Lech Licha – Excommunicating Oneself

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Along with taking many students with him to Eretz Canaan, Avraham also took his nephew Lot and pledged to take care of him after his father was thrown into the furnace by Nimrod and burned, with no miracle saving him.

In this week’s Torah portion of Lech Licha on the pasuk of, “And Avram took Sarai his wife and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had acquired, and the souls they had acquired in Haran, and they went to go to the land of Canaan, and they came to the land of Canaan” (Breishis 12:5), the Ralbag learns that one should watch over the wellbeing of his relatives, just as he takes care of himself, for in this way a person will get the help needed from his family. We find this by Avraham, that Lot went wherever he went and whatever Avraham chose for himself, he chose for Lot as well. (Click Here for Hebrew text.)
And yet, after the incident with Pharaoh capturing Sarah when they went down to Egypt during the famine and Pharoah sent them off with great wealth and servant, including his daughter Hagar, to be a maidservant for Sarah, the Torah reports, “And Avram came up from Egypt, he and his wife and all that was his, and Lot with him, to the south. And Avram was very heavy with cattle, with silver, and with gold… And also, Lot, who went with Avram, had flocks and cattle and tents. And the land did not bear them to dwell together, for their possessions were many, and they could not dwell together. And there was a quarrel between the herdsmen of Avram’s cattle and between the herdsmen of Lot’s cattle, and the Canaanites and the Perizzites were then dwelling in the land. And Avram said to Lot, ‘Please let there be no quarrel between me and between you and between my herdsmen and between your herdsmen, for we are kinsmen. Is not all the land before you? Please part from me; if [you go] left, I will go right, and if [you go] right, I will go left’” (Breishis 3:1-9).

The Ralbag learns from here that it is beneficial to distance oneself from arguments and strife as much as possible, for in this way the collective family and country will stay intact. For we see by Avraham, though he tried with all his strength and efforts to keep Lot with him to guide him on the good path as much as possible, however in order so that one would be able to help the other in a time of need, Avraham chose to part ways from Lot in order to distance himself from strife.
Avraham, with all his dedication, love, and kindness – why couldn’t he figure out a way to compromise or resolve any issues that was brewing amongst him, Lot and their herdsman? Couldn’t he then keep everyone together so that he could be a continued positive influence upon them?
The medrish Pesiksa DiRav Kahana (3:3) paints a picture of why Avraham had no choice but to disassociate from Lot. “Why were [the shepherds of Lot and Avraham] quarreling with each other? Because when a person is righteous even his household like him are righteous as well as anyone who clings to him. And when a person is wicked his household like him are wicked.” Avraham Avinu’s shepherds muzzled their flock so that they wouldn’t eat from other people’s property and steal their grass. Lot’s shepherds let their flock graze unmuzzled anyplace in the land. They claimed that the whole land belonged to them anyways because Avraham’s inheritors were promised by Hashem to inherit the Land of Canaan and since Avraham had no children the land would be given to Lot, his closest inheritor. And the reason why you are muzzling your flock is in order so that Lot will inherit weak flock. Avraham’s shepherds contended that right now the land was not theirs, it belonged to the Canaanite nations and they had no right to steal their grass. Hashem in fact proclaimed that Avraham’s shepherds were right, that right now it’s stealing from the Canaanites.

The medrish goes on to record in the name of Rebbe Azaria, “just as there were arguments between the shepherds there were also arguments between Avraham and Lot as it says, ‘may there please not be quarreling between you and I etc.’ Disassociate yourself from me is not written here, rather ‘separate’ (הפרד) just as a mule(פרדה) can’t have children so to my offspring shall not mingle with your offspring.”

