Faith, Hope, and Timing
After Hashem promises Avraham that he will have children as numerous as the stars in the sky (Bereishit 15:5,) he reiterates His guarantee on the Land of Israel:
“And He said to him, ‘I am Hashem who brought you out of Ur Casdim, to give you this land as an inheritance.’ And he (Avram) said, ‘Hashem Elokim, how will I know that I shall inherit it?’ And He said to him, ‘Take me a three-year old heifer, and a three-year old goat, and a three-year old ram, and a turtledove, and a young pigeon.’ And he took all these for Him, and divided them down the middle, laying each half against the other, but he did not divide the birds. And the eagle swooped down upon the carcasses, but Avram drove them away. And as the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Avram, a great darkness fell upon him. And He said to Avram, ‘Know well, that your children will be strangers in a foreign land, and they will be enslaved and afflicted for 400 years; and I will judge the nation whom they serve, and afterwards they will leave with many possessions. And you shall go to your fathers in peace; you will be buried at a fine old age. But in the fourth generation they shall come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet been completed.’ And it came to pass that when the sun set, and it was dark, behold a smoking furnace, and a burning torch passed between those pieces. On the same day, Hashem made a covenant with Avram saying, ‘I have given this land to your children, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates: the Kenites, and the Kenizites, and the Kadmonites, and the Hittites, and the Perizites, and the Refaimites and the Amorites, and the Kenaanites, and the Girgashites and the Jebusites.”
(Bereishit 15: 7-21)
Many commentators comment on Avraham’s strange question: “How will I know that I shall inherit it?”
Shmuel, the famed Amora, implies that Avraham showed a lack of faith:
“Why was Avraham punished, his descendants becoming slaves in Egypt for 210 years? … Shmuel suggested that it was because he questioned the Almighty when he asked – ‘how will I know that I shall inherit it?”
In contrast to this explanation, the Abarbanel, as part of his ninth question on this particular episode, points out that:
“All of the commentaries have asked how in all other matters, Avram never questioned the Almighty, yet in this instance, concerning the inheritance of the land, Avram asks: ‘How will I know that I shall inherit it?”
After summarizing a number of different opinions, the Abarbanel suggests:
“It appears to me that Avram was certainly not asking for a sign that he would inherit the Land of Israel. Hashem had already promised the Land of Israel to Avram on a number of occasions, and he had never questioned that promise, so it does not make sense for him to question it now…
I would therefore suggest that Avram did indeed believe that he and his seed would inherit Eretz Yisrael; nonetheless, it was unclear as to when the land would be given to him. When first guaranteed, the land was promised to Avram’s seed, but even then it was unclear as to whether Hashem was referring to Avram’s immediate seed – children or grandchildren – or whether Hashem was talking of many generations ahead. The issue was further clouded at Lot’s departure, when Hashem informed Avram that both he himself as well as his seed would inherit the land, thereby implying that the inheritance would in fact take place during Avram’s lifetime. Thus, when Hashem once again implied to Avram that he himself would inherit the land at the Brit Bein HaBetarim, “to give you this land as an inheritance,” Avram was once again confused as to when exactly Eretz Yisrael was to become his inheritance. In fact specifically now, having defeated the four kings, perhaps he was being told to go on and conquer the Land of Israel…
Avram therefore turned to Hashem and asked: ‘How will I know that I shall inherit it?’ The word ‘that’ (‘ki’ in Hebrew) is being understood as ‘when’ (see Devarim 26:1.) The question should therefore read: ‘How will I know when I shall inherit the land? Will I inherit it, or will my children and grandchildren?
Hashem answered Avram by explaining to him that the fourth generation will return from exile and inherit the land. Thus, the inheritance would not occur during his lifetime but only after a long and painful exile.”
