By Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz
At the opening of this week’s parashah, Abraham, the nascent visionary and patriarch of the Israelites, is given the divine command to separate from all that is known and familiar. God declares, “Go forth from your land, your birthplace, and your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (Gen. 12:1). With these words and the promise of God’s blessing, Abraham assembles his family and makes the long journey from Haran to Canaan—completing the trek begun by his father, Terah. Once Abraham arrives in Canaan, we are informed of his ambitious itinerary in the land: “Abraham passed through the land as far as the site of Shechem . . . And he built an altar there to the Lord who had appeared to him. From there he moved on to the hill country east of Bethel . . . and he built there an altar to God. Then Abraham journeyed by stages toward the Negev” (Gen. 12:6–9). How may we understand the selection of these particular sites in Canaan? And what resonance do these places have for the descendants of Abraham?
Renowned biblical scholar Umberto Cassuto (1883–1951), professor of Bible at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (1938–1951), writes,
Details of Abraham’s travels are given only in respect to the last and most important stages, namely, his wanderings in Canaan itself. These raise three questions: What was the Bible’s intention..? Why was the area of the land divided thereby into three regions: one extending from the northern border to Shechem, the second from Shechem as far as Bethel, and the third from Bethel to the southern boundary? And why is it that it was at these particular stations—in the vicinity of Shechem and of Bethel—that Abraham built altars unto the Lord? . . . Scripture intended to present us here, through the symbolic conquest of Abraham, with a kind of forecast of what would happen to his descendants later. According to this tradition, the token was first given to Abraham and afterwards repeated to Jacob [Gen. 33:18], and the significance of the duplication is to corroborate and ratify . . . In conformity with this, the Book of Joshua [Josh. 7:2; 8:9; 8:30] portrays for us the actual subjugation in a manner paralleling the ideal conquest by the Patriarchs—even the wording is similar—as though to say, the possession of the land gained in the days of Joshua was already implied, in essence, in the symbolic conquest that the first patriarchs had effected in their time . . . ” (Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis: Part Two, 303–305)
By comparing Abraham’s itinerary to that of Jacob and Joshua, Cassuto uncovers a vital message and thread that links generations of Israelites together. Abraham’s journey was anything but random. The chosen way stations are part of the divine plan toward settling the Israelites in their Promised Land. The biblical narrative reinforces the fateful journey of Abraham, and regards it as a prototype for later generations. Or as the rabbis teach, “ma’aseh avot siman l’vanim” (the deeds of the ancestors are a sign unto the children). Jacob and Joshua inherit Abraham’s journey, literally and figuratively. And we, as their descendants, are gifted with the very same mission—to travel the length and breadth of the Land, and hold it near and dear to our hearts and hands. May we, like Abraham, merit to experience and welcome the Presence of God in these sacred places and beyond.
Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz is the director of Israel Programs for the Jewish Theological Seminary.
FROM: The Jewish Theological Seminary, New York. More can be found on their website www.jtsa.edu