Parshas Lech Lecha: Avram’s Existential Crisis

Parshat Lech Lecha takes us through the initial stories and challenges in the life of Avraham (then Avram), a character introduced in the closing posukim of Parshat Noach. Over the course of these episodes, starting from the opening posuk of the parsha, God interacts with Avraham, giving instructions, blessings, and prophesies. However, at certain points the interactions between God and Avraham become confusing and complicated. Here I will attempt to shed light on the structure and intent of God’s interactions with Avram. But before the question can even be asked, it is crucial to recognize and understand the structure of (the beginning) of Lech Lecha.

The structure is as follows: Struggle, reward, praise. What I mean by this is that in Avram repeatedly faces struggles (or tests; see Rashi, Rambam, etc.). After overcoming or moving past these struggles, Avram is then immediately rewarded via wealth or a prophetic blessing of offspring and inheritance. Finally, following each of these rewards, Avram responds by praising God through building an altar and/or invoking God’s name. Let’s look inside the parsha to see that this is, in fact, true.

The very first story in the parsha is the instruction of ‘Lech Lecha.’ In 12:1 God instructs Avraham to leave all he has behind and relocate to Canaan. The instruction and implementation of this instruction takes place from 12:1-12:6. Immediately following Avram’s completion of the struggle of Lech Lecha (arriving in Canaan) God rewards Avram with a blessing in 12:7 – “To your offspring I will give this land.” And so in response, immediately following this reward, Avram builds an altar to HaShem in 12:7 and then again builds an altar in 12:8. Note the pattern taking form: Struggle, reward, praise.

Just two posukim later, in 12:10, the next struggle begins: “There was a famine in the land…”. This problem is an easy fix — just head down to Egypt. While solving the issue of famine, this solution presents a new struggle. Upon their arrival in Egypt, Pharaoh takes Sarai for a wife. Under the false identity of “brother” Avram survives Egypt, but with obvious difficulty and shame being that his wife was betrothed to another. Finally, upon discovering the truth of Avram and Sarai’s relationship, Pharaoh expels them from Egypt. Now, past this struggle, the Torah iterates Avram’s reward (this is the only reward that is not prophecy) in 13:2 — “Now Abram was very heavy with livestock, with silver, and with gold.” Avram manages to leave his difficult situation in Egypt with great wealth he had accumulated over his time there (see 12:16). Yet again his struggle yields some form of gain. And finally, sure enough, in 13:4, immediately following the reward, Avram acknowledges from where his wealth came by returning to the site of the altar he had built in 12:8 and invoking HaShem with “the Name.” Avram struggles in Egypt, Avram is rewarded with wealth, Avram praises God.

Immediately following this episode starts the third, and final, struggle of this consistent pattern. Avram and Lot can no longer both be sustained by the same land; after all, they both possess great wealth from their time in Egypt. Thus, Avram is forced to separate from Lot, his nephew and adopted son, and perhaps the only remaining remnant from his life prior to the instruction of Lech Lecha. The text even emphasizes the extent of this relationship immediately prior to their split. Note that in 13:8 Avram says to Lot “…For we are men who are brothers…” and in 13:11 the Torah says “they parted, each man from his brother.” As soon as the struggle between Avram and Lot concludes, God jumps right in with the reward. In fact, the opening words to the posuk containing God’s prophetic blessing (the reward) are “HaShem said to Avram after Lot had parted from him…” in 13:14. Avram’s reward, the prophetic blessing, spans from 13:14 to 13:17, at which point — and by now the follow-up should be obvious — Avram builds an altar to God.

Thus, a close reading of the first three episodes of Lech Lecha reveals a clear pattern. Avram is presented with a struggle, upon completion of that struggle Avram is immediately rewarded, and Avram subsequently gives some form of praise to God.

Here is a chart summarizing:

Having established this pattern in each of the first three stories of the parsha, we proceed to the fourth expecting a continuation of this pattern. However, as we will see, this expectation proves to be false.

Immediately following Avram’s separation from Lot, a new story is introduced. The fourth story is the battle between the four kings and the five kings in Canaan. This section begins with 14:1, but seems more relevant beginning in 14:12 with the capture of Lot. At that point Avram gears up for battle and fights off Lot’s captors, redeeming Lot in the process. In the aftermath of the war the king of Sodom offers Avram wealth, which he rejects. Thus far this story is in-line with the previous three stories of Lech Lecha. Avram is faced with yet another struggle: Lot’s capture and the fighting of a war.

Sure enough, in the very next posuk, 15:1, phase two is completed. God comes to Avram saying “…Fear not, Avram, I am a shield for you; your reward is very great.” And so, yet again, Avram experiences a struggle and subsequently God steps in and gives Avram a reassurance. However, this time Avram’s response is not quite what we would expect.

Given the context drawn until now, our expectation is for Avram to give some form of praise to God. And yet, the very next posuk, where we would expect to find the praise, we instead find a radically different response:

“And Avram said, ‘My Lord, HaShem/Elokim: What can You give me being that I go childless, and the steward of my house is the Damascene Eliezer?’ Then Avram said, ‘See, to me You have given no offspring; and see, my steward inherits me.’”

And so I ask, what has just happened here? The pattern had been entirely consistent to this point — Avram’s reactions had been predictable — yet here in place of praise Avram retorts with an uncharacteristic complaint against God. What has caused this sudden existential crisis?

