Heaven from all creatures hides the book of fate,
All but the page prescrib’d, their present state:
From brutes what men, from men what spirits know:
Or who could suffer being here below?
The lamb Thy riot dooms to bleed to-day,
Had he thy reason, would he skip and play?
Pleas’d to the last, he crops the flow’ry food,
And licks the hand just rais’d to shed his blood.
Oh blindness to the future! kindly giv’n,
That each may fill the circle mark’d by Heav’n:
Who sees with equal eye, as God of all,
A hero perish, or a sparrow fall.
Atoms of systems into ruin hurl’d,
And now a bubble burst, and now a world.
Hope humbly then; with trembling pinions soar;
Wait the great teacher death, and God adore.
What future bliss, he gives not thee to know,
But gives that hope to be thy blessing now.
Hope springs eternal in the human breast:
Man never is, but always to be blest.
—from An Essay on Man, by Alexander Pope.
Near the end of the Torah, Hashem encourages Israel to leave “hidden” the “books of fate,” as it were, by prohibiting various pagan practices which were believed in the Ancient Near East to reveal future events or to affect them favorably:
There shall not be found among you… a soothsayer, a diviner of auspicious times, one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or a charmer, or he who consults ghosts, or he who consults familiar spirits [ידעני] or a necromancer… Be wholehearted [תמים] with the Lord, your God (Deut. 18:12-13).
In opposition here are pit two polar approaches to engaging with one’s environment: that of the ידעני, i.e. he who attempts to control the unknown by increasing his knowledge thereof,[i] versus that of the תמים, i.e. he who accepts his “kindly given blindness to the future” by placing his faith wholeheartedly in the providence of Hashem.
It is instructive to bear this distinction in mind as we study our Parshah, Lech Lecha. In this Parshah, Hashem establishes two separate covenants with Avraham: “the Covenant of the Parts,” i.e. bris bein habesarim (Gen. 15) and “the Covenant of Circumcision,” i.e. bris milah (Gen. 17). These covenants are similar in several fundamental respects:
Bris Bein Habesarim
Hashem announces that He will multiply Avraham’s offspring
|And He took him outside, and He said, “Please look heavenward and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” And He said to him, “So will be your seed” (Gen. 15:5).||As for Me, behold My covenant is with you, and you shall become the father of a multitude of nations… (17:4).|
Hashem promises that Avraham’s descendants will inherit the land of Canaan
|On that day, the Lord formed a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your seed I have given this land…” (15:18).||And I will give you and your seed after you the land of your sojourning, the entire land of Canaan for an everlasting possession… (17:8)|
Avraham consummates the covenant by performing a specific act of ritual incision
|And He said to him, “Take for Me three heifers and three goats and three rams, and a turtle dove and a young bird.” And he took for Him all these, and he divided them in the middle, and he placed each part opposite its mate… (15:9-10).||And you shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be as the sign of a covenant between Me and between you (17:8).|
There is, however, one crucial difference between the two covenants. At bris bein habesarim, Avraham (then called Avram) seeks assurance that Hashem’s pledges will be fulfilled: “And he said, “O Lord God, how can I know, י.ד.ע, that I will inherit [the land]?” (15:8) By contrast, Hashem introduces bris milah by charging Avraham to “be תמים, wholehearted” (17:1).[ii]
Perhaps then—particularly in light of Deuteronomy 12—bris milah is most fully understood as a corrective of sorts for bris bein habesarim. It serves to counterbalance Avraham’s impulse for י.ד.ע, knowledge (an impulse for which he is critiqued by our sages)[iii] with the perspective of תמימות, wholehearted faith.
