Upon arrival at Shechem, pursuant to God’s command that he go to a land yet revealed, Avram not only receives the promise of land and progeny, but also enjoys an audience with God. Most classical commentators tend to agree with Rashi that Avram’s subsequent building of an altar is thanks for those dual promises.
Soon thereafter Avram travels to a spot between Beth El and Ai and builds another altar, calling out in God’s name. At this point, I part with Rashi’s condensation of earlier commentary. I don’t think Avram calls out to God because he had a prophecy that his descendants would need his help in Joshua’s time. I’m little more convinced by Nachmanides that Avram may be proselytizing.
When I read the text stripped of commentary I see Avram mixing up correlation and causation. His altar building took place along with the appearance of God at Shechem: perhaps God would appear again if he built one near Beth El. Perhaps when God didn’t appear automatically, Avram felt he needed to ‘call out.’
In fact, God doesn’t appear to Avram for awhile thereafter. Avram travels widely, seems to wander in fact, escapes a famine, goes to Egypt and allows his wife Sarai to be added to Pharaoh’s harem, grows rich in the land of the Nile, is forced out when God plagues the Egyptian royal household, and ends up back where he started but with a domestic fight on his hands.
It seems that Lot’s shepherds are fighting with his. Avram magnanimously offers Lot to go North or South and Avram will go the other to solve the conflict. Lot goes east to Sodom.
Only then does God appear to Avram again and tells him to look in all four directions as all will be the inheritance of his descendants.
Again, I have to part company with the commentaries that suggest that God simply stayed away until the evil Lot was out of the way. I think that God didn’t appear to Avram and promise more land until Avram learned an important lesson.
This is it: God does not show up magically when an altar is built. Ritual is not a magical incantation that moves God’s will. It’s a celebration of those things we are thankful for and a commemoration of those things we remember and mourn.
God shows up and continues the promise of land and progeny after Avram has earned his stripes. Our patriarch has escaped famine, made some egregious errors (Ramban even suggests the lending of his wife to Pharaoh was responsible for his progeny’s later slavery in Egypt), journeyed and showed magnanimity in the face of a potentially ugly conflict.
Only then did he earn the right to hear God’s voice again.
Long story short: Ritual is for AFTER the miracle of life has played itself out for us, not a trigger.
Celebration, not Initiation.
So let’s celebrate the week we’ve weathered.