I believe, with a close reading, the answer lies in the previous posuk, 15:1. Until now I have assumed that just like the first three stories, here too (in the fourth story), Avram experienced a struggle and then a reward, only to then skip (or reject) the phase of “praise.” However, whereas in the first three stories Avram’s reward comes immediately and through simple terminology, here the text contains specific distinctions not seen in any of the other stories. Firstly, this fourth story, 15:1, begins with a distinction of time between the struggle and the reward. That distinction is noted clearly in the posuk: “After these events, the word of HaShem came to Abram…”. Time has elapsed, and moreover, here God addressed Avram saying “…Fear not… I am a shield for you…” None of the other rewards possessed such details. Our answer is hidden in these distinctions.

It is clear that by this point Avram knows the drill. Until now God has showed him that there will be struggles, and yet from the struggles he will emerge blessed. And yet now Avram has had his struggle — he has fought the war — and yet his reward has seemingly been delayed or cancelled (“After these events…”). In fact, noting that God addresses Avram with “…Fear not,” Rashi offers on the words “After these events” (which precede ‘fear not’ in the posuk) that in fact Avram feared that he had yielded the full reward for his actions. He feared that he would not receive a reward at all, and thus God reaffirms with a reward; God says “…your reward is very great.” This fits perfectly with the chart outlined above! When God delayed the reward Avram thought that the pattern of struggle, reward, praise had come to an end and hence he was afraid in posuk 15:1!

But if God has now (after the delay) reassured that, in fact, Avram would be rewarded, then why does Avram continue on with this complaint against Him after the fact in 15:2-15:3? Perhaps this is because the very nature of this fourth struggle was different from all the previous struggles. In the war with the kings of Canaan, Avram endured something no other struggle had offered: a near death experience. (This explains why God says “I am a shield for you” while comforting Avram in 15:1). Having just been on the front lines Avram has the sudden realization that had he died, he would have had nobody but the Damascene Eliezer to inherit him (15:2). He realizes that HaShem has given this continual promise of offspring and inheritance (see 12:7, 13:14) and yet God had done naught to make good on that promise. In other words, for the first time Avram experiences doubt. And thus when God yet again pushes off the reward, saying “your reward is very great” Avram’s patience wanes. Perhaps this explains the harsh reaction of Avram in 15:2-15:3.

Thus, in 15:4, God responds to Avram’s plea. God removes him from his tent, and whereas previously God had merely told him of his offspring, here God shows him the promise in 15:5 by saying “Gaze, now, toward the heavens, and count the stars if you are able…”. In fact, Rashi on 15:5 offers explanation(s) as to how God truly showed him that he would have offspring. Essentially, unlike any time before, here God tells Avram to actively “gaze” at the stars, the representatives of his future children. And this time, in 15:6, the message resonates with Avram in a way it never had previously: “AND HE TRUSTED IN HASHEM…”. For the first time in the parsha Avram trusts HaShem. Until now, through all of Avram’s struggles — leaving his home, fleeing a famine and (temporarily) losing his wife, splitting from his dearest nephew, fighting a war — through all these struggles Avram was following the lead of HaShem and chasing a blessing which he was not yet certain he would receive (even if this uncertainty was only subconscious). Yet after having this existential crisis, God promises him offspring (this time by having him “gaze”), and finally Avram believes and truly “trusts” that HaShem will make good on this promise. In 15:7-15:11 God continues the affirmation of His promise, and in conjunction, Avram gives sacrifices to HaShem.

I believe that all the theories I have divulged to this point are even further corroborated by what happens next. In the midst of this joyful confirmation and breakthrough moment for Avram, God suddenly changes the tone (15:12) and places a “great dread” upon Avram. God proceeds to tell Avram of a terrible oppression that would befall his offspring. My question is as follows: Why now does God decide to present this terrible news to Avram? God first told Avram of his future offspring in 12:2 and has given the prophetic blessing of these offspring (12:7, 13:14, as has been mentioned) twice. Yet now, only following the third prophetic blessing of offspring, does God choose to bring this “dread” upon Avram. Why?

The answer is that God withheld this information until the moment Avram was ready to bear it. Avram needed to learn a lesson first — a lesson that God had been subtly teaching to Avram the entire parsha until now. The lesson is that so long as Avram followed in His path, God would be there for him. While Avram continuously faced struggles, after each HaShem reminded him: “I am with you.” And while through the first three times Avram responded and praised God, he did not fully believe in the promise God had given him. Only now, after Avram’s reaction is described as truly “trusting” in God, is Avram ready to hear this news.

This lesson, of true trust in HaShem, was the enabler for God to finally tell Avram of the slavery, and to then create the Brit Bein HaBetarim — His special covenant with the Jewish people. The only way Avram would be able to handle the gravity of his offspring being oppressed and slaves for 400 years (15:13) was if he could truly trust that God would make good on his promise to redeem them (15:14) and to give them the land. HaShem had to push Avram to the point of dwindling faith in order to strengthen that faith to the point of true “trust.”

This lesson rings true to this very day. Certainly at this time we recognize that HaShem gives us great struggles, both as individuals and as a people. But ultimately it is our unyielding faith and trust in the promises God has made to us that allow us to pull through. We must remain true to our values in the face of fear and know, as Avram knew, that HaShem chose us and will not abandon us, even when times look most bleak.

Amos: 1:1-2 — Superscription and Preamble

Some Notes About Moshiach