Sunday, October 31, 2010

Curb Your Enthusiasm?

In Parshas Chayei Sara we have, to all appearances, a classic example of "Hashgacha Pratis," divine providence. Upon arrival in Charan, Eliezer asks God for a sign: He will ask a girl for a drink, and if she offers water to both him and his camels that will be proof positive that she is destined to be the wife of Yitzchok. And then, "even before he finished speaking, and behold! Rivka was coming out..." (24:15).

But yet, things are not as biblical as they seem. Just a few verses earlier the Torah informs us that Eliezer arrived at the well "in the evening, at the time when women go out to draw water" (24:11). Now, had the Author consulted with the good editors at Artscroll, He surely would have left that line out. It kills the story dead! Here we are, trying to tell an inspirational story, the key element of which is the extraordinary timing of Rivka's appearance. Did we really have to mention that Rivka was coming out anyway because it was water drawing time?!

But this is the way of Hashgacha - it is never as extraordinary as people would have it, but that makes it more amazing, not less. Yes, it is true that Rivka was coming out anyway - she always went out to the well at that time of day - but was it just a coincidence that Eliezer happened to arrive at that spot at precisely that moment?

In other words, Hashem orchestrated this encounter before Eliezer prayed for it! By telling us that Eliezer arrived in Charan "at the time when women go out to draw water," the Torah is identifying an event of unilateral Hashgacha. Although it certainly appears as if the timing of Rivka's walk to the well was a divine response to Eliezer's request, his prayer actually had nothing to do with it at all. (Indeed, the Talmud says it was wrong of Eliezer to be looking for signs from Heaven, cf. Taanis 4a.) This is what the Torah means when it says, "...even before he finished speaking, and behold! Rivka was coming out." The meeting was preordained and Eliezer's request was irrelevant. Eliezer could have - and should have - left it to Hashem to guide him to the right girl, just as Avraham promised back in Chevron (cf. 24:7).

The source of Eliezer's problem can be found in his misunderstanding of his master's words. When Eliezer questioned the wisdom of his mission, Avraham tells him that Hashem would send an "angel ahead of him" that would see to his finding the right wife for Yitzchok (24:7). Indeed, the extraordinary timing of Eliezer's arrival was divinely orchestrated. The Midrash says that Eliezer arrived in Charan the same day as his departure from Israel, a distance of approximately a four hundred miles, by way of a miraculous k'fitzas haderech, "jumping the road" (cf. Rashi 24:42). This wormhole was undoubtedly built by the angel referred to by Avraham, and it was designed to bring Eliezer to the well in Charan at the exact moment that Rivka was walking towards it. As Avraham foretold, an angel was a step ahead of Eliezer making all the necessary preparations. But Eliezer didn't understand this. He thought his discovery of Rivka was due to his prayer, and when he tells the story to her parents he quotes Avraham as saying that Hashem will send an "angel with him" (24:40), not "ahead of him" as Avraham had actually said. 

Yes, we must pray for all our needs. And yes, Hashgacha Pratis is happening all around us, all the time. But maybe it's a little presumptuous to think we can always get an accurate read on how God is running His world.

Naive & Proud of it!

Avraham's attempt to save Sodom is noble, inspiring, and sad. Sad not only because he fails, but because he is so far out of touch with reality. Avraham honestly thought there were at least fifty Tzadikim living in Sodom! The greatest outreach professional of all time has no understanding of the reality of the world in which he lives! In short, Avraham is embarrassingly naive - and Hashem loves him for it.

Hashem loves Avraham's naivete, Avraham's innocence, Avraham's instinctive assumption that people are good. Hashem knows how Avraham thinks - כי ידעתיו - and He wants to draw it out of him for all the world to see and emulate. "A person must ask, 'When will my behavior be like the behavior of my forefathers, Avraham, Yitzchok and Yaakov?'" (Tana D'Bei Eliyahu 24). We must strive for naivete.

Avraham has blind faith not only in God, but in man as well. And this is no coincidence.

The man who discovered Hashem by way of the Divine characteristic of Kindness is obviously going to have trouble seeing evil in the humans created in the divine image. This is not a handicap in his outreach work; on the contrary, Avraham's boundless faith in man makes him all the more beloved, inspirational and influential. And this belief in the inherent goodness of the world is what fortifies Avraham with the innocence required to fulfill his ultimate mission - not outreach, but the building of his own eternal family: כי ידעתיו למען אשר יצוה את בניו ואת ביתו אחריו ושמרו דרך השם לעשות צדקה ומשפט.

Naivete may have helped Avraham HaIvri in other ways in his struggle against a corrupt world. In his memoir, Natan Sharansky describes how it helped him:
In retrospect, as I look back on my first days in Lefortovo I am shocked at my own naivete about Soviet justice. On the other hand, perhaps naivete is an essential component for the person who rejects the spiritual slavery of his society and struggles against a powerful regime. Perhaps it guarentees that you won't be frightened to death or paralyzed by fear. Naivete helps draw you into the struggle, where you're able to meet the growing danger head-on, with a firmer resolve.
Fear No Evil, pg. 22
Naivete clearly has its merits, but let us not be naive. It can also be quite dangerous. Back in Parshas Lech Lecha, Avraham battled four kings and won, conquering a broad swath of the country - including the territory of Sodom. In a surprising move, instead of coronating himself as the new King of Israel, Avraham reinstates the evil Bera, the defeated King of Sodom (cf. 14:21-24). According to the Talmud, this was a grave error:
Why was Avraham punished with having his descendants enslaved in Egypt for 210 years? R. Yochanan said, because he prevented people from entering under the wings of the Shechina, [for the King of Sodom said to Avraham], "Give me the people and take the booty for yourself..." (14:21).
Nedarim 32
Had Avraham understood how bad things were in Sodom would he have acted differently? Probably. But then he wouldn't be Avraham - and Hashem loves Avraham.

We do not laugh at Avraham's mistake. No, it is not sad; it is humbling. Even in the evil society of Sodom, there must be fifty Tzadikim. Even if there aren't.