Torah is monogamous, as symbolized by the marriage of Adam and Eve. However, if a woman did not have children, then it was proper for her husband to take a second wife, in order to fulfill God’s commandment (Gen. 1:28) of procreation.

 (The situation of the kings was entirely different: for them it was important ex officio to have many wives. But this was driven by political exigencies that do not apply to an ordinary citizen.)

In Jewish literature of the Talmudic era we find only isolated instances of polygamy. In the tenth century CE Rabbi Gershom of Mainz banned polygamy for Ashkenazi Jews, and that ruling then gradually spread to, and was adopted by, almost all Jewish communities everywhere.

16.8. Hagar as Abraham’s Preferred Alternative

Feeling hopeless, Sarah gives Abraham her maidservant as a “saving grace.” But it seems that Abraham sees the situation differently. Although the Torah says (16:2), “Abram heeded Sarai’s request,” meaning that Abram was not leading here, by all indications this flow of events was thoroughly consistent with his own sympathetic attitude toward Egypt .

Recall that originally there were two plans through which monotheism, the religion of Abraham, could reach mankind: Abraham’s original plan to establish a universal, cosmopolitan religion, and God’s plan to create a monotheistic people. Although he had always inclined toward the universal approach, Abraham ultimately accepted God’s plan.

Abraham might have perceived a marriage of necessity to Hagar as a shift of plans favoring the universal direction: let my nation be a conduit for the ideas of monotheism, but one that is kindred to the Egyptians, the primary civilization of mankind, all of whom together would then be a “universal world people.” But if the future nation will descend from Abraham and Sarah, who are both ivrim (Hebrews), that nation will represent too narrow a national framework. Will such a people be able to influence all of humanity? If, however, this exceptional nation will be born of Jewish roots, but on Egyptian soil, and if Egyptian culture could be fertilized by Abraham’s ideas, then that nation would have greater chances of worldly success. Or so it seemed to Abraham.

Abraham will therefore feel an especial love for Ishmael, and, as we shall soon see, he will regard the birth of Isaac as a crisis situation.

16.9. The Conflict Between Sarah and Hagar, and Abraham’s Role (16:3-6)

ג וַתִּקַּ֞ח שָׂרַ֣י אֵֽשֶׁת־אַבְרָ֗ם אֶת־הָגָ֤ר הַמִּצְרִית֙ שִׁפְחָתָ֔הּ מִקֵּץ֙ עֶ֣שֶׂר שָׁנִ֔ים לְשֶׁ֥בֶת אַבְרָ֖ם בְּאֶ֣רֶץ כְּנָ֑עַן וַתִּתֵּ֥ן אֹתָ֛הּ לְאַבְרָ֥ם אִישָׁ֖הּ ל֥וֹ לְאִשָּֽׁה׃ ד וַיָּבֹ֥א אֶל־הָגָ֖ר וַתַּ֑הַר וַתֵּ֨רֶא֙ כִּ֣י הָרָ֔תָה וַתֵּקַ֥ל גְּבִרְתָּ֖הּ בְּעֵינֶֽיהָ׃ ה וַתֹּ֨אמֶר שָׂרַ֣י אֶל־אַבְרָם֮ חֲמָסִ֣י עָלֶיךָ֒ אָֽנֹכִ֗י נָתַ֤תִּי שִׁפְחָתִי֙ בְּחֵיקֶ֔ךָ וַתֵּ֨רֶא֙ כִּ֣י הָרָ֔תָה וָֽאֵקַ֖ל בְּעֵינֶ֑יהָ יִשְׁפֹּ֥ט י֖י בֵּינִ֥י וּבֵינֶֽיׄךָ׃ ו וַיֹּ֨אמֶר אַבְרָ֜ם אֶל־שָׂרַ֗י הִנֵּ֤ה שִׁפְחָתֵךְ֙ בְּיָדֵ֔ךְ עֲשִׂי־לָ֖הּ הַטּ֣וֹב בְּעֵינָ֑יִךְ וַתְּעַנֶּ֣הָ שָׂרַ֔י וַתִּבְרַ֖ח מִפָּנֶֽיהָ׃

[3] So Sarai, Abram’s wife, took her maid, Hagar the Egyptian–after Abram had dwelt in the land of Canaan ten years–and gave her to her husband Abram as concubine.

[4] He cohabited with Hagar and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was lowered in her esteem.

[5] And Sarai said to Abram, “The wrong done me is your fault! I myself put my maid in your bosom; now that she sees that she is pregnant, I am lowered in her esteem. The Lord decide between you and me!”

[6] Abram said to Sarai, “Your maid is in your hands. Deal with her as you think right.” Then Sarai treated her harshly, and she ran away from her.

[3] So Sarai, Abram’s wife, tookSarah ever remains Abraham’s wife.

And gave her to her husband Abram as concubineThe Hebrew word here is ishah, which means, simply, “wife.” Thus Hagar’s status increases dramatically. Sarah gives her to Abram not as a concubine, but as a wife. The difference between the relative standings of Sarah and Hagar now becomes less pronounced, and Hagar entertains the illusion that that difference has dissipated altogether.

[5] Now that she sees that she is pregnant, I am lowered in her esteemHaving now conceived, Hagar concludes that her own merits outweigh Sarah’s merits – and she begins to behave inappropriately.

The Lord decide between you and me!”In such a situation as Sarah finds herself she petitions Abraham using legal terminology. Sarah in general manifests the attribute of judgment, gevurah within Abraham’s chesed. This quality of hers – to be an “internal attribute of judgment” – will make itself known much more clearly later, since without Abraham she cannot bear Isaac, who is “righteous in the attribute of the court.”

[6] Abram said to Sarai, “Your maid is in your hands. Deal with her as you think right.”Abraham again avoids making harsh legal decisions. Being the embodiment of chesed, he is not inclined to implement the attribute of the court. He therefore defers to Sarah, for whom the attribute of the court is natural.

But in fact this was a test that Abraham could not pass. He neglected his obligation, now that Hagar was his wife, to establish of his own accord Hagar’s subordinate status vis-à-vis Sarah. Abraham’s failure to apply the attribute of the court has led to an imbalance between the court and mercy, and has exacerbated the conflict.

Then Sarai treated her harshlyThe Hebrew va-te‘anneha sarai means, literally, “Sarai oppressed her.” The Midrash explains that Sarah burdened Hagar with a usual work regimen, disregarding her special needs as occasioned by her pregnancy (itself the source of Hagar’s supercilious attitude). That is, Sarah realized too harshly the attribute of the court. The Torah regards this behavior as “oppression” and condemns Sarah for acting so.

16.10. God’s Question to Hagar (16:7-8)

...וַתִּבְרַ֖ח מִפָּנֶֽיהָ׃ ז וַֽיִּמְצָאָ֞הּ מַלְאַ֧ךְ י֛י עַל־עֵ֥ין הַמַּ֖יִם בַּמִּדְבָּ֑ר עַל־הָעַ֖יִן בְּדֶ֥רֶךְ שֽׁוּר׃ ח וַיֹּאמַ֗ר הָגָ֞ר שִׁפְחַ֥ת שָׂרַ֛י אֵֽי־מִזֶּ֥ה בָ֖את וְאָ֣נָה תֵלֵ֑כִי וַתֹּ֕אמֶר מִפְּנֵי֙ שָׂרַ֣י גְּבִרְתִּ֔י אָֽנֹכִ֖י בֹּרַֽחַת׃

[6] … and she ran away from her.

[7] An angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the road to Shur,

[8] and said, “Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?” And she said, “I am running away from my mistress Sarai.”

[6] … and she ran away from her. [7] An angel of the Lord found herSuperficially Hagar seems to flee simply to escape Sarah’s oppression. But actually she is seeking greater clarity in ascertaining her own status, and for that she is now deserving of Divine assistance.

[8] And said, “Hagar, slave of Sarai ...When Hagar can no longer bear the uncertainty of her position, God sends her a clarification. Simply through his manner of addressing Hagar, the angel restores her understanding of her subordinate status in relation to Sarah.

... Where have you come from, and where are you going?”The angel’s question to Hagar – which is actually the Almighty’s question – is reminiscent of God’s question to Adam: “Where are you?” (3:9) and to Cain: “Where is Abel, your brother?” (4:9). Throughout history God has continuously posed to humankind this essential question, whose purpose is to induce each of us to understand our place in the world.

God wants to help us to find the right path on our own. Rather than exerting pressure, He acts through allusions.

I am running away from my mistress SaraiHagar takes the hint and acknowledges her slave status. By correcting her earlier mistakes she becomes worthy of the Divine blessing.

16.11. The Problem of “Wilderness Religion”

ז וַֽיִּמְצָאָ֞הּ מַלְאַ֧ךְ י֛י עַל־עֵ֥ין הַמַּ֖יִם בַּמִּדְבָּ֑ר עַל־הָעַ֖יִן בְּדֶ֥רֶךְ שֽׁוּר

[7] An angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring: God appears to Hagar not at home, but in the wilderness. In the future, likewise, the place of revelation for the descendants of Hagar and Ishmael is the desert.

The type of theology that develops in the desert completely subordinates man to the Divine; it is the theology of submission, or in Arabic, “Islam.” The desert is by no means a place of freedom; on the contrary, it is a place where one is keenly aware of his insignificance, a place where one feels abandoned and forgotten by all. Living in the wilderness, one is aware of the smallness of man and the greatness of God. Accordingly, Islam, the religion of the desert, emphasizes the predominance of Divine predestination, where there is practically no room for any freedom of choice.

This kind of experience – repression by God – occurred in Judaism when the Torah was given in the wilderness at Mount Sinai. The Midrash says that God lifted up the mountain and suspended it over the Jewish people, threatening to drop it on them unless they would agree to accept the Torah. However, according to Jewish tradition the event at Sinai was only the “preliminary” giving of the Torah, in no way affording ideal conditions for a complete connection with God. So long as we have accepted the burden of the commandments under duress, we will never stop feeling a sense of having suffered an injustice at the hands of Heaven. And therefore, after receiving the Torah a lengthy “treatment” is required for us to be cured of the “side effects.”

At Sinai the Jews accepted the Torah through compulsion. We therefore had to “re-receive” the Torah in repeated renewals of our Covenant with God that have taken place throughout the full length of Jewish history, beginning with the covenant in the city of Shechem after the Jews crossed the Jordan River with Joshua into the Land of Israel, and continuing with the story of Purim, and even unto the present day.

As Islam continues to evolve, it might likewise have to pass through similar stages of development.

