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   by Jacob Solomon

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For those who missed last week’s letter… Dear Reader and Participant,

It is with great thanks to the Almighty that the previous Divrei Torah have been written and distributed, and that this new series commences. In doing so, I have altered the approach. In place of the usual lengthy D’var Torah, I am attempting to reach all the generations sitting around the Shabbat table with:

A short D’var Torah

Review questions on the text of the Parasha and Haftara – these should be especially suited for children aged six and upwards

Review questions on Rashi’s commentary on the Parasha

Questions from well-known points made by other leading Commentators.

Issues arising from the Parasha for thought and discussion

It is hoped that these materials will be of use to Mechanchim (Torah educators), and also the less formal educational setting.

The questions have not been written for the mere promotion of rote learning, but to help readers to focus on the eternal values contained in the sacred texts.

Please e-mail at any queries or comments.

With best wishes and Kol Tuv,

Jacob Solomon

There was a famine in the Land (of Canaan). Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the Land (12:10).

Was this the right action on Abraham’s part? Abraham’s decision to leave the Promised Land to become a temporary resident of Egypt had two questionable aspects. Firstly, G-d specifically ordered him to go to what turned out to be the Land of Canaan, not Egypt. Secondly, as the text implies, his traveling to Egypt would be putting his wife Sarah into the danger of being abducted into Pharaoh’s harem.

The Ramban criticizes Abraham for his unilateral decision to leave the Promised Land, stating that he had sinned ‘by accident’ – he acted wrongly in leaving it in the first place. Indeed, G-d is not recorded to have communicated with Abraham until he came back to the Promised Land.

The Midrash (Tanhuma 5) however claims that Abraham did do the right thing, and understands the whole episode to his credit. The famine was a test of his faith in G-d. Would he accept that G-d had different plans for him that he could not understand at the time – even if they were highly inconvenient and dangerous? Or would he lose faith and bemoan his fate? The text thus relates that Abraham did take his family down to Egypt without any murmur or grumble. And he succeeded in this test, bringing himself closer to the Almighty in the process.

Over what point are the two schools of thought arguing?

One suggestion is the following. What were real motives of Abraham going down to Egypt? Did he see the famine as a test to make him spiritually greater, as implied by the Midrash? Or did he leave the country as a pragmatist – accepting that that was how things were?

Going deeper into this suggestion, look at the following issues discussed in the Talmud (Pesachim 8b).

The Talmud brings the principle of shiluchei mitzvah eynan nizakin – those who are involved in performing one of G-d’s commandments will come to no harm. However a person cannot rely on this maxim if the process involves a highly dangerous activity. The Talmud derives this exception from the narrative of Samuel’s anointing of David as king. When G-d told Samuel to go to Jesse of Bethlehem and anoint the one of the sons that He chose, Samuel protested: “How can I go? Saul will hear about it and kill me!” (Sam. I 16:2). G-d did not castigate Samuel for not showing faith, but instead He gave him a ruse so that his action would not be brought to Saul’s attention.

However, according to the Midrash, it may be argued that this exception did not apply in Abraham’s case. His motive was so utterly sincere that he saw the test as chance to bring himself nearer to G-d – to only perform His will as His servant, without any personal interest. That contrasts with Samuel. At the bottom of his mind there was a personal interest. He may well still have loved for Saul, his old protege, even though he accepted that G-d had twice rejected him in continuing to be king. So his anointing of David would have taken place with a slight, but significant feeling of disappointment. G-d’s will would not have been performed wholeheartedly, and thus He agreed that He had to tell Samuel to take every precaution that his making David king should not reach Saul’s ears.

It comes out from this distinction that one does not have to worry about danger even if it is likely when performing G-d’s will from completely selfless motives, and with the utterly sincere desire to serve Him. Thus according to the Midrash, Abraham did not put himself into danger because his motive was only to serve G-d even if he could not under the reason for his His ways. He interpreted the famine as a command from G-d and he observed it willingly, understanding that he could rely on the principle of shiluchei mitzvah eynan nizakin when he arrived in Egypt. And indeed, neither Sarah nor Abraham were actually harmed.

However, according to the Ramban, his motives would have been pragmatic – he had to leave the Promised Land because there was a famine. He did not see it, per se, as a test to bring him closer to G-d, but as a normal reaction to adverse circumstances. In such a frame of mind he could not rely on the maxim of shiluchei mitzvah eynan nizakin. Indeed, his very entry into Egypt put his wife into danger and only nisim giluyim – open miracles saved her from Pharaoh’s wiles. And his departure from the Holy Land was not a Mitzva to bring him closer to G-d, but an act – however reluctantly performed – of unilaterally leaving ‘the land the I shall show you’.

This principle of purity of motives is brought out in the Talmud – in the face of conduct that appears at odds with Jewish laws, values and customs.

R. Baroka of Hoza’a used to go to the Lefet market and Elijah (the Prophet) used to keep him company. He asked him, ‘Is there anyone in this market who is destined for the World to Come?’ He replied, ‘No!’

