Parsha Lech Lecha: Where credit is due

A cornerstone of the Ramban's biblical interpretation is that "actions done by the ancestors serve as signposts for the future of their descendants."

parsha lech lecha 88 (photo credit: )
parsha lech lecha 88
(photo credit: )
PARASHA: LECH LECHA A cornerstone of the Ramban's (Nahmanides's) biblical interpretation is that "actions done by the ancestors serve as signposts for the future of their descendants." The altar which Abraham builds on his entry into the Promised Land is in Shechem, Elon Moreh (Genesis 12:6,7), the city the Israelites are destined to enter when they cross the Jordan River under Joshua. Shechem is likewise the place where Shimon and Levi killed the newly circumcised inhabitants who had remained silent while Dinah was captured and raped, despite their agreement with the other sons of Jacob; it is also the site of Joseph's grave, and the locus from where David and Solomon's united kingdom was split. Abraham built his third altar to God by the oaks of Mamre, which was in Hebron (Genesis 13:18), where our matriarchs and patriarchs are buried and where biblical history really began. And he built his fourth altar on Mount Moriah, the place of the binding of Isaac, "the [Temple] Mount from which the Lord will be seen" (Genesis 22:14) by the whole world when all nations ultimately accept a God of peace. But the altar which seems least significant, the one which is not even identified with a specific city but is merely situated between Beit El and Ai, is the second one in our Torah reading (Genesis 12:8); and it is specifically to this place that Abraham returns after his Egyptian sojourn, and where he builds yet another altar. What is to be the future significance of this area between Beit El and Ai? RABBI MORDECHAI ELON, the great Torah teacher of Jerusalem, gives a most insightful explanation, to which I would add what I believe to be an important theological reflection. Beit El is the place of Jacob's Israel-defining dream of "a ladder rooted on earth with its top reaching to the heavens; angels of God are ascending and descending on it" (Genesis 28:12). It is the vision Jacob had immediately before going into exile, and it is the place to which he eventually returns as Israel and builds an altar. The message clearly posits a sacred partnership between the earthly powers from below that are ascending to God and the divine powers from above that are descending to the province of human beings. Let us now move on to Ai. First we must remember that the first great conquest of Joshua and the Israelites was the city of Jericho, whose walls "came tumbling down" when the Israelites - amid the blowing of rams' horns and in the presence of the Ark of the Lord - marched around the city once a day for six days and seven times on the seventh day. Jericho fell, its inhabitants perished, and all its wealth was declared forbidden for human use. "And the Lord was with Joshua, whose fame spread throughout the land" (Joshua 6:27). Unfortunately, there were many - under the influence of Achan the son of Carmi of the tribe of Judah - who betrayed Joshua's dedication of the booty to God and looted Jericho for themselves. The Israelites then went on to attempt the capture of the city of Ai. Joshua sent out spies, who returned with the report that 2,000 or 3,000 Israelite soldiers would be enough to take the city; 3,000 were dispatched, but the defenders of Ai killed 36 of them and chased the rest away, "causing the hearts of the Israelites to dissolve and turn to water" (Joshua 7:1-5). Joshua rends his garments and prays all day before the Ark of the Lord. At God's behest, he roots out those who looted the sacred booty and has Achan and his family executed. The entire nation then goes out to war against Ai. Joshua sends out 30,000 men for an ambush, "and they lay in wait between Beit El and Ai" (Joshua 8:9). The Israelite army succeeds in demolishing the city. What actually happened? In modern terms, we'd say there was a gross failure in the Israelite intelligence apparatus, similar to the intelligence failure at the time of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Despite the massive deployment of troops from Egypt and Syria - and warnings from Jordan - prime minister Golda Meir refused to call up the reserves and strengthen the Bar-Lev Line. What caused such a gross error? Apparently, after the lightning victory of the Six Day War in 1967, the "powers that were" believed Israel to be invincible, convinced that no Arab army would dare go to war against us. And indeed, car stickers after the war cried out: "All glory to the Israel Defense Forces" - deleting any reference to the divine miracle. Such was the brazen arrogance of Achan and his cohorts who took from the booty, refusing to recognize that it belonged to God. "Our strength and the force of our hands wrought the victory," they declared, and so they felt that the wealth of Ai legitimately belonged to them. And because they had become almost drunk with self-importance, they badly underestimated the power of Ai. After the Yom Kippur War - which we ultimately won with even greater miracles than occurred in the Six Day War - much of Israel learned its lesson. After this war, bumper stickers read: "Israel depends on the Lord." But the real truth is the message of Jacob's dream: there is a ladder connecting heaven and earth; humans must work together with God in effectuating His divine will; we must do whatever is in our power to do, while understanding that ultimate victory depends on God's intervention as well. Only if we understand the nature of that partnership will we do our very best, without falling into the complacency which comes from the arrogance of believing we acted alone. This was the crucial message which should have been learned by the Israelites in the fateful battle between Beit El and Ai. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.