The Zera Ephraim, a commentary on this medrish by Rav Ephraim Zalman Margolis, points out that although Chaza”l say that a Jew may marry a female Moabite or Ammonite, who are from Lot, and in fact King David and therefore the line of Moshiach comes from Rus the Moabite, that is only permitted after they convert. This is because it’s as if they were reborn again a new person; but if they don’t convert, a Jew may not marry them since Avraham separated himself from Lot and his offspring. Parenthetically, what’s interesting to note is that if not for this incident a Jew might have been allowed to marry a Moabite or Ammonite because they are cousins to us, according to the Zera Ephraim. The reason why Moabite and Ammonite men may not marry a Jew even after conversion is because of an incident that happened in the desert.

The Zera Ephraim also observes that when Rebbe Azaria describes the fighting amongst the shepherds, as well as Avraham and Lot, he calls it a תחרות, which the Zera Ephraim says refers to the beginning of a fight between two loved ones, and therefore Avraham was afraid as time went on infighting would erupt between them. That is why Avraham pleaded ‘please will we not quarrel;’ meaning, in order that there would not be any fight between you and I, let us please separate etc. Chazal say that the word תחרות originates from a word that means heating up, meaning from the heat of anger comes fighting. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
 It would seem from the Zera Ephraim that not even for an outlandish quarrel did Avraham abolish Lot from his presence, but rather for the beginning of a fight. Avraham must have had the proper inkling that this would just escalate into a full-blown fight, so he severed it at the roots. But why did Avraham not try to make amends? He had a positive influence on thousands of people, certainly his close relative who was like a son to him, he should have been able to get through to and settle whatever problems that had arisen. Didn’t the medrish itself say that when a person is a tzadik then his household and those that cling to him follow in his footsteps and are also righteous? Certainly Lot was part of Avraham’s household and clung to him like a son to a father?!

Perforce, we must say that Lot made an absolute decision to disassociate and disconnect from his uncle and his moral ways. In fact, the “Biur” on this medrish says that Lot was considered evil because he had a desire to be promiscuous, as what came to fruition in the end after Sodom was destroyed. Avraham senses Lot’s psychological disconnect, understood there was really no way to influence him in a positive manner, and knew he was better off severing ties with him completely in order to not escalate any fights and risk being tainted by the character trait of anger. If not for Lot deciding to sever ties with Avraham then Avraham would never have abandoned Lot, which led to Lot being captured and Avraham needing a miracle to save him and then Lot only being saved by the destruction of Sodom because of the merit of Avraham.

We see from here how destructive arguments can be and how important it is to avoid them at all costs, and even someone on the caliber of Avraham Avinu would not be able to get through and influence his own nephew, Lot, since he decided to disconnect from him (similar to a decision that Korach made to seperate himself from Moshe and the people, when he decided to pick a fight, see Chiddushei HaLev Bamidbar page 106, on parshas Korach 16:1, the second shmuz on “Vayikach Korach”.) That is why Avraham had to sever ties in order so that a major argument wouldn’t ensue and escalate.

Lech Licha – A Time to Scoff

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In a prelude to this week’s Torah portion of Lech Licha, the medrish Pirkei DiRebbe Eliezer (chapter 26) depicts Avraham’s abusive childhood, including two out of the ten tests which took place before he was told by Hashem to move to the Land of Canaan. The first test was when Avraham was born; all the government leaders wanted to murder him, and he was hidden underground for 13 years, where he didn’t see the sun or moon. After 13 years he came out speaking Lashon Hakodesh (Hebrew), rejecting and disgusted by any idols or gods, and believing in The Creator, saying “The G-D of Legions, happy is the man who believes in You.” Medrashim say the first realization Avraham had of Hashem was from the age of 3. The second test listed in the Pirkei diRebbe Eliezer was him being thrown in jail by his father for ten years and then being thrown into a fiery furnace by King Nimrod, from which he was saved by Hashem. The Biur Maspik points out that this story is discussed in more detail in Breishis Rabba parsha 38, where it begins with the famed story of Avraham breaking idols as a child, which means, according to the Pirkei diRebbe Eliezer, that he was 13 at the time. (Click here for Hebrew text.)

The Medrish Rabba, as explained by the Matnos Kehuna, says that Terach, Avraham’s father, was an idol maker. One time he stepped out of the shop and left Avraham in charge. A man came in and asked to buy some idols. Avraham asked him how old he was and he either responded he was 50 or 60 years old. Avraham said back, “Woe is to this man who is already 60 years old and wants to bow down to an idol which is only a day old.” The man walked out humiliated. Another time a woman came carrying a big plate of fine flour and she told Avraham, “Take this and give it as a gift to these idols.” Avraham got up, took a staff and broke all the idols besides the biggest one and put the staff in its hand. When his father came back, he asked who did this. Avraham answered, “Why should I deny anything from you? A woman came carrying a tray of flour and told me take this and give it to the gods.” Avraham told his father “I brought it before the idols and this idol said I should eat first, and another one said I want to eat first, the biggest idol got up and smashed all the other idols with this staff.” His father said back, “Why are you mocking and playing around with me, do the idols really know how to think, speak, and move?” Avraham responded to his father, “Are your ears listening to what your mouth is saying?” Terach then took Avraham and brought him to King Nimrod. Nimrod said to Avraham, “If you won’t bow down to these idols then bow to fire.” Avraham said back to Nimrod, “If that is the case then I should bow down to water that could put out fire.” Nimrod said, “So bow down to water!” Avraham retorted, “If so then I should bow down to the clouds that hold the water.” Nimrod responded, “So bow down to the clouds!” Avraham said back, “Then I should bow down to the wind which disperses the clouds.” Nimrod responded, “So bow down to the wind.” Avraham responded, “I might as well bow down to a person who is full of holes and the wind stays inside him,” (which the Matnos Kehuna said would apply to all living things on the ground.) Nimrod lashed back, “You are talking gibberish, I only bow down to fire. I will throw you inside it, and your G-D that you bow down to should save you from it!” The rest is history, Avraham was saved and his brother Haran said “I will follow suite”, but was wishy washy in his belief in Hashem, so Hashem let him walk out alive for sacrificing himself last Kiddush Hashem but he soon died in the hands of Terach because his innards were burnt up for not being totally committed to Hashem, as the Maharz”u explains.  Avraham eventually collected a lot of followers and moved to Eretz Canaan upon Hashem’s command, which is where the beginning of this week’s Torah portion starts. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
Rashi emphasizes that Avraham’s father was very upset that Avraham was making fun of him and joking around. How can Avraham Avinu, the model for the Jewish people, a person of perfection, who passed every test Hashem gave him with flying colors with a 100%, no imperfections, yet in order to prove his devotion to Hashem he used the attribute of leitzanus/scoffing which the Pele Yoetz, in the chapter of leitzanus/scoffing warns about “the known severity of the sin” to the point that they say in the beginning people have much suffering and in the end are totally destroyed because of this trait, and similarly, many types of terrible things are explained by the Holy Rabbis which come about to a scoffer. In fact, Avraham suffered 10 years in prison for making fun of his father and was almost burned to death for joking around with the king, if not for the fact that Hashem saved him. (Click here for Hebrew text.)

How can Avraham have acted in such a despicable matter to his own father who he is obligated to respect, and to a king, who also by definition deserves respect, naturally. Chazal say  Moshe showed respect towards Pharaoh. each time he confronted Pharaoh to let the Jewish people go because of the natural respect a leader of that fashion deserves, whether he is evil or not!? Even if Avraham had a right to rebuke the customers, his father, and the king for their idolatrous ways, why do it in that fashion, which is known to be such a demeaning character flaw? Indeed, why did it not taint, albeit on a microscopic level, the passing of the second test Hashem gave him of being thrown into the fiery furnace?

It must be that using the character trait of scoffing was not an issue, even one iota. And even though he went through suffering and was almost killed, that was not a punishment for the way he acted but cause and effect for that