by Rabbi David Kasher, Kevah’s Senior Rabbinic Educator
There once was a man who carved grooves in time.
Everything he did imprinted itself onto existence, and the traces of those imprints would reappear in every generation. Everywhere he went, a path was created behind him, and those who came after him would find themselves walking that same path, falling into his footsteps, without even knowing what they were doing.
That man was born with the name Avram. But the Lord called him Abraham.
This week, in Parshat Lech-Lecha, we begin his story.
Now, there are some parshot in the Torah that one just should not read without the wisdom of a particular commentator. For Lech-Lecha, the 13th-century commentary of Nachmanides is the must-see. In particular, there is one piece of his that I think about every year – a piece that can change the way we read the whole narrative of the Torah.
Nachmanides points out something obvious to anyone who reads through Genesis and Exodus – that just as Abraham goes down to Egypt, so too will the Children of Israel one day go down to Egypt. But what he says about that repetition is startling:
I will tell you a principle that you must understand throughout all the upcoming stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It is a great concept that our rabbis articulated in brief language. They said (in Midrash Tanchuma 9:3):
‘Everything that happens to the parents is a sign for the children.’
So when the Torah goes on and on with the stories of the journeys they took, or the wells they dug, or the other events of their lives, one might think these are unnecessary details, which have no meaning. But all of them are meant to teach us about the future. For when something happens to one of the three forefathers, we can understand from it that something has been decreed upon his offspring.
אומר לך כלל תבין אותו בכל הפרשיות הבאות בענין אברהם יצחק ויעקב והוא ענין גדול הזכירוהו רבותינו בדרך קצרה ואמרו(תנחומא ט׳) כל מה שאירע לאבות סימן לבנים ולכן יאריכו הכתובים בספור המסעות וחפירת הבארות ושאר המקרים ויחשוב החושב בהם כאלו הם דברים מיותרים אין בהם תועלת וכולם באים ללמד על העתיד כי כאשר יבוא המקרה לנביא משלשת האבות יתבונן ממנו הדבר הנגזר לבא לזרעו
Nachmanides central asssertion here, borrowed from an earlier midrash, became so well-known that it formed a traditional saying: “Maaseh avot siman l’banim.” (מעשה אבות סימן לבנים): “The actions of the parents is a sign for the children.” But what does that mean, ‘a sign’? Is it just that we tend to replay the patterns set by our families? That much any psychologist will tell you is true.
Nachmanides seems to be saying more: that in the case of Abraham, those patterns are set not just behaviorally, culturally, or psychologically – but metaphysically. Whatever he did somehow shaped the very contours of reality, so that everyone who came after him was destined to retrace the arc of his journey.
Abraham carved grooves in time. And his descendants keep falling into those grooves, like a needle falls into the groove of a record that plays over and over, echoing throughout the universe, forever.
Whether or not you believe the metaphysical claim here, from a literary perspective, Nachmanides’ principle does a good job of accounting for the way that many of the narrative themes running through Exodus seem to be seeded in this week’s parsha.
Look at how much is “foretold,” for example, in just a few lines from Chapters 12 and 13:
Chapter 12, verse 10:
There was a famine in the land, and Avram went down to Egypt…
וַיְהִי רָעָב, בָּאָרֶץ; וַיֵּרֶד אַבְרָם מִצְרַיְמָה…
…just as another famine in the same region later compels Jacob’s sons to journey down to Egypt to find sustenance. (Gen. 42)
Verses 14 &15:
When Avram entered Egypt, the Egyptians saw how very beautiful [Sarai] was…and the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s palace.
וַיְהִי, כְּבוֹא אַבְרָם מִצְרָיְמָה; וַיִּרְאוּ הַמִּצְרִים אֶת-הָאִשָּׁה, כִּי-יָפָה הִוא מְאֹד… וַתֻּקַּח הָאִשָּׁה, בֵּית פַּרְעֹה.
…just as Joseph – whose sojourn in Egypt is the first step descent of the rest of the Children of Israel – becomes an object of sexual desire as soon as he arrives, and is imprisoned in the house of one of Pharaoh’s ministers. (Gen. 39)
But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his household with many plagues on account of Sarai, the wife of Avram…
וַיְנַגַּע ה אֶת-פַּרְעֹה נְגָעִים גְּדֹלִים, וְאֶת-בֵּיתוֹ, עַל-דְּבַר שָׂרַי, אֵשֶׁת אַבְרָם.
…just as God will famously bring the Ten Plagues upon Egypt to liberate the Israelites, concluding with one that afflicts Pharaoh’s own household. (Exod. 7-12)
And so they sent him off with his wife…
וַיְשַׁלְּחוּ אֹתוֹ וְאֶת-אִשְׁתּוֹ
…just as the Pharaoh in Exodus will eventually relent and send out all of the Israelites. (Exod. 14)
Chapter 13, verse 2:
Now Avram was weighed down by riches, in cattle, silver and gold…
וְאַבְרָם, כָּבֵד מְאֹד, בַּמִּקְנֶה, בַּכֶּסֶף וּבַזָּהָב
…just as the Israelites left Egypt with riches of silver and gold. (Exod. 11)
It is a remarkable amount of major foreshadowing, in just the course of 12 lines. “The actions of the parents,” indeed…
There is one thing in the midst of those 12 lines, however, that does not seem to have an obvious parallel in the events of the Exodus. Look at verses 11-13:
As [Avram] was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know what a beautiful woman you are. If the Egyptians see you, they will kill me and let you live. Please say that you are my sister, so that things go well for me, and I remain alive because of you.
