Lech Lecha: The Two Covenants [why do we need both?]

Parshat Lech Lecha includes two covenants (Britot). The first covenant is the Brit Bein Habetarim, in which God tells Abraham to cut 9 animals in half and then the fire of the Divine Presence passes between them. In this covenant God promises Abraham that even though his children will be enslaved for a period of time (in Egypt), God will redeem them, make them as numerous as the stars, and give them the Land of Israel.

The second covenant God makes with Abraham is the Brit Milah – circumcision. In this covenant God reiterates His original promise and says that He will always remain the God of Abraham’s descendants – the Jewish People.

Why did God have to make two covenants with Abraham. Was the first one not sufficient? And why the particular order of the covenants? Why wasn’t the covenant (and commandment) of circumcision done first?


The Brit Bein Habetarim, the first covenant, was created between God and the Jewish nation. In it God promised to enslave and then redeem the Jewish nation and make it as numerous as the stars and give it ownership over the Land of Israel. It was a national covenant.

The Brit Milah, the second covenant, was between God and the individual. It represents an everlasting bond between God and the circumcised Jew.

Each of these covenants is needed, because each plays an integral role in the relationship between the Jewish People and God. The “Jewish People” or the “Children of Israel” consists of two components – the nation and the individual.

A nation provides the individual with a greater social and communal identity. This communal membership gives the individual the opportunity to strive for achievements beyond his personal needs or benefits, that aim to serve, strengthen and improve the community. The destiny of the individual is tied to the destiny of the nation. He takes pride in its achievements and suffers the consequences of its failures. The majority of the Torah’s commandments can only be fulfilled as part of the nation of Israel dwelling within the sovereign borders of the Land of Israel.

At the same time, just being part of the nation is not sufficient. The individual citizen must continue to play an active role in the performance of his duties to the nation, which include the commandments. Just having a national ID card or passport isn’t enough.

But there are times when the individual feels alienated from the nation. And it is in those times, when the national covenant doesn’t resonate with him, that the personal covenant of the Brit Milah comes into play. Because no matter how distant he feels from his Creator and how alienated he feels from his people, the Jew will always be connected to God by his personal covenant, his Brit Milah.

God initially made a national covenant with Abraham, for in an ideal world, the individual plays a fully engaged and fulfilled role within his nation. Then God made a second, personal, covenant with Abraham and his descendants, to remind them that no matter how far they may stray from the Jewish nation and Judaism, they will always retain a personal connection to the Almighty.

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