Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Sarah the Punisher

Sarah was taken twice - once by Pharaoh and once by Avimelech. Both times the bad guys were punished, but the punishments differ. Pharaoh and his people got hit with "severe plagues" (12:17) [a skin desease which made intimate relations painful - Rashi ad loc.] while Avimelech and his people got "sealed wombs" (20:18). Why the difference?

Now, both times the Torah states that these punishments came by the "word of Sarai/Sarah, the wife of Avraham" (12:17/20:18). The Midrash (quoted by Rashi) explains that an angel came and took orders from Sarah. These terrible punishments were thus chosen and directed by her. Our question is sharpened: Why did Sarah change her tactics?

My chavrusa, R. Avrumi Apt, posed an excellent answer to this question. When Pharaoh took Sarai, she was as yet unable to have children of her own. By taking her away from Avraham, Pharaoh was depriving them of living together as man and wife. Striking back measure for measure, Sarai made relations painful for him. However, by the time Avimelech took Sarah, God's blessing had already taken effect and she was able to conceive (cf. Rashi to 18:8). By taking her away from Avraham, Avimelech was preventing them from having a child together. In response, Sarah sealed up their wombs.

Reb Avrumi's answer is so good, I was determined not to quote it for fear that it would undermine my own. But then I remembered that Avrumi is an avid reader of this blog. Let's move on now to my p'shat.

It's not hard to understand why Sarai made sexual relations painful for the Egyptians. The Midrash (quoted by Rashi) states that the Egyptians were promiscuous. Sarai wanted to help cure them of that, so she made relations painful.

Sarah dealt with Avimelech differently because the Gerarites were different than the Egyptians - they were not promiscuous (cf. Rashi to 20:15). Their problem was more basic; they did not fear God. "Avraham said... 'There is no fear of God in this place'" (20:11). Sarah wanted to help them overcome their problem. How do you instill the fear of God in people? Seal up their wombs! It worked well. "The people were very frightened" (20:8). (See Chizkuni to 20:11.)

This provides a new understanding for what follows. "God remembered Sarah as He had said, and God did for Sarah as He had spoken. Sarah conceived and bore a son unto Avraham in his old age..." (21:1-2). Sarah could be blessed with a child only after she appreciated her barrenness as a vehicle for achieving the fear of God.

Is it any surprise that this child, Yitzchak, grew up to become the exemplar of the God-fearing Jew? (cf. 31:42)

For more on Sarah the Punisher, click here.

Friday, October 26, 2007

The Road Taken

Posted by Benjy Ginsberg
A young man who I study with got married last Thursday. His Shabbos Sheva Brochos was going to take place in my neighborhood, and because he was from out-of-town, he asked me if I would be able find accommodations for some of his guests for Shabbos. Naturally, I agreed, offering to house some guests and trying to find suitable arrangements for the others. I was especially grateful for this Mitzvah of Hachnosas Orchim and its fortuitous timing with Parshas Lech Lecha. My kids had been singing incessantly about the greatness of Hachnosas Orchim ("it’s something we should do"), and I was eager to provide them with a real-life opportunity to see this Mitzvah in action, if only to get a little peace and quiet.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the Mitzvah of Hachnosas Orchim: the guests did not show up. We waited impatiently, peering out the windows, hoping until the last minute before sunset that our guests would arrive. As I walked to Shul that evening, I was feeling a mix of bewilderment and annoyance. Actually, I was pretty steamed. I had spent the entire week running around for this Mitzvah, only to have the rug pulled out from under me. Not even a phone call. I wondered, "How would Avraham Avinu have felt if he had put all of his efforts into the Mitzvah of Hachnosas Orchim, only to never have it fulfilled?" Then it dawned on me: he went through the same thing.

Parshas Vayera opens with Avraham interrupting his visit from G-d to serve as host for three wandering men – angels in disguise. As the Midrash relates, Avraham knew that they were angels – without need for food, water or hospitality – but he was glad just to go through the motions of Hachnosas Orchim. Why would Avraham want to go through the whole hassle of preparing a meal and bringing water, when he knew that it was not really going to be the legitimate Mitzvah of Hachnosas Orchim?