According to the Abarbanel, there was no lack of faith in Avraham’s question; it was merely a question of clarification. Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch also agrees with the Abarbanel, but although he notes the same distinctions in the verses, his explanation is slightly different:
“It is impossible that this means ‘How will I know that I shall inherit it?’ The man whose whole life is having faith in Hashem, with the most complete, unreserved devotion and confidence in God’s guidance, cannot possibly want any further assurance and ask for some definite sign that what God had repeatedly promised would actually come to pass…But this promise here has an additional word that does not appear in the previous ones. The first promise said: “I will give this land to your seed,” (Bereishit, 12:7) and in Bereishit 13:15, “I will give this land to you and your descendants.” The wording of this promise refers to no cooperative action on the part of Avraham or his descendants. Yet here it says: “to give you this land to take as an inheritance.” The Hebrew verb to inherit, ‘lerishta,’ is a word that clearly reflects reflexive action and initiative. In fact, the word ‘lerishta’ or ‘resh’ so strongly implies self-action that it is used in connection with conquering and capturing (see Devarim 1:8; 1:21; 2:31; 9:23.) Thus on hearing this word, Avraham understood that he would be given the land as a conqueror. Avraham had just fought and won a glorious victory over four world-conquering kings…He could very well have concluded that he, or his descendants, upheld by God’s assistance, were to conquer the Promised Land in similar fashion, so he asked: ‘How do I know that the right time has come for me to conquer the land?’ Far from displaying a lack of trust, the question reflects the highest degree of confidence in Hashem. Just as he was given the victory over the four kings, so he was now ready to undertake the conquest of the whole land.”
Hence Hashem answers, ‘Know well.’ You yourself will not take possession of the land, nor will your descendants do so immediately. Firstly, three generations will have to go through life being maltreated as aliens and slaves; they will be homeless, and lack freedom or the power of resistance; it will only be the fourth generation that will return to take possession of the land.
Whereas the Abarbanel suggests that Avraham was merely clarifying the timing of the promise, Rav Hirsch adds that not only was the time of inheritance in need of clarification, but also the way in which the land was to be possessed. The Land of Israel was not to be given to Avraham and his descendants on a silver platter; they were going to conquer the land. This new factor led Avraham to believe that perhaps now was the time to conquer. Hashem consequently explained to him exactly when the appropriate time would be.
In the three commentaries that we have just studied, we reveal three extremely important issues regarding Eretz Yisrael and Am Yisrael, the direct descendants of Avraham Avinu: faith, timing, and initiative.
Shmuel, in his comments in Nedarim, suggests that Avraham showed a lack of faith when promised Eretz Yisrael. The very same Avraham who had left his land, his birthplace, and his family to blindly follow Hashem; the same Avraham who had been promised time and again that he would have descendants, and never questioned that promise; the same Avraham who in the future would be prepared to offer up his beloved son Yitzchak as a sacrifice to the Almighty. Despite the seeming logical ‘impossibility’ of this commandment coming from Hashem; how could that very same man now show a lack of faith regarding the promise of Eretz Yisrael?
With these arguments, Shmuel’s words do seem very difficult to comprehend. Nonetheless, he indeed seems to imply that the Egyptian exile came as a direct consequence of Avraham’s lack of faith in the promise of Eretz Yisrael. Lack of emunah is often related to the punishment of galut. History has repeatedly proven that our living in Eretz Yisrael has much to do with faith, and very little to do with human logic.
Our ancestors who left Egypt were denied entry into Israel because they lacked the faith in God that was necessary to live there. From the days of Yehoshua until this very day, we have survived in Eretz Yisrael because of our faith and belief in Eretz Yisrael as the home of the Jewish people. We entered Israel by way of miracles, firstly crossing the Jordan, and then by the miraculous conquest of Jericho (see Yehoshua, 3, 4, 6.) Am Yisrael only conquered and retained the land of Israel with the help of God, and on those occasions when we were to be punished, even the simplest of battles could not be won (Yehoshua, 7, 8.)
