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Torah Sparks

November 4, 2006 – 13 Heshvan 5767

Annual: Genesis 12:1-17:27 (Etz Hayim, p. 69; Hertz p. 45)
Triennial Cycle: Genesis 16:1 – 17:27 (Etz Hayim, p. 86; Hertz p. 56)
Haftarah: Isaiah 40:27 – 41:16 (Etz Hayim, p. 95; Hertz p. 60)

Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen
Camp Ramah

Summary of the Parashah

God commands Abram to uproot his family and to migrate to a land that God will show him. Abram obeys and finds himself in the land of Canaan.

When a famine forces Abram to spend some time in Egypt, he asks Sarai to play along with the ruse that she is his sister rather than his wife, in order to protect him from possible danger. Sarai complies with his request; the results had a significant impact on Egypt and Abram as well.

Abram, by now a prosperous owner of livestock, takes note of frictions between his shepherds and those of his nephew, Lot. Abram proposes that they peacefully part company, and he gives Lot his choice of grazing territory. Lot chooses a highly desirable grazing area, and Abram goes along with the deal.

Later, when a war breaks out in the area, Lot is taken prisoner. Abram joins the battle in order to free Lot, using some of his friends as battle-partners. Emerging victorious, Abram refuses to partake of the spoils of war, although he allows his partners to take them. Apparently he feels that they should not be penalized for his personal righteousness.

God appears to Abram in a vision and executes a covenant with him. God foretells both the enslavement and the eventual liberation of Abram’s progeny.

Sarai, who has been infertile, encourages Abram to take Hagar as a concubine. Abram agrees, and Hagar soon is pregnant. Frictions ensue. God tells Abram to support Sarai.

God changes Abram’s name to Abraham and Sarai’s to Sarah and also commands Abraham to circumcise himself and all his male progeny.

Issue #1: Demographic Destiny

In this week’s Torah-portion, God assures Abram/Abraham that his descendants will be as numerous as the dust of the earth (13:16). This simile is broadened next week (22:17) to include the sands on the seashore.

Another familiar figure of speech used to indicate how numerous those descendants will be is the comparison to the stars in the heavens (15:5 and 22:17).

Which of these figures of speech do you suppose was more reassuring to Abram? Does one add something that the other leaves out? Is there anything precarious implied within either of these word-pictures?

Issue #2: Brit Milah/Circumcision

Abraham is commanded to circumcise himself and all his male descendants, throughout the generations, as a sign of God’s covenant. Even today, when many non-Jews undergo circumcision as a purely medical procedure, the world seems to identify circumcision with the Jewish people.

Quite a few American entertainers have considered circumcision to be fair game for their comedy routines. Why do you suppose this topic is a recurring theme for jokesters? And why are Jews reluctant to censure those who readily make fun of a rite that we take so seriously?

The topic can be uncomfortable for many reasons. But the plethora of such jokes threatens to trivialize the true significance of the brit milah (or, colloquially, the bris) as an affirmation of the covenant by reducing a value-laden ritual to a mere surgical procedure. Perhaps we should be reminded from time to time of the brit milah’s underlying significance. The following passage was written several decades ago by the late Rabbi Herschel Matt, a Conservative rabbi. (The original source is out of print, but this passage also appears in A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice by Rabbi Isaac Klein, pages 420-421.)

“Circumcision for the Jew is the sign of the brit, the covenant between God and Israel, established first with Abraham and then renewed at Sinai, to be passed on through every generation until the end of time.

“Circumcision does not ‘make’ a person Jewish, for he is Jewish already by birth. The circumcision rather testifies that he who bears this sign sealed in his flesh is under the covenant which is what gives meaning to life.

“The circumcision of the foreskin is but an outer sign of the circumcision of our inner hearts that we are called upon to perform; as it is written ‘Circumcise yourselves to the Lord and take away the foreskin of your heart.’

“Why is the sign of the covenant sealed into the organ of generation? To indicate that just as life is passed on from one generation to another, so is the covenant passed on. Yes, circumcision is for us a sign that the Lord who called to Abraham our father, calls yet to us of Abraham’s seed, summoning us in this wonderful, and terrible command-invitation to renew the covenant. This is my covenant with them,’ says the Lord. ‘My spirit is upon you and my words which I have put in your mouth shall not depart from your mouth, nor from your descendants’ mouth from now unto eternity’ (Isa.59:21).”

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