Parashas Lech-Lecha

The Midrash in Bamidbar Rabbah 2:12 relates that Avraham saw an astrological sign showing that he would not be able to father children. Hashem then took him outside, told him to look up toward the heavens, and said: “In the very sign from which you see that you are not destined to father children, I am showing you that you will father children.” The Maggid remarks that this interchange is puzzling in two respects. First, given that Avraham was an expert at reading astrological signs, it is puzzling that he would have wrongly interpreted a sign as indicating that he would not father children. Second, Hashem’s response is puzzling – it is not clear what He means. In another discussion of our passage, the Gemara in Shabbos 156a-b reports that Hashem said to Avraham: “Set aside your astrologizing! The People of Israel are not governed by the planets and the stars. What are you thinking? That Tzedek (Jupiter) is situated in the west? I will turn it back and set it in the east.” But, if a reworking of the celestial system is what Hashem had in mind, we would expect Him to have said: “In the very sign from which you see that you are not destined to father children, I will show you that you will father children.” But, instead, He said: “I am showing you that you will father children.” It is puzzling that Hashem expressed the matter in this way, especially given that Avraham saw just the opposite.
In developing his explanation, the Maggid analyzes an interchange between Yeshayahu HaNavi and Chizkiyahu HaMelech. Chizkiyahu fell ill, and Yeshayahu told him: “Issue your final orders to your household, for you are going to die, and you shall not live.” The Gemara in Berachos 10a reports the discussion that ensued. After Chizkiyahu suggested a way he could remedy his sin and nullify the death decree, Yeshayahu told him that the decree was final. Chizkiyahu exclaimed: “Son of Amotz, stop your prophesying and leave! Thus I have it from my father’s father: ‘Even if a sharp sword is placed on a person’s throat, he should not refrain from pleading for mercy.’”
The Maggid explains this episode with a simple parable. A villager had a large collection of silver and gold vessels and jewelry. He was afraid to keep all these precious items in his own house. He therefore handed them over to a friend of his in a nearby town, to hide them away and keep watch over them. But, one night, this friend’s house was burgled, and all the gold, silver, and other precious items in the house were stolen. The next morning, the friend sent a special messenger to the villager to tell him what happened. The villager, upon hearing the news, immediately sent his entire household out onto the roads to search for the burglars. The messenger declared: “I think you should call off this expedition. Why waste your effort, and squander whatever assets you still have left?” The villager replied: “Why do you think my friend rushed to send you to me to tell me about the burglary in his house? He recognized that, with the resources at my disposal, I could catch these burglars. Your foolish advice runs counter to the very reason you were sent here.”
Similarly, when Hashem sends a messenger with a threat of calamity, almost always His whole purpose is to prompt a search for the failing that triggered the threat, so that the failing will be remedied and the threat can be withdrawn. In particular, this was the case when Hashem sent Yeshayahu to Chizkiyahu with the message “you are going to die, and you shall not live.” Chizkiyahu recognized Hashem’s intent, asked Yeshayahu to tell him the reason for the severe decree, and learned that he was being taken to task for not making an effort to bring forth children. Chizkiyahu then set out to remedy this failing: He asked Yeshayahu to allow him to marry his daughter. When Yeshayah responded by saying that the decree had already been cast, Chizkiyahu told him to stop his prophesying and leave. He was saying: “The whole reason you were sent to me was to prompt me to look into what I had done wrong. Now that I know, you can leave; I have the means to remedy the failing and nullify the decree. Indeed, if there were nothing I could do to nullify the decree, what point would there be in Hashem’s sending you to me to tell me about it?”
With this, we can understand the discussion between Hashem and Avraham. Hashem wanted Avraham to pray for children; as the Midrash states, He made the matriarchs barren because He “yearns” for the prayers of the righteous. Hashem needed a means to prompt Avraham to pray; since no prophets were on the scene, Hashem showed Avraham an astrological sign indicating that he would not have children. Avraham read the sign’s literal message correctly, but he misconstrued what Hashem meant by showing it to him. He incorrectly assumed that the destiny reflected in the sign was absolute and could not be changed. Hashem told him: “Set aside your astrologizing!” Hashem was saying: “You have misunderstood the import of the sign. You think it means that you absolutely will not have children, but in fact it means just the opposite.” Hashem then continued: “In this very sign I am showing you that you will father children. For if the sign meant what you thought it did – that you are destined not to father children and you have no power to change this destiny – what point would there have been in My showing it to you?”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

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