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Torah Sparks

October 31, 2009 – 13 Heshvan 5770

Annual (Gen. 12:1-17:27): (Etz Hayim, p. 69; Hertz p. 45)
Triennial (Gen. 16:1-17:27): (Etz Hayim, p. 86; Hertz p. 56)
Haftarah: (Etz Hayim, p. 95; Hertz p. 60)

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce T. Newmark
Teaneck, NJ

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 go on to Egypt, where Abram claims that Sarai is his sister, so that 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, and Lot chooses to settle 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 the new names Abraham and Sarah and instructs Abraham to circumcise himself and all the males of his household.

1. ...Three’s a Crowd

He cohabited with Hagar and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was lowered in her esteem. And Sarai said to Abram, “The wrong done me is your fault! I myself put my maid in your bosom; now that she is pregnant, I am lowered in her esteem. The Lord decide between you and me!” (Genesis 16:4-5)

  1. Sarah our mother sinned in dealing harshly with her handmaid and Abraham too by allowing her to do so. God heard her [Hagar’s] affliction and gave her a son who would be “a wild ass of a man” who would bring suffering on the seed of Abraham and Sarah. (Ramban (Rabbi Moses ben Nachman), 1194-1270, Spain)
  2. She [Hagar] thought that now that it was clear that Avram’s seed would be from her she would become Avram’s top ranking wife. As a result, she refused to carry out instructions given to her by Sarai. (Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi), 1160-1235, France)
  3. [Hagar] said, “This Sarai is not [the same] in secret as [she is] in the open. She presents herself as though she were a righteous woman; but she is not righteous for she was not privileged to conceive all these years, but I became pregnant from the first intercourse. (Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki), 1040-1105, France)
  4. Rabbi Berekiah explained it in Rabbi Abba’s name: [Sarah said to Abraham] I have a grievance against you. For imagine two men incarcerated in prison, and as the king passes one of them cries out, “Execute justice for me!” The king orders him to be released, whereupon his fellow-prisoner says to him, “I have a grievance against you, for had you said “Execute justice for us” he would have released me just as he has released you; but now that you said “Execute justice for me” he released you but not me. Similarly, if you had said “We go childless,” then as He gave you a child so would He have given me; since, however, you said “And I go childless” He gave you a child but not me. Rabbi Yudan explained this in Rabbi Judah’s name: [Sarah said to Abraham] You wrong me with words, since you hear me insulted yet are silent. (Bereisheit Rabbah 44:5)
  5. Sarai overburdened her with work and made her perform the work in an intolerably harsh manner. It is even possible that the word vat’aneha (treated her harshly) includes physical as well as verbal abuse of Hagar by Sarai. The Torah testifies that Sarai did not act piously toward her, in fact she acted immorally toward Hagar. Although Avram had given her a free hand when he said “Deal with her as you think right,” from a moral point of view she should have treated Hagar in a manner befitting her status as a wife or legal companion of Avram. From the point of view of practicing human kindness, she should have treated a subordinate with all possible consideration... Avram did not prevent Sarai from acting as she did, even though it was displeasing in his eyes, because he was concerned primarily with preserving his relations with Sarai. The reason why this whole story is preserved for all future generations in our chapter is to teach moral-ethical lessons, and to warn us not to indulge in injustice. (Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi), 1160-1235, France)

Sparks for Discussion

Sarah’s plan for Abraham to have a child with Hagar has disastrous results, as Sarah’s harsh treatment causes the pregnant Hagar to flee into the desert. Different commentators assign the blame for this situation to Sarah, Abraham, or Hagar. Who do you think is at fault? For whom do you feel sympathy? Do you think there ever was a chance that this situation might have turned out well?

Radak says that the Torah tells us this story to warn us against injustice. What other moral and ethical lessons do you see here?

2. You Want Me to What!?!

Such shall be the covenant between Me and you and your offspring to follow that you shall keep: every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. And throughout the generations, every male among you shall be circumcised at the age of eight days. (Genesis 17:10-12)

  1. Why did God choose circumcision as the visible sign of His covenant with Israelite men? (No physical sign of covenant is mandated for women.) The Bible offers no explanation; however, it is likely that imposing the sign of the covenant on the penis – that most anarchic and hardest-to-control male organ – is a powerful symbolic way for a boy or man to express his willingness to subjugate himself to God’s will. (Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Biblical Literacy, p. 409)
  2. God wanted to implant in the nation that He had separated for Himself a permanent mark to separate them from the other nations in the shape of their bodies, just as they are separate in their souls and their spiritual attributes, and by this the Jew completes his nature and form. God wanted this completion to be done by man, rather than having the person born complete, to hint to him that just as his body is completed by him, so too must he complete his soul by his actions. (Sefer HaHinukh, attributed to Rabbi Aharon of Barcelona, 13th century, Spain)
  3. A pagan philosopher asked Rabbi Hoshaia: If circumcision is so beloved of God, why was it not prescribed for Adam at this creation? Rabbi Hoshaia replied: Observe that everything that was created during the six days of creation needs finishing: mustard needs sweetening, vetch needs sweetening, wheat needs grinding, and even man needs finishing. (Pesikta Rabbati 23:4)

Sparks for Discussion

Why circumcision? How does this ritual symbolize the covenant between God and Israel? Rabbi Telushkin offers the explanation that it teaches us that men must control their physical passions and personal desires. Do you agree? Where do women fit into this equation? How do you understand the meaning of brit milah?

Both Sefer HaHinukh and Pesikta Rabbati explain that it is not the circumcision per se, but the fact that it is performed by human beings that is most significant. What is the lesson we are to learn from the “finishing”? With this in mind, why is it significant that brit milah is done on the eighth day of an infant’s life?

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