Rabbi David Walk
Teddy Roosevelt (the Republican one, pronounced roosevelt) had the Fair Deal, while his cousin Franklin (the Democratic one, pronounced rose'evelt) had the New Deal. Recently, the world lost Monty Hall (ne Monte Halpern), who was a great philanthropist, and famously announced, 'Let's, make a deal!' Today, Americans (I remember being one.) have a president who claims to be an expert in the Art of the Deal. And right down the street from me on Derech Chevron is the supermarket where you can get American products, you know Heinz Ketchup and 'real' tuna fish, and it's called Super Deal. But what is a 'deal'? It can be used literally to mean a transaction or agreement (or the apportioning of playing cards), or more figuratively to mean a bargain or an extremely advantageous negotiation. It comes from an Old English word which meant to divide or distribute. Last week, I discussed Noach making the first 'deal' with God. We called that agreement a brit. This week I'd like to explore the famous 'deal' that Avraham made with God, and try to discover what made Avraham truly the master at the 'art of the deal'.
Interestingly, the deal with Avraham didn't come at the beginning of his career as God's representative here on earth. He left home and set out on his mission with little assurance from God. What God promised were more like blessings, 'I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will aggrandize your name (Genesis 12:2).' This was enough for Avraham, because he had already concluded that he was a servant of God. Avraham probably would have set out on the mission without any guarantees, because he had totally committed to monotheism. A blessing is closer to a payment or, even, a bribe. In this case, Rashi explains that God is promising to replenish him for the things he might lose because of his flight from Ur. But what's the nature of the deal he finally receives?
The deal comes at a strangely, and uncharacteristically, depressing moment in Avraham's career. He's just won the first world war (four kings against five kings), met the world's most famous personality, and stood up to the King of Sodom. Pretty heady stuff! But the next recorded conversation with God is subdued, 'O God, what can You give me, since I'm childless, and my presumed heir is my butler, Eliezer of Damascus?' Pretty depressing words for the potentate of optimism. Now comes a prelude to the 'big deal', which has been interpreted many ways over the centuries. God assures him of two things: 1. You will have a true genetic heir, and 2. Your heirs will be numerous beyond counting. Now comes the confusing verse: And he believed God, and he considered it an act of righteousness (tzedakah). Who considered 'it' an act of righteousness? And what is the 'it'? It could mean Avraham considered it an act of righteousness to make such an assurance. Or God could consider Avraham's belief a righteous act. In memory of Monty Hall, let's go with Door Number Two.
Why? Avraham seems to believe everything God says. Why would this act of faith, by this man of faith, be considered so amazing? And this interpretation is even harder to swallow, because a verse later Avraham asks for a 'sign' that this will all come to pass. Rashi hints at the answer, when he explains that he wasn't asking for a 'sign', just a tangible marker for the deal. Now, Rashi says the marker would be Temple offerings. I'd like to go in another direction. But first here's the problem: God is offering Avraham something completely new. God has made deals with people, but not with their progeny. Avraham believes that God's relationship with him will live on after he's departed this earth. God gave blessings to Adam, and transferred the covenant of continuity of exitance from the heaven and earth to Noach, but this promise of eternal relationship is a revolution.
What comes next, of course, is the Covenant Between the Parts (brit bein ha'betarim), chapter 15, verses 9-21. This deal outlines Jewish history and destiny. But, most outstandingly, it emphasizes that Avraham's relationship will be continued with his seed, zerah, forever. God, for the first time expresses the giving of the land of Israel in the past tense, because with this covenant it's as if the transfer has already occurred. But Rabbi Soloveitchik says it better: I shall give you the land by having your children inherit it…the promise will occur on an historical level on which the dead and the living form one community… the community is historically conscious, integrating itself with the chosen individual who founded the nation (The Emergence of Ethical Man, p. 167). This explains so much. All of the promises are given in this form of 'and to your seed after you.' And all of our holidays are reenactments of bygone events, but that's not a problem because we are always reliving the lives of our ancestors on a spiritual and ethical plane. They are with us whenever we behave within the parameters of the covenant.
Now we understand what a brit is. It is an everlasting deal. Onkelos translates the word brit as kayom or existing, always functioning. To refer to an 'eternal covenant', in this context is redundant.
Finally, we understand why God thought that Avraham's faith in the promise was an act of great righteousness or piety, because Avraham was accepting this revolutionary concept of a never-ending relationship with God. Avraham, first accepted and, then, must have been blown away by this idea: My special relationship with God, which had never existed before, will live on after I'm gone in my children and my children's children. His immortality is assured in an historical closeness to non-existent future generations. We feel that closeness to a remote past, and daily pray that we pass it on to offspring and offsprings' offspring. God makes the covenant, and Avraham thinks, 'Boy, what a deal!