Gods covenant holds the hope of joining two nations

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Lech-Lecha

Genesis 12:1-17:27

Isaiah 40:27-41:16

This week we read Lech-Lecha, the beginning of the story of the Jewish people, and we learn of Avram and Sarai, who become the founders of this new way of connecting to the Divine.

Part of what is remarkable about Avram is that he is the first to enter into a personal covenantal relationship with God. Last week Noah witnessed the rainbow, but the language of the covenant is universal: “I now establish My covenant with you and your offspring to come, and with every living thing that is with you — birds, cattle, and every wild beast as well — all that have come out of the ark, every living thing on earth,” says God in Genesis 9:9-10, promising never to flood the world again.

Turning toward Avram, we immediately think of the covenant of brit milah, found at the end of this week’s parshah. But there are, in fact, several covenants in our reading, which promise land, offspring and blessing.

To my mind, the most mysterious covenant is the covenant of the pieces. In it, God asks Avram to gather a bunch of animals — which Avram does, then promptly cuts them in half and lays the halves out.

Here is an odd image of a corridor of life, small and large animals, male and female, split in two to create a sort of corridor for the Divine to pass though as the prophecy and covenant are spoken. As Avram begins to doze, a smoking oven and a flaming torch pass between those pieces. Then Avram learns of the boundaries of the land which is to be given to his nation.

This is the only covenantal moment where we learn of Avram’s reaction, and he is seized with dread. On the face of the text, this makes sense, since the prophecy of slavery for his descendants is given here.

But I’d like to suggest that the splitting of the animals and the fear involved is also symbolic of what is about to happen with the other one of the covenantal profferings: that of children. The myriads of Jews, like the numerous stars, are too far away for Avram to grasp, but by the time we read the next few chapters, he will have fathered two sons. Abraham becomes a man of two loyalties, and of two sadnesses.

From the moment the first child is conceived, there is strife within the household — a splitting of the relationship between the two mothers, Hagar and Sarah. This aids to our understanding of Abraham’s emotional makeup, as he tries to mediate between the two women. At first he is trusting of Sarah, but later he has too much of a stake in Hagar and Ishmael to let them go without a troubled heart.

In the rift between the jealous mothers, Abraham ends up losing both of his sons — symbolically, if not actually. Ishmael is sent to the wilderness, Isaac is nearly sacrificed on the altar. In both cases, Abraham rises early to send them off. In neither case does he speak to his fellow parent before acting.

Abraham is himself cut in two by the impossibility of living in a house divided. He loses even his ability to argue, to question God. His dread at the division was a premonition for himself and his sons, as well as the people of Israel. Just as we bear the story of the slavery and liberation from Egypt, we carry the covenant of division.

We read of the Exodus at Pesach and the fate of the two sons at Rosh Hashanah, reminding us of the hope, the trial, the separation and the sadness that comes with it, and the triumph of community.

However, as we read, we remember that we have a choice, and we can begin to heal the rift, to drive away the metaphoric vultures from our severed pieces, to look across at our brothers and sisters and join together so that we might all embody the divine blessing given in Bereshit 12:2: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing.”

Rabbi Elisheva Salamo is spiritual leader of Keddem Congregation in Palo Alto. Her columns will replace those of Rabbi Michelle Fisher.