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Parsha Notes: Lech L’cha & Wa’era

November 3, 2014
  • See what I wrote last year concerning Terah’s failed aliya. When teaching this part of the Pentateuch, I work with the assumption that Abram’s family in Haran was already distanced from idolatry. After all, when Abram received the command to leave Haran and his family at the age of 75, he already had hundreds of followers. I find it hard to consider that the leader of such a radical religious movement would have stayed with his idol-worshipping relatives for so long. As for the well known verse in Joshua, 24:2: “Your fathers dwelt of old time beyond the River, even Terah, the father of Abraham, and the father of Nahor; and they served other gods.”’ It refers to before Abram set them straight, or in the esoteric sense, to the concept that “one who lives outside the land of Israel is as if he worships idols.”
  • Why the patriarchs opposed intermarriage with the Canaanites: 1. The Midrashic answer: Canaan was cursed by Noah, whereas Shem had been blessed, and the two lines would not mix well. This understanding is not the p’shat, the simplest one, nor does it fit with the later halacha, which allowed for a Canaanite, or any gentile for that matter, to convert to Judaism, and start a new lineage. Any old pedigrees they had before conversion are considered as no more, to the extent that even natural siblings who convert are no longer considered related, although the sages decreed that two who had been siblings before conversion may not marry after converting. All of these laws apply equally to emancipated Canaanite slaves. (The common mishnaic term, “Canaanite slave” is inaccurate; it really refers to any Gentile indentured into to servitude to a Jew, or any progeny he begets while in servitude. The term is only used in contrast to a “Hebrew slave” who is any Jew who is sold into servitude for whatever reason. No one can be born a Hebrew slave. The children of a Hebrew slave are either free if born to a Jewish woman, who is never a maidservant if old enough to have children, or Canaanite slaves themselves, with no recognized halachic descent from their biological father, if born to a Canaanitess maidservant.) Abraham and his children could have found many unblemished marriage partners had they emancipated some slaves. It could be that this was not considered because the patriarchs had too noble a being, as “princes of God,” for them to stoop so low to marry someone who had been raised in servitude. 2. The contextual answer: In the subsequent books of the Pentateuch, intermarriage with the Canaanites is prohibited because they could influence the Israelites to worship idols. This idea, like many that appear in the Mosaic code, actually predated Moses, and were part of our culture for many centuries. (God did not surprise anyone by prohibiting murder and kidnapping at Sinai; He was just giving it greater force.) This is also implied in Rebecca’s complaints to Isaac concerning Esau’s Hittite wives, who the sages claimed worshipped idols. This also fits with what I wrote above, that Abraham’s family in Haran did not worship idols, and it is for this reason that Rebecca, who had been raised in Haran, was so opposed to Esau’s choice of spouses. 3. The tactical answer: Abraham had been promised that the land of Canaan would be his heritage, i.e. he would not just own and settle much of the land, as described in the book of Genesis, but eventually his family would rule the land. (As I wrote last year, the idea that the forefathers and their households actually settled much of the land for centuries is not realized by many religious Jews.) Being that Abraham was in competition with the idolatrous Canaanites, it would not make sense for his people to intermarry with the natives.  By making sure marriages were arranged within the extended family, The patriarchs consolidated their hold on the land.
  • The Sodomites (and Gomorrahites,. etc.) were punished in a manner that did not fit the historical model: Those who do not live up to God’s standards in His land are removed by a foreign conqueror. Thus eventually happened to the Canaanites, and the Jews were warned that it would likewise happen to them, and so it was. The Sodomites, however, were wiped out in a miraculous natural disaster. (See what I wrote last year concerning the idea that the Sodomites were the first group of Canaanites who had hit the sin maximum and were thus doomed first.) The reason for their unique punishment is that they actually had already suffered captivity, but had been saved, perhaps unjustly, by Abram. Shortly after being described  as “wicked and sinners against the LORD exceedingly.” (13:13), they were attacked by a confederacy of Mesopotamian warlords, who conquered them and took them off into captivity, foreshadowing what the Babylonians would do to Abraham’s descendants a thousand years later. Abraham, however, went to war to save them, and when the king of Sodom offered Abram, “Give me the souls (i.e. the people), and take the booty for yourself,” with Abram declining, saying, “I will not take a thread nor a shoe-lace nor anything of yours, lest you should say: I have made Abram rich,” Abram was implying that he was taking responsibility for their souls. Twenty odd years later, Abraham would seek to intervene once again when God announced that the destruction of Sodom was imminent. God’s rejection of Abraham’s pleas can be understood as though saying, “They had already been sent into exile once, and this time I will see see to it that you not intervene with My exacting of justice.” Abraham would have done everything in his power to save the people of Sodom a second time, and that is why the destruction had to come from Heaven.

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