The Covenant of the Pieces: G-d's promise to Avram and the Jewish people

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

The Jewish community have just finished reading the sedra (biblical portion) of Noah (Genesis 6:9-11.32). The sedra finishes with the story of the Tower of Babel. This story is worth telling again, as it is especially relevant to our own day.

According to the Bible, at that time all the nations of the earth were concentrated in Babylon (modern Iraq). They all spoke the same language and were 'of common purpose.' In Babylon, they came together in a central location, close to the seat of both 'Church' and 'State'.

But, instead of being content with G-d's beneficence (the wonderful Garden of Eden with its life-enhancing trees and flowers were situated close-by), the powers-that-be, both secular and religious, turned instead to their opportunities for self-aggrandizement.

Even though G-d had already brought the great Flood to warn them of their folly, the powers-that-be nevertheless deceive themselves by rationalizing their intent to by-pass G-d and take control of events. Yes, such is the human capacity for self-deception that we human beings are capable of negating reality and building up substance around a vacuum.

The biblical powers-that-be therefore, concentrated in Babylon, and thinking themselves infallible, plan to construct a striking, iconic edifice, ascending to Heaven, in order to 'make a statement'. They reckon that Floods are one-time events and that they are now free to do as they please. They tell themselves that there is no such thing as 'Divine Intervention.'

The Bible describes how G-d 'comes down' to inspect the Tower (the Hebrew for which – migdol - can also be translated as 'delusions of grandeur'). G-d is rather like the inspector in a planning inquiry. He looks at the matter from every angle, giving every facet the benefit of the doubt. He is trained to weigh everything up. And then He makes His decision.

And G-d's decision is final. He decides that the edifice is not being built for the betterment of humanity, nor does it fit in with His already-existing green environment. G-d isn't naïve. He sees the construction project for what it is. It is simply a vanity project by insecure egos who want to leave their stamp on things, to the detriment of everyone else.

Moreover, G-d also ses that behind the fine words of the proposers of this 'iconic' and 'striking' construction lies the desire to turn the people's covenant with G-d into a centralizing force, allowing those who wield authority to concentrate power purely on one focused project.

The government turns covenant into tyranny. They transform the instinct to build into a gigantic mobilization operation, the like of which is not to be seen again until the 20th century. The population become passive pawns in the game, manipulated into one sole project – the construction to end all constructions - a gigantic Tower to the false god, Bel. This Tower would achieve the three goals of the powers-that-be: to storm Heaven, to dominate the landscape, and to achieve 100% control over G-d's creation.

Jewish commentary portrays the Tower of Babel project as pure totalitarianism: conscripting everybody to labour, imposing exaggerated quotas for construction, and mercilessly punishing failure in order to meet the requirements of the mighty. The only way to stop totalitarianism – the sort that leads to Nazi Germany and the Shoah, (which Hitler justified by populist road schemes 'for the greater good) is what we now call the 'Separation of Powers.'

And the UK's model is widely admired all over the world.

In fact, my father, a Holocaust survivor from Poland, who had also been a judge in Warsaw, taught me the importance of such a separation from early childhood. He maintained that it was this adherence to the concept of separation of powers that had saved the UK from Hitler's tyranny, when other countries succumbed or were laid low.

Being against even the vestiges of a totalitarianism that runs counter to the concept of covenantal love, G-d takes drastic action against the perpetrators of the project, and decides to 'scatter them over the face of the entire earth' (thus reminding us of the chaos that existed before G-d's creation).

G-d also decides to confuse the common language of humanity, and names the delusional construction 'Bab-el' (the house of the false god). G-d has recognized how easy it is for unity of common to turn into totalitarianism and for commonsense to be taken over by fantasy. And the upshot of such a mindset is disunity, confusion, discord and strife.

As a result of this potentially catastrophic incident, G-d now turns to the Jewish people and their allotted role in His scheme. With the birth of Avram, G-d begins anew, and concludes that the world doesn't understand the meaning of His purpose.

Therefore G-d decides to choose one family in order to enter into a covenant with them. He chooses Avram whose name means 'Father of Aram'. Avram has to undergo a number of trials before he becomes known as Avraham (father of nations). Avram begins as the leader of his own community, but ultimately he becomes father-teacher of the whole world.

That is where we ended on Shabbat, and now we start the sedra of Lech-Lecha (Genesis 12:1-17:27). Jewish teaching tells us that Avram was chosen to come into covenant with G-d because he had smashed the idols of his father. Avram was punished for this kind of 'blasphemy' by Nimrod who had also been the prime mover behind the Tower of Babel. Nimrod flings Avram into a fiery furnace.

But Avram emerges unscathed from the scorching flames. This is what happens to courageous people who dare to question the fantasies of the over-ambitious - they tend to undergo a 'baptism of fire' in fact. And through this baptism of fire, Avram emerges not only unscathed but reborn.

G-d now tells Abram to leave his present situation: 'Go for yourself away from your land, away from your relatives and away from your father's home to the Land which I will show you.'

The Bible thus begins a new birth of humanity that will end with the Jews demonstrating how to live a good life dedicated to G-d's work before entering the Land designated for them. This is the meaning of G-d's covenantal love for Avram.

Incidentally, it may be of interest to note that Avram was reputed to have been born 1948 years after the Creation of the World, and the State of Israel was established three years after the end of the Shoah, in 1948. Much has been made of this seeming serendipity by Holocaust survivors, Holocaust survivor families and Jewish scholars alike.