16.12. Hagar and Ishmael’s Status, and their Roles (16:9-16)

ט וַיֹּ֤אמֶר לָהּ֙ מַלְאַ֣ךְ י֔י שׁ֖וּבִי אֶל־גְּבִרְתֵּ֑ךְ וְהִתְעַנִּ֖י תַּ֥חַת יָדֶֽיהָ׃ י וַיֹּ֤אמֶר לָהּ֙ מַלְאַ֣ךְ י֔י הַרְבָּ֥ה אַרְבֶּ֖ה אֶת־זַרְעֵ֑ךְ וְלֹ֥א יִסָּפֵ֖ר מֵרֹֽב׃ יא וַיֹּ֤אמֶר לָהּ֙ מַלְאַ֣ךְ י֔י הִנָּ֥ךְ הָרָ֖ה וְיֹלַ֣דְתְּ בֵּ֑ן וְקָרָ֤את שְׁמוֹ֙ יִשְׁמָעֵ֔אל כִּֽי־שָׁמַ֥ע י֖י אֶל־עָנְיֵֽךְ׃ יב וְה֤וּא יִֽהְיֶה֙ פֶּ֣רֶא אָדָ֔ם יָד֣וֹ בַכֹּ֔ל וְיַ֥ד כֹּ֖ל בּ֑וֹ וְעַל־פְּנֵ֥י כָל־אֶחָ֖יו יִשְׁכֹּֽן׃ יג וַתִּקְרָ֤א שֵׁם־יי֙ הַדֹּבֵ֣ר אֵלֶ֔יהָ אַתָּ֖ה אֵ֣ל רֳאִ֑י כִּ֣י אָֽמְרָ֗ה הֲגַ֥ם הֲלֹ֛ם רָאִ֖יתִי אַֽחֲרֵ֥י רֹאִֽי׃ יד עַל־כֵּן֙ קָרָ֣א לַבְּאֵ֔ר בְּאֵ֥ר לַחַ֖י רֹאִ֑י הִנֵּ֥ה בֵין־קָדֵ֖שׁ וּבֵ֥ין בָּֽרֶד׃ טו וַתֵּ֧לֶד הָגָ֛ר לְאַבְרָ֖ם בֵּ֑ן וַיִּקְרָ֨א אַבְרָ֧ם שֶׁם־בְּנ֛וֹ אֲשֶׁר־יָֽלְדָ֥ה הָגָ֖ר יִשְׁמָעֵֽאל׃ טז וְאַבְרָ֕ם בֶּן־שְׁמֹנִ֥ים שָׁנָ֖ה וְשֵׁ֣שׁ שָׁנִ֑ים בְּלֶֽדֶת־הָגָ֥ר אֶת־יִשְׁמָעֵ֖אל לְאַבְרָֽם׃

[9] And the angel of the Lord said to her, “Go back to your mistress, and submit to her harsh treatment.”

[10] And the angel of the Lord said to her,

“I will greatly increase your offspring,

And they shall be too many to count.”

[11] The angel of the Lord said to her further,

“Behold, you are with child

And shall bear a son;

You shall call him Ishmael,

For the Lord has paid heed to your suffering.

[12] He shall be a wild ass of a man;

His hand against everyone,

And everyone’s hand against him;

He shall dwell alongside of all his kinsmen.”

[13] And she called the Lord who spoke to her, “You Are El-roi”, by which she meant, “Have I not gone on seeing after He saw me!”

[14] Therefore the well was called Beer-lahai-roi; it is between Kadesh and Bered.

[15] Hagar bore a son to Abram, and Abram gave the son that Hagar bore him the name Ishmael.

[16] Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore Ishmael to Abram.

[9] Go back to your mistress: Recognition of Sarah’s superiority is a requisite for Hagar herself. So long as her self-determination is false, no blessing can be hers.

[11] Behold, you are with child and shall bear a sonBut when Hagar acknowledges her status as maidservant and corrects her behavior, she is blessed.

You shall call him Ishmael, for the Lord has paid heed to your sufferingThe role of Ishmael and his descendants, the Arabs, in world history is highly significant, and is also a feature of Abraham’s legacy. In relation to Sarah and the Jewish people, Hagar and Ishmael’s position is ambivalent. On the one hand, they have subordinate status, but on the other hand, they must not be oppressed. The very name Ishmael means “God hears,” that is, He hears the sufferings of Hagar and her descendants. Maintaining a balance between these two aspects is not easy, and in daily life we often see that some Jews emphasize much more the need for Ishmael’s subordination, while others put greater emphasis on the commandment to not oppress him. In truth, however, only by learning to integrate both of these principles can we expect to normalize our relations with the descendants of Hagar.

It should be noted that Jewish tradition generally sees Hagar in a positive light despite her conflict with Sarah, as a person of rather high spiritual attainments. At the end of portion Chayei Sarah the Torah relates how after the death of Sarah, Abraham took a wife named Keturah. The Talmud maintains that Keturah is Hagar; Hagar, who was expelled by Abraham (as we will read below), did not marry, but waited until Abraham called her back. Which indeed he did, after which Hagar bore yet more children to Abraham. At the same time, the change of name from Hagar to Keturah shows a change in her identity, and her ability to overcome her former complexes.

Hagar’s problem is that her spiritual potential allows her to rise to the level of one of the “spiritual leaders of the nations of the world,” but not to become a spiritual leader of the Jewish people. Among her descendants are people who can become the Righteous of the Nations, and fulfill an important spiritual function in the world, but they are not included among the chosen people.

[12] He shall be a wild ass of a man; he shall dwell alongside of all his kinsmen Although here it means “savage,” the strict meaning of the Hebrew word pere is “a wild ass that refuses to accept the yoke.” A yoke does in fact limit freedom, but mostly it represents the opportunity to work productively. Ishmael wants to be free, but he has a problem with doing constructive work.

His hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him The Hebrew literally translated is,His hand in everyone, and everyone’s hand in him.” He needs all, and all need him. He will have no independent existence, but while he remains dependent, he too will have something that everyone needs.

Over the course of history this blessing apparently found fulfillment in the fact that, although the creative role of Islamic countries themselves in the development of civilization has been fairly minor, their “transmissional contribution” – in culture, commerce, and the like – has been nonetheless quite high. The constant danger that Islam poses to the West fulfills its historically mandated role of “threatening savage.”

[13] And she called the Lord who spoke to her, “You Are El-roi”, by which she meant, “Have I not gone on seeing after He saw me!”God says to Hagar: “I am listening” (16:11), as in “Come to me, I am ready for dialogue.” But Hagar says of God that He sees – he oversees everything and controls everything, no one can hide from Him. Here we have the essential conflict within Islam. The inability to engage in dialogue with God gives rise to the inability to engage in dialogue with people. And the yearning to obey God by blindly executing Divine orders, but not deliberating with Him, creates a mindset of issuing orders and dictating to other people, rather than entering into dialogue with them.

[16] Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore Ishmael to AbramAbraham left Haran and came to the land of Canaan when he was seventy-five years old. After ten years, when Abraham is eighty-five, Sarah gives him Hagar, who one year later, when Abraham is eighty-six years of age, bears him a son, Ishmael. The news of the future birth of Isaac comes when Abraham is ninety-nine years old. Ishmael, who is thirteen years old, has now come of age. This is an essential point concerning Ishmael’s stage of development at that time, as we shall see.

Chapter 17. The Covenant of Circumcision

17.1. “Walk in My Ways” (17:1-2)

א וַיְהִ֣י אַבְרָ֔ם בֶּן־תִּשְׁעִ֥ים שָׁנָ֖ה וְתֵ֣שַׁע שָׁנִ֑ים וַיֵּרָ֨א י֜י אֶל־אַבְרָ֗ם וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֵלָיו֙ אֲנִי־אֵ֣ל שַׁדַּ֔י הִתְהַלֵּ֥ךְ לְפָנַ֖י וֶֽהְיֵ֥ה תָמִֽים׃ ב וְאֶתְּנָ֥ה בְרִיתִ֖י בֵּינִ֣י וּבֵינֶ֑ךָ וְאַרְבֶּ֥ה אֽוֹתְךָ֖ בִּמְאֹ֥ד מְאֹֽד׃

[1] When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am El Shaddai. Walk in My ways and be blameless.

[2] I will establish My covenant between Me and you, and I will make you exceedingly numerous”.

[1] When Abram was ninety-nine years oldIshmael had now reached his thirteenth birthday, and Abraham must have realized that Ishmael was not capable of continuing his work.

[2] I will establish My covenant between Me and you This reorientation from Ishmael to Isaac is associated with the renewal of the covenant between God and Abraham.

Previously the covenant was simply a promise that Abraham would have offspring who would inherit the land. “On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your offspring I assign this land ...’” (15:18). But that covenant now finds its completion in circumcision, a change of name, and Abraham’s spiritual advancement. The Torah therefore says “I will establish My covenant” using the future tense.

Walk in My ways and be blameless Here we hear echoes of the Torah’s description of Noah (Gen. 6:9), who “was blameless in his age and walked with God.” And yet, the formulation here is somewhat different. Jewish tradition compares and contrasts Abraham and Noah in the two kinds of righteousness they represent. Noah’s integrity is, temporally speaking, only local – “in his age” – while the integrity of Abraham is global – for all ages and all times.

The words hithalech lefanai (“walk in My ways”) translate literally as “walk before Me.” Noah walks “with God,” never departing from Him, and executing all His orders, namely, to build the ark and thus to survive the flood, while the rest of humankind perishes. Abraham, however, walks “before God,” that is to say, ahead of Him, sometimes even objecting and disagreeing with Him – as we will see, for example, when Abraham challenges God to spare the wicked city of Sodom for the sake of even just a few righteous individuals who might be living there.

Thus, Noah was “saved” while Abraham is himself a savior. While Noah is the forefather of humanity, Abraham is the teacher of nations. Noah is the “righteous man in a fur coat,” who counteracts the cold by donning a fur coat for his own warmth, but does nothing to help others who share the same predicament. By contrast, Abraham, forefather of the Jewish nation, kindles a fire to warm all of humanity.

17.2. “But your name shall be Abraham” (17:3-8)

ג וַיִּפֹּ֥ל אַבְרָ֖ם עַל־פָּנָ֑יו וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר אִתּ֛וֹ אֱלֹהִ֖ים לֵאמֹֽר׃ ד אֲנִ֕י הִנֵּ֥ה בְרִיתִ֖י אִתָּ֑ךְ וְהָיִ֕יתָ לְאַ֖ב הֲמ֥וֹן גּוֹיִֽם׃ ה וְלֹֽא־יִקָּרֵ֥א ע֛וֹד אֶת־שִׁמְךָ֖ אַבְרָ֑ם וְהָיָ֤ה שִׁמְךָ֙ אַבְרָהָ֔ם כִּ֛י אַב־הֲמ֥וֹן גּוֹיִ֖ם נְתַתִּֽיךָ׃ ו וְהִפְרֵתִ֤י אֹֽתְךָ֙ בִּמְאֹ֣ד מְאֹ֔ד וּנְתַתִּ֖יךָ לְגוֹיִ֑ם וּמְלָכִ֖ים מִמְּךָ֥ יֵצֵֽאוּ׃ ז וַהֲקִֽמֹתִ֨י אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֜י בֵּינִ֣י וּבֵינֶ֗ךָ וּבֵ֨ין זַרְעֲךָ֧ אַֽחֲרֶ֛יךָ לְדֹֽרֹתָ֖ם לִבְרִ֣ית עוֹלָ֑ם לִֽהְי֤וֹת לְךָ֙ לֵֽאלֹהִ֔ים וּֽלְזַרְעֲךָ֖ אַֽחֲרֶֽיךָ׃ ח וְנָֽתַתִּ֣י לְ֠ךָ וּלְזַרְעֲךָ֨ אַֽחֲרֶ֜יךָ אֵ֣ת ׀ אֶ֣רֶץ מְגֻרֶ֗יךָ אֵ֚ת כָּל־אֶ֣רֶץ כְּנַ֔עַן לַֽאֲחֻזַּ֖ת עוֹלָ֑ם וְהָיִ֥יתִי לָהֶ֖ם לֵֽאלֹהִֽים׃

[3] Abram threw himself on his face; and God spoke to him further,

[4] “As for Me, this is My covenant with you: You shall be the father of a multitude of nations.