After a while he saw a man who wore black shoes and did not wear a blue thread (techeilet for tzitzit) on his clothes – in short he was not dressed in the Jewish manner. Elijah said, ‘This man is destined for the World to Come!’

R. Baroka ran after him and asked him and said, ‘What do you do?’ He said…I go amongst the heather and I don’t want them to know that I am a Jew, so that when they make a decree against the Jews I can inform the Rabbis, so that they might pray and avert the decree.’

Meanwhile two brothers came by. Elijah said to him, ‘They are also destined for the World to Come’.

He went to them and said to them, ‘What do you do?’ They said to him, We are clowns. We bring cheer to the downhearted. Or else, when we see two people quarrel, we go and make peace between them’…



Who said to whom, and what for reason?

(i) I will bless those who bless you and those that curse you I will curse.

(ii) So that because of you, it will go well for me.

(iii) Here is your wife, take her, and go!

(iv) Please go away from me!

(v) Get up! Walk about the length and breadth of the Land.

(vi) You shall not say: “I made Avram rich.”

(vii) In what way shall I know that I will inherit it?

(viii) Let G-d judge between me and you.

(ix) His hand shall be against everyone, and everyone’s hand shall be against him.

(x) His soul shall be cut off from his people.


(i) G-d to Abraham (12:3). In the plain sense, G-d reassures Abraham of His constant protection on his travelling from Haran to the ‘land that I will show you.’ (ii) Abraham to Sarah (12:13) in telling her to lie to Pharaoh’s officials that she was his sister, and not his wife. Otherwise they might kill Abraham before taking her to Pharaoh’s harem. (iii) Pharaoh to Abraham (13:17), after suffering G-d-imposed plagues after abducting Sarah. (iv) Abraham to Lot (13:9), following the dispute between their shepherds. Abraham said that there would be enough pasture for all if they separated from each other. (v) G-d to Abraham (13:17), in reference to the Land of Canaan, which would be the property of his descendants. (vi) Abraham to the king of Sodom (14:17), after saving him and his people from the attacks of the kings from the Mesopotamian area. (vii) Abraham to G-d (15:7) on being promised the inheritance of the Land of Canaan. (viii) Sarah to Abraham (16:5) on appearing to be slighted, following Hagar’s success and her failure in becoming pregnant. (ix) The angel of G-d to Hagar (16:12), in describing her future son, Ishmael. (x) G-d to Abraham (17:14), in reference to any of his male descendants that willfully would refuse to undergo circumcision.


1. What were the three blessings G-d promised Abraham on his journey from Haran to a then unknown destination, and why were those specifically chosen?

2. When Abraham entered Egypt, he declared to his wife, Sarah, “See now, I have known that you are a woman of beautiful appearance.” (12:11) Why, according to the simple meaning brought by Rashi, did Abraham make that remark just then?

3. On returning from Egypt, Abraham ‘went on his journeys’. (13:3) What were Abraham’s journeys, and what lesson may be learnt from that expression?

4. What was the nature of the quarrel between the Abraham’s shepherds and Lot’s shepherds?

5. Why did G-d have to reassure Abraham that he need not fear (15:1) after his victory over the four kings from the Mesopotamian area?

6. Why did Abraham split the animals, leaving only the bird whole, in the Covenant between the Pieces?

7. For how many years would the Abraham’s descendants be strangers in Egypt?

8. From where do we know that Abraham’s father, Terach, repented in his lifetime?

9. Why would the Israelites have to wait for generations before being allowed to take the Promised Land?

10. From where may it be inferred that a man whose wife is childless for the first ten years of their marriage should take other steps to build up a family?


1. G-d promised Abraham that he would have children, wealth, and success in carrying out his spiritual mission. Normally the rigors of long journeys make it difficult to have and rear children, earn a living, and become well-known enough to have influence. 2. Abraham was deeply concerned for Sarah’s welfare and safety: with her beauty she need to make sure that she did not come to the notice of Pharaoh’s harem recruiters – as she indeed did. 3. ‘His journeys’ implies that Abraham returned to Canaan along the same route as his outward journey, and that he stayed overnight at the same inns. This teaches that one should not change one’s customary lodgings at a particular town – possibly because it might give the impression that the previous lodgings were not good, harming the host’s reputation. 4. Lot’s shepherds allowed their flocks to graze on private property. When Abraham’s shepherds rebuked, they held that no theft was involved, as G-d had promised the land to Abraham. Since he was childless, Lot, his nephew, was his heir. However the text negates that, stating that Abraham was not the legitimate owner at that time: ‘the Canaanites and the Perizzites were then living in the land’ (13:7). 5. Abraham felt that his own merits were too insignificant to deserve any further protection from G-d after His miraculous intervention enabling him to overcome the four kings. 6. All the animals represented the gentile nations who would not last forever. The whole bird symbolized the Israelites, who would remain ‘whole’ – eternal. 7. According to the calculations quoted in Rashi, the Israelites would be based in Egypt for only 210 years. The four hundred years in the text dates from the birth of Abraham’s first descendant connected with the Holy Land – Isaac. 8. Abraham was told that own fate would be similar to his own father – he would ‘come to his ancestors’ (15:15) – an expression, Rashi notes, applies only to a righteous child of righteous parents. 9. ‘For the iniquity of the Amorite (a Canaanite tribe) shall not be complete until then.’ (15:16) Until the Canaanites had sinned to the degree that they had no moral right to the Holy Land that they currently occupied – and that would take many generations – the Israelites would have no moral right to take their country. 10. This may be inferred from Abraham’s taking Hagar as an associate partner to Sarah. The text states explicitly that she had not given birth to any children of her own after ten years of living with Abraham in the Land of Canaan (16:3).


1. Why, according to the Ramban, is the tradition of Abraham’s trial recorded by hint, rather than explicitly in the text?

2. Abraham’s first named destination in the Holy Land was Shechem. What significance has this place in being named first, according to the Ramban?

3. ‘There was a famine in the Land.’ (12:10) Was Abraham correct in going to Egypt according to (a) Rashi and (b) the Ramban?

4. ‘Abraham trusted G-d, vayasheveha lo tzedaka.’ (15:6) How are these three Hebrew words interpreted according to (a) Rashi and (b) the Ramban?

5. Did Abraham sin in asking G-d to demonstrate how his descendants would inherit the Promised Land? (15:8)


1. This is because those lacking in faith might attribute Abraham’s miraculous deliverance to an act of human sorcery rather than Divine intervention. See Ramban to 11:28 (end of previous Parasha); see also Rashi to Kings I 18:39. 2. The Ramban develops the rule in his comment to 12:6, that the incidents recorded in the narratives of the Patriarchs indicate what in the future would happen to their descendants. Shechem is the first place named as that was the first place taken by the Israelites – in that case by Simeon and Levi (34:25 ff.), the sons of Israel (Jacob), some three hundred years before the rest of the land was conquered under Joshua. 3. It appears that according to Rashi, Abraham did the right thing. Indeed, one of his trials was whether or not he would accept G-d’s will that he was to leave the Holy Land even though he had barely arrived. The Ramban, however, claims that Abraham had accidentally committed a grave error in leaving the Holy Land: he should have shown faith in staying there, and in any case he should never have put his wife Sarah into such a dangerous position. 4. This phrase follows G-d’s promise to Abraham that he would have a natural son and heir. That Abraham had faith in G-d’s promise after so many years of waiting for a son was ‘reckoned to his – Abraham’s - credit’ – according to Rashi. The Ramban understands this phrase as referring to G-d. Abraham felt unworthy of G-d’s further mercies after having miraculously been delivered from the four very powerful kings. That G-d would continue to look after him and, to crown it all, give him a son and heir, was seen by Abraham as ‘an act of kindness’ (tzedaka) from G-d. 5. Both Rashi and the Ramban see nothing wrong in Abraham’s asking G-d how he would know that his children would indeed inherit the Land. Rashi states that Abraham’s question was therefore ‘Through what merits may his children inherit the Land?’ The answer was the ceremony described in the succeeding verses involving animals forming the Covenant, indicating that his offspring would merit the land though the Tabernacle and Temple offerings. The Ramban considers that behind Abraham’s question was the issue of wanting reassurance that his descendants would be spiritually worthy, and the Canaanites sufficiently unworthy, for the Israelites to succeed to the Promised Land. G-d’s reply, indicated by the ceremony of the Covenant, was that G-d’s promise to Abraham’s progeny was unconditional.


1. Both Pharaoh and later Abimelech (20:14) abducted Sarah. Both returned Sarah only as a result of Divine intervention. Yet Abraham accepted their gifts. Why then did he refuse to take anything ‘from a thread to a shoelace’ (14:23) from the king of Sodom? He owed much to Abraham, and up to that time, had done him no harm.

2. The story of the birth of Ishmael poses the following problem. Hagar was pregnant, Sarah felt lowered in Hagar’s esteem and she blamed Abraham for it. Abraham’s reply was, “Behold – your maidservant is in your hand; do to her as you see fit”. Sarah dealt harshly with her, so she fled from her (16:6). Why did Abraham and Sarah not show any more compassion to Hagar?

3. Isaiah, in the Haftara states: ‘Do not fear, O worm – Jacob, O men of Israel! I shall be your Helper, says G-d; and your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel (Isaiah 41:14). Why does the Book of Isaiah refer to Israel as ‘worm – Jacob’? Few words are more pejorative than ‘worm’. Rashi and Metzudot David understand that word to refer to the Jew’s strength and weaknesses. Their strength does not lie in their physical strength and warfare, but in their connection with G-d through prayer – through their mouths. Metzudot David compares the quiet, but effective power of the worm gnawing through wood, to that of Jew’s quiet, but effective power of prayer in obtaining His support. However, other creatures go through life silently, unobtrusively, and yet effectively. Why did the Prophet compare the Israelites to a worm, rather than to some other more aesthetic member of the animal kingdom?



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