יא וַיְהִי, כַּאֲשֶׁר הִקְרִיב לָבוֹא מִצְרָיְמָה; וַיֹּאמֶר, אֶל-שָׂרַי אִשְׁתּוֹ, הִנֵּה-נָא יָדַעְתִּי, כִּי אִשָּׁה יְפַת-מַרְאֶה אָתְּ. יב וְהָיָה, כִּי-יִרְאוּ אֹתָךְ הַמִּצְרִים, וְאָמְרוּ, אִשְׁתּוֹ זֹאת; וְהָרְגוּ אֹתִי, וְאֹתָךְ יְחַיּוּ. יג אִמְרִי-נָא, אֲחֹתִי אָתְּ–לְמַעַן יִיטַב-לִי בַעֲבוּרֵךְ, וְחָיְתָה נַפְשִׁי בִּגְלָלֵךְ.
This episode has troubled the commentators greatly. Abraham is effectively asking his wife to lie and – even worse – he is putting her in danger in order save his own hide! What kind of role model is this? How could the great patriarch, the founder of our faith, behave in such a shifty, cowardly manner?
The commentators struggle to come up with answers: Maybe they were close enough relatives, that it was as if she was his sister, and he wasn’t really lying? Maybe it’s just acceptable to lie to save your life?
But none of these answers really addresses the real problem: that Abraham knowingly put his wife in danger!
To deal with that, we have to turn back again to Nachmanides, who gives a raw, no-holds-barred interpretation of Abraham’s actions. In fact, what he says is so severe that if the great Nachmanides hadn’t said it, I would be a little hesitant to say it myself:
Know that Abraham erred, and committed a great sin. For he brought his righteous wife into the threat of violation because he was afraid that they would kill him. He should have trusted that the Lord would save him and his wife and all he had, for God has the power to help and to save.
ודע כי אברהם אבינו חטא חטא גדול בשגגה שהביא אשתו הצדקת במכשול עון מפני פחדו פן יהרגוהו והיה לו לבטוח בשם שיציל אותו ואת אשתו ואת כל אשר לו כי יש באלקים כח לעזור ולהציל
You hear that? Abraham sinned! And he sinned because he was scared. He risked his wife’s honor and safety because he was afraid for his life. What a devastating condemnation of the great patriarch.
Well, all I can say is that I guess we’re lucky that this “action” was the one that wouldn’t be replayed throughout the generations!
But not so fast. It’s true, after one generation goes by, there seems to be no echo of this particular scene in the Exodus story – no shoving those we love into danger in order to save ourselves. But what about the other thing Nachmanides says? What about Abraham’s motivation?
He was afraid… He should have trusted the Lord.
In other words, Abraham, the father of our faith, struggled with doubt. And that struggle is indeed a scene that his children have been reenacting ever since.
From the moment Moses is called upon to lead the Children of Israel out of Egypt, he worries, “they will not believe.” (Exod. 4:1) And again and again, through the long journey in the desert, that is exactly what happens. At every hint of danger, whenever food is scarce, they lose faith. Even after God has saved them from slavery, even after revelation on Mount Sinai, they lose faith so quickly it seems as if they never had it to begin with. And when the journey has ended, and Moses is reflecting back on everything they’ve been through, he says, as if realizing he was right to begin with:
The Lord your God goes before you, and will fight for you, just as God did for you in Egypt before your very eyes. And in the wilderness, where you saw how the Lord your God carried you, as a man carries his child, all the way that you have traveled until you came to this place.
Yet for all that, you have no faith in the Lord your God… (Deut. 1:30-32)
ל ה אֱלֹקיכֶם הַהֹלֵךְ לִפְנֵיכֶם, הוּא יִלָּחֵם לָכֶם: כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה אִתְּכֶם, בְּמִצְרַיִם–לְעֵינֵיכֶם. לא וּבַמִּדְבָּר, אֲשֶׁר רָאִיתָ, אֲשֶׁר נְשָׂאֲךָ ה אֱלֹקיךָ, כַּאֲשֶׁר יִשָּׂא-אִישׁ אֶת-בְּנוֹ–בְּכָל-הַדֶּרֶךְ אֲשֶׁר הֲלַכְתֶּם, עַד-בֹּאֲכֶם עַד-הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה. לב וּבַדָּבָר, הַזֶּה–אֵינְכֶם, מַאֲמִינִם, בַּה, אֱלֹקיכֶם.
They struggled with faith. And thousands of years later, we still struggle with faith.
Because faith is hard. And fear creates doubt. Even for our Father Abraham.
So as long as we continue to walk in the footsteps of his faith, it seems we are also destined to doubt.