Parashat Lech Lecha: Promise and justice

These promises – of descendants and land – stand at the center of Abraham’s life. Most of his stories focus on these two subjects – continuity and the land. 

 PROMISES: LOCKED in, though not immediate. (photo credit: Marcos Mayer/Unsplash)
PROMISES: LOCKED in, though not immediate.
(photo credit: Marcos Mayer/Unsplash)

The person at the center of Lech Lecha is the patriarch of the nation: Abraham, or Avraham Avinu. 

At the end of the previous parasha, we met Abraham with his father and brother leaving his hometown of Ur Kasdim, a Sumerian-Akkadian city west of Perat in southern Mesopotamia, heading for Haran, the economic-political center of Aram Naharayim in northern Mesopotamia, on what is the Turkish-Syrian border of today. Another important detail from the previous parasha is that Sarah, Abraham’s wife, is unable to bear children. This will accompany Abraham until he is 100 years old. Will he merit offspring to continue his legacy?

Abraham merited a divine revelation in Haran, where he was commanded to “Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.” In addition, he got a promise he wasn’t expecting: “And I will make you into a great nation.” Abraham and his wife embark on a journey. When they reach Shechem, a city in the center of Canaan, Abraham merits another divine promise. “To your seed I will give this land.” 

Both these promises – of descendants and land – stand at the center of Abraham’s life. Most of his stories focus on these two subjects – continuity and the land. 

 SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90) SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)

God's promises of descendants and land

Later, God promises these to Abraham again, this time in more detail:

“Please raise your eyes and see, from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward. For all the land that you see I will give to you and to your seed to eternity.”

And after the promise of land came the promise of descendants:

“And I will make your seed like the dust of the earth, so that if a man will be able to count the dust of the earth, so will your seed be counted” (Genesis 13:14-16).

Following trials and tribulations – such as Sarah being kidnapped and then released by Pharaoh, the king of Egypt; a dispute with and then separation from his nephew Lot; and a war with a coalition of five kings that Abraham waged and won – came Brit Bein Habetarim, the Covenant of Parts. At this event, the two promises were reiterated, along with visual illustrations:

“And behold, the word of the Lord came to him.... And He took him outside, and He said, ‘Please look heavenward and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ And He said to him, ‘So will be your seed.’”

This was followed by the promise of the land:

“I am the Lord, Who brought you forth from Ur of the Chaldees, to give you this land to inherit it… and behold, a smoking furnace and a fire brand, which passed between these parts.... To your seed I have given this land” (Genesis 15:4-5, 7, 17-18).

But now it turns out that the promise isn’t immediate. God tells Abraham that his descendants will have to be exiled to a foreign land – which will later turn out to be Egypt – where they will be enslaved and oppressed for four centuries. Only after their exodus from Egypt will they return to the Land of Canaan. 

What is behind this delay? We can divide that question into two: Why do Abraham’s descendants – those who will later be called “the Children of Israel” – have to be exiled to Egypt? And why for such a long time? The first question has many answers, including the need for the moral purification of the Children of Israel. On the other hand, there are few answers to the second question, since God Himself explained this to Abraham:

“And the fourth generation will return here, for the iniquity of the Amorites will not be complete until then” (Genesis 15:16).

“And the fourth generation will return here, for the iniquity of the Amorites will not be complete until then”

Genesis 15:16

The reason why Abraham’s descendants would have to wait for centuries to receive the land is that the inhabitants of the land had not sinned enough to justify banishing them from it!

The moral principle reflected here expresses the Torah’s path. Even though Abraham’s descendants were promised the land, that promise could not be fulfilled on account of the land’s inhabitants. Only when they sinned and lost their rights to the land could the Children of Israel enter. The Children of Israel had to wait hundreds of years for this promise to be fulfilled to avoid causing injustice to the land’s inhabitants. ■

The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.