“Know with certainty that your offspring shall be aliens in a land not their own, and they will serve them, and they will oppress them, four hundred years. But also the nation that they will serve I shall judge, and afterwards they will leave with great wealth … And the fourth generation shall return here ….” (Genesis 15:13-16)
Why did Hashem say these difficult words to Our Father Avraham?
I would like to say that prophesy is the cornerstone of Jewish existence. It sets us apart from all other peoples because it establishes our unique relationship with the King of the Universe. G-d allows His beloved children to share to some extent His vision, which is beyond time and space. Yes, there were non-Jewish prophets, but the essence of prophesy relates to the advancement of Torah goals, and the non-Jewish prophets ultimately served to further the spiritual advancement of the Jewish People.
Here, at the very beginning of Jewish history, our Father Avraham receives direct communication from G-d. This occurred only because Avraham thought deeply about life and understood that Hashem must exist. Based on this realization, he sought Hashem. Hashem responded by communicating directly and personally with him.
What is the point of prophesy?
The point, my friends, is Reality. We Jews live in Reality.
We are created in the image of G-d. Our purpose in this world is to try to imitate Hashem’s traits, to communicate with Him and to receive His communications. We study Torah in order to understand how to live, and Torah originally came to us as a direct communication from Him. That we are unable to receive prophesy today is testament to the dramatic spiritual decline that has occurred over the millennia, but we desire to return to our former glory, and the Torah we study lifts us toward that goal. We do not give up.
Prophesy allows us to live in Reality. If challenges are on the horizon, then we can rise to meet them. When King David saw challenges approaching, he said, “Hashem is with me. I have no fear…. All the nations surround me; in the Name of Hashem I cut them down.” (Psalm 118)
Other nations are trapped in the current moment, but the Children of Israel live with a perspective that allows us to transcend time and space. As a result, we can anticipate the future. We live eternally because we are constantly trying to achieve oneness with Hashem. We are released from slavery to time and space.
Hashem told our Father Avraham that his children would be aliens in a foreign land and that they would be oppressed by that foreign nation. As a result, he was able to instill in his children the unique ability to see beyond the alienation and oppression and to survive against seemingly impossible odds.
In the classic book, “Lieutenant Birnbaum,” (Mesorah Publications, 1993) the author quotes the late Klausenberger Rebbe’s amazing Kol Nidre droshe delivered in a displaced persons’ camp just after the liberation of Buchenwald. The Rebbe zt”l enumerated the sins listed in the Yom Kippur Prayer Book, and he kept asking, “Does this (sin) apply to us?” This was the first Yom Kippur after the liberation, and he told his emaciated listeners, time and again, “No, this does not apply to us…. ‘Dibarnu dofi.’ (Have we spoken slander?) We did not speak any slander. We didn’t speak at all. If we had any strength to speak, we saved it for our SS guards so that we would have enough strength to answer them…. ‘Latznu.’ (We have scoffed.) We were so serious in the camps. There was no such thing as smiling or making a joke.”
There was only one sin that the Rebbe could ascribe to the survivors, and these are his words: “How many times did we recite Krias Shema … at night and think: King of the Universe, please take my soul so that I do not have to repeat once again in the morning, ‘I am thankful before You, the Living King, who has returned my soul to me.’ I don’t need my soul! You can keep it!
“None of us expected to survive. Yes, we tried to survive, but none of us expected to. Every morning, we saw this one didn’t move and that one didn’t move, and, as we carried the dead out, we looked upon them with envy. Is that emunah in Hashem? Is that bitachon in Hashem? …. We must pray to get back the emunah and bitachon we once had, the emunah and bitachon that went to sleep these last few years in the camps.”
The leaders of our People instill us with emuna and bitachon so that we can fulfill our mission as Hashem’s emissaries in this world. Hashem revealed to Avraham Avinu that difficult events would unfold in the lifetime of his children. This was an intense trial for the Father of our Nation. Why did he have to go through such a challenge?
Our Father Avraham, as a result of the prophesy that was given to him, reached a supreme level from which he was able to imbue his descendants with the spiritual power to overcome future tests. His son Yitzchak had the incredible strength to offer himself up willingly as a korban (sacrifice), and future generations passed through fire and water to sanctify the Name of G-d, as it says, “Avinu Malkeinu, our Father, our King, act for the sake of those who went into fire and water for the sanctification of Your Name.” All this was possible because our Father Avraham was able to see ahead and plant within his children monumental powers of spiritual greatness.
This is what we call zechus avos, the merit of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs, the strength implanted within us by fathers and mothers whose entire lives were dedicated to the service of the King of the Universe. “For Hashem has redeemed Yaakov and delivered him from a power mightier than he! Blessed are You, Hashem, Who redeemed Israel!”