Promises and piecrust, said Jonathan Swift, satirist, journalist and Dean of the Church of Ireland, are made to be broken. Such cynicism apart, it is surely undeniable that making promises is an extremely risky business, for the act of making a promise carries implications that far exceed the contents of the undertaking that is given.
When we make promises what we are actually doing is laying our credibility on the line, and the risks that we take are great; for if we fail to deliver, if our promise is revealed to be so much hot air, then no one will ever trust us again, especially those who have invested an enormous amount in the fulfilment of our promise and have had to suffer the cruellest disappointment.
Interestingly, the dictionary definition of the word ‘promise’ reveals its many facets, and helps further to explain how significant an undertaking a promise is; the dictionary states:
an engagement to do or keep from doing something; expectation, or that which raises expectation; a ground for hope of future excellence…(Chambers, p.1029).
Today’s Torah portion, לך לך, is all about promise and promises of one sort or another. Avram, a citizen of the great Mesopotamian city of Ur on the banks of the mighty river Euphrates, is inspired to leave his birth-place and the ways and traditions of his forebears, and follow the route of the Fertile Crescent across the ancient Near East. His quest is at one and the same time the simplest and the most complicated of all: he is in search of his spiritual destiny.
Somehow, in ways that are never really explained to us, in the pages of the Bible at least, Avram is assured by an awareness of an immensely powerful supernatural force, which he believes communicates directly with him and which he identifies as the One, true God, Ruler of the heavens and the earth and everything that is in them, a quite revolutionary faith for its time; and buoyed up by his beliefs, he faces all the trials and tribulations that come his way.
Avram, however, is human, and one of our most profound characteristics is insecurity, often no matter how secure we may seem to be to others. In spite of the close relationship that he has with his God, Avram needs more reassurance. Why? Because he cannot see how the promises that have been made to him already will be fulfilled without a son and heir to carry on his line — a fear held by countless men in every human society down the millennia.
This is the substance of the first half of the parashah this Shabbat that introduces Avram onto the stage of religious history. Avram has no son, no one to whom he can pass on his values and beliefs, no one who he can inspire with the awe and wonder that his God evokes in him, no one who he can be sure will pass these traditions on to succeeding generations. He has a loyal man servant, Eliezer of Damascus, but there is no blood tie and he cannot therefore trust the man’s fealty to him after his death.
So God makes him a promise: Go outside your tent, Avram, and look up at the night sky; count the stars! (Gen. 15:5). Can you? Of course you can’t! But that is what your descendants shall be, descendants of your as-yet-unborn heir — as numerous as the stars of heaven. And they shall have a land of their own too — it shall stretch from the Euphrates to the Mediterranean (Gen. 15:18).
What a promise! And what a promise to make to a childless old man.
Avram believes his God, though, and they make a covenant which is described in our sidra, as well as an enlargement of the original promise, the small print if you like.
The manner in which the covenant is done is documented in other texts found at various archaeological sites in the Tigris/Euphrates valley. Avram takes a selection of animals and cuts them up before laying the pieces out on the ground with a space in between; the covenant is then enacted ‘between the pieces’, in Hebrew, בין הבתרים. This sort of agreement was usually struck between a mighty conquering King and his subject vassals. The implications were clear: just as our covenant is made between the pieces of these animals, may it be so with me, says the vassal, if I break my promise to you. Gruesome, unquestionably, but, I have no doubt, highly effective.
We should note also that God does not hide from Avram the fact that his descendants would be enslaved in a strange land, but even to this grim prospect there is hope, for redemption will be theirs after a period of time (Gen. 15: 13–14).
What all of this suggests to us is a message on two levels: first, a magnificent statement of reassurance and hope for the future; but second, an indication that there will also be times of struggle, persecution and suffering. What is just as clear is that the occurrence of the second should not, in any way, be seen to compromise the certainty of the first.
So let us ask ourselves: taking Jewish history as a whole, has God fulfilled the multi-layered promise made to our forefather Avram? In true Jewish style it must be said that there are at least three answers to the question. Yes, No or In Parts! Which of the three you choose will be dictated by your own particular assessment of Jewish history, flavoured, no doubt, by your own life experience. Surely, though, it is the third answer that most of us would plump for the divine promise has been partially fulfilled.
We have never been as numerous as the stars of heaven, nor will we ever be; but in spite of that let us not take a dim view of the promise itself, which is beautiful, and poetic, and perfectly evokes the experience that all of us who have been in Israel and looked up at the stars in a cloudless sky hanging over our heads, have had, a feeling that we could reach up and touch them, and become part of them.
Certainly, though, we have suffered; the history of the Jewish people from the time of our enslavement in Egypt down to the present day has been full of persecution, mistrust, hatred and death. No other group in the history of humanity has suffered as we have suffered, and none of our suffering, no, none of it, has been deserved. But, when all this has been said, it is also undeniable that, no matter what the circumstances have been, the Jewish people has always retained its commitment to God, and an awareness of God’s presence. Maybe not with the closeness of the Patriarchs, maybe not without anger, even fury, at what God has apparently been powerless to prevent being done to our people; but even when Jews have cursed God, that very act has implied a continuance of belief.
And should you say No! The divine side of the bargain has not been kept! Let us ask ourselves – have we kept ours? Have we always behaved according to the highest teachings of our faith? Have we even tried to live up to the best that is in ourselves? Naturally, two wrongs do not make a right, but before we judge God let us not be afraid to subject ourselves to a similarly harsh analysis.
For Avram, God was a constant in his life, and he is given the title in a later biblical book of God’s ‘friend’; his faith, his trust, his awareness of the divine, actually increased God’s presence in the world. Our circumstances are very different today, our vision is almost totally obscured by the mists of doubt, mistrust and cynicism. We are wary of commitments, and even more so of promises — the very thought of them makes us shy away.
And yet we should not be afraid to make promises, to state our intentions with firmness and sincerity in — quite literally — good faith. For as long as we understand that nothing is certain, that all we can do is perform to the best of our ability, we may be able to derive encouragement and strength from the belief that our efforts will not be one-sided and that the One to whom the promise is made will help us to make it come true and bring our dreams to fruition.
Rabbi Dr Charles Middleburgh
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.