D’var Torah for Leo Baeck College
Parashat Lech Lecha
The Dark Side of the Moon
Arriving at Parashat Lech Lecha, it is tempting to focus on its beautiful and momentous opening in which Abram is commanded to go forth from his homeland. ‘Lech Lecha’ has become the paradigmatic narrative for the spiritual journey and the religious covenant.
Today, however, I would propose we journey a little deeper into our parashah to one of its more obscure sections and see if we can cast light upon it. In Genesis Chapter Fifteen, after Abram has battled the four kings of Canaan and withstood a number of tribulations, the Torah tells us about the arcane ritual of the Covenant of the Pieces (‘Brit haBetarim’). After Abram’s military successes, he appears to spiral down into melancholy (or perhaps today we would call it ‘depression’) and asks God both an existential and a practical question: who will inherit if I fail to have children, “v’anochi holech ariri?“ (Gen. 15:2)
This is a poignant moment. We can imagine Abram trying to come to terms with both his successes and his failures. Abram wonders what merit his successes will have if he has no progeny to bequeath his heritage to.
It is at this very moment that God enters center stage. First, God tries to comfort Abram by affirming God’s special relationship with the patriarch. ‘I am your shield’. (Gen. 15:1)
Secondly, God promises progeny as numerous as the stars, seemingly against all odds. This can almost be read as a prophetic echo of a comforting line from Psalm 147:4, ‘the Eternal numbers the stars and gives each one a name’.
To ratify His covenant with Abram, God instructs Abram to conduct a strange ritual, the so-called ‘Covenant of the Pieces’.
The ‘Covenant of the Pieces’ represents the darker sphere of both reality and our covenantal religion. It is not a clean or polished ritual but gritty and primitive. Abram is told to slaughter a number of different animals (a cow, a goat, a ram, a turtledove and a pigeon), to split them and then to pass through them. The scene is set dramatically: the sun sets and Abram falls into a deep and troubled sleep. In his sleep, he experiences a fiery furnace and a blazing torch passing through the covenant of the pieces and Abram is promised two realities: his descendants will be enslaved for four centuries, yet in the end, they will inherit the land promised them.
Our mysterious episode ends as suddenly as it started. Chapter Sixteen already commences with the Hagar narrative. If we were to examine this connection through smichut parshiyot, an analysis of adjacent verses, we may see that God seems to immediately fulfill His promise to Abram and Sarai.
And yet, the reader is left to wonder. What was the meaning of this dark and gruesome ritual? What was the purpose of the blood and gore and fire?
The Sages see the Covenant of the Pieces as being an allusion to what the Jewish people are yet to face: enslavement, loss of autonomy, exile but also ultimate Redemption. The Covenant of the Pieces teaches us that the bigger picture can speak to even the minutiae of our own lives. We all struggle with our successes and failures, our dreams and fears. Many of us may face moments in life where we pass through the fire, where we lament things lost and fear things yet to come. Life is not always clean and polished. Nor is life only a magnificent journey that we embark upon with our dignity intact and our hopes high. Sometimes we are broken and blinded by the thick smoke of our pain. The Covenant of the Pieces teaches us, however, that there is a torch to light our way through the black smoke.
According to Rashi, the act of splitting the animals and passing between them represents covenanting: the sharing of an experience in which the partners become like ‘blood siblings’. He also states that the ‘furnace and torch’ represents the Shechinah (Divine Presence) as She – like a pillar of fire by night - accompanies us through life’s darkest hour. Again, a psalm comes to mind: ‘as I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall not fear’ (Psalm 23:4).
Life can force us into the shadows and to gaze upon the dark side of the moon. Yet, true to God’s promise to Abram, the darkness and shadows allow us to see our stars shine all the brighter. The strength of the Covenant of the Pieces lies in its grittiness, in its ability to mix metaphors, to blend life and death into one intoxicating experience. We can pass through dire straits only to be born again. This is a covenant of a God Who is both infinitely loving and brutally honest. And it is this experience that makes our reality covenantal. Life isn’t easy, and sometimes we walk through darkness. But we might just be able to intuit that the Shechinah lights our way like a torch and that the stars illuminate our darker sphere. We may yet emerge stronger and more human, a true journey of the soul.