Indeed, many of the details associated with the two covenants lend themselves to thematic analysis along these lines:
Bris Bein Habesarim (“?במה אדע”)
Bris Milah (“!היה תמים”)
|After these incidents, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, saying, “Fear not, Abram; I am your shield; your reward is exceedingly great” (15:1)—Hashem is a shield for Avraham, i.e. it is Hashem who walks before Avram.||And Abram was ninety-nine years old, and God appeared to Abram, and He said to him, “I am the Almighty God; walk before Me and be wholehearted” (17:1)—here it is Avraham who walks before Hashem.|
|Avram is unsatisfied with his current inheritor: And Abram said, “O Lord God, what will You give me, since I am going childless, and the steward of my household is Eliezer of Damascus? Behold, You have given me no seed, and behold, one of my household will inherit me.” (15:2-3).||Avraham is satisfied with his current inheritor: After Hashem announces that Sarah will have a child, Avraham states: “Oh, it is enough that Ishmael should live before you!” (17:18).|
|Setting = night, darkness, sunset: And he took him outside and said, “Please look heavenward and count the stars…” (15:5). Now the sun was ready to set, and a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and behold, a fright, a great darkness was falling upon him (15:12).||Setting=day, light. And he circumcised them on that very day, as God had commanded (17:23). In the midst of that very day was Abraham circumcised (17:26). And the Lord appeared to Abraham in the Plains of Mamre as he was sitting at the entrance of his tent, in the heat of the day (18:1).|
|Avram’s mood characterized by “fear:” After these incidents, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, saying, “Fear not, Abram…” (15:1). Now the sun was ready to set, and a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and behold, a fright, a great darkness was falling upon him (15:12).||Avraham’s mood characterized by “laughter:” After Hashem announces that Sarah will have a child, “And Avraham fell on his face and laughed…” (17:17). And God said: “Indeed your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac [=He-Shall-Laugh]” (17:19).|
|Consummation ritual involves Avram subduing external environment: And He said to him, “Take for Me three heifers and three goats and three rams, and a turtle dove and a young bird.” And he took for Him all these, and he divided them in the middle, and he placed each part opposite its mate… And the birds of prey descended upon the carcasses, and Abram drove them away (15:9-11).||Consummation ritual involves Avraham subduing himself: And you shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you (17:11). On that very day, Abraham was circumcised (17:25).|
|Avram felled by external forces—submission is involuntary: Now the sun was ready to set, and a deep sleep “fell” upon Abram, and behold, a fright, a great darkness was “falling” upon him (15:12).||Avraham fells himself—submission is voluntary: And Abraham “fell” on his face, and God spoke with him… (17:3). And Abraham “fell” on his face, and he laughed… (17:17).|
|Prophecy regarding future of nation: Your children will be slaves: And He said to Abram, “You shall surely know that your seed will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and they will be enslaved and oppressed for four hundred years” (15:13).||Prophecy re: future of nation: Your children will be kings: And I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings will emerge from you (17:6). And I will bless her, and I will give you a son from her, and I will bless her, and she will become [a mother of] nations; kings of nations will be from her (17:16).|
|Covenant is between Hashem and Avram alone (though it concerns Avram’s descendants). On that day, the Lord established a covenant with Abram… (15:18).||Covenant is between Hashem, Avraham, and Avraham’s descendants. And I will establish My covenant between you and Me and your descendants after you, for all their generations, an eternal covenant, to be a God for you and for your descendants after you… And God said to Abraham, “And you shall observe My covenant, you and your descendants after you in all generations. This is the covenant that you shall observe, between you and Me and your descendants after you: circumcise all your males. (17:7-10).|
|Avram is alone.||Avraham is together with his household: And Abraham took Ishmael his son and all those born in his house and all those purchased with his money, every male of the people of Abraham’s household, and he circumcised the flesh of their foreskin on that very day, as God had spoken with him (17:23).|