[5] And you shall no longer be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I make you the father of a multitude of nations.

[6] I will make you exceedingly fertile, and make nations of you; and kings shall come forth from you.

[7] I will maintain My covenant between Me and you, and your offspring to come, as an everlasting covenant throughout the ages, to be God to you and to your offspring to come.

[8] I assign the land you sojourn in to you and your offspring to come, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting holding. I will be their God”.

[3] Abram threw himself on his faceUntil Abraham is circumcised and receives his new name, he cannot remain standing when the Lord reveals Himself through the ineffable Divine four-letter name, the “Tetragrammaton,” which is always pronounced by Jews as “the Lord” and translated likewise. (It is the name used in 17:1.) God therefore conducts further dialogue with Abraham (see 17:3) at the level of Elohim, “God,” a term of a somewhat lower Divine status (as indicated by its additional carrying of profane meanings, e.g., false gods and human judges).

[5] And you shall no longer be called Abram, but your name shall be AbrahamAlthough the meaning of the name Abraham is clearly explained in these verses as av hamon goyim, “father of a multitude of nations,” the etymology of the name itself is not obvious. The Hebrew letter he that God added to the name “Abram” to make it “Abraham” is derived in the Midrash from the word hamon, “multitude.”

But the expression av hamon goyim contains no letter resh that would correspond to that letter in the name Avraham (the “r” of the English transliteration “Abraham”). One explanation for the unexpected letter resh in “Abraham” is that it was carried over from the former name, “Abram,” ab aram , “father of Aram .” (Another suggested translation is “father of the sublime.”)

Others point out that there is an older Semitic root preserved in the ancient Arabic language, where the word for “multitude” is raham, notwithstanding that that root with its additional resh has not been preserved in Hebrew. “Abraham” could then mean, quite precisely, “father of the multitude.”

I make you the father of a multitude of nationsEarlier in this book (Chapter 10) the Torah enumerated those “nations” in the ethnic sense of the word, as those who descended from each of the sons of Noah: Shem, Ham and Japheth. But the nations that will descend from Abraham will be “nations” in the religious sense, "members of the Abrahamic religions".

Those religions gradually spread to all mankind. Abraham is therefore the “father of a multitude of nations” not only in the sense that several ethnic groups will come from him, but also that his ideas and ideals will gradually spread to all of humanity.

[7] I will maintain My covenant between Me and you, and your offspring to come … to be God to you and to your offspring to come. [8] I assign the land you sojourn inAs in all the covenants that God made with the Patriarchs, three aspects stand out here: creating a nation from Abraham’s descendants, giving them the Land of Israel, and the promise that they will be God’s people. Here God reveals His intention to create a nation as a political reality, as a national-state entity in its land, through which God will be revealed to the world. There is no mention here of the commandments or the laws of the Torah. We will hear much about them later, at the revelation at Sinai as described in the book of Exodus.

Thus, the nationalist element is not fundamentally alien to Judaism, as some would have it; on the contrary, it is the commandments of the Torah that should be understood as a supplemental aspect of the process of forming a nation, rather than an integral part of it. For this very reason, Rashi, in his commentary on this passage, explains that “living outside the Land of Israel is equivalent to having no God.” And conversely, one who lives in Israel , even if there is nothing very “religious” about him, has an encounter with God on a daily basis.

The commandments are of course essential to normative Jewish life. We must bear in mind, however, that the primary content of the covenant – the part that will change all of humanity – is not the Torah commandments per se, but the national-political existence of the Jewish people.

17.3. Circumcision as a Sign of the Covenant (17:9-14)

ט וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶל־אַבְרָהָ֔ם וְאַתָּ֖ה אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֣י תִשְׁמֹ֑ר אַתָּ֛ה וְזַרְעֲךָ֥ אַֽחֲרֶ֖יךָ לְדֹֽרֹתָֽם׃ י זֹ֣את בְּרִיתִ֞י אֲשֶׁ֣ר תִּשְׁמְר֗וּ בֵּינִי֙ וּבֵ֣ינֵיכֶ֔ם וּבֵ֥ין זַרְעֲךָ֖ אַֽחֲרֶ֑יךָ הִמּ֥וֹל לָכֶ֖ם כָּל־זָכָֽר׃ יא וּנְמַלְתֶּ֕ם אֵ֖ת בְּשַׂ֣ר עָרְלַתְכֶ֑ם וְהָיָה֙ לְא֣וֹת בְּרִ֔ית בֵּינִ֖י וּבֵֽינֵיכֶֽם׃ יב וּבֶן־שְׁמֹנַ֣ת יָמִ֗ים יִמּ֥וֹל לָכֶ֛ם כָּל־זָכָ֖ר לְדֹרֹֽתֵיכֶ֑ם יְלִ֣יד בָּ֔יִת וּמִקְנַת־כֶּ֨סֶף֙ מִכֹּ֣ל בֶּן־נֵכָ֔ר אֲשֶׁ֛ר לֹ֥א מִֽזַּרְעֲךָ֖ הֽוּא׃ יג הִמּ֧וֹל ׀ יִמּ֛וֹל יְלִ֥יד בֵּֽיתְךָ֖ וּמִקְנַ֣ת כַּסְפֶּ֑ךָ וְהָֽיְתָ֧ה בְרִיתִ֛י בִּבְשַׂרְכֶ֖ם לִבְרִ֥ית עוֹלָֽם׃ יד וְעָרֵ֣ל ׀ זָכָ֗ר אֲשֶׁ֤ר לֹֽא־יִמּוֹל֙ אֶת־בְּשַׂ֣ר עָרְלָת֔וֹ וְנִכְרְתָ֛ה הַנֶּ֥פֶשׁ הַהִ֖וא מֵֽעַמֶּ֑יהָ אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֖י הֵפַֽר׃

[9] God further said to Abraham, “As for you, you and your offspring to come throughout the ages shall keep My covenant.

[10] Such shall be the covenant between Me and you and your offspring to follow which you shall keep: every male among you shall be circumcised.

[11] You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you.

[12] And throughout the generations, every male among you shall be circumcised at the age of eight days. As for the homeborn slave and the one bought from an outsider who is not of your offspring,

[13] they must be circumcised, homeborn, and purchased alike. Thus shall My covenant be marked in your flesh as an everlasting pact.

[14] And if any male who is uncircumcised fails to circumcise the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his kin; he has broken My covenant”.

[9] You and your offspring to come throughout the ages shall keep My covenantThe Torah stresses here that although the descendants of Abraham will become “a multitude of nations,” the covenant will be made exclusively through the Jewish people.

[10] Such shall be the covenant … which you shall keep: every male among you shall be circumcisedGod’s covenant with Abraham considers circumcision not just one of many commandments, but a sign of the covenant – its visible expression.

The main idea that circumcision signifies is that “natural man” as he is born is by no means perfect. In this lies the critical difference between the Jewish and Greek worldviews. The Greeks considered “natural man” the embodiment of harmony and the measure of all things, and they therefore despised circumcision (as did the Romans), because they saw it as an assault on nature. When the Hellenistic Seleucid empire began to persecute the Jews (events that led up to the story of Hanukkah), the prohibition of circumcision was one of the main demands of the Greeks. Judaism, on the other hand, rejects the idea of “perfection by nature,” arguing that a person is perfect only in his potential, and that he has a long road of development to travel before he can hope to even approach such perfection.

The Greeks saw the natural world as perfectly complete. Judaism, in contrast, believes that when one becomes aware of nature’s lack of perfection, this is the point at which man’s union with the Divine, which transcends nature, can begin.

This is especially important in the context of human procreation, development, and advancement. And that is why circumcision is done on the organ of reproduction.

17.4. “For Sarah is Her Name” (17:15-16)

טו וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶל־אַבְרָהָ֔ם שָׂרַ֣י אִשְׁתְּךָ֔ לֹֽא־תִקְרָ֥א אֶת־שְׁמָ֖הּ שָׂרָ֑י כִּ֥י שָׂרָ֖ה שְׁמָֽהּ׃ טז וּבֵֽרַכְתִּ֣י אֹתָ֔הּ וְגַ֨ם נָתַ֧תִּי מִמֶּ֛נָּה לְךָ֖ בֵּ֑ן וּבֵֽרַכְתִּ֨יהָ֙ וְהָֽיְתָ֣ה לְגוֹיִ֔ם מַלְכֵ֥י עַמִּ֖ים מִמֶּ֥נָּה יִֽהְיֽוּ׃

[15] And God said to Abraham, “As for your wife Sarai, you shall not call her Sarai, but her name shall be Sarah.

[16] I will bless her; indeed, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she shall give rise to nations; rulers of peoples shall issue from her”.

[15] You shall not call her Sarai, but her name shall be SarahOriginally her name was Sarai, “my ruler,” but now she is simply “ruler,” that is, a world leader. Earlier the Torah says of Abraham (17:5), “And you shall no longer be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham.” That is, his name has been changed. For Sarah, however, we read in this verse as it would be literally translated: “But, rather, Sarah is her name.” That is, her name had always been Sarah, but only now is that name revealed. In other words, Sarah all along had been at a level suitable for bearing Isaac, but Abraham still needed to reach that level. When Abraham received from God the commandment of circumcision, it was an indicator that he had attained the required level.

[16] I will bless her; indeed, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she shall give rise to nations; rulers of peoples shall issue from her.”There are two parts to this blessing. The first is that a son will be born, and the second is that nations and kings will come from him. Thus, Sarah’s son, besides being Abraham’s physical descendant, will also continue his father’s work.

I will bless her; indeed, I will give you a son by herSarah will be blessed in that Abraham’s successor will come from her. Both of his parents must be ivrim, Hebrews, in order to facilitate God’s plan to create the chosen people on a profoundly “national” basis. This people must stand apart from other nations, since it is this separation that creates the prerequisites for the realization of a universal Jewish destiny.

