by Yehoshua Jason Bedrick
Our weekly Torah portion opens with G-d's command to Abram (Abraham's original name) to leave his homeland, and His promise that He will bless him and make of him a great nation:
"Go for yourself from your land, from your relatives, and from your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation; I will bless you, and make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you, I will curse." (Gen. 12:1-3)
Abram takes his wife, Sarai, and nephew, Lot, to the land of Canaan. They also travel with "the souls they made in Haran" which is often interpreted as their slaves, though some sages say it refers to the converts they made.
Even in Canaan, Abram lives a nomadic life, constantly pitching his tent further and further south in the land. At one point, there's a famine in the land, so Abram briefly descends to Egypt. Fearful that the immoral Egyptians will kill him and take his wife, they pretend that they are siblings. Pharaoh treats Abram well on account of his "sister", whom he takes into his own home. G-d then afflicts Pharaoh's household with a severe plague, which tips off Pharaoh that something is amiss. He discovers that Sarai is already married, and he sends the couple away.
Abram returns to Canaan and flourishes, but his shepherds quarrel with Lot's shepherds. Abram offers to part ways to make room for each other, so Lot moves to Sodom. Once again, G-d promises the childless Abram that He will make a great nation of him in this land, as innumerable as the dust of the earth. Abram then builds an altar in Hebron. Though the Jewish people was never so large at any given time, their incredible longevity fulfills this promise. The Midrash notes that just as dust outlives all who tread upon it, so G-d promised Abraham that his offspring would outlive all the nations that would persecute them.
At one point, five local kings go to war with four other kings. Caught in the crossfire, Lot and his family are taken captive. A fugitive informs Abram, who immediately springs into action and rescues his kinsman and many others with a small force of a few hundred men. After Abram's success, Malchizedek, King of Salem (a.k.a. - Jerusalem), a priest of G-d, greets Abram and gives him bread and wine, an allusion to the sacrificial offerings Abram's descendants would offer there. Abram then tithes to Malchizedek. The king of Sodom offers Abram all of the loot, but Abram refuses, taking only supplies for his servants. Abram did not want anyone to mistakenly conclude that the wicked king of Sodom had made him wealthy; his good fortune was entirely a divine blessing.
After these events, G-d reiterates his promise to Abram. Abram protests that he remains childless, and G-d responds with a specific promise that he will bear children. G-d sent Abram outside and tells him to gaze into the heavens, promising that his descendants will be as innumerable as the stars. Rashi comments that G-d was also telling Abram to ignore the astrology by which he had determined that he was destined to remain childless.
They then seal a covenant with an animal sacrifice. Afterward, Abram falls into a deep sleep, and G-d continues to speak to him. G-d reveals to Abram that his descendants will live in exile for 400 years, that they will be oppressed by a foreign nation, but that they will be redeemed and leave with great wealth. (See: Book of Exodus. G-d, however, showed mercy in calculating the exile from the time of Isaac's birth -- the exile in Egypt was commuted to 210 years.)
Sarai, frustrated at her barrenness, asks her husband to bear a child through her maidservant, Hagar. Hagar conceived and began acting haughtily to her mistress. Sarai complains bitterly to Abram, who grants her permission to treat Hagar as she sees fit. Sarai disciplines Hagar, who then flees. An angel appears to Hagar and directs her to return to submit herself to Sarai. He also reveals to her that she will bear a son, Ishmael. There is a concept in Torah study that everything written about our ancestors applies to us as well. Of Ishmael, ancestor of the Arabs, the angel tells Hagar: "He shall be a wild ass of a man; his hand against everyone, and everyone's hand against him."
Abram was 86 when Hagar bore Ishmael. When Abram was 99, G-d sealed another covenant with Abram. G-d changed his name, Abram ("father of Aram") to Abraham ("father of a multitude"). G-d seals this "everlasting covenant" in Abraham's very flesh, commanding him to circumcise himself, and commanding that all his male descendants be circumcised at the age of eight days.
The circumcision is called both "My covenant" and "the sign of the covenant." According to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, this expresses a fundamental principle. The Artscroll Chumash summarizes his view: "A commandment consists of two parts: the physical act and its underlying moral or spiritual teaching -- and neither is complete without the other."
G-d also changes Sarai's name -- "my princess" -- to Sarah, signifying "princess over all nations". Previously, her greatness was only attached to her husband's, but now her limitations were removed. G-d informs Abraham that he will bear a child with Sarah named Isaac, and that the covenant would pass through him, though Ishmael would also become a vast nation.
Abraham then circumcises himself, his 13-year-old son Ishmael, and his entire household.