|Language of blessing highly specific: includes specific boundaries and nations: On that day, the Lord formed a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your seed I have given this land, from the river of Egypt until the great river, the Euphrates river. The Kenites, the Kenizzites, and the Kadmonites, and the Hittites and the Perizzites and the Rephaim, and Amorites and the Canaanites and the Girgashites and the Jebusites” (17:18-21).||Language of blessing more general: no specific boundaries or nations, but many vague amplifiers: And I will place My covenant between Me and between you, and I will multiply you “very, very” much (17:2). As for Me, behold My covenant is with you, and you shall become the father of “many” nations (17:4). And I will make you “very, very” fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings will emerge from you (17:6). And I will give you and your seed after you the land of your sojourning, the “entire” land of Canaan… (17:8).|
Taken together, the portrait that emerges of Avram at bris bein habesarim is radically different than that of Avraham at bris milah. At bris bein habesarim, Avram is fearful and beset by dark ambiguity. He is concerned by his prospects for the future (=inheritor), so he copes with this anxiety by attempting to control his external environment (=dissecting, chasing away animals) and wrest guarantees from those who hold power (=how shall I know?). In this state, religious covenant is possible only if it is Hashem who initiates (=walks before Him): the service of Hashem must produce concrete benefits (=specificity of blessings) if it is to be worthwhile. In the meantime, Avram clings dearly to his independence; he will not surrender to the vicissitudes of life unless so compelled (=felled by external circumstances). What he does not realize, however, is that this mentality—far from preserving his liberty—actually enslaves him (=prophecy of slavery): it condemns him to labor eternally towards a sense of surety that is unattainable.[iv] Nor do efforts to achieve self-reliance, which this mentality inevitably spawns, do much to promote the qualities of trust, vulnerability and interdependence necessary for the functioning of robust relationships and covenantal communities (=Avram alone, covenant does not include descendants). This is not the calling of homo religiosis; intuitively, existentially, he senses that he is a “stranger in a foreign land.” Hence bris milah, i.e., Hashem’s invitation for Avraham to encounter Him, through volition rather than compulsion, as a תמים: to climb above the smallness of self-assurance sought through self-assertion; to conquer, instead, the very instinct of conquest; to achieve thereby peace of mind and integrity of self; and to submit that self to that which is infinitely larger, and thus, necessarily unknowable. And Avraham proves himself equal to this task.
To be sure, this reading is consciously allegorical. Indeed, as some may have realized, it is deliberately modelled upon the typology developed by R. Soloveitchik to interpret Sefer Bereshit’s earliest “dual narrative:” the account of man’s creation in Genesis 1 vs. that of Genesis 2. As we noted two weeks ago, R. Soloveitchik views these two accounts as reflective of two irreducible, irresolvable modes of human existence: those of “Adam I” and “Adam II:”
Adam the first is overwhelmed by one quest, namely, to harness and dominate the elemental natural forces and to put them at his disposal. This practical interest arouses his will to learn the secrets of nature. He is completely utilitarian as far as motivation, teleology, design, and methodology are concerned… [He] acquires dignity through glory, through his majestic posture vis-à-vis his environment… Civilized man has gained limited control of nature and has become, in certain respects, her master, and with this mastery he has attained dignity as well…. Hence, Adam the first is aggressive, bold, and victory-minded. His motto is success, triumph over the cosmic forces… In doing all this, Adam the first is trying to carry out the mandate entrusted him by his Maker who, at the dawn of the sixth mysterious day of creation, addressed Himself to man and summoned him to “fill the earth and subdue it.” It is God who decreed that the story of Adam the first be the great saga of freedom of man-slave who gradually transforms himself into man-master… Man reaching for the distant stars is acting in harmony with his nature which was created, willed, and directed by his Maker.