Indeed, the Parsha contains a number of episodes where Avraham exerts himself for a good deed without ever seeing it brought to completion. When the angels take their leave to travel to Sodom, Avraham spends a significant amount of time and energy davening to Hashem to save the wicked city, knowing full well that the city did not have nearly the amount of righteous people it would need for Hashem to save it. And, at the end of the Parsha, Avraham’s Mitzvah to sacrifice his son is aborted before he could finish his task. Granted, Avraham was probably on board with not having to kill his son, but there is definitely a pattern of Avraham’s mitzvos being left incomplete.

All of these episodes of Avraham were, of course, part of the ten trials that G-d used to test Avraham. But they were more than that. Avraham is also showing that sometimes the preparation of a Mitzvah can be just as important as the Mitzvah itself. He is more than happy to run for his guests, pray for men he has never met or travel long distances to show his devotion to G-d. For Avraham, the journey itself is rewarding.

Actually, this had always been Avraham’s ethos, from the time G-d told him, Lech Lecha – "Go for yourself". This commandment was not just about getting to Eretz Yisroel, or just to have Avraham arrive at G-d’s chosen destination. It was also the act of going by itself that would be beneficial for Avraham. It would show his commitment to G-d, his willingness to sacrifice, and it would be the first step towards cementing a relationship with G-d that would lead to the eternal covenant between G-d and Avraham’s children, the Jewish people.

There are certain Mitzvos, then, that have other benefits than just reward in the next world. The preparation, the diligence, the journey to a mitzvah’s completion offer a different kind of compensation, one that has benefits for us everyday.

There’s a Gemara that’s said everyday during Birchos HaTorah, which underscores this concept (paraphrased from Shabbos 127a):

These are the things, the fruit of which man eats in this world, while the principal remains for him for the world to come: honoring one's parents, the practice of loving deeds; early attendance at the Beth Hamidrash; hospitality to wayfarers, visiting the sick, preparing a bride for her wedding; burying the dead; meditation in prayer; and making peace between man and his fellow; while the study of the Torah surpasses them all.

All of these things are tremendous Mitzvos. However, they don’t just earn reward in the Next World, they also produce for the doer in this World. That’s because these Mitzvos build character, teach perspective and create a harmonious world. People that involve themselves with chessed, Torah and prayer don’t just acquire Mitzvos, they become better people. And that is rewarding by itself.

So, guests or no guests, I definitely gained from the preparation. I spent hours devoted to trying to help other people, my kids got into the Mitzvah, and I learned that sometimes Mitzvos have benefits that we don’t see right away. For me, then, the message was clear: An unfulfilled Mitzvah can still be fulfilling.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Between Pharaoh & the King of Sodom

Parshat Lech Lecha began with God's promises to Avraham, one of which was wealth. (It may pale in comparison with the other blessings, but money ain't nothing to sniff at.) Some time later, Avraham finds himself posing as Sari's brother in Egypt (12:13). Thinking that Avraham is his new brother-in-law, Pharaoh showers him with gold, silver, cattle and slaves (12:16). Avraham is more than happy to except these gifts; in fact, this was all part of Avraham's plan! (12:13).

The problem is this: Later in the parsha, Avraham refuses King Bera's legitimate offer of the wealth of Sodom:
“I have lifted my hand [in an oath] to God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth! Not a thread or a shoelace! I will not take anything that was yours. You should not be able to say, ‘It was I who made Avraham rich.’”

What is going on here? Why does Avraham accept money from the King of Egypt but refuse it from the King of Sodom?

The Maharal of Prague asks this question and presents an interesting theory. Avraham will only accept money if he is confident that it is a fulfillment of God's blessing. God's blessing of wealth may very well come through Pharaoh, but it cannot come through the King of Sodom. The King of Sodom's offer is the result of Avraham's battle with the four kings, which was the result of the capture of Avraham's nephew Lot. It is inconceivable that God's blessings would come through tragedy. This is the Maharal's explanation. (I was expecting the Maharal to say that God's blessings can't come through such an evil character like Bera; moreover, I was surprised to hear that God's blessings cannot come through tragedy.)

