Sunday, October 14, 2007

Parshat Lech Lecha

The Ramban in his commentary on this week’s Torah portion (12; 6 and 10) explains the reason that the Torah goes to such lengths to explain all the details of the lives of the Patriarchs. Based on the Midrash Tanchuma (9) he says that all the actions of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs were precursors of the events that would happen to their descendants in later generations. In a sense their actions and reactions became part of the national psyche to such an extent that they were replayed many times throughout history.
So it is not surprising to find that the war between Avraham and the four kings (chapter 13) hints at future events. The Midrash (Bereishis Rabba 42; 2) states that “The four kings mentioned here hint at the Four Kingdoms (who would later subjugate the Jewish people): the kingdoms of Babylon, Media, Greece and Edom (Rome)”. Ramban (14; 1) explains in more detail: “This whole episode happened to Avraham to indicate that four kingdoms would arise in the world. Eventually, his descendants would overcome them, and the kingdoms would fall into their hands”.
The leader of the four kings was Amrafel, king of Shinar. We know from last week’s Torah reading that Shinar is another word for Babylon (11; 2), so clearly Amrafel symbolises the Babylonian exile, which is also described in Daniel (2; 38) as the most important exile. In Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of the statue symbolising the exiles, Babylon is the head, made of gold. What is even more interesting is that Amrafel was a pseudonym of Nimrod’s. Rashi explains the name Nimrod as related to the word Mered, rebellion, because he was the chief instigator of the building of the tower of Babel. However he explains that Amrafel literally means “told him to fall”, which is a reference to Nimrod’s casting Avraham into the furnace. What Rashi doesn’t say is that Nimrod also means “told him to fall”, in Aramaic. So the two traits which best describe Nimrod are his idolatrous rebellion against G-d, and throwing Avraham into the furnace.
The Rabbi’s teach us that the four exiles correspond to the four cardinal sins of idolatry, sexual licentiousness, murder and causeless hatred. The sin which is most associated with the Babylonian exile is idolatry. Daniel (3) relates that Nebuchadnezzar set up a golden statue and commanded all his subjects to bow down to it. Three of his Jewish advisors, Chananiah, Misha’el and Azariah, refused to prostrate themselves to it. Nebuchadnezzar told them “If you do not prostrate yourselves, you will immediately be thrown into a fiery, burning furnace; and who is the god who can save you from my hands?” (verse 15).
This is so similar to the Midrash about Avraham and Nimrod: Nimrod looked the boy [Avraham] over and started his interrogation. He asked him to bow down to fire. Avraham shot back: “How can I bow down to fire, when water will put out the fire?” Nimrod, his anger quickly rising, shouted out, “Bow down to water.” Again, Avraham had an answer: “How can I bow down to water, when the clouds on high contain water?” Nimrod responded: “Bow down to the clouds!” Avraham responded: “What about the wind that disperses the clouds?” And Nimrod: “Bow down to the wind!” Avraham answered still again: “But what of man, who contains wind (the Hebrew word for wind is “ruach” which can also refer to the life force found in living creatures)?” Nimrod had enough of this game and finally said: “Enough of your words, I worship only fire and into the furnace you go. Your God will come, you pray to Him and He will save you!”.
However, there is an important difference between Nimrod and Nebuchadnezzar. Even after Avraham survived in the furnace Nimrod was still prepared to wage war against him. He remained unconvinced of the supremacy of G-d. But Nebuchadnezzar recognised the miracle that he witnessed, “Nebuchadnezzar exclaimed and said, ‘Blessed is the G-d of Shadrach Mashach and Abed-nego (Chananiah, Misha’el and Azariah), Who sent His angel and saved His servants who relied on Him.… for there is no other god able to save in this manner.” (Daniel 3; 28-9).

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