While Adam the first wants to reclaim himself from a closed-in, non-reflective, natural existence by setting himself up as a dignified majestic being capable of ruling his environment, Adam the second sees his separateness from nature and his existential uniqueness not in dignity or majesty but in something else. There is, in his opinion, another mode of existence through which man can find his own self, namely, the redemptive… If Adam [the second] is to bring his quest for redemption into full realization, he must initiate action leading to the discovery of a companion who… will master the art of communicating and, with him, form a community. However, this action, since it is part of the redemptive gesture, must also be sacrificial. The medium of attaining full redemption is, again, defeat. This new companionship is not attained through conquest, but through surrender and retreat. “And the eternal God caused an overpowering sleep to fall upon man.” Adam was overpowered and defeated—and in defeat he found his companion… Thus, in crisis and distress, there was planted the seed of a new type of community—the faith community which reached full fruition in the covenant between God and Abraham… The covenant draws God into the society of men of faith: “The God before whom my fathers did walk…”
Once exposed to this typology, it is difficult not to hear its echoes resonating throughout the rest of the Torah. Do our “two Avrahams,” then, correspond to R. Soloveitchik’s “two Adams?” It is a tempting suggestion, yet its conclusiveness is undermined by one major detail. R. Soloveitchik draws much significance from the fact that God is referred to as “Elokim” in the account of Adam I, whereas His name in the account of Adam II includes “Hashem;” by contrast, it is Hashem who addresses our “Avraham I” and Elokim who addresses our “Avraham II.” Whether this discrepancy can be reconciled within R. Soloveitchik’s interpretive framework is critical, it seems, towards determining whether Genesis 15/17 can be read into that framework.[v]
Either way, our Parshah presents us with two paradigms of spiritual servitude: that of the “ידעני,” as it were, and that of the “תמים.” Hashem opts to enter into covenant with each of these characters, indicating that each “has its place under the sun.” That He retires that sun upon the former, however, while beaming it brightly upon the latter, stands as a subtle reminder for us as readers of which orientation we ought to incline ourselves toward.
[i] On the relationship between the terms י.ד.ע (knowledge) and ידעני (“yidoni” sorcerer), see Rashi to Deut. 18:12 and the Koehler-Baumgartner Hebrew & Aramaic Lexicon’s entry for ידעני. Thank you to R. Jeremy Wieder for directing me to the latter source.
[ii] Interestingly, the distinction between these two roots, י.ד.ע and ת.מ.ם, appears again when the Torah contrasts Yaakov with Esav: “And the youths grew up, and Esau was a man who knew hunting [איש ידע ציד], a man of the field, whereas Jacob was an innocent man [איש תם], dwelling in tents” (Gen. 25:27). Note that the description of each son’s activity lines up with that of Avraham at each of his respective covenants: in the covenant characterized by י.ד.ע, Avram, like Esav, is engaged in subduing animal life (Gen. 15:9-11); in the covenant characterized by ת.מ.ם, Avraham, like Yaakov, sits in his tent (Gen. 18:1).
[iii] See, to this effect: Nedarim 32a; Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, 47; Shemot Rabbah 5:22; Vayikra Rabbah 11:5. Later in the passage, Hashem declares “Know, you shall know—ידע תדע—that your seed will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and they will be enslaved and oppressed for four hundred years… and the fourth generation will return here” (15:13-16). Hazal view this is a direct response to Avram’s query, “O Lord God, how can I know, י.ד.ע, that I will inherit [the land]?” (15:8). Ironically, then, Hashem grants the Avram the knowledge he requested (“the fourth generation will return here”), but He does so by revealing troubling knowledge that essentially undermines the peace-of-mind Avram sought (“your seed… will be enslaved and oppressed”).
[iv] See previous footnote for a more straightforward interpretation of the role of this prophecy in the context of the covenant.
[v] One possibility: The account of early human history suggests that bifurcated man is prone to excess—witness the builders of Bavel and the sinners of the flood, on the one hand (overwhelmingly Adam I); Chanoch, Noah on the other (overwhelmingly Adam II). Perhaps it is in fact part of Avraham’s mission to unify, or balance, his dual nature, so that no single element is ever granted exclusive expression: “Avraham I” must learn to hear the voice of Hashem, just as “Avraham II” must learn to hear that of Elokim. (As a precedent for this sort of analysis, see R. Mordechai Breuer’s “Briat Shamayim Va-aretz,” available here: http://www.herzog.ac.il/tvunot/fulltext/mega11_broyer.pdf).