The Torah tells us implicitly that if we do not keep the sabbatical year (shmitta) we will be exiled from our homeland. The Kli Yakar (Vayikra 25:2,) explains that the essence of the sabbatical year is to teach us faith in the Almighty. We abandon our ownership of the land, and we leave our lives in the hands of Hashem. Only a people who can keep the shmitta year are ultimately worthy of living in Eretz Yisrael.
It was the unparalleled faith of the Hasmonean warriors that led to the restoration of the second Beit HaMikdash; a belief against all the odds that Am Yisrael, with Hashem’s help, can overcome all of her enemies, irrespective of strength and numbers.
And even today, despite our many failings, we have nonetheless returned to our homeland against all the odds. Indeed, the ongoing existence of Am Yisrael in Eretz Yisrael is quite beyond rational explanation.
Thus, the question asked by Avraham Avinu, according to Shmuel, is a question that has been repeatedly asked throughout our history. How will we know that we will inherit the land? As the enemy stands at the door, when all seems lost, when we are in the middle of a war zone threatened from every direction, we have turned to Hashem with that very same question, and He answers us as He answered Avraham; the land will be ours; a Divine promise.
The Abarbanel, on the other hand, sees Avraham as asking for clarity as to exactly when this promise will be fulfilled. Again, we have repeatedly asked this question over the last 2000 years. It appears to me that the answer has finally come. After 2000 years of seemingly hopeless exile, and after the most horrific Holocaust, the Almighty has brought us home “on eagle’s wings.” The unbelievable has happened.
It often amazes me how complacent we have been to this most miraculous return to our homeland. It is beyond all logic; unfathomable, yet delightfully true. We are home. Just as Hashem told Avraham that we would return after the darkness of exile, so too in our own time, we have returned after one of the darkest periods of Jewish history. It appears to me that our people are so shell-shocked from the length of our exile that we have not yet realized what is happening in front of our very eyes.
Rav Hirsch significantly pointed out that what needed clarification was the fact that Hashem had introduced a new concept, the idea that we shall inherit the land. Eretz Yisrael would not be given to Am Yisrael on a silver platter. Avraham wanted to know when the conquering could begin, and Hashem informs him that it will only start after the Egyptian exile.
There are those who would like to invoke the “three vows” referred to in Ketubot 110b – 111a, where the suggestion is made by Rabbi Zeira that Israel has vowed not to conquer our homeland by force until Hashem ends the exile. However, no renowned halachic authority has ever quoted this aggada. It remains an important textual source but not a halachically binding one. Even to those who would for some reason wish to use this source in a halachic context, it should be noted that the Gaon Ya’avetz clearly explains that Rabbi Zeira’s suggestion was an initial understanding of the verse in Yirmiyahu 27:22, “They will be brought to Babylonia and there they will be.” The Talmud (Ketubot, 111a,) concludes that this verse is referring to the Temple vessels.
Rav Hirsch’s message is also very much a contemporary one. In fact never has a truer word been said. From our very first day in Eretz Yisrael as a people, we have been required to fight for our land. We fought for every town during the times of Yehoshua, and we have spent the last century fighting for what we have now.
According to Rav Hirsch, Avraham asked Hashem when the conquering should begin, and Hashem replied that it would commence after 210 years of Egyptian slavery. During the last century, the Jewish people began to emerge from 2000 years of exile. We have begun the long journey home, yet we must understand that this beautiful gift of the Land of Israel, this living miracle, cannot simply be retained by faith alone. There needs to be action, initiative, and mesirut nefesh. We must take this sign from Hashem and capitalize on it.
The time has now come for Am Yisrael, with absolute faith in the Almighty, and with the mesirut nefesh of a believing Jew, to return home. We have the chance to do what so many of our leaders dreamed of doing. Let us ensure that we take the initiative and not waste the opportunity that Hashem has so clearly given us, to return and reclaim our Promised Land.