17.5. Proper Nationalism as the Foundation of Universalism

The European humanist tradition maintains that nationalism is antithetical to universalism, because that tradition believes that any preservation of a distinct national identity isolates a nation from the rest of humanity. But the Torah’s position is quite the opposite: to become truly universal, you must first realize your uniquely national potential; only then can you offer something to the rest of the world. Thus, when Abraham undergoes circumcision, and focuses on his Jewish identity, God gives Abram and Sarai new names that emphasize their universal purpose.

Abraham’s ideas could not find their way to the rest of humanity until a unique people was created to transmit them.

Thus, the foundation of universalism is a proper nationalism, the realization of one’s own national specificity, rather than a cosmopolitanism that is the rejection of any national orientation.

17.6. Division of the Inheritance Between Isaac and Ishmael (17:17-22)

יז וַיִּפֹּ֧ל אַבְרָהָ֛ם עַל־פָּנָ֖יו וַיִּצְחָ֑ק וַיֹּ֣אמֶר בְּלִבּ֗וֹ הַלְּבֶ֤ן מֵאָֽה־שָׁנָה֙ יִוָּלֵ֔ד וְאִ֨ם־שָׂרָ֔ה הֲבַת־תִּשְׁעִ֥ים שָׁנָ֖ה תֵּלֵֽד׃ יח וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אַבְרָהָ֖ם אֶל־הָֽאֱלֹהִ֑ים ל֥וּ יִשְׁמָעֵ֖אל יִֽחְיֶ֥ה לְפָנֶֽיךָ׃ יט וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֗ים אֲבָל֙ שָׂרָ֣ה אִשְׁתְּךָ֗ יֹלֶ֤דֶת לְךָ֙ בֵּ֔ן וְקָרָ֥אתָ אֶת־שְׁמ֖וֹ יִצְחָ֑ק וַהֲקִֽמֹתִ֨י אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֥י אִתּ֛וֹ לִבְרִ֥ית עוֹלָ֖ם לְזַרְע֥וֹ אַֽחֲרָֽיו׃ כ וּֽלְיִשְׁמָעֵאל֮ שְׁמַעְתִּיךָ֒ הִנֵּ֣ה ׀ בֵּרַ֣כְתִּי אֹת֗וֹ וְהִפְרֵיתִ֥י אֹת֛וֹ וְהִרְבֵּיתִ֥י אֹת֖וֹ בִּמְאֹ֣ד מְאֹ֑ד שְׁנֵים־עָשָׂ֤ר נְשִׂיאִם֙ יוֹלִ֔יד וּנְתַתִּ֖יו לְג֥וֹי גָּדֽוֹל׃ כא וְאֶת־בְּרִיתִ֖י אָקִ֣ים אֶת־יִצְחָ֑ק אֲשֶׁר֩ תֵּלֵ֨ד לְךָ֤ שָׂרָה֙ לַמּוֹעֵ֣ד הַזֶּ֔ה בַּשָּׁנָ֖ה הָֽאַחֶֽרֶת׃ כב וַיְכַ֖ל לְדַבֵּ֣ר אִתּ֑וֹ וַיַּ֣עַל אֱלֹהִ֔ים מֵעַ֖ל אַבְרָהָֽם׃

[17] Abraham threw himself on his face and laughed, as he said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man a hundred years old, or can Sarah bear a child at ninety?”

[18] And Abraham said to God, “O that Ishmael might live by Your favor!”

[19] God said, “Nevertheless, Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac; and I will maintain My covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring to come.

[20] As for Ishmael, I have heeded you. I hereby bless him. I will make him fertile and exceedingly numerous. He shall be the father of twelve chieftains, and I will make of him a great nation.

[21] But My covenant I will maintain with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this season next year”.

[22] And when He was done speaking with him, God was gone from Abraham.

[17] And laughedAbraham’s laughter and his words that follow demonstrate that although he perceives God’s words as a gift and a miracle, the prospect of having a son born to Sarah is very problematic for him. As mentioned earlier, Ishmael, the son of Hagar, representing the great civilization of Egypt , is in Abraham’s eyes more preferred for becoming the progenitor of the chosen people than is Sarah’s son, who is ethnically only a Hebrew. Abraham believed that through his connection with Egypt it would be easier to influence the larger world. Perhaps he even saw Divine Providence in the fact that Sarah had no children, and that his son was born of Hagar.

[18] “O that Ishmael might live by Your favor!”Hearing from God that Sarah will give birth to a son, Abraham becomes confused. Does God really wish to return him to that narrowly ethnic plan, from which Abraham, thanks to Ishmael’s birth, thought he had been liberated? Abraham is still hoping that God will backtrack from His peculiar decision and settle instead on Ishmael.

Abraham prefers Ishmael to Isaac for two reasons. Firstly, by marrying Hagar, Abraham had sought to forge a connection with Egypt , the leading world civilization of the time, and that desire has remained with him ever since. Secondly, Ishmael’s character is chesed, and even if it is an improper chesed, it is still closer and more comprehensible to Abraham than Isaac’s character, gevurah.

[19] God said, “Nevertheless, Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac; and I will maintain My covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring to comeGod is emphatic, as if to say: “No, it is Sarah – despite all of your objections.”

[20] As for Ishmael, I have heeded you … I will make him fertile and exceedingly numerous … [21] But My covenant I will maintain with Isaac Abraham’s preference for Ishmael led to a bifurcation of his legacy. The promise of “I will multiply your offspring” (16:10) is to be fulfilled in Ishmael, but the covenant and the promise of the land is to be fulfilled in Isaac. Although later both Isaac and Jacob will receive from God the promise of numerically abundant offspring, the quantitative ratio between the descendants of Isaac and the descendants of Ishmael as fundamentally given here favors Ishmael.

I will make of him a great nationWhen it comes to faith, the Arab people are “a great nation,” occupying a central place among the peoples of the world. Islam in the first centuries of its existence developed its philosophy of Abrahamic monotheism with a clarity and inner consistency that Jewish religious philosophers were able to develop only in subsequent centuries. The problem with Islam, however, is that its adherents’ faith does not sufficiently reflect on their interpersonal relationships. The fact remains that mere acceptance of the principle of ​​the unity of God and submission to Him is not by itself enough. Real life must have as its foundations the unity of ideals and a system of commandments.

To achieve that, it is not enough to be a child of Abraham. One must be also the child of Sarah. The nation that Abraham created was chosen not only to disseminate the theological and philosophical ideas of the One God, but also to show mankind the path to God through “doing what is just and right” (18:19). Therefore, Ishmael himself is not able to create a civilization. He can only “camp alongside his kinsmen” (16:12), that is, serve as a counterweight and a regulating force that compensates for the defects of other Abrahamic religions.

[22] And when He was done speaking with him, God was gone from AbrahamGod interrupts the conversation and departs from Abraham, even putting some distance between them. It would seem that the Almighty is even angry with Abraham and says to him, as it were: “What I originally wished to give to your offspring from Sara will now be divided into two parts. Because you pleaded on Ishmael’s behalf, the blessing of becoming a numerous people will be his. But, needless to say, my covenant remains only with Isaac.” Later on, this division will make it very difficult for Isaac’s descendants to fulfill their mission.

17.7. The Circumcision of Abraham’s Household (17:23-27)

כג וַיִּקַּ֨ח אַבְרָהָ֜ם אֶת־יִשְׁמָעֵ֣אל בְּנ֗וֹ וְאֵ֨ת כָּל־יְלִידֵ֤י בֵיתוֹ֙ וְאֵת֙ כָּל־מִקְנַ֣ת כַּסְפּ֔וֹ כָּל־זָכָ֕ר בְּאַנְשֵׁ֖י בֵּ֣ית אַבְרָהָ֑ם וַיָּ֜מָל אֶת־בְּשַׂ֣ר עָרְלָתָ֗ם בְּעֶ֨צֶם֙ הַיּ֣וֹם הַזֶּ֔ה כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֛ר דִּבֶּ֥ר אִתּ֖וֹ אֱלֹהִֽים׃ כד וְאַ֨בְרָהָ֔ם בֶּן־תִּשְׁעִ֥ים וָתֵ֖שַׁע שָׁנָ֑ה בְּהִמֹּל֖וֹ בְּשַׂ֥ר עָרְלָתֽוֹ׃ כה וְיִשְׁמָעֵ֣אל בְּנ֔וֹ בֶּן־שְׁלֹ֥שׁ עֶשְׂרֵ֖ה שָׁנָ֑ה בְּהִ֨מֹּל֔וֹ אֵ֖ת בְּשַׂ֥ר עָרְלָתֽוֹ׃ כו בְּעֶ֨צֶם֙ הַיּ֣וֹם הַזֶּ֔ה נִמּ֖וֹל אַבְרָהָ֑ם וְיִשְׁמָעֵ֖אל בְּנֽוֹ׃ כז וְכָל־אַנְשֵׁ֤י בֵיתוֹ֙ יְלִ֣יד בָּ֔יִת וּמִקְנַת־כֶּ֖סֶף מֵאֵ֣ת בֶּן־נֵכָ֑ר נִמֹּ֖לוּ אִתּֽוֹ׃

[23] Then Abraham took his son Ishmael, and all his homeborn slaves and all those he had bought, every male in Abraham’s household, and he circumcised the flesh of their foreskins on that very day, as God had spoken to him.

[24] Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he circumcised the flesh of his foreskin,

[25] and his son Ishmael was thirteen years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin.

[26] Thus Abraham and his son Ishmael were circumcised on that very day;

[27] and all his household, his homeborn slaves and those that had been bought from outsiders, were circumcised with him.

[24] Abraham was ninety-nine years old … [25] and his son Ishmael was thirteen years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskinThe enumeration of their ages is superfluous here, given that they have already been reported above (17:1). Note, too, that the laws of circumcision require that that commandment be performed on the eighth day from birth (17:12). Thus, the Torah is emphasizing here that since neither Abraham nor Ishmael met this requirement; only Isaac is the first “authentic Jew from birth.”


Chapter 18. The Visit of the Three Angels and Abraham Challenging God About Sodom

18.1. The Relationship of the Weekly Portions Lech Lecha and Vayera

As already noted, the weekly portions in the Book of Genesis are a series of pairs. Just as the Torah relates the opening history of mankind in two weekly portions, Bereshit and Noah, so the story of Abraham is told to us in two weekly portions: Lech Lecha and Vayera.

The Lech Lecha (“Go thee forth”) portion tells of Abraham’s “departure.” In addition to leaving not only his father’s house and his former life, Abraham also experiences a gradual shift from his original plan of creating a universal religion to accepting God’s plan of creating a unique, monotheistic nation as a strict prerequisite to spreading that universal idea to all of humanity.

In the course of his travels through the Land of Israel, Abraham gradually comes to realize that the continuation of his teachings can be accomplished not through Eliezer, Lot, or Ishmael, but only through his son born to him from Sarah. Eliezer, Lot, and Ishmael were all close associates of Abraham and followers of his teachings, but that was not sufficient for any of them to become his successors.

