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Torah Sparks

October 19, 2002 - 5763

Annual Cycle: Genesis 12:1 - 17:27 (Hertz, p. 45; Etz Hayim, p. 69)
Triennial: Year II: Genesis 14:1 - 15:21 (Hertz, p.50; Etz Hayim, p. 77)
Haftarah-Isaiah 40:27 - 41:16 (Hertz, p. 60; Etz Hayim, p. 94)

Prepared by Rabbi Lee Buckman
Head of School, Jewish Academy of Metropolitan Detroit

Department of Services to Affiliated Congregations
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director

Torah Portion Summary

(12:1-9) God speaks to Abram: "Go to the land I will show you." Abram, his wife Sarai, and his nephew Lot travel from Haran to Canaan. Abram sets up altars to God at Shechem, and near Bethel.

(12:10-20) Because of famine, Abram goes to Egypt. He lies saying Sarai is his sister. Pharaoh takes her into his house. God brings plagues upon Pharaoh. Pharaoh angrily sends Abram and Sarai away.

(13:1-13) Lot's herds men and Abram's herds men quarrel. Abram generously allows Lot first choice of grazing land. Lot chooses the fertile Jordan valley, near Sodom. Abram gets the rest of Canaan.

(13:14-18) God renews His promise to grant Abram the land of Canaan. Abram settles near Hebron.

(Chap. 14) Five Canaanite kings rebel against Chedarlaomer, King of Elam. A coalition of four eastern kings moves to punish the rebels. In the battles between the two groups of king Lot is captured. Abram arms his followers and pursues Lot's captors in order to rescue his nephew. He defeats them and saves Lot and the other captives.

(Chap. 15) God makes a covenant with Abram renewing His promise of progeny and the land of Canaan. God tells Abram that his descendants will be exiled, redeemed and returned to the Land. The Land's boundaries and its inhabitants.

(Chap. 16) Abram's concubine, Hagar, becomes pregnant, leading to conflict with Sarai. Sarai mistreats Hagar, who runs away, but she returns after an angel of the Lord promises her that the son within her womb will become the founder of a great nation. The son is born, and is named Ishmael, considered to be the ancestor of the Arab peoples.

(Chap. 17) God establishes circumcision as the sign of the covenant. At this time Abram and Sarai are renamed Abraham and Sarah. God also predicts that Abraham and Sarah will bear a son, to be named Isaac. The Sedrah concludes with the circumcision of Abraham, Ishmael, and all the men of the household.

Torah Text Being Considered

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.' But Abraham 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!'

Abraham said further, 'Since You have granted me no offspring, my steward will be my heir.' 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.' He took him outside and said, 'Look toward heaven and count the starts, if you are able to count them.' And He added, 'So shall your offspring be.' And because he put his trust in the Lord, HE RECKONED IT TO HIS MERIT. (Genesis 15:1-6)


  1. The Holy Blessed One accounted it to Abraham for righteousness and merit because of the faith with which he had trusted in Him. (Rashi)
  2. But I do not understand the nature of this merit. Why should he not believe in the God of truth, and he himself is the prophet, and "God is not a man that He should lie?" (Numbers 23:29). Furthermore, he who believed and on the basis of this belief was ready to sacrifice his only son, the beloved one, and withstood the rest of the trials, how could he not believe a good tiding? The correct interpretation appears to me to be that the verse is stating that Abraham believed in God and he considered it due to the righteousness of the Holy Blessed One that He would give him a child under all circumstances and not because of Abraham's state of righteousness and his reward, even though He told him, "Your reward will be very great" (Gen. 15:1)

For discussion:

The second clause of verse 6 contains a syntactical ambiguity. What is the subject of AND HE RECKONED IT?i Whose merit is referred to in RECKONED IT TO HIS MERIT? Ramban cannot accept Rashi's reading. Ramban cannot understand why the Torah would praise and reward Abraham's faith. Rather, the verse draws attention to Abraham's humility (I don't deserve this kindness from God). Can you defend Rashi's reading? In other words, Ramban does not consider Abraham believing in God to be such a big deal. How would you rebut Ramban's argument? Or to ask the question differently, usually the Torah rewards actions, not faith. What is so striking about Abraham's faith that God should reward it?

Some points to consider:

Belief in God is not simply a matter of saying that God exists. It is a matter of trusting in God even when reality seems to challenge that belief. Rabbi Harold Kushner in his commentary to the recently published "Etz Hayim" (Chumash) writes that Abraham gave God the benefit of the doubt, believing not only in God's existence but in God's reliability, even when circumstances might have led him to think otherwise. The only thing we can do for God, the only thing for which God depends on us, is to hold on to our faith even when things do not go our way.

This is Abraham's (and our) tzedakah (favor) to God. Professor Jacob Neusner in his book "The Bible and Us" (p. 88) makes a similar point. He writes "And Abraham and Sarah matter because, doubting and troubled, they nonetheless believe.  Never fully persuaded, testing God and being tested by him, Abraham muddles through to believe in a heart filled with doubt, to overcome anxiety, to affirm and not deny, even when nothing out there gives you reason to believe" that is an act of courage.

It is the hardest thing that most of us ever have to do: to believe, to affirm, to say "yes" always, yes to ourselves and those we love and who love us and to God though at times we are challenged in our belief and trust. That is why belief marks merit, because it runs against the everyday, not because the here and now confirm that faith. No wonder Christianity, Islam, and Judaism reach back to Abraham. We may be filled with doubt, occupied with purely personal concerns, and yet we are able to affirm and serve when God calls.

Care to share some of your doubts now and hear what others may have to say about them?

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