To be Complete with Hashem

And Hashem appeared to Avram and said to him: I am Kel Shakkai. Go before me and you should be complete. (Sefer Beresheit 17:1)

1. Hashem’s enigmatic directive to Avraham

In the above passage, Hashem appears to Avraham – at this point his name is still Avram – and identifies Himself as Kel Shakkai. He then tells Avraham to go before Him and to be complete. Every aspect of this passage is difficult to understand. First, Hashem identifies Himself by a name Kel Shakkai. What is the significance of this name and why does Hashem identify Himself by this name at this juncture? Then, He tells Avraham to go before Him and to be complete. What is the meaning of these vague directives? How does one “go before” Hashem. What constitutes being “complete”?

2. Two interpretations of Kel Shakkai

The commentators offer a variety of responses to these questions. Rashi suggests that the name Kel Shakkai communicates that Hashem sustains all creatures.[1] Nachmanides suggests that the name represents Hashem’s omnipotence. He reigns over creation and has the capacity to suspend or violate the physical laws. He further explains that the rewards described by the Torah for observance of the commandments and the consequences for their disregard are an expression of Hashem’s omnipotence. These rewards and punishments all require some degree of manipulation of nature. For example: the Torah tells us that through observance of the mitzvot we are assured that the rain will fall in its season and water our crops. This is not a consequence of the natural law. This is a manifestation of Hashem’s manipulation of the material world in response to our observance of the commandments.[2]

3. Two interpretations of “going before” Hashem

Various interpretations are offered by the commentators for the directive to “go before me.” Rashi and many others understand the phrase as an instruction to serve Hashem.[3] Nachmanides expands on this interpretation and relates the phrase to fear of Hashem. One who properly fears Hashem will go before Him. He will do as directed by Hashem. According to Nachmanides’ interpretation, the message is that Avraham should recognize that Hashem reigns over aspect of the universe. He has unlimited capacity to reward us or to punish. Therefore, we should fear Hashem alone and do as He directs.[4]

Be complete with Hashem your G-d. (Sefer Devarim 18:13)

4. Rashi’s contextual interpretations of to “be complete”

The phrase “be complete” is interpreted in many different ways by the commentators. This expression is used also by Moshe in his parting instructions to the nation. He tells the people to “be complete with Hashem”. Does Moshe’s use of this term provide any insight into its message in our parasha?

Many of the commentators attribute different meaning to the phrase in these two instances in which it is used. Rashi’s interpretations exemplify this treatment of the phrase. In his comments on the phrase in Sefer Devarim, he suggests that its message is that we should not attempt to predict the future through resorting to various pagan practices or adopting superstitions. We should rely on Hashem and accept that which befalls us.[5] In commenting on the phrase in our parasha, Rashi offers a number of interpretations. He does not include among them the interpretation offered in Sefer Devarim.

Rashi’s treatment of the phrase – being complete – in these two instances suggests that he does not attribute a specific meaning to the phrase. According to Rashi, in each instance, the phrase must be evaluated in its context. In Sefer Devarim, the phrase is preceded by a number of prohibitions against pagan practices designed to foretell or manipulate the future. It is followed by the commandment to obey Hashem’s prophets. Therefore, Rashi interprets the phrase as an extension of the prohibitions outlined in the previous passages and as an introduction to the admonition to obey the prophet. Moshe’s message is to not resort to the practices of the pagans in a futile attempt to protect oneself from the uncertainty of the future. Instead, one should rely completely and wholeheartedly upon Hashem. We should accept that which befalls us. If an insight into the future is to be sought, then the prophet, who speaks for Hashem, is the only one that can provide meaningful knowledge of the future.