To continue Abraham’s teachings, it was necessary not only to know and understand what he taught, but also to have enormous creative potential. With Abraham, the creation of the nation and of Judaism has only just begun; thus, his successor must not merely duplicate Abraham’s accomplishments, but must continue to also blaze his own trail. Only a son born of both Abraham and Sarah could be a personality strong and bright enough to further Abraham’s work.

In the Lech Lecha portion Abraham undergoes the transition from his level of individual understanding to the level of national understanding; that is, from Abram to Abraham.

From this turning point, a new weekly portion of the Torah begins, the Vayera portion (“The Lord appeared to him”). In this portion, the Almighty reveals himself to Abraham as none other than the founder of a nation. The main event here is the birth of Isaac. Abraham, the epitome of righteousness – the attribute of chesed – has begun to realize (as difficult as this is for him) that his successor would be a person of completely different attitudes than himself, a righteous person of a different type – the attribute of gevurah. Abraham should have understood and accepted that chesed, rather than operating in isolation, requires integration with other attributes, primarily with gevurah.

The Lech Lecha portion tells of Abraham’s beginnings. Portion Vayera covers Abraham’s relationship with Isaac, because it is vital not only to have one’s own achievements, but also to find a successor to continue those accomplishments. This story begins with the prediction of the birth of Isaac, and ends with the akedat yitzchak, “the sacrificing of Isaac,” as the pinnacle of mutual understanding between Abraham and Isaac.

Isaac could be born only after Ishmael had grown up, because in the process of Ishmael’s birth and upbringing, a certain kelippah (“shell” or “husk”) was lifted from Abraham that had been hindering his development. (This is Ishmael’s “unclean chesed,” to be discussed below.) Abraham’s formation as ancestor of the Jewish people now begins. Only after his circumcision and the change of his name could Abraham become the progenitor of a nation.

18.2. Revelation in the Afternoon: First Steps Toward the Attribute of Gevurah (18:1)

א וַיֵּרָ֤א אֵלָיו֙ י֔י בְּאֵֽלֹנֵ֖י מַמְרֵ֑א וְה֛וּא יֹשֵׁ֥ב פֶּֽתַח־הָאֹ֖הֶל כְּחֹ֥ם הַיּֽוֹם׃

 [1] The Lord appeared to him by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot.

[1] The Lord appeared to himGod had already appeared to Abraham not long before (17:1), but Abraham during this time has changed much by circumcising himself and his family. Abraham therefore no longer “falls on his face” when meeting with the Almighty, but conducts direct dialogue with Him.

By the terebinths of MamreThis is the city of Hebron (13:18), where Abraham has lived since the time of the war with the kings (14:13). The sefirah – Kabbalistic attribute – of Hebron within the Land of Israel is malchut, “kingdom.” This is the attribute of realization, the attribute of David who will reign in Hebron. But the attribute of Abraham is chesed, and the quality of malchut is therefore alien to him. Abraham has not yet built a nation, but has only just begun the enormous task of creating it.

The structure of the Jewish nation, according to the sefirot tree, tends toward malchut, to David, and to the Messiah, the descendant of David. In Abraham are only the beginnings of its growth. Abraham settles in Hebron, the royal city (see 20:5), because internally he wants to move towards malchut; he wants to start learning this attribute. However, as becomes apparent below, Abraham cannot find his place in Hebron, so he goes to Gerar, and then on to Beersheba. Only Isaac and Jacob, his son and grandson, will later return to Hebron.

As the day grew hotAfternoon is the time of the gevurah attribute, – reckoning and judgment – while dawn, the early morning, is the time of grace, chesed, the attribute of Abraham. Afternoon, gevurah, is the time of Isaac. (Night, as we shall see later, is tiferet – “adornment” or “splendor” – the time of Jacob.)

When light reappears in the morning, we perceive it as a Divine gift to the world after the darkness of the night. God restores every man’s soul to him after sleep, so that we can renew our lives each day. In shacharit, the daily morning prayer, a Jew rejoices that he is awake, having received anew the gift of life. All this is the attribute of chesed.

By the time afternoon arrives the sun is shining hot, and being exposed to it is difficult; this is the attribute of law and judgment. Accordingly, in minchah, the afternoon prayer, a person gives an account to God for the work he has accomplished so far that day. Thus he justifies his existence by accounting for his accomplishments in relation to the opportunities that he has been given. Such is the character of Isaac.

Abraham’s vision, which begins here in the afternoon, in the heat of the day, and not early in the morning, is itself an indicator of the coming birth of Isaac, the righteous exemplar of the attribute of judgment.

He was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hotAt this time of day one would normally seek refuge inside his tent from the sweltering heat. Sitting at the tent’s entrance in such heat is unnatural. The Midrash explains that Abraham did so as an expression of his eagerness to invite travelers into his home.

18.3. The Three “Men” as the Unification of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (18:2-5)

ב וַיִּשָּׂ֤א עֵינָיו֙ וַיַּ֔רְא וְהִנֵּה֙ שְׁלֹשָׁ֣ה אֲנָשִׁ֔ים נִצָּבִ֖ים עָלָ֑יו וַיַּ֗רְא וַיָּ֤רָץ לִקְרָאתָם֙ מִפֶּ֣תַח הָאֹ֔הֶל וַיִּשְׁתַּ֖חוּ אָֽרְצָה׃ ג וַיֹּאמַ֑ר אֲדֹנָ֗י אִם־נָ֨א מָצָ֤אתִי חֵן֙ בְּעֵינֶ֔יךָ אַל־נָ֥א תַֽעֲבֹ֖ר מֵעַ֥ל עַבְדֶּֽךָ׃ ד יֻקַּֽח־נָ֣א מְעַט־מַ֔יִם וְרַֽחֲצ֖וּ רַגְלֵיכֶ֑ם וְהִֽשָּׁעֲנ֖וּ תַּ֥חַת הָעֵֽץ׃ ה וְאֶקְחָ֨ה פַת־לֶ֜חֶם וְסַֽעֲד֤וּ לִבְּכֶם֙ אַחַ֣ר תַּֽעֲבֹ֔רוּ כִּֽי־עַל־כֵּ֥ן עֲבַרְתֶּ֖ם עַֽל־עַבְדְּכֶ֑ם וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ כֵּ֥ן תַּֽעֲשֶׂ֖ה כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֥ר דִּבַּֽרְתָּ׃

[2] Looking up, he saw three men standing near him. and, bowing to the ground,

[3] he said, “My lords, if it please you, do not go on past your servant As soon as he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them.

[4] Let a little water be brought; bathe your feet and recline under the tree.

[5] And let me fetch a morsel of bread that you may refresh yourselves; then go on–seeing that you have come your servant’s way”. They replied, “Do as you have said”.

[2] Three men standing near him Who were these three “men” whom Abraham meets here? The story begins with the fact that “the Lord appeared to him” (verse 1), but we do not find that God actually speaks to Abraham here; the text cuts over immediately to the three “men.” Later, the Torah says of Abraham’s visitors: “The men … looked down toward Sodom … and the two angels arrived in Sodom” (18:16, 19:1). So, with what kind of “men” was Abraham actually communicating?

Tradition provides several different ways of understanding this passage. They might have been three ordinary travelers, sent by God on a mission to Abraham. Or perhaps they were angels. Or perhaps it was the Almighty Himself, revealed to Abraham in a vision. In different periods, Jewish commentators emphasized those aspects of their understanding of this story that they felt were important for their generation.

For our generation today, the most significant interpretation is that of the Zohar, which says that the three men whom Abraham saw were images of the three Patriarchs. In other words, it is Abraham himself in the company of his son and grandson Isaac and Jacob. This means that Abraham recognized himself not only as a distinct personality representing the attribute of chesed independently of the other sefirot, but also as a link in the chain of generations, as part of the overall picture of the development of the nation in both the physical and spiritual senses. Abraham was coming to understand that the attribute of chesed cannot work in isolation; that it is impossible to improve humanity and the universe by love, kindness, and grace alone. Abraham now understood that he was himself only the first link in the chain of Patriarchs who would continue the work he had started. Understanding that his own sefirah must be complemented by those of Isaac and Jacob is a major advance for Abraham.

As soon as he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet themAbraham saw his connection to the attributes of Isaac and Jacob, and willingly accepted that connection. The Hebrew word ratz (“he ran”) is related in Hebrew to the word ratzon, “desire,” which causes one to run after what is desired. Thus, Abraham is open to the idea of unification, for he now realizes that the founder of the nation must be not just a single Patriarch, but all three of them as a unit. Or, the same idea differently stated: All the attributes together and not only chesed must form the foundation of the Jewish people. This is Abraham’s “dynamic” – his enormous spiritual advancement.

Having achieved this understanding, Abraham is now prepared for the birth of Isaac. Being now circumcised, Abraham understands his “specialness,” but he has now advanced even further, realizing that he is only the first in a chain of multiple stages of development. Therefore, he can now father his son Isaac, a righteous man of a direction different from his own. Until he had passed through this stage of development Abraham could not give birth to Isaac; he could be the father of only Ishmael, who in a sense is merely a “weak copy” of early Abraham.

18.4. Overcoming Fanaticism

A person will normally consider his own ideas and views the most significant and valid. This is natural and necessary, for otherwise we would not be able to defend our ideas and views, and that would make it impossible for us to realize our mission in the world. On the other hand, however, it is dangerous for a person to become such a fanatical supporter of a certain idea that he believes it to be the sole panacea for all the world’s problems. And this is true even when the idea itself is not per se unwholesome. Take, for example, love, beauty and social justice. These values are vital for human existence. But if one begins to absolutize them, declaring that “only love will save the world,” or “only beauty will save the world,” or “only social justice will save the world,” this is evil, for it is only a destructive fanaticism.

A higher level of human awareness for that person would be to continue actively supporting that concept or idea, but at the same time to be capable of seeing it as only one component of the overall picture. It is essential to admit that your favorite idea must also have its spiritual antithesis, and that in the end this spiritual antithesis will only benefit it.

It would be wrong, of course, for me to renounce my own views; rather, I should argue and defend them. For who will do so for me if I will not? As Hillel said (Mishnah, Avot 1:14): “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” It is vital, however, that I not consider my own particular direction the only valid one.

Fanaticism is thus not a characteristic of a person’s views, be they left or right, extreme or moderate. Fanaticism is a characteristic of one’s attitude toward other people when he neither sees, nor wants to see, anything except his own ideas. One who does not see the world around him cannot develop properly.

Any positive thing or idea can be legitimate, provided it remains in its proper place. If it attempts to overstep its boundaries without limit, then by definition it is out of place, and cannot possibly function properly. The Kabbalah calls such a myopic view an olam hanekudim, a “world of points”, where each sefirah (an attribute that is good and proper in itself) wants to absorb all the surrounding Divine light. Bursting from an excess of internal pressure, it explodes and shatters.

