Thursday, November 3, 2011

Beating the Vultures

Parshat Lekh Lekha

The first of the two significant covenants that were forged between Avraham and God was the Brit Bein Habtarim (Covenant Between the Pieces). In exchange for a promise that he'll have children, that they'll be enslaved for 400 years, but that they'll ultimately inherit the land of Canaan, God asks of Avraham (still Avram at that time) to "Bring for Me a prime heifer, a prime goat, a prime ram, a dove and a young pigeon." (15:9)

The Torah describes what Avram did: "He brought all these for Him. He split them in half, and placed one half opposite the other. The birds, however, he did not split."

Once he set up the halved animals and the whole birds, he was faced with a real problem: "Vultures descended on the carcasses, but Avram drove them away." (15:11)

Between the vision of the stars in which this encounter began, and concluding with the trance that came upon Avram as the sun set (15:12) , it seems that the Brit Bein Habtarim was minimally a 20-hour experience.

What took so long?

Perhaps the verse describing Avram's encounter with the vultures may have taken a lot more time than its press coverage might indicate.

The rabbinic interpretation of the vultures' descent paints a metaphor of Avraham's descendants fighting against those who want to break apart our Covenant with God. But perhaps there is room to interpret the events more literally.

In an interpretation that is difficult to understand literally, the Midrash Hagadol posits that when the vultures came, Avram put the split carcasses next to each other and they returned to life to frighten away their would-be attackers. More in line with the actual wording of the verse, Radak suggests that the vultures only descended on the dead birds (complete carcasses) and not on the animals that were split in half.

Getting into the trenches with Avram, Chizkuni suggests that Avram was literally running back and forth to cover the animals with a sheet – protecting them from the hungry vultures – as he lay in wait for the divine presence to pass between the pieces so the covenant could be set in motion.

There is no question that the vultures coming down were meant to serve as symbolism to Avram for the struggles his descendants would have to go through. The Artscroll Chumash includes a summary of three approaches of what the birds represent: King David, who will be driven away by God before Messiah comes, nations trying to destroy Israel, and nations trying to prevent Israel from serving God.

But I think that the literal interpretation, for a change, perhaps, carries the most profound lesson of all.

When God gives you instructions which are easy enough to carry out, when you do your part it stands to reason that everything else will flow and fall into place. But you can't just expect everything to be perfect. If the task is to cut animals in half, vultures will want to eat the animals before the Covenant is complete.

If the task is to show our children how to daven in shul, someone will talk to you in shul, or the davening won't be conducive to the education you want to provide.

If the task is to learn Torah with our children or to set time to learn with a study partner, all kinds of obstacles and distractions will stand in the way of our doing that which we know we need to do.

If the task is to dedicate time to a worthy cause, every excuse in the world will stand in the way of allowing us to participate in the way we might like.

If the task is to bring guests into our homes, maybe the plumbing will go and the heating or air conditioning will stop working, or they'll overstay their welcome.

No matter the task, everything comes with its own challenges. The lesson we learn from our forefather is one of patience. With perseverance and with the attitude that "If I could just see myself past this obstacle everything will be OK," we can attain the goals we set for ourselves.

Avraham needed to chase away hungry birds. And it may have taken him the better part of the day to get them to give up their attempts at the dead animals. But he stuck with it, received the covenantal promise, and his children did leave, to inherit the Torah and the Land of Israel.

And we're still here today.

Was it worth the annoyance of vultures for a few hours? I am sure our forefather Avraham would respond with a resounding "Yes!"

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