by: Rabbi Jeremy Rosen
God’s promises to Abraham are expressed in this week’s reading of the Torah. He tells him to leave his birthplace, that he will succeed and be blessed. Later there are two covenants in which God promises that the land from the Mediterranean to the Two Rivers would be his and his children’s. And at the same time, he promises that Ishmael too will be blessed.
What is the nature of a Divine promise? It is a way of saying “You have the capacity to achieve this.” But still it depends on your own efforts if you are to succeed or not. It’s not unlike a parent seeing the capacities of his or her children, putting all their love and support into them and hoping they will succeed. But they can never be sure how things will work out.
This commitment is explained in the Torah, this week, through the idea of a covenant, a Brit.
In the first, the “Covenant of Parts” God intervenes to ignite a sacrifice that Abraham has prepared. This mystical capacity to intervene in human affairs can happen, but one can never predict when or how. One has to get on with one’s life nevertheless. One can access this spirit through Torah, prayer (meditation) and good deeds but, again, one can never be sure of the results. This is Divine pro-action.
The second Covenant, circumcision, symbolizes dedicating our bodies to a higher authority; our commitment to an ideal. But a once only commitment is not good enough. Life is a constant struggle and we try our best to be good and to succeed. This is human pro-action. Despite Gods initial promises, encouragement and support Abraham still had to face famine, war, competition, tragedy, family conflicts and a wife in a state of crisis. He did not expect everything to go smoothly and yet he survived and flourished. As the rabbis say in the Talmud, “We cannot rely on miracles.” The message is that God helps those who help themselves and even if one is fortunate to receive Divine help, one never know when or how it will come about.