That is what the Kabbalah calls shevirat kelim, shattering of vessels. Any system that tries to suppress the opposing viewpoint will ipso facto lose its balance and inevitably collapse. The tikkun (correction) consists in finding the necessary balance. The effect of Abraham’s transition from total preoccupation with chesed to an understanding of the importance of harmonizing the attributes of all three “men” who appeared to him is to prevent any potential fanaticism, the most important step towards improving the world.

18.5. The “Unclean” Chesed of Ishmael

When we say that Ishmael is “a weak copy of early Abraham,” we mean that Ishmael, like Abraham, is also a person of chesed, but he incorrectly orients that chesed, which in Kabbalistic terminology is therefore called chesed de-tum’ah (“unclean chesed”). However, since Ishmael too is the embodiment of chesed, he in this sense resembles Abraham, who understands Ishmael even with all his faults. But Isaac, who is gevurah, neither resembles Abraham nor is comprehensible to him. This is one of the reasons that Abraham loves Ishmael more than he loves Isaac. Getting his inner self in touch with Isaac will be a difficult job for Abraham.

The way Jewish tradition sees this manifestation of Ishmael’s impure chesed can be discerned in the words of the Torah, “His hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him” (16:12), which indicates a lack of any sense of boundaries; it is this attitude towards one’s neighbor that turns that chesed into something “unclean.” Similarly, the Hebrew word metzachek that the Torah uses to describe Ishmael’s “mocking” Isaac (21:9) is understood by the Midrash as indicating a propensity for sexual aspirations without a sense of boundaries. The word metzachek, to mock or dally amorously, has clear sexual connotations in the Torah (see 26:9).

“Unclean chesed” inclines Ishmael to apply that chesed inwardly to himself: he tends to be all-permissive, which explains why the flip side of Middle Eastern hospitality is the mass murder of infidels. That is why the descendants of Ishmael, for the sake of balance, choose Islam, which typifies the opposite attribute, gevurah, with its minimalist monotheism and a very harshly restrictive system of religion.

As we shall have occasion to observe later, the descendants of Esau, whose attribute is gevurah, likewise feel the need to counter their natural inclinations, and they have therefore embraced Christianity, the religion of chesed and love.)

As previously noted, we can learn a great deal about a civilization from how it envisions paradise, because those images reflect the deepest aspirations of the people’s “collective soul.” Or, to paraphrase an oft-quoted maxim about the friends we choose: “Tell me what your paradise looks like, and I will tell you who you are”.

It is by no mere happenstance that in the minds of Ishmael’s descendants, paradise is the place where “every man will be attended by seventy-two virgins.” Such ideas demonstrate the inclination of the Arab soul and its inner desire for lewdness. Aware of this inclination, Islam introduces extremely tough “anti-debauchery” measures into everyday life as a means of self-preservation. Its women are thus required to cover themselves from head to toe, so that no man will possibly be seduced by them.

Abraham had to be cleansed of all this “unclean chesed” precisely in order that the Jewish people could then inherit chesed only in its purified form.

18.6. The Nature and Roles of Angels

If we perceive Abraham’s three guests as angels, especially in light of what the Torah says later, “The two angels arrived in Sodom,” we must ask why there would be three or two angels, and not just one. The Midrash explains that every angel has its own particular role to fulfill, and no angel can fulfill two or more roles. One of the angels who came to Abraham was the “angel of good tidings” (Michael), who came to inform Sarah of the birth of Isaac. The second was the “angel of healing” (Raphael), who healed Abraham from the after-effects of his circumcision. (He later also brought Lot out of Sodom before its destruction, since healing and rescue are considered one and the same role.) And the third was the “angel of judgment” (Gabriel), charged with destroying Sodom.

Here we see an expression of the Jewish understanding of an angel as the will of the Almighty that has assumed a certain bounded and finite form, in some sense separated from Him and descended into lower worlds. An angel according to this understanding is the materialized or “concentrated” will of God sent to the lower world for the fulfillment of a specific mission.

Such a manifestation of the will of the Almighty can be a one-time, ad hoc occurrence, or it can be an ongoing and permanent assignment, as when it takes the form of some law of nature.

From this point of view, it should be noted, all forces of evil are likewise angels. In particular, Satan, in the Jewish view, is one of the angels performing the functions entrusted to him by God; he is not by any means an autonomous “force that opposes God.” Satan’s job is to act as prosecutor, to accuse and challenge human beings with difficulties and trials. But these are all tasks assigned to him by God; Satan himself is not an “adversary of God” in any sense.

18.7. Abraham’s Hospitality as a Religious Value (18:6-8)

ו וַיְמַהֵ֧ר אַבְרָהָ֛ם הָאֹ֖הֱלָה אֶל־שָׂרָ֑ה וַיֹּ֗אמֶר מַֽהֲרִ֞י שְׁלֹ֤שׁ סְאִים֙ קֶ֣מַח סֹ֔לֶת ל֖וּשִׁי וַֽעֲשִׂ֥י עֻגֽוֹת׃ ז וְאֶל־הַבָּקָ֖ר רָ֣ץ אַבְרָהָ֑ם וַיִּקַּ֨ח בֶּן־בָּקָ֜ר רַ֤ךְ וָטוֹב֙ וַיִּתֵּ֣ן אֶל־הַנַּ֔עַר וַיְמַהֵ֖ר לַֽעֲשׂ֥וֹת אֹתֽוֹ׃ ח וַיִּקַּ֨ח חֶמְאָ֜ה וְחָלָ֗ב וּבֶן־הַבָּקָר֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשָׂ֔ה וַיִּתֵּ֖ן לִפְנֵיהֶ֑ם וְהֽוּא־עֹמֵ֧ד עֲלֵיהֶ֛ם תַּ֥חַת הָעֵ֖ץ וַיֹּאכֵֽלוּ׃

[6] Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Quick, three seahs of choice flour! Knead and make cakes!”

[7] Then Abraham ran to the herd, took a calf, tender and choice, and gave it to a servant-boy, who hastened to prepare it.

[8] He took curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared and set these before them; and he waited on them under the tree as they ate.

[6] Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Quick…”Hospitality is nothing unusual for us today. But at that time the situation was different, and such conduct was not generally accepted at all. For Abraham, however, hospitality was a routine expression of his religiosity, and he sought to make it as widespread a practice as possible.

The essence of monotheism, as preached by Abraham, is love of God, expressed through love of one’s fellow man as the image of God on earth. The essential feature of monotheism is not that God is One, but that man is created in His image and likeness. Abraham, by receiving travelers and showing them love, actualizes his religious values.

As a relative and disciple of Abraham, Lot too is hospitable, but Sodom, as Abraham’s opposite, is the very antithesis of hospitality, and it therefore has no right to exist. Because of Sodom’s failure to be hospitable toward other people, God is “inhospitable” toward them.

[8] He took curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared and set these before themThe righteous do much more than they promise, as the Talmud points out, citing Abraham here as an example. He promised only water and a piece of bread (18:5), but he gives meat and milk as well.

Curds and milk and the calfIn the Patriarchal era the commandments of the Torah did not yet exist. Thus, there were no laws of kashrut (kosher and non-kosher food), such as the prohibition of eating an admixture of meat and dairy, or consuming both of those at the same meal.

18.8. The Cave of Machpelah: Jewish Tradition Begins with Adam

The Midrash connects the story of the angels’ visit with Abraham’s discovery of the cave of Machpelah. In the verse 18:7, “Then Abraham ran to the herd ... ,” the preposition el (“in the direction of”) is used, a rather atypical usage which means not “(run) to” but rather “(run) after.” Thus, the passage should be translated as “Then Abraham ran after the herd..”. The Midrash, based on the above grammatical observation, tells us that the calf he planned to have slaughtered ran away from Abraham, and into the cave of Machpelah (recall that Abraham at that time was living in Hebron). Chasing the calf, Abraham saw the light of the Garden of Eden emanating from the cave, and realized that it was the tomb of Adam and Eve. He later decided to purchase that cave and make it his family tomb.

The lesson of ​​this Midrash is not only the idea that hospitality will be rewarded, but also the fact that Adam is buried in the cave of Machpelah, the tomb of the Patriarchs, which means that the Jewish traditions of that cave hark back not only as far as Abraham, but even unto Adam; that is, to the very dawn of mankind. The Torah wishes to emphasize that Jewish traditions are universally relevant. The purpose of Jewish tradition is to bring the Divine light to all of humanity, and not only to the Jewish people.

18.9. Ishmael’s Adulthood and His Test (18:7)

ז וְאֶל־הַבָּקָ֖ר רָ֣ץ אַבְרָהָ֑ם וַיִּקַּ֨ח בֶּן־בָּקָ֜ר רַ֤ךְ וָטוֹב֙ וַיִּתֵּ֣ן אֶל־הַנַּ֔עַר וַיְמַהֵ֖ר לַֽעֲשׂ֥וֹת אֹתֽוֹ׃

[7] Then Abraham ran to the herd, took a calf, tender and choice, and gave it to a servant-boy, who hastened to prepare it.

[7] And gave it to a servant-boySince the boy is not named, tradition seeks to identify him with one of the aforementioned characters, and claims that he was Ishmael. As we know, Ishmael was thirteen years old at that time, standing on the very threshold of adulthood, the age of responsible decision making. Abraham must wait until Ishmael becomes an adult for Isaac’s birth to happen, because accepting and acknowledging Isaac was to be a test for Ishmael.

The test that God places before Ishmael is to recognize his subsidiary position in the family hierarchy, and to acknowledge that Isaac is Abraham’s full heir in every sense, while he, Ishmael, is only a junior member of the family. Only by passing this test, by acknowledging the truth of that hierarchy, will Ishmael receive his portion of the inheritance, just as Hagar received her rightful reward only after recognizing Sarah’s primacy and her own slave status. Prior to that she was driven off, on account of her overinflated pretensions.

It is therefore vital that Ishmael learn all these lessons as early as possible, and all the better if he will do so while Isaac is still only “in the pipeline,” in order to condition himself in advance to what lies ahead. To undergo that kind of restructuring Ishmael must have reached the age of adulthood – thirteen years old. And then, being already capable of making responsible decisions, he can choose whether to agree or disagree with his new position in the family.

In the end, Ishmael could not pass this test and was driven away. But God did give him the opportunity initially to make that choice.

On the other hand, Abraham himself also needed to feel convinced that Ishmael was not a suitable heir to his legacy. In order for Ishmael to show his true self and for Abraham to understand this, Ishmael had to be an adult. Only then could his behavior convince Abraham that his other son Isaac was the son worthy of continuing his work.

