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!


  1. I think you should be calling Nachum האדמו"ר רבי as well.

  2. Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!