What Does It Mean To Make A “Covenant” With God?
The Deeper Significance Of Abraham's Covenant
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
We know what a brit milah is – it’s the circumcision ceremony that officially welcomes Jewish baby boys into the nation of Israel. But where did this whole thing begin? And what is its real significance today?
In this parsha we encounter the conditions of the covenant that God made with Abraham, and the very first circumcision that Abraham performed on himself and all the male members of his household. Why was circumcision the sign of the covenant between God and Abraham?
We can find some answers by taking a closer look at the story of the Abrahamic Covenant. In this video, Rabbi Fohrman finds clues in the language of the text to reveal the deeper meaning of God's covenant with Abraham. Exploring this covenant from the inside out reveals fascinating insights into what it means for us to be connected to God, and for God to be connected to us.
Hi everybody, this is Rabbi David Fohrman and welcome to Parshat Lech Lecha.
When we think of Torah commentary, what do we think about? Usually we think about people like Rashi, the Ramban, and Sforno; but what if sometimes, the Torah is its own commentary? What if Torah uses discrete tools as a way of embedding commentary within its text?
Studying the Abrahamic Covenant Through a New Lens
I think there are tools that the Torah uses to do just this, and one of those is what we might call an Atbash pattern. Atbash gets its name from alef tav bet and shin. Alef, of course, is the first letter of the alphabet, tav, the last letter of the alphabet, bet, the second-to-first letter of the alphabet, shin, the second-to-last letter. And the idea here is that alef, the first letter of the alphabet, is mirrored by the last letter and the second-to-first letter is mirrored by the second-to-last letter, third-to-first by third-to-last etcetera, etcetera…
The idea here is that the Torah might use such a pattern, not just in terms of letters, but in terms of laying out larger sections of text. So you might find yourself reading a passage in the Torah and saying, hey you know the first part of this passage really sounds like the last part of the passage. The second to first part of the passage really sounds like the second to last part of the passage. Academics will call this kind of Atbash pattern a chiastic structure, a chiasm.
Now why would the Torah do such a thing? I am going to throw out a theory and the theory is that this is a way of the Torah packing a lot of meaning into a very short amount of space.
There are a lot of things that a chiasm does. First of all, it points you towards the center. If you're looking at the first and last element and then second-to-first and second-to-last, then third-to-first, third-to-last, you are eventually converging towards the center. The Torah is defining for you a sort of center of gravity, a main idea which everything revolves around and that's one way in which this sort of chiastic structure can work as a kind of commentary within the text.
Now this all may sound kind of abstract, so I want to actually demonstrate it to you in a little section from this week's parsha. The section is chapter 17, it is the story of the circumcision covenant. It is the text of God's revelation of the idea of Brit Milah.
Brit Bein Habetarim: Biblical Parallels in God's Covenant with Abraham
Okay, so let's read the beginning of chapter 17 here. Avram is 99 years old, God comes to him and says there's going to be a deal here, there's going to be a covenant. There are going to be obligations – obligations that God has towards Avram, obligations that Avram has towards God.
In a moment we are going to get to the terms of the deal, but before we do, verse 3, "vayipol Avram al-panav," Avram falls on his face. So here is the fascinating thing; towards the end of this chapter, you are going to find this very same phrase "vayipol Avraham al-panav" again. Very interesting. It turns out that this is the beginning of a chiastic structure, that sort of Atbash pattern.
Because right after "vayipol Avram al-panav," what's the next thing that happens? Look at verse 4. Verse 4 says: "hinei briti itcha," God says, 'My covenant is going to be with you and you are going to be the father of many nations.'
So that's what happens right after what we might call the orange element, let’s color this orange: "vayipol Avram al-panav." Right after that we will get to what we might call the yellow element which is, you are going to be the father of many nations.
Well, is there a yellow element right before the orange at the bottom of the chiasm? Turns out there is. Not only is Avram is going to be the father of many nations but Sarah, his wife, is going to be the mother of many nations.
Okay so we have got an orange element, a yellow element, do we have another element? We do. Let's call it the green element, the third element of the chiasm. You will see it in verse 5, the next verse. Name change: "Lo yikere od et-shimcha Avram," your name is not going to be Avram anymore, your name is going to be Avraham.
Wouldn't you know it? The third element of the chiasm mirrors itself at the bottom and it's a name change for Sarai. "Vayomer Elohim el-Avraham, Sarai ishtcha," Sarai is not going to be Sarai anymore, she is going to be called Sarah, she is not just your princess, she is the princess of the world.
Okay, take a look at the very next word, right after these first three elements. Verse 6, "v'hifreiti." Interesting. Do you see any analog for that at the bottom of the chiasm? Oh, look at that, the word "hafer" – "hifreiti," "hafer" – it's the same letters – hey, pey, resh – interestingly the same letters with opposite meanings. "Hifreiti" means I will multiply you. "Hafer" means to utterly nullify.
