During the Brit Bein HaBetarim, Avraham asks Hashem, “Bamah Eida Ki Irashenah,” “With what will I know that I will inherit it?” (15:8) Avraham wants to be reassured that his descendants will inherit the land. This seemingly harmless question is, in fact, looked upon extremely negatively by Chazal. Shmuel (Nedarim 32a) states that because of this question, which shows Avraham going too far in testing Hashem’s promise, B’nei Yisrael were sentenced to spend 210 years in Egypt.
Many Mefarshim, though, disagree with this interpretation. The Kli Yakar comments that it makes no sense that B’nei Yisrael could receive such a harsh punishment for this action, while Avraham himself did not receive any punishment at all. The Radak and others question why one would assume that Avraham has a lack of belief, especially since we are told of Avraham, “VeHe’emin BaHashem”, “And he trusted in Hashem” (15:6).
Three possibilities are offered to explain Avraham’s question. Avraham might have been in search of a sign that his descendants would not sin and lose their merit to the land. Secondly, Avraham might have wanted to ensure that his descendants would be able to be forgiven if they sinned, and, lastly, Avraham might have wanted to be sure that the Kena’anim would not repent and thus not lose the right to live in Israel
The Malbim explains that, originally, Avraham thinks that since he had many sins on his record (as is seen by Avraham’s statement, “VeAnochi Afar VaEfer,” “And I am dust and earth” [18:27]), all that was being promised to him at the Brit – the nation of Israel – was a gift and an act of Chesed from Hashem. To tell Avraham that this was not the case, Hashem reminds Avraham that he took him out of Ur Kasdim, and since Avraham got up and left his whole life behind, he deserved to be promised Israel. Once Avraham knew that it was because of his merit that he was promised all this, he wanted to make sure that this merit would not be lost. To assure Avraham, Hashem tells him to bring many animals, symbolizing the merit B’nei Yisrael would have because of the Korbanot.
Rav Hirsch views this whole situation differently. He does not understand the word “Irashenu” as “inherit”; rather, he interprets “Irashenu” as “conquer”. Up to this point, Avraham has only been promised that he would be given Israel, but at the Brit Bein HaBetarim, he is told that he will be given the land “LeRishtah,” “to conquer it.” (15:7). Therefore, Avraham, who just concludes a military victory against the four kings, hopes that it is the time to go and conquer the whole land. Hashem, however, tells Avraham that it is not yet the appropriate time, but he should not despair because his descendants will return to the land after suffering for 400 years and conquer it.
Rav Tuvia Grossman points out how interesting it is that Chazal and Rav Hirsch can understand the same Pasuk in such different ways. Chazal view this question in a negative way – that Avraham is overstepping his boundaries. Rav Hirsch, on the other hand, could not see this any more positively; Avraham is so attached to Hashem’s land that he cannot not wait to conquer it. Perhaps, Rav Hirsch is trying to teach us all a very important lesson with his interpretation: just as our forefather Avraham is so enthusiastic about Israel, we should feel the same enthusiasm when it comes to our homeland as well.