I would like to suggest two alternative explanations for Avraham's inconsistant behavior. Avraham's stated concern is that the king of Sodom will say, "It was I who made Avraham rich." Avraham does not want anyone to deny the divine source of his blessings. The evil king of Sodom was certainly no believer in Avraham's God of chesed and there was a real concern that he would undermine the kiddush Hashem of Avraham's success. However, there was no such concern about Pharaoh. Pharaoh was a believer. Pharaoh experienced firsthand the miraculous divine intervention that saved Sari (cf. 12:17) and, according to the Midrash, Pharaoh went so far as to hand over his own daughter to join the household of Avraham and Sari. "When he saw the miracles that occured for Sara, he said, 'Better my daughter should be a servant in this home than a master somewhere else'" (Rashi to 16:1). There was no concern that Pharaoh would deny the guiding Hand of divine providence that made Avraham rich.

I arrived at another explanation due to a question posed at the Shabbat table by my son Nachum. When Pharaoh found out that he was lied to and Sari was really Avraham's husband, why didn't he take his money back? Pharaoh only gave Avraham all those gifts because he thought that Avraham was to be his brother-in-law. Now that that was not to be and Pharaoh was quite angry at being tricked why did he allow Avraham to leave with all that ill-gained wealth? I told Nachum that this incident was a huge embarrassment that Pharaoh wanted to end as quickly and quietly as possible. The last thing he needed was Avraham going to the papers. Pharaoh told them to keep the money and then had them immediately escorted out of the country.

Avraham was confident that Pharaoh would never announce that he was the one who made Avraham rich. The King of Egypt didn't need nosey journalists inquiring into the circumstances!

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Where are you coming from?

My dear friend, האדמו"ר רבי חיים מאיר מארגארעטן, had a penetrating insight into Avraham's approach to outreach. Everyone knows that Avraham's tent had four doors, one on each side. This strange design probably made things real cold at night, but it facilitated the welcoming of guests.

Few have given this Midrash much thought. Is it too much to ask a guest to walk around and use the front door? What is the sense of a door on every side of the house? The answer, according to Chaim Mier, is profound.

A pagan stranger encountering Avraham for the first time knew immediately that he had to change. To stand in the shining presence of this angel among men was to feel that your past was one big mistake that needed to be erased. The burning desire to start life anew was overwhelming, but Avraham said no.

Yes, change is good, said Avraham, but don't throw out your past. It is not a mistake; it was given to you by God and it is an integral part of your personal journey. That is the idea of a door on all sides; every point of departure is designed by God to lead to Avraham's tent. You don't need to becoming from a different place - you come from exactly where you are supposed to come from. The past must not (and cannot) be surgically excised.

I would posit that Avraham's picked up this approach from personal experience:
Go for yourself from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father's house, to the land which I will show you.
Bereishit 12:1
The point of departure should never be ignored, forgotten or denied.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Who Was Abraham?

After Creation and the Flood, the Torah quickly gets down to business. With spellbinding detail, the Torah tells us the life story of an exalted and sensitive soul. It is a story of a poor refugee transformed into a prince among men; a story of power and honor; a story of dreams fulfilled, but yet, a story of trials, tragedy, and war. A man who changed the world and serves as a role model and a source of inspiration for Jews to this very day.

It is the life story of God’s beloved Avraham, the exemplar of kindness, the champion of monotheism, and the father of the Jewish People.

Avraham was the first of our three famous forefathers. His son, Yitzchok (Isaac), and Yitchok’s son, Yaakov (Jacob), complete the chain. Each of the Avot has a unique message, and together these messages form the ethical philosophy on which Judaism is founded. But the Avot do not lecture. Actually, they don’t say very much at all. It is only by studying their lives and their behavior as described by the Torah and the Midrash that we discover the principles they lived by. They communicate their message by personifying it.

The first message of the Avot, the guiding principle of our father Avraham, comes across loud and clear. Avraham stood for chesed, selfless giving and kindness. Apparently, the base of the foundation, the bedrock itself, is chesed. It is on chesed that all of Judaism must rest.