18.10. Sarah’s Laughter: Not Lack of Faith, but Overcoming Gevurah (18:9-15)

ט וַיֹּֽאמְר֣וּ אֵׄלָ֔יׄוׄ אַיֵּ֖ה שָׂרָ֣ה אִשְׁתֶּ֑ךָ וַיֹּ֖אמֶר הִנֵּ֥ה בָאֹֽהֶל׃ י וַיֹּ֗אמֶר שׁ֣וֹב אָשׁ֤וּב אֵלֶ֨יךָ֙ כָּעֵ֣ת חַיָּ֔ה וְהִנֵּה־בֵ֖ן לְשָׂרָ֣ה אִשְׁתֶּ֑ךָ וְשָׂרָ֥ה שֹׁמַ֛עַת פֶּ֥תַח הָאֹ֖הֶל וְה֥וּא אַֽחֲרָֽיו׃ יא וְאַבְרָהָ֤ם וְשָׂרָה֙ זְקֵנִ֔ים בָּאִ֖ים בַּיָּמִ֑ים חָדַל֙ לִֽהְי֣וֹת לְשָׂרָ֔ה אֹ֖רַח כַּנָּשִֽׁים׃ יב וַתִּצְחַ֥ק שָׂרָ֖ה בְּקִרְבָּ֣הּ לֵאמֹ֑ר אַֽחֲרֵ֤י בְלֹתִי֙ הָֽיְתָה־לִּ֣י עֶדְנָ֔ה וַֽאדֹנִ֖י זָקֵֽן׃ יג וַיֹּ֥אמֶר י֖י אֶל־אַבְרָהָ֑ם לָ֣מָּה זֶּה֩ צָֽחֲקָ֨ה שָׂרָ֜ה לֵאמֹ֗ר הַאַ֥ף אֻמְנָ֛ם אֵלֵ֖ד וַֽאֲנִ֥י זָקַֽנְתִּי׃ יד הֲיִפָּלֵ֥א מֵֽי֖י דָּבָ֑ר לַמּוֹעֵ֞ד אָשׁ֥וּב אֵלֶ֛יךָ כָּעֵ֥ת חַיָּ֖ה וּלְשָׂרָ֥ה בֵֽן׃ טו וַתְּכַחֵ֨שׁ שָׂרָ֧ה ׀ לֵאמֹ֛ר לֹ֥א צָחַ֖קְתִּי כִּ֣י ׀ יָרֵ֑אָה וַיֹּ֥אמֶר ׀ לֹ֖א כִּ֥י צָחָֽקְתְּ׃

[9] They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he replied, “There, in the tent”.

[10] Then one said, “I will return to you next year, and your wife Sarah shall have a son!” Sarah was listening at the entrance of the tent, which was behind him.

[11] Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years; Sarah had stopped having the periods of women.

[12] And Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment–with my husband so old?”

[13] Then the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?’

[14] Is anything too wondrous for the Lord? I will return to you at the time next year, and Sarah shall have a son”.

[15] Sarah lied, saying, “I did not laugh”, for she was frightened. But He replied, “You did laugh”.

At a superficial glance, here is what we see. Sarah demonstrates a lack of faith, not believing in any possibility of a miracle. God faults her for this, but she is unwilling to admit that her faith is deficient.

We should infer from this the importance of believing in the possibility of receiving miracles from the Almighty. Even if Sarah did not consider those guests to be angels, she nonetheless should have felt a desire to see their promises fulfilled, rather than deeming them impossible.

However, as we delve deeper into our analysis of this dialogue, we will see that it must be understood in an entirely different way.

[12] Am I to have enjoyment, with my husband so old? As ordinarily understood, Sarah’s words here refer to Abraham. Sarah is saying that bearing a child is not possible, because she and Abraham are both too old. When repeating Sarah’s words to Abraham, God paraphrases them “in order to keep the peace” (between husband and wife) – that is, so that Abraham will not feel offended on Sarah’s account. However, there are a number of problems with this interpretation.

First, if Sarah is too old to bear children, one good reason is sufficient, and adding words about Abraham’s old age makes no sense.

Secondly, forty years later, after Sarah dies, Abraham will marry Keturah, who will bear him many children (see 25:1). It is evident, then, that Abraham’s ability to have children is unimpaired.

But something else, too, is unclear. If the words “Sarah laughed to herself” mean that she laughed quietly, and not out loud, then why does God ask Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh?” If Abraham had not even heard Sarah laughing, how would he be able to explain that laughter? But still more troublesome is God’s criticizing of Sarah to Abraham. Could anything constructive have been achieved by that?

Thus, the usual understanding of this passage is firstly inconsistent with the text and secondly depicts Abraham and Sarah’s dialogue with God as monstrously primitive, as only a series of petty reproaches and quibbles. This is in no way consistent with the true image of these personalities in the Torah.

Evidently, we must completely revise our understanding of Sarah’s words and God’s response, by suggesting that Sarah’s actual words were “and my Lord is old,” referring to God, and not “and my lord is old,” referring to Abraham. (There are no uppercase letters in Hebrew.)

In referring to God’s “old age,” Sarah means that He no longer interferes with the natural flow of events. “Old age” here means the cessation of variability, the loss of dynamism. And this understanding that Sarah has corresponds perfectly to God’s answer: Instead of addressing Abraham’s purported old age, God says: “Is anything too wondrous for the Lord?”

Moreover, if we understand Sarah to be speaking of God’s “old age,” her phrasing now becomes much more logical, as if to say: “I have myself already grown old, and God, too, no longer intervenes in the world. Everything that happens now follows the immutable laws of nature. Therefore I cannot give birth.”

With that understanding we can grasp the deeper essence of the problem. Sarah’s attribute in relation to Abraham is gevurah. And since the desire to observe laws, including the laws of nature, is the most important quality of gevurah, Sarah’s words very clearly express the essence of these attributes.

Recall that chesed is not just kindness, but the desire to change the status quo. And gevurah, likewise, is not just justice and law, but the desire to preserve and protect social order. Abraham is chesed, and Sarah, as a member of Abraham’s family, is “the gevurah that is within chesed.” When they act as a family, Sarah and Abraham together perform chesed, influencing others to have faith in the One God, to receive and care for travelers, and so on. But in her relationship with Abraham, Sarah’s attribute is gevurah within the family.

That is why the laws of nature seem inviolable to Sarah, and why it is difficult for her to accept that God would alter them according to His will. But the Almighty challenges her, saying that even His altering of the laws of nature is entirely within the realm of possibility.

[14] Is anything too wondrous for the Lord?Based on the above interpretation, the answer of God becomes clear. His objective is not to cavil and reproach, but to help Sarah in her spiritual advancement: He seeks to teach Sarah to entertain the possibility of miraculous changes in the world and in life.

Even so, while God addresses both Sarah and Abraham as one, He highlights His appeal to Abraham as an appeal to the attribute of chesed.

In response to Sarah’s position that “after God created the world and initiated its processes, he will never again alter its natural course,” the Almighty expresses his willingness to override the laws of even an already functioning world. With these words he challenges the concept of the universe to which Sarah has grown accustomed. It is this change in Sarah’s consciousness – that is to say, the dynamic development and refinement of the attribute of gevurah – that is God’s objective in speaking these words, and not merely to make Abraham aware of Sarah’s laughter. Sarah’s laughter here plays a very essential role.

18.11. The Role of Laughter Within a Religious Worldview

What is the meaning of laughter in general? And what is its role within a religious worldview in particular?

We laugh when events or narratives develop unexpectedly, illogically, or unpredictably, but when at the same time we are given the opportunity to see more complex connections between events and phenomena than we had originally supposed. Thus, the essence of laughter is the joy we experience when, by transcending logic and being elevated above it, we manage to perceive a higher level of world harmony. This liberation from the shackles of logic can be found in the surprise punchline of a joke, in a logical paradox, or in the sudden unraveling of a problem that previously had seemed all but intractable.

When we manage to surmount the barriers created by our past limitations and our excessively primitive, logical understanding of how the world works, this is for us a source of great pleasure, and we express our joy with laughter. None of us really loves prescription and logical inevitability. We want to be free, to be liberated from the confines of predestination. Freedom, not compulsion, is a Divine quality, and laughter is a feeling of approaching God, who laughs too, of course. Of God’s laughter we read in the Psalms (2:4, 37:13, 104:26), and also quite often in the Talmud and Midrashim.

In other words, laughter is the joy we experience when we overpower gevurah. Laughter, then, is Sarah’s sefirah correction. And as for Isaac, who embodies gevurah, even his very name speaks of laughter. (“Isaac” means “he will laugh.”)

Gevurah, in its essence, always accepts life as it is. It is the belief that God has arranged everything in the best possible way, and that praying for change is therefore completely unnecessary and pointless. Therefore, Sarah cannot believe that God will intervene to change her life. Sarah’s main problem – her disbelief in miracles – arises not from a failure to believe in God’s omnipotence, but because she does not believe in the need for miracles. Thus, Sarah and Isaac, who both represent gevurah – rigidity, law, correctness” – are tested in situations where the world develops illogically, unpredictably, and unexpectedly. As a person it is good to be “correct,” but being too correct is ridiculous, because the world itself is not entirely correct, which is what makes it so remarkable.

The subconscious joy of transcending logic – this is Sarah’s laughter, but it is at first only “internal.” That is, Sarah herself is not aware of it yet. In Sarah, the state of transcending nature is still in progress, and God, speaking clearly to her about her laughter (by calling on Sarah to acknowledge Him) helps her in this advancement. (Note that Abraham, who is chesed, does not have this problem; he laughs immediately and openly [Gen 17:17].)

Thus, Sarah’s laughter in this situation in no way indicates a disregard for the prophecy she has heard, but her sensing within herself the possibility of a breakthrough. At a conscious level, however, she does not yet believe it, because she knows that physiologically she cannot give birth. Therefore, she is herself unaware of her own subconscious joy – her laughter.

And that is why in all sincerity she denies it: “Sarah lied, saying, ‘I did not laugh,’ for she was frightened” (18:15). It would be too primitive, of course, to suggest that Sarah simply feared punishment or reprimand for laughing at the words of angels. No, there is something else at work here. Sarah is afraid to admit to herself that she had laughed, that she believes in any possibility of an illogical, abnormal procession of events. No less than anyone else, Sarah fears the total collapse of her perceived world order. And so she is afraid to acknowledge her own laugh.

(For a further discussion of Isaac’s laughter, see 36.11.)

18.12. God Supports Sarah in Her Laughter

As soon as the angel promises Sarah the birth of a son, the soul of Isaac begins to descend into the world. Sarah already feels Isaac being born inside her, but she still feels this only subconsciously, in her deepest essence. A new reality is already entering the world, even if it is not yet a physical one. Sarah already feels this reality, for her subconscious now acknowledges and accepts the unlikely eventuality of motherhood.

Sarah’s laughter expresses hope – the first step in accepting the possibility of the unexpected. Therefore, when Sarah is pessimistic about her old age and about the old age of her “master,” she laughs at this, but only subconsciously and in her own mind. God does not reproach Sarah for this, however; on the contrary, He explains to her that she needlessly fears her own laughter, because nothing is beyond the Lord’s capabilities, including that she can indeed give birth to a son.

