In this week’s Parsha, we read about two monumental covenants between God and Avraham. In addition, the Parsha opens with additional blessings that God promises Avraham, also somewhat in the form of a covenant. If we pay close attention to the Torah’s language throughout Sefer Bereshit, we can see that these covenants greatly impact later developments in the Torah.
At the beginning of Lech Lecha, we are struck by the depiction of Avraham’s descendants as a great and mighty nation: “And I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. And I will bless those who bless you, and he who curses you I will curse, and all the nations of the land shall bless themselves by you” (12:3). However, in this initial blessing, we learn very little about the Promised Land. God assures Avraham that He will show him this land, but Avraham has not yet merited knowing its identity. Moreover, the spiritual dimension is quite lacking in this blessing. The verse “And I will bless those who bless you…and all the nations… shall bless themselves by you,” although it sounds spiritual, essentially focuses on the awe with which other nations will regard Avraham’s descendants; other nations will admire their might and fear becoming their enemies. This verse gives no indication of whether Avraham’s descendants will feel a deep connection with God.
By the middle of Lech Lecha, though, we get a greater sense of what God has in mind for Avraham’s progeny. At the end of Perek 15, they are promised the Holy Land in the Brit Bein Habetarim. There, God specifies precisely which land they will inherit (see verses 18-21), and he appears to provide a moral basis for this covenant. Rather than simply promising that Avraham’s descendants will inherit this land, God goes out of His way to emphasize that events will develop in accordance with His sense of justice. Those who enslave the Jews will be punished, and the original occupants of Canaan will not be forced off of their land until their own sins earn them this punishment. Implicit in these statements is the assumption that Avraham’s descendants must act in a manner that befits the beneficiaries of this covenant. However, Avraham and his descendants have still not received any commandments as a sign of their unique relationship with God, nothing to which they must adhere in order to merit the fulfillment of Brit Bein Habetarim.
Finally, at the end of Lech Lecha, Avraham is ordered to circumcise his entire household, and he is promised in return, “Vahakimoti Et Beriti Beini Uveinecha…Livrit Olam: Lihyot Lecha Leilokim, Ulzaracha Acharecha,” “I will establish my covenant between Me and you, and between your offspring after you for their generations, as a permanent covenant: to be a God to you, and to your children after you” (17:7). At long last, Avraham has learned of a concrete action by which he and his descendants can affirm their commitment to their relationship with God.
Throughout the rest of Bereshit, we see these distinct stages reappearing individually. For example, Yaakov “steals” our Parsha’s opening blessing of tremendous might: “Yaavducha Amim, Veyishtachavu Lecha Leumim…Orerecha Arur, Umvarechecha Baruch,” “Nations will serve you, and governments will bow to you… those who curse you [will be] cursed, and those who bless you [will be] blessed” (27:29). Yitzchak intended for Eisav to receive this blessing, which would not have precluded a similar blessing for Yaakov. (Indeed, even after Yaakov “steals” this blessing, we find Eisav receiving a blessing of prosperity as the weaker brother in 27:39-40). However, after Yitzchak realizes what has happened and Rivka again reminds him of Eisav’s intermarriage (27:46), Yitzchak wholeheartedly offers Yaakov the spiritual blessing of Brit Milah (28:3-4): “Vekeil Shakai Yevarech Otcha, Veyafrecha Veyarbecha, Vehayita Likhal Amim. Veyiten Lecha Et Birkat Avraham, Lecha Ulzaracha Itach – Lerishtecha Et Eretz Megurecha, Asher Natan Elokim Le’avraham,” “And may Keil Shakai bless you, make you fruitful and make you numerous, and may you be a congregation of peoples. And may He give you the blessing of Avraham, to you and to your offspring with you – that you may inherit the land of your wanderings, that God gave to Avraham.”
God Himself reiterates the blessing of Brit Milah to Yaakov after the travails of his time with Lavan and his battle in Shechem. Like his grandfather Avraham, Yaakov has his name changed and receives the promise (35:11-12), “Ani Keil Shakai…Goy Ukhal Goyim Yihyeh Mimeka…Ve’et Haaretz Asher Natati Le’avraham Ulyitzchak – Lecha Etinena, Ulzaracha Acharecha…,” “I am Keil Shakai…a nation and a congregation of nations will come from you…and the land that I gave to Avraham and to Yitzchak – I will give it to you, and to your children after you….”
Thus, God reveals what Yitzchak learned over the course of Parshat Toldot: Although Eisav is not necessarily unfit for the contents of the opening blessing of Lech Lecha, only Yaakov can carry on his fathers’ full legacy due to the spiritual nature of Brit Milah.
Finally, in the beginning of Parshat Va’eira, we find the fulfillment of Brit Bein Habetarim. God explains to Moshe that the Avot saw the fulfillment of Brit Milah. They observed this commandment, and in return God allowed them to dwell in Canaan as temporary residents – “Vegam Hakimoti Et Beriti Itam, Latet Lahem…Et Eretz Megureihem, Asher Garu Vah,” “And I also established my covenant with them, to give to them…the land of their dwellings, in which they dwelled (Shemot 6:4). This is the same formulation that God used in the original Parsha of Brit Milah. Now, however, God promises Moshe that He will uphold the one promise that He has not yet fulfilled: the promise of Brit Bein Habetarim.
By identifying the different blessings in Lech Lecha, we gain a better understanding of several later stories where the same phrases reappear. We also realize the tremendous responsibility that we bear as the recipients of these blessings and covenants. We have been promised prosperity and power, but we have also been informed that God runs His world according to just principles of reward and punishment. He punished the Egyptians and Canaanites for their sins, so He expects us to act better than them, in order to truly merit His blessings.