Parashas Lech-Lecha

At the Bris Bein HaBesarim (Covenant Between the Parts), Hashem tells Avraham (then called Avram) that he will inherit the land. Avraham asks: “Through what will I know that I will inherit it?” Hashem tells Avraham to bring various animals and birds, and Avraham does so, and then cuts the animals into pieces. (Bereishis Rabbah 44:14 states that the animals symbolized offerings.) Afterward, Hashem puts Avraham into a deep sleep, and tells him that his descendants will be enslaved and oppressed in a land not their own [Egypt], and will then leave with great wealth.
The Midrash in Bereishis Rabbah 44:14 explains that Avraham did not mean to challenge Hashem, far be it; rather, he wanted to know in what merit he would inherit the land. We are thus led to wonder why Hashem announced to Avraham, apparently as a punishment, about the bitter enslavement in Egypt. The Maggid gives two explanations.
1. The first explanation is that the announcement was not a punishment at all, but rather an answer to Avraham’s question. The Maggid draws a analogy to a doctor being asked by a patient what treatment he plans to administer as a cure, with the patient’s intent being simply to understand what will be taking place. If the doctor informs the patient that he will be giving him unpleasant medicines, he is just telling the patient what he wanted to know. Similarly, Avraham was asking Hashem what means He would use to settle his descendants in the land, and when Hashem informed him of the enslavement in Egypt, he was simply telling Avraham what he asked for. Just as plowing and planting is a preparatory step toward harvesting a crop, the enslavement was a preparatory step toward inheriting the land.
2. The second explanation is that the announcement was indeed a punishment of sorts, but it was designed to achieve the goal Avraham was seeking. Ramban explains that Avraham was led to ask his question out of worry that some later sin on his part would nullify the promise. The pain Hashem caused Avraham by telling him of the enslavement was meant to pre-empt Avraham’s worry. The Maggid notes that hearing about impending oppression causes a person distress similar to that caused actually beholding or experiencing the oppresion. By suffering the distress caused by Hashem’s announcement, Avraham was paying in advance for any sin he might later commit that could nullify the promise. By exacting this advance payment, Hashem obviated any possible need for Him to nullify the promise, and thereby locked in the promise with certainty.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

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