Avram is singled out by Hashem to establish a nation devoted to Hashem, and that nation must have a land. Avram is instructed to leave his home in Charan and to travel to an unknown destination. Pulling up stakes at the age of 75, Avram takes his wife Sarah and his nephew and adopted son Lot and they eventually reach the land of Canaan. When he arrives at Shechem,
And Hashem appeared to Avram and He said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” And he built an altar there to Hashem Who had appeared to him (Bereishit 12:7).
This is Avram's first step in forming a connection with the land. Rashi notes that Avram builds this first altar in recognition and gratitude for receiving the news that he would have offspring and that they would be given the Land of Israel. Ramban adds that Avram builds the altar in gratitude for receiving a clearer form of prophecy, a vision, now that he is in the Land, than he had received when he was in Charan, where Hashem had appeared in a dream or through Divine inspiration (Ruach haKodesh). Clearly, Canaan is the place where Avram's contact with Hashem will be intensified.
No sooner do Avram and his family arrive in Canaan, than a famine drives them to Egypt, from where they are subsequently ejected with much wealth. This wealth leads to a separation between Avram and Lot upon their return to Canaan. Rashi quotes the Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 41:5) that explains the background of the separation: Lot's shepherds led his flocks into others' fields, arguing that, as Avram's only relative, Lot would inherit the land given to Avram by Hashem; they behaved as though the land already belonged to Avram. Avram's shepherds rebuked them for stealing, and Lot and Avram separated.
What ensues is the second stage of Avram's connection to the Land, again embodied in the erecting of an altar:
And Hashem had said to Avram, after Lot separated from him, “Now lift up your eyes and look from the place where you are, northward and southward, and eastward and westward. For all the land that you see, to you will I give it, and to your offspring forever. I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth, so that if one can count the dust of the earth, then your offspring shall also be counted. Arise, therefore, go about in the land, through the length of it and the breadth of it, for to you will I give it.” And Avram pitched his tents and came and dwelt in the groves of Mamre, which are in Chevron, and there he built an altar to Hashem (13:14-18).
Why does this prophecy come after Avram’s and Lot’s separation? Ketav Sofer remarks that Lot's new wealth corrupted him, making him reject Avram's spiritual life. Therefore, as Rashi says, Hashem would not commune with Avram until Lot departed.
Keli Yakar (R. Ephraim Shlomo of Luntshitz, 1550-1619) presents an additional insight into what had happened between Hashem's two prophecies. He insists that the actions of Lot's shepherds were worse than morally questionable; they were based on a flawed premise, because Lot could never inherit the land from Avram.
Keli Yakar notes that Hashem's first promise was “To your offspring I will give this land,” meaning that Avram himself had no portion in it as yet, and Lot, who was not Avram's offspring, had no legal claim to the land. Lot's shepherds must not have consulted with him before taking the flocks into land that belonged to others. Even Lot would not have agreed to this theft (although it must be added that Lot does bear some responsibility for the low moral level of his household).
Only in the second prophecy, coming after the sojourn in Egypt and Lot's departure, does the promise of the land extend to Avram as well: “For all the land that you see, to you will I give it, and to your offspring forever.”
Thus, Hashem waited for Lot to separate from Avram before uttering the second promise, so that Lot would not misunderstand and assume that he had a claim to the land as Avram's heir.
Keli Yakar seems to suggest that Hashem promised the land of Israel to Avram and his descendants in these two stages with the specific purpose of excluding Lot from the land. However, it is possible that something even more far-reaching is at work here.
Note the unusual progression in Hashem's promises: first, the land is destined for Avram's as-yet-unborn descendants, and then for Avram himself. But, this is the opposite of what we should expect. Usually, an inheritance advances from one generation to its successor. Yet here, the inheritance of the land of Israel seems to move backwards in time!
But, the land of Israel is unlike other inheritances. Israel is first assured to future generations, and only then can the current generation see its connection to the Land. This would even be true in the future, when the land would be apportioned among the twelve tribes. According to the Talmud (Bava Batra 117a), the generation of the wilderness would, in a sense, inherit the land from their children, those who would enter the land.
Avram needed to envision the promised land of Israel as the birthright of his promised children before he could picture himself as entitled to it. Avram built first one altar, and then a second, as these Divine promises became real for him.
Unfortunately, too many of us can only imagine our descendants as having a real connection to the land of Israel, but not ourselves. Israel is, for many of us, a dream of a distant future.
But our father Avraham taught us that, when it comes to the Land of Israel, the promise of the future must be just as real in the present.