In our parasha the phrase appears in a very different context from Sefer Devarim. Here, the phrase introduces Hashem’s covenant with Avraham regarding his future offspring, their possession of the Land of Cana’an, and the commandment of circumcision. Therefore, Rashi offers interpretations that are consistent with this context. For example: the phrase “be complete” is a reference to the commandment of circumcision. Hashem is telling Avraham that the process of circumcision should be regarded as completing the human form and not as a mutilation of the body.[6]

5. Nachmanides suggests a single interpretation of “be complete”

Nachmanides rejects Rashi’s approach to interpreting the phrase “be complete”. He suggests that the phrase “be complete” has a single, consistent meaning. He does not deny that this meaning must be consistent with its context. Instead, his contention is that this single meaning is consistent with both contexts. He suggests that in order to properly understand the phrase, its meaning in Sefer Devarim must be fully understood.

As explained above, in Sefer Devarim, the phrase appears in the context of the Torah’s rejection of the various pagan practices designed to foretell or manipulate the future. Nachamandes begins by considering a simple question: Why are these practices prohibited? One might suggest that these practices are rejected by the Torah because they are foolish superstitions. However, Nachmanides suggests an alternative explanation. Before his explanation can be considered, his view on the nature of these practices must be explained.

6. Nachmanides’ understanding and rejection of astrology

According to Nachmanides each of these practices attempts to “tap into” the forces of nature and to “read” them. A simple example will illustrate his position. Nachmanides includes astrology among the prohibited practices. Astrology was widely accepted as a legitimate science during Nachmindes’ time. He understood it well. Its premise is not that the stars somehow magically foretell the future. Its premise is that forces exerted by the stars and constellations actually determine events. From this perspective the astrologer is not a primitive fortune-teller. He is a scientist, analyzing the material forces that influence events. Nachmanides assumes that the other practices enumerated in the Torah as prohibited are of a similar type. Their practitioners may be misguided in their beliefs in these practices. However, their intent is to analyze telltale indications of forces at play in the material world and based upon this analysis develop a picture of these forces, assess them, and thereby, predict the future.

Of course, if this is the proper interpretation of these practices, then it seems odd that they should be prohibited. Nachmanides explains that these practices are prohibited because they assume that the forces that the practitioner is uncovering and synthesizing to form a picture of the future are the actual determinants of events. The astrologer’s error lies not only in his belief that he is engaged in a scientific pursuit. He is making a more fundamental error. No natural force operates independent of the Divine will. Hashem sustains the natural world and its laws. Also, he has the capacity to suspend or violate its laws as He wills. The astrologer’s most fundamental error is in believing that the forces that he is analyzing determine the future. Natural forces are subject to Hashem’s will and may be suspended or redirected by Him.

To “be complete” means to wholeheartedly accept that Hashem is the ultimate cause of all events. Therefore, we should fear Him alone and serve only Him. If we draw close to Him, then we will enjoy His protection and no natural force or law can harm us. If we disregard Him, then no natural force of law can protect us from His consequences.[7]

7. Nachmanides’ understanding of “be complete” in our parasha

Nachmaindes explains that this same interpretation of to “be complete” applies to our parasha. Hashem begins by identifying Himself as Kel Shakkai. This name communicates His omnipotence. He tells Avraham he must go before Him. This means he must fear and serve only Hashem. These are related messages. Because Hashem is the ultimate cause of all events and all that befalls us is a consequence of His will, we must fear and serve Him alone. Finally, he tells Avraham to be complete. He should understand that none of the forces of nature or its laws will shape his future. All forces and laws are subject to the will of Hashem. These ideas precede Hashem’s message to Avraham regarding his future. Hashem tells him that he and his descendants will experience a providential relationship with Hashem. Their destiny will not be determined by natural forces and laws but by the will of Hashem. Because of this relationship, he and Sarah will have a son; their offspring will possess the Land of Canaan; and that they and their offspring will experience a covenantal relationship with Hashem for all generations.[8]

——————————————————————————–

[1] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 17:1.
[2] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 17:1.
[3] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 17:1.
[4] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 17:1.
[5] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 18:13.
[6] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 17:1.
[7] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 18:13.
[8] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 17:1.