"Ve-he'emin Ba-Shem, Va-yachsheveha Lo Tzedaka"
Summarized by Betzalel Posy
After God promised Avraham offspring, the Torah records both Avraham's and God's reactions: "He put his trust in the Lord, va-yachsheveha lo tzedaka" (Bereishit 15:6). It is not clear how the latter phrase should be understood, nor is it clear who is the subject - did God or Avraham consider something to be "tzedaka" (charity)? The Ramban has two explanations of the second phrase, both with the same basic point. He says that Avraham initially feared that despite all of God's promises of physical and spiritual success, his own personal sins, or his descendants' collective misdeeds, might cause these promises to become null and void. But Avraham understood this promise of God as unconditional, based on charity: no matter what they may do, Avraham's offspring will remain the chosen people of God, those designed to inherit His land and His tradition. Thus, it is Avraham who regards the promise as charitable. In the second explanation, the Ramban goes even farther. It is God Himself who sees the changed nature of the promise and makes it a tzedaka.
The Ramban's basic distinction, between a Godly promise dependent on conditional factors, and one that will come true no matter what, is found in the gemara in Rosh Hashana, which distinguishes between a promise which is accompanied by an oath and one that is not. While the Ramban is consistent in abiding by the distinction, he refuses in Shemot to apply it to the particular situation that he does in Bereishit. When explaining the apparent contradiction between the promise to Avraham that his descendants would be redeemed after 400 years, whereas the verse states that Benei Yisrael left after 430 years, the Ramban writes the following:
The appropriate explanation is as follows: The four hundred years began on that day, and the thirty years were added to them specifically because of their sin. For if a person is condemned for his sin to exile and tragedy for a certain amount of years, and he nonetheless continues to sin, additional years will be added on sevenfold, for the first punishment is no promise that he may not receive further for more sins he may do.
On Avraham Avinu, the decree fell that his descendants would be strangers in a foreign land for four hundred years, and they would not return until the fourth generation, and the only promise he was given was that they would leave with great wealth.
Up to this point, the Ramban can be reconciled with his statements in Bereishit: he is only narrowing the scope of the promise. But he continues:
For even this promise is conditional, and even if it were not, there is no promise that is not possible that sin can destroy ... and even after thirty years they might not have gone out, had they not cried out to God...
Here, the Ramban clearly states that even the promise that Avraham was given was dependent on the way his descendants fulfilled their responsibilities.
From this Ramban, we learn a fundamental lesson in our perspective on history and our role in it: no matter what may be a "Divine master plan," the actions of Klal Yisrael can and do affect events and trends. This is true in every age, but it is all the more true in today's society, where the difference between hastened redemption (achishena) and redemption in its assigned time (be-itah) hangs in the balance.
(Originally delivered at Seuda Shelishit, Shabbat Parashat Lekh Lekha 5757.)
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