In the year 2,000 BCE, that is over 2,000 years ago, and 2,000 years before the birth of Jesus, Avram and his wife Sarai start to influence those around them to believe in the One G-d. Their own hospitable behaviour towards those around them lead others to want to be like them. This is what has drawn others to Judaism ever since.

With the emergence of Avram and Sarai, the Era of Desolation comes to an end and the Era of Torah begins.

But Avram and Sarai have to earn this privilege for themselves and their offspring. Avram demonstrates his worthiness by undergoing 10 tests of faith, as stated in the popular Mishna, Pirke Avot, which we read as part of our prayer service.

Avram had already passed two of these tests: emerging unscathed from the fiery furnace, and agreeing to leave his country of birth, his community and his home – i.e. the very things to which he was most attached.

What is a test of faith? A test of faith forces us to choose between G-d's will and our own nature. Avram epitomizes kindness, so to desert father and homeland, and later to be ready to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac, are the supreme test of faith for someone like Avram.

Avram has to subordinate his own cherished wishes and wisdom and to demonstrate this trait to the wider world. In doing so, he becomes stronger in himself and translates his potential into actions that have a beneficial effect on others – a bit like a pebble causing ripples on a stream.

G-d makes His own covenantal commitment to Avram. He will be his shield (magen) forever. And this commitment features in the daily Jewish Amidah prayer: the G-d of Abraham, the G-d of Isaac and the G-d of Jacob is and will always be 'our helper, savior and shield.'

The inner spark of Avram's heritage will never be extinguished from the Jewish people. Because, as G-d reiterates in Genesis 15:

'I am the L-rd your G-d Who brought you out of Ur Kasdim [Ur of the Chaldees] to give you this Land to inherit it.' Avram asks G-d to explain what he means by this promise. So G-d tells him to take a heifer, she-goat and ram, all aged 3, as well as a turtle dove and a young pigeon.

In a ceremony known as 'The Covenant of the Pieces', Avram divides the animals in the middle, but not the birds. 'And the birds of prey came down upon the carcasses and Avram drove them away.'

Avram falls asleep and after sun-down it becomes very dark. And the Lord makes a covenant with Avram, telling him that 'Be absolutely certain that your descendants will be a stranger in a strange land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them 400 years.'

So here G-d tells the 1st Jewish patriarch that the Jewish people will be slaves in Egypt, as we find out in the Book of Exodus. We Jews commemorate the 'Covenant of the Pieces' at the spring festival of Pesach and at the late spring festival of Shavuot, as the first of the 10 Commandments given at Sinai, where G-d tells the people: 'I am the Lord your G-d who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.'

So essentially Jewish is the Covenant of the Parts, the festival of Pesach and the giving of the Torah of Sinai at the festival of Shavuot, that until recently noone questioned this even for a moment.

But there have been recent attempts by some to follow the anti-Semitic teachings of Martin Luther, who expunged the second part of that Commandment, thus declaring that G-d was static and universal, with no attachment at all to the Jewish community which He Himself liberated from the totalitarian servitude forced on them by the Egyptians. Here is what a group of contemporary Lutherans have to say about how Luther led to Hitler.

And as we now know, when the Germans and Austrians forced Jews out of their synagogues not so long ago and made them scrub the streets on their knees, sadly many of them stated that they were merely following in Luther's footsteps and doing his bidding as founder of the Protestant religion.

I say this because at the recent planning inquiry into the construction of a monstrous tower in the image of Babel, the architects stated that the Covenant of the Pieces was not at all about Judaism.

They also added for good measure that the Jewish symbol, the Magen David, G-d's promise to shield Avram and the Jewish people forever (embodied since ancient times in our Jewish prayer books), was 'not important enough' for such a trophy (sorry I mean iconic) edifice to 'make a statement'. Therefore, instead of the beautiful and harmonious Star of David, they had decided to impose a ghastly construction of their own, which had already been tried in at least one other location and had failed to make the grade there.

But isn't their dismissal of the Magen David Adom (symbol of the Israeli ambulance service) rather strange, to say the least? For, only a few days ago, in order to atone for their sin of the Holocaust, the German city of Cologne painted their trams with the very same Magen David, that eternal and recognizable symbol of Judaism and Jewish hope, rejected by London power, in order to commemorate 1,700 years of the written record of Jewish life in Germany (which actually dated from Roman times).

The powers that be want to impose an unwanted carbuncle, dedicated 'to the memory of the Holocaust' on a Grade 2 Heritage Site, to the dismay of all residents and park-users in the area.

And like the implacable powers of old, both Church and State appear to be impervious to the destruction of the environment and the huge threat to life and limb which this will entail, not to mention that they are hijacking the Holocaust for their own sinister purposes.

Frankly, my parents would turn in their graves at the prospect.

As we learn from the story of the Flood and the Tower of Babel, listening to reason is simply not in the make-up of people who have reached this state of unfettered ambition. And so, once again, we will have to rely on the famous common sense of the English, and the fact that up until now at least (and long may it last) there still exists in this 'green and pleasant land' something called 'the Separation of Powers.'

A state of affairs which, according to the Bible, G-d Himself ordained more than 4,000 years ago.

Dr Irene Lancaster is a Jewish academic, author and translator who has established university courses on Jewish history, Jewish studies and the Hebrew Bible. She trained as a teacher in modern Languages and Religious Education.