Look at the larger element, the fourth element, what else happens here? "Hifreit otcha b'meod meod," verse 6, I am going to multiply you greatly, God says, I am going to make you into nations and kings will come from you.
Really three ideas: the idea is not only you are going to have lots of children but they are going to coalesce into a nation and the nation is going to be governed by kings; but there's actually going to be one autonomous body, one body that all of these individuals are part of, and not just individuals.
Ah, now look at the fourth to last element. Anybody who doesn't observe the covenant, any male that doesn't circumcise himself, "v'nichrata ha-nefesh ha-hee me'ameiha," is going to be cut off from your people.
So the fourth element at the beginning is: individuals are not just individuals. They are going to be a part of a collective. But the fourth last element is: but if you don't keep the Brit, you are not part of the collective, you are cut off from the klal, you are cut off from the whole – "et briti hafer" – because you violated, you nullified the covenant.
So I will multiply you and those individuals will come together, but if any individual nullifies the covenant, they are not part of the collective.
And, by the way, this is one way in which the Jewish nation is different than every other nation. You see every other nation just comes about by happenstance; a king just manages to conquer land and people aggregate around him for self-protection and things like that.
But the Jewish nation is a nation because God created this nation and this Brit, this deal, this covenant, is at the center of it all. If you violate the covenant, your claim to be part of the nation is just going to fall apart, the covenant is essential to nationhood.
Let's look at the next element. Verse 7: "vahakimoti et-briti…beynecha u-veyn zar'acha," – I am going to establish My covenant with you, it will be a covenant forever.
Look at now at the fifth to last element. "Himol yimol y'lid beytcha…v'hayta briti bi'vsarchem l'brit olam" – again the idea of an everlasting covenant. I will establish the covenant and that's going to last forever and then having established it, this covenant is going to be visible in your flesh. It's going to be a part of your body and it will be that way forever within the corpus of the nation.
As you can see, we are getting closer and closer towards the center of this text. The next thing you are going to see is absolutely wild. You are going to see a chiasm within a chiasm, a little Atbash within the larger Atbash.
"Lihyot lcha Elohim." I am going to be your God. "U-l'zar'acha achareicha," and a God, not just for you but for your progeny after you. "V'natati lcha u'l'zar'acha achareicha et eretz megureicha" – I am going to give you this land, I am going to give you eretz Canaan forever. "V'hayiti lahem l'Elohim." And I am going to be, for your children, a God.
Now look at that carefully. What are the ideas? There are three ideas here. Idea number one: I am going to be a God for you and for your children. Idea number three is the same thing: I am going to be a God for your children. And in the middle of that, sandwiched between those two is: I am going to give you the land. Lo and behold, you have exactly the same structure, at the bottom of the chiasm.
The Sign of the Covenant Between Abraham and God
The next element has that same three-fold structure:
- "U'nmaltem et bsar arlatechem." You have to do milah, you have to circumcise: Element A.
- Element B: "v'hayah l'ot brit beyni u'veyneichem." There's going to be a sign of the covenant.
- Element C: "u-ben shmonat yamim yimol lachem." You must circumcise all males on the eigth day.
Do you see it? Element A: circumcise. Element C: circumcise. Right there in the middle: and it will be a sign of the covenant between us.
So you have these two little mini-chiasms mirroring each other and, interestingly, the centers kind of connect, don't they? What is it that God is promising Avraham on his part of the deal? God is really promising two things: children that will coalesce into a nation and land for the nation to live in.
Why Did God Tell Abraham to Circumcise?
Now remember when we saw, earlier in the chiasm, how the promise of children coalescing into a nation was dependent upon the Brit. You couldn't imagine the nation without the Brit, such that any person that didn't observe the Brit will be cut out of the nation.
Now you see, it's the same thing for land. The centers of these two chiasms, they mirror each other and what's the center about? The center at the top of the chiasm is: I am going to give you land. Ah, but what is the center of the bottom of the chiasm? But you are going to keep the Brit.
The Message? The land is dependent on the Brit. Just as the same way as children coalescing into nations is dependent upon the Brit, the promise of land is dependent upon keeping the Brit as well.
The Significant Condition of the Abrahamic Covenant
Which is why, by the way, that in Sefer Yehoshua, before the Jews actually come into the land, what do they make sure to do? Everyone stops and any children that were born and not yet circumcised, are circumcised. You don't go into the land without that.
Both great promises, children and land, are somehow tied to this essential covenant between God and Abraham's people.
Finally we are ready for the center of the chiasm. The center's kind of a double center and it's the primacy of the covenant: "V'atah et briti tishmor." And you make sure to keep My covenant, "zot briti asher tishmru," this is My covenant that you should keep.
The centrality, the need to keep the covenant, is the central idea which all of this revolves around, and this covenant, this deal, God's obligation towards us and our reciprocal obligation towards Him is that which begins our existence as a nation. It's all predicated on this.
Shabbat Shalom to all of you.