Parashat Lekh Lekha

Famine in the Land of Canaan – A Test of Abraham
By Jaron Matlow

Our Sages, of blessed memory, stated that God tested Abram ten times to ensure that Abram truly was a righteous person. According to Midrash Tanhuma (Lekh Lekha 5) one of those tests was the famine in the Land of Canaan (Bereshit 12:10). Our midrash further points out that there had never previously been such a famine in the Land.

According to that midrash Abram’s response to this famine is to go down to Egypt, where there is food, despite the fact that he is aware of the character of Egyptians. On arrival in Egypt, Abram becomes aware of his mistake, and prays to God that he not be humiliated because of his plan. Sarai, upon realizing what is happening, shrieks out to God, “Master of the Universe, I used to know nothing. But since Abram said to me that You said to him ‘Lekh Lekha,’ I had faith in Your words. And now I am left by myself here, without my father, mother or husband. Now the wicked will come and treat me vilely.” God answers Sarai and assures her that nothing bad will happen to her. (Tanhuma, ibid.)

What are we to make of this scene? Did Abram pass this test? This is a question that is often asked surrounding the tests of Abram in our parashah and following.

But, regardless of Abram’s success or failure at this test, the reality is that there was a famine in the Land. So, it is important to explore famines in our tradition. We know that a famine comes about because of a protracted drought in a land. This drought lasts such a long time that grain stores become exhausted. In the migratory life that Abram lived, without grain, there was neither bread for people to eat nor grain to feed the animals. With the drought, there would not be water, either. So, all humans and animals would be in extreme jeopardy from such a famine.

We are reading our parashah on the 10th of MarHeshvan this year. The mishnah (Ta’anit 1:4) states that if the 17th of MarHeshvan (one week hence) arrives without rain in the land of Israel, the learned people would begin the practice of fasting during the day on Monday, Thursday and the following Monday. This action would be done to prevent an uncontrollable increase in the price of grain – a panic in the market place (Tractate Ta’anit 12a). Our sages were so sensitive to preventing famine that they would declare public fast days at the very beginning of a drought!

In the rabbinic era, drought was thought to be a way of punishing sinners and fasting was a way to ask God to forgive us for our errors.. This is the basis for the rabbi’s pre-emptive act of declaring this three day fast.

In our day, as in past eras, biblical and rabbinic, it is easy to see the connection between our actions and drought. We read, every day, in the second paragraph of the Sh’ma, (D’varim 11:17) “Adonai‘s anger will flare against you, and God will restrain the heavens, and there will not be rain so that the Land will not give you its produce, and you will be swiftly banished from the great land that Adonai is giving you.” Our failure to follow God’s laws will result in just such a case as happened to Abram and Sarai, that there was a famine that was worse than any they’d ever seen.

In our day, for example, we see that the Horn of Africa is facing a drought similar to what Abram and Sarai experienced, with the United Nations calling this the worst crisis since 1984.[1] The Natural Resources Defense Council makes it very clear that in our day, global warming is a direct cause of drought such as we are currently seeing in Africa.

In our day, it is clear that we are facing a call to action from God as well. We are charged with caring for the planet (Bereshit 1:28 and 2:15). By abusing it in the ways that we do, we are failing in our basic charge from God regarding the planet.

Rather than packing up and moving to a more fertile area, as Abram and Sarai did, our response to this test must be different. This must be seen as a call to action, to use less fossil fuel, waste less, recycle more and engage in the myriad ways of helping the planet. We must also remember those less fortunate than us as well, and be active in feeding the hungry of the planet and helping all have the bounty that we enjoy in our land. May we hear the call, and respond to it so that the entire planet will see 5769 as a year of health, happiness and prosperity, rather than plague, depression and famine.


Jaron Matlow is a rabbinical student at AJR.