Thursday, November 24, 2011

Avraham's Finest Hour?

I heard a question this past Shabbos that gave me pause. Rabbi Kupfer spoke at Adas Torah on Friday night and he asked as follows.

Why did Avraham wait until his wife died before purchasing the Machpelah Cave? He clearly knew what he wanted (cf. 23:8-9); according to the Midrash he had known for years that the Machpelah Cave was the burial site of Adam and Chavah (cf. Baal HaTurim to 18:7). Wouldn't the responsible thing be to buy it in advance? What would Avraham do if Efron was out of town when Sarah died? In short, why wait?

This is an excellent question that I have never heard anyone ask before.

Rabbi Kupfer explained that the Machpelah Cave was a very sacred site, on the border between Heaven and Earth. Avraham and Sarah would not be worthy of it before Avraham passed the ten tests. He therefore did not buy it before passing the Akeida - which happened to coincide with Sarah's death.

I believe there is a simpler answer.

The Talmud in Sanhedrin (111a) (quoted by Rashi Shemos 6:8) reports Hashem's sharp response when Moshe complained:
What a shame for what is lost and no longer extant! ... I told Avraham "Get up and travel the length and breadth of the land for I will give it to you" (Bereishis 13), [but when] he searched for a burial site for Sara and couldn't find one for less than 400 silver shekels he didn't question me.
According to the Talmud in Baba Basra (16b), even the Satan was impressed:
Master of the World, I have wandered the entire earth and I have not found another like your servant Avraham.You said to him, "Get up and journey through the land, its length and width, for I will give it you..." (13:17). But when he wanted to bury his wife he couldn't find a place to bury her! Yet he didn't question you.
(The Ramban makes reference to this Gemora in his final comments on this episode and, in his commentary to Avos, Rabbeinu Yona counts the burial of Sarah as Avraham's tenth test.) 

This explains why Avraham never bought the Machpelah Cave - it would have demonstrated a lack of faith in Hashem's promise to give him the entire Land of Israel! The very fact that in the end Avraham was forced to pay for it and yet didn't question God was, in the Satan's view at least, Avraham's finest hour.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Out of Egypt: Avraham vs. Lot

This is the first installation of a three-part series on the Biblical roots of Jewish assimilation in exile - and the long-term consequences thereof.

Soon after Avram's arrival in Israel a famine forces him to head for Egypt in search of food. After a brief - and traumatic - stay in Egypt, Avram, Sarai and Lot return to Israel. At this point in the story, it would be fair for us to wonder what effect, if any, their trip had on them. The Torah does not disappoint.
Avram went up from Egypt, he and his wife... and Lot was with him... He journeyed on from the south to Bais El to the original site of his tent between Bais El and Ai, to the site of the first altar that he had made. And Avram called there in the name of Hashem.  (Bereishis 13:1-4)
The Torah goes out of its way to emphasize the fact that Egypt had absolutely no effect on Avraham. Despite exposure to the indulgences and immorality of Egypt, despite the drama in the King's palace and despite his new-found wealth and power, Avraham returns to his humble tent in desert and continues in his mission of teaching monotheism as if nothing happened. His nephew Lot, however, is another story.
Lot raised his eyes and viewed the entire Jordan plain. It was completely fertile - this was before Hashem destroyed Sodom and Amorah - like a garden of Hashem, like the land of Egypt... Lot chose the entire Jordan plain for himself...  (13:10) 
How could the Torah, in the very same breath, compare the region of Sodom and Amorah to both the Garden of Eden and the land of Egypt?! I heard the answer to this question from Lisabeth Kaplan o"h in the Hillel House of UCSC. She explained that the Torah here is not describing reality. It is describing what Lot saw when he "raised his eyes." And after his trip to Egypt, Lot was one confused individual.

Lot missed Egypt. He loved the time he spent there and on his return to Israel he was searching not only for the Garden of God, but for the fleshpot of Egypt too. He wanted both, and when he saw the blessed, fertile plains of Sodom and Amorah he found exactly what he was looking for - or so he thought. Thus did Lot depart from his uncle Avram to meet his doom in Sodom.

Lot's conflicted value system comes to the fore when a mob surrounds his home and demands that he hand over his two guests for sodomy. Lot refuses their demands and valiantly protects his guests - offering the mob his two daughters in their place! (Apparently, Lot learned from Avraham the proper care and treatment of guests, but never learned the wisdom of Jewish parenting, for he left Avraham's home before Avraham had children.) Here we can see the influence of Egyptian promiscuity (cf. Rashi to 12:19) on Lot's behavior. Another example, no less troubling, is Lot's consensual incest with his second daughter (cf. Rashi to 19:33).

Avram's descent into Egypt and his return to Israel foreshadows the future national exile of the Jewish people in Egypt and their subsequent Exodus and return to Israel (cf. Ramban to 12:10). (This is obviously more than a mere literary device. As the Midrash says, "The events of the forefathers are a sign for the descendants.") If we can take this idea one step further, it stands to reason that the diametrically opposed behaviors of Avraham and Lot - behaviors which ultimately tore them apart - parallel divergent attitudes of Jews at the time of the Exodus. Unfortunately, this is indeed the case. Not all the Jews wanted to leave Egypt (cf. Rashi to Shemos 10:22). And even among the Jews who did want to go, there were those who wished to take Egypt with them... but we are getting ahead of ourselves. The second half of our story must wait for Parshas B'shalach.

Sarah the Punisher II

Pharaoh is punished for taking Sarai and the verse says he is punished על דבר שרי אשת אברהם (Bereishis 12:17). Artscroll renders it "because of Sarai," but Rashi quotes a fascinating Midrash that translates the phrase literally: "by the word of Sarai." Hashem sent an angel who did Sarai's bidding. When she said "strike," the angel attacked Pharaoh. (For an explanation of the unusual punishment chosen by Sarai, see this post.)

This Midrash begs the question. Why? Why didn't Hashem just stop Pharaoh directly? Why does He put it into Sarai's hands to mete out Pharaoh's punishment?

The answer can be found between the lines of a Midrash (B.R. 53:6, cited by the Ohr HaChaim to 12:13) which relates our episode to the parsha of Sotah, the suspected adulteress:
Rabbi Yitzchok said, "Hashem said 'If the woman did not adultery and is pure and innocent, she will have a child' (Bamidbar 5:28). This woman [Sarai] entered the house of Pharaoh and the house of Avimelech and left pure - certainly she should be blessed with a child! 
This is an extraordinary Midrash. It understands that a Sotah who turns out to be innocent is rewarded with a child not due to some mysterious power of Sotah water but simply because she withstood the test of being alone with a man. It certainly follows, says the Midrash, that Sarai, who withstood the advances of the King of Egypt, should be blessed with a child. Indeed she was and they named him Yitzchok.

(Not that this was a difficult test for our mother Sarai. She was a Tzadeikes and never entertained the thought, ח"ו. But she is rewarded nonetheless. Just because it's easy doesn't mean it doesn't count. On the contrary, if a test is easy for you, you should get extra credit!)

This explains why Hashem did not stop Pharaoh. To stop Pharaoh would undermine the test that ultimately created Yitzchok. Hashem put it in Sarai's hands. If she wants, she can drop Avraham and become the new Queen of Egypt. Or, if she so chooses, she has an angel at her disposal that will stop Pharaoh in his tracks. The decision is hers.