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Torah Sparks

November 8, 2008 – 10 Heshvan 5769

Annual: Genesis 12:1-17:27 (Etz Hayim, p. 69; Hertz p. 45)
Triennial Cycle: Genesis 14:1 – 15:21 (Etz Hayim, p. 77; Hertz p. 50)
Haftarah: Isaiah 40:27 – 41:16 (Etz Hayim, p. 95; Hertz p. 60)

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

For reasons we are not told, God chooses Abram and tells him, leave your home and your father’s house and go to the land I will show you, where I will make you a great nation and bless you. Abram, his wife Sarai, and his nephew Lot travel from Haran to Canaan. After some time, a famine causes Abram and his family to travel to Egypt, where Abram claims that Sarai is his sister and she is taken into Pharaoh’s harem. God intervenes, Sarai is protected, and Pharaoh sends Abram and Sarai away. When they return to Canaan with much wealth, Abram allows Lot to choose the best grazing land for his own herds, so that Lot settles near Sodom. During a war between five rebel kings and a coalition of four other kings, Lot is captured. Abram assembles an army and goes into battle to rescue his nephew and the other captives. Later, God once again appears to Abram, who questions the value of God’s promise of the land because he is childless. God promises Abram that he will have offspring and Abram is instructed to perform a ceremony affirming this covenant. Sarai gives her servant Hagar to Abram as a concubine and Hagar becomes the mother of Abram’s son Ishmael. When Abram is 99 years old, God gives Abram and Sarai new names, Abraham and Sarah, and instructs Abraham to circumcise himself and all the males of his household.

1. Abraham the Hebrew

A fugitive brought the news to Abram the Hebrew (Ivri), who was dwelling at the terebinths of Mamre the Amorite, kinsman of Eshkol and Aner, these being Abram’s allies. (Bereisheit 14:13)

  1. Rabbi Yehudah said: Ivri signifies that the whole world was on one side (eiver) while he was on the other side. Rabbi Nehemiah said: It denotes that he was descended from Ever. [Based on rabbinic tradition, Noah’s son and grandson, Shem and Ever, founded the first yeshiva; later, Isaac and Jacob studied there.] The rabbis said: It means that he came from across (avar) the river; further, that he spoke in the language of the dwellers across the river. (Midrash Bereisheit Rabbah 42:8)
  2. The fugitive did not know that Abram was Lot’s relative. He knew only that he was a believer in the religion of Ever, as was Abram. (Rabbi Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno, 1475-1550, Italy)
  3. It means of the descendents of Ever, and many are descended from him but Abraham and his descendents are unique because they retained the language of Ever. The rest spoke Aramaic and were called Arameans, but the seed of Abraham are called Ivrim (Hebrews). (Radak [Rabbi David Kimchi, 1160-1235, France])
  4. Abraham had remained the Ivri, whether that means the stranger who had come from the other side of the river or, as Rabbi Yehudah takes it, the one who stands on the other side, who stands in opposition to the whole world, the first “Protestant.” In any case it tells us that he remained isolated in his own distinctive character and was known and recognized as such. (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, 1808-1888, Germany)

Sparks for Discussion

As the commentary in Humash Etz Hayim points out, “The origin and meaning of the term ‘ivri’ is unknown.” The rabbis link it to eiver (side), avar (across), and Ever (the grandson of Noah). Which, if any, of these derivations is likely? What does the word “Hebrew” mean to you?

The various explanations of the term Ivri also are different components of Jewish identity – ancestry, national origin, unique beliefs, and language. What are the essential elements (not limited to those mentioned here) of Jewish identity? What must we do to transmit Jewish identity to the next generation? What does it mean to be a Jew?

2. Magen Avraham - The Shield of Abraham

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.” (Bereisheit 15:1)

  1. Rabbi Levi said: It was because Abram was apprehensive and said: Perhaps there was among the people I killed one righteous or God-fearing man... Rabbi Levi gave another interpretation: It was because Abram was apprehensive and said: Perhaps the sons of those kings I slew will gather together an army and make war against me. Said the Holy One to him: “Fear not, I am a shield to you.” Just as a shield can withstand all the swords that strike it, so even if all the nations of the world gather together against you, I shall fight them. The rabbis gave an interpretation: It was because Abram was apprehensive and said: I went into the fiery furnace and was saved; I went to do battle with the kings and was saved. Perhaps I have already used up all my reward in this world and there will be nothing left for me in the hereafter. Said the Holy One to him: “Fear not, I am a shield to you.” All I did for you in this world I did freely for you, but your reward is stored up in the hereafter.
  2. After this miracle was done for him, that he killed the kings, he was worried and said, “Perhaps I have received a reward for all my righteous deeds;” therefore the Lord said to him, “Fear not, Abram. I shall deliver you from the punishment, for you will not be punished for all those persons that you have killed. And as for your worrying about having received your reward, you reward is exceedingly great.” (Rashi [Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, 1040-1105, France])
  3. Fear not that the four kings will seek revenge from you. Not only have your merits not been eliminated by the victory granted to you (by God), but you have earned a reward for the act of kindness shown to your relative and others, by saving these victims from their oppressors. (Rabbi Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno, 1475-1550, Italy)
  4. Abraham feared two things: that the four kings – either they or their successors – might increase their forces against him and he would go down into the battle and perish, or that his day would come to die without a child. God promised him that He would be his shield against them and that his reward for walking with God would be very great. (Ramban [Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spain])

Sparks for Discussion

What did Abraham fear? Was it that he might have killed an innocent man? Was it for his physical safety? Was it dying without an heir? Did God’s words assuage Abraham’s fears? Did they comfort him? Did they give him hope for the future? What do the words magen Avraham, shield of Abraham, at the conclusion of the first blessing of the Amidah mean to you?

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