When God promised Avram that he will be rewarded, Avram responded that he has no children and therefore no one to inherit his reward. God promised that his progeny will be as many as the stars in the sky. Avram then asked for a sign from God that will prove that he will inherit the land. God responds with the B’rit Bein HaB’tarim, the “Covenant of the Pieces,” as a sign that Avram’s descendants will first be enslaved in a foreign country for 400 years; after that, they will leave in peace and surely inherit the land.
Yesterday, we read a passage from the Talmud which asked a question from today’s chapter. Why were Avraham’s descendants punished with those years of slavery? One answer was that of Shmuel: Because Avraham asked for proof that his descendants will inherit the land. Why such a harsh punishment for a slight lapse of faith?
I think the underlying idea behind Shmuel’s claim is that Avram wanted to know. He wanted certainty. Perhaps the punishment for this was God’s telling Avram about the future enslavement of his descendants. God knows, God is certain, and He certainly knew about the future enslavement of Avram’s progeny. He didn’t have to tell Avram. But when Avram revealed that he wanted such God-like certainty about the future, God had to tell Avram something that must have troubled him; it was something he most certainly did not want to hear. This was Avram’s punishment: some things are just not for us to know, and our future is just something about which we cannot be absolutely certain.
Rabbi Roy Feldman