God supports Sarah in her laughter and wants her to believe in a new opportunity, to not be afraid to laugh, and to recognize that all of this is nothing out of the ordinary. By virtue of all of that, she will achieve a new level of personal advancement. And that is why God ends the dialogue by telling Sarah, “No, you did laugh!”

In fact, the dialogue continues, but only later, when Sarah calls her son Yitzchak (“he will laugh”), saying that “everyone who hears will laugh with me” (21:6).

By calling her son “Isaac,” Sarah responds positively to God’s words. Besides coming to realize that her laughter was necessary, and that gevurah must be restricted, Sarah also invites others to join with her in her laughter. Only by accepting Sarah’s laughter as a positive response can we understand the meaning of the name Yitzchak. For if God had considered her laughter inappropriate and blamed her for it, surely she would not have named her son Yitzchak, “he will laugh.”

Just as Abraham’s development consists of limiting his own chesed, Sarah’s development consists of limiting her own gevurah. We will continue our discussion of this topic later, in the chapters dealing with Isaac himself.

18.13. Abraham Escorts the Angels (18:16)

טז וַיָּקֻ֤מוּ מִשָּׁם֙ הָֽאֲנָשִׁ֔ים וַיַּשְׁקִ֖פוּ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י סְדֹ֑ם וְאַ֨בְרָהָ֔ם הֹלֵ֥ךְ עִמָּ֖ם לְשַׁלְּחָֽם׃

[16] The men set out from there and looked down toward Sodom, Abraham walking with them to see them off.

[16] The men … looked downLehashkif means “to look judgmentally” – in this case, with the intention of judging Sodom. This is an expression of the attribute of gevurah, judgment. The destruction of Sodom is tightly integrated with the news of Isaac’s birth. Precisely because a righteous individual who personifies the attribute of judgment will soon be born, that very attribute is now increasing, congealing – and this means that the time has come for Sodom to stand in judgment.

Abraham walking with them to see them offHe accompanies gevurah, because he already feels a desire to follow the events unfolding in order to understand the attribute of judgment – how it is implemented, and how to deal with it properly. Abraham is not quite ready to fully accept the attribute of judgment, but he is already moving in that direction.

18.14. God Invites Abraham to the Trial of Sodom (18:17-19)

יז וַֽי֖י אָמָ֑ר הַֽמְכַסֶּ֤ה אֲנִי֙ מֵֽאַבְרָהָ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֖ר אֲנִ֥י עֹשֶֽׂה׃ יח וְאַ֨בְרָהָ֔ם הָי֧וֹ יִֽהְיֶ֛ה לְג֥וֹי גָּד֖וֹל וְעָצ֑וּם וְנִ֨בְרְכוּ־ב֔וֹ כֹּ֖ל גּוֹיֵ֥י הָאָֽרֶץ׃ יט כִּ֣י יְדַעְתִּ֗יו לְמַעַן֩ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְצַוֶּ֜ה אֶת־בָּנָ֤יו וְאֶת־בֵּיתוֹ֙ אַֽחֲרָ֔יו וְשָֽׁמְרוּ֙ דֶּ֣רֶךְ י֔י לַֽעֲשׂ֥וֹת צְדָקָ֖ה וּמִשְׁפָּ֑ט לְמַ֗עַן הָבִ֤יא יי֙ עַל־אַבְרָהָ֔ם אֵ֥ת אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֖ר עָלָֽיו׃

[17] Now the Lord had said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do,

[18] since Abraham is to become a great and populous nation and all the nations of the earth are to bless themselves by him?

[19] For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right, in order that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what He has promised him.”

Why does God say that He cannot “hide” His plans from Abraham? In what way do the Divine plans regarding Sodom concern Abraham, and what is it that Abraham needs to know about God’s plan?

God could have destroyed Sodom without Abraham’s knowledge or participation, of course. But God is involving Abraham in the judgment of Sodom as a necessary part of Abraham’s education, in order to acquaint him with the attribute of gevurah.

18.15. Chosenness for a Purpose: The Covenant with Abraham as “the Way of the Lord”

יט כִּ֣י יְדַעְתִּ֗יו לְמַעַן֩ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְצַוֶּ֜ה אֶת־בָּנָ֤יו וְאֶת־בֵּיתוֹ֙ אַֽחֲרָ֔יו וְשָֽׁמְרוּ֙ דֶּ֣רֶךְ י֔י לַֽעֲשׂ֥וֹת צְדָקָ֖ה וּמִשְׁפָּ֑ט לְמַ֗עַן הָבִ֤יא יי֙ עַל־אַבְרָהָ֔ם אֵ֥ת אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֖ר עָלָֽיו׃

[19] For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and rightIn this verse, the Almighty explains His reason for choosing Abraham. Let us highlight several of its aspects.

We note first that God chose Abraham not as recompense for something he had already done in the past, but to achieve something new in the future. In other words, Abraham was chosen for mission, not merit. There are many worthy people in this world deserving of a reward, but Abraham’s chosenness is not a reward – it is the burden and the mission of the Jewish people in relation to the rest of humanity.

Secondly, Abraham is chosen “that he may instruct his children and his posterity.” As great as Abraham is, his household and descendants are even more important, because of the nation that they will become, and the direction in which that nation will develop.

Finally, “to keep the way of the Lord” is an incomparably broader concept than mere observance of the commandments. We have already explored the two stages of God’s covenant with the Jewish people:

(1) The covenant with Abraham and the other Patriarchs, and

(2) The covenant with Moses and the Jewish nation at Sinai.

Although Jewish tradition views these covenants as a single unit, they are nonetheless very different. God’s covenant with Abraham is “the way of the Lord” – the first stage in the development of Judaism, which determines its foundation and establishes its ideals and its general direction. But there are still no formalized commandments. It is only the second stage, the covenant through Moses at Sinai, that includes concrete commandments and instructions.

At the Patriarchs’ stage of development a system of commandments does not yet exist. It appears only much later, soon after the Exodus from Egypt . It is therefore essential for us to understand that the initial, fundamental stage of Judaism is all about ideals; the commandments are only second in importance to those. If we forget that Judaism is, before anything else, a religion of ideals, and if we perceive it instead as only a system of commandments, we will reduce Judaism to primitivism, rendering it repugnant to both the Jewish people and all of humanity.

18.16. The Jewish Ideal: Integration of Mercy and Justice

[19] To keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and rightThe “way of the Lord” is a combination of tzedakah and mishpat, mercy and justice. These correspond to the attributes of chesed and gevurah, benevolence and law.

The conflict between these ideals must be resolved not by choosing one to the detriment of the other, but by integrating the two. Effecting such a union is extremely difficult, but in Judaism it is the ideal. Moreover, there are no exact instructions for the realization of such a synthesis, nor can there be. Every person, in the multitude of different situations that constantly arise in life, must apply his own moral and religious intuition in order to achieve it.

It is important to note, that unlike the system of commandments, which cannot entertain contradictions (and, if they do occur, they must be resolved through legislative action), a system of ideals not only can, but inevitably will, entail contradictions and inconsistencies. We will give this issue more detailed coverage in its own portion.

18.17. Sodom’s Perverted Justice

The Midrash describes Sodom as a city-state where the rule of law is acknowledged supreme. But it is a law that perverts justice and flouts mercy. Everyone gets exactly what he deserves. If one is rich, it means that he is worthy, and has every right to oppress anyone less fortunate. The latter’s poverty shows that he is not deserving of wealth, and that he has only himself to blame for that.

Consider this example. The people of Sodom organized a “herd cooperative,” to relieve each individual cattle owner of the trouble of constantly feeding his own animals. But at the same time, any owner of just one cow was considered “insufficiently invested” in the cooperative, and was therefore required to contribute two days of work for every day of work required of an owner of two cows.

The people of Sodom also passed a law that prohibited giving alms to the poor who came to the city; the intent was to prevent the poor from coming to Sodom and disquieting its inhabitants. For Sodom was a wealthy city, and had no use for beggars from the countryside.

However, in order to create the appearance of being charitable, and to avoid being disparaged in the eyes of neighboring cities, the Sodomites enacted that every citizen would receive a bogus coin inscribed with his own name. Only these coins and no others could be given to the poor. Thus, when a scrounger begged for help in the Sodom town square, coins were hurled at him from every direction – but these coins were worthless for purchasing anything at all. The poor man would die of starvation even while surrounded by all of that “money,” after which the Sodomites would just take back their coins and get on with their lives.

If one person struck another in Sodom, the victim was ordered to pay the offender “the going rate of a bloodletting.” Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, was walking one day in Sodom and was attacked by a local resident. When Eliezer apprehended the culprit and dragged him to court, the judge ordered Eliezer to pay the offender “for his professional bloodletting services.” Eliezer then beat the judge and told him, “Now you can just pay him the money that you owe me.”

And yet another story: A traveler passing through Sodom rented a room for the night. Fearing thieves as he had no security protection of his own, the man entrusted to the innkeeper for safekeeping an expensive carpet from among his belongings before turning in for the night. When he came to claim his carpet in the morning, the innkeeper informed him that he knew nothing about a carpet, nor had he received anything for safekeeping. Said the traveler, “Well, of course there was a carpet! It is multicolored, with tassels.” And the innkeeper answered, “Heave-ho with your multicolors, and with your tassels I wish you only the best. Is it not enough for you that I have interpreted your dream? Begone!” The traveler dragged the owner to the judge, who ruled, “This man is a respected citizen of Sodom, and you are nobody. Pay your host for deciphering your dream, and be on your way!”

Any visitor to Sodom seeking overnight lodging would be given the “standard-issue, one-size-fits-all” Sodom bed. If he was too tall for the bed, they would amputate his legs; if too short, they would stretch him on the rack. But come now – how could any traveler dare to be anything but an exact fit for those magnificent, even “ideal” Sodom beds! Such arrogance on the part of a traveler required that he be subjected to the proper Sodom “correction.”

Thus, the Midrash presents Sodom as a place of law and order, but where those “laws” are so horrific that they are nothing less than actual crimes. But much worse than merely breaking the law is committing crimes in the name of the “law.” For as long as people have normal laws and a positive moral attitude, even if they violate those laws, they can still mend their ways when their conscience awakens and gets the better of them. But once they have enshrined their crimes as law in a grotesque legislative system, and they now accept that as normal behavior, they are already beyond all hope of ever repenting.

Sodom, by its very existence, is destroying the world. The Almighty therefore decides to obliterate Sodom.

18.18. The Trials of Sodom, Lot, and Abraham (18:20-22)

כ וַיֹּ֣אמֶר י֔י זַֽעֲקַ֛ת סְדֹ֥ם וַֽעֲמֹרָ֖ה כִּי־רָ֑בָּה וְחַ֨טָּאתָ֔ם כִּ֥י כָֽבְדָ֖ה מְאֹֽד׃ כא אֵֽרְדָה־נָּ֣א ו