Chesed is the extraordinary idea of giving to others even that which they have not earned or do not deserve. This may be “unjust” in the strict sense of the word, but it is still divine. Creating and sustaining the world was a manifestation of God’s benevolence that Avraham recognized, appreciated, and taught, and he made it his mission to internalize and emulate that divine characteristic.

God knew this, but God was not satisfied.

No matter how righteous and spiritually conscious a person may be, as long as you are alive, God will prod you higher. God is always challenging man, and God’s challenges are custom designed. If Avraham recognizes God simply as the Giver, well, what will happen to Avraham’s faith when that perception is thrown into doubt? What if God tells you to go to Israel and when you finally get there, after traveling hundreds of miles, you find that you have arrived just in time for a severe famine (12:10)? What if your barren wife is kidnapped (12:15)? What if your orphaned nephew is taken captive (14:12)? And what if the supposedly loving God commands you to slaughter your own son (22:2)? What if, after everything you have done to educate the world about God’s love, the principle that you stand for is proven false? What do you think of God now?

God tested Avraham’s faith ten times (Mishnah, Avot 5:3), and our father Avraham passed every trial with flying colors. At the end of it all, God declares, “Now I know that you are a God-fearing man” (22:12). Avraham may have connected with the divine attribute of chesed, but He knew that, ultimately, man must submit before the unknowable, infinite God.

Avraham was on a mission to fix the world, and he waged a war against paganism and self-centeredness. He taught people about God (12:8,13:4) and succeeded in gaining a dedicated following (12:5). His open home (18:3-5), his unconditional love for every human being (18:23-33), and his unshakable faith inspired the masses, but there were pockets of resistance. Regimes of cruelty and terror existed, and their dictators were not exactly receptive to Avraham’s message.

The capital of corruption, the ultimate society of evil, was the infamous city of Sodom. “The people of Sodom were very wicked, and they sinned against God” (13:13). We’re not talking about human rights violations; we’re talking about institutionalized evil. Raping visitors was officially mandated (19:5-9; Bereishit Rabba 50) and kindness and charity to the needy was a capital offense, punishable by torture and death (18:21; Talmud, Sanhedrin 109b). Apparently, tourism and welfare were not high on the municipal agenda.

Throughout the twenty-four books of Scripture, Sodom is held up as the archetype society of cruelty, oppression, and sin (cf. Ezekiel 16:48-50; Lamentations 4:6; Isaiah 3:9). Sodom is the absolute antithesis of Avraham.

Avraham’s nephew, Lot, was a citizen of Sodom, and when Sodom was overrun and captured by invading armies, Lot was taken prisoner. Avraham responded immediately. He assembled an armed band of his followers and, with a surprise attack in the dead of night, succeeded in repelling the invaders and rescuing Lot. Sodom is now an occupied city in Avraham’s hands! (14:12-16).

The stage is set for a delightful Divine comedy. The Emperor of Evil, the exiled King of Sodom, who had somehow managed to survive the multiple invasions of his city, now has to face his nemesis. The poor fellow wants his city back. Irony of ironies! The tyrant who was so invested in the philosophy of self-centeredness, the man who believed charity to be a crime, now comes to Avraham asking for chesed! What a moment!

Expecting the worst, the King attempts to negotiate with Avraham: “Give me the people. You can keep the goods” (14:21). Avraham’s response is startling: “I have lifted my hand [in an oath] to God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth! Not a thread or a shoelace! I will not take anything that was yours. You should not be able to say, ‘It was I who made Avraham rich’” (14:22-23).

It is not wealth that Avraham is after. What Avraham wants is to make the most of this opportunity to educate the King of Sodom about the nature of chesed. Chesed can, unfortunately, be distorted by man into a tool for inflating a depressed ego. Man can give charity and then arrogantly claim that he has enriched the poor and saved the world. This is not selflessness; this is self-serving. The matrix of genuine chesed is the awareness that heaven and earth belong to God and everything we have was given to us by God as a free gift. We should recognize and emulate this Divine trait of chesed by selflessly sharing our God-given possessions and our time with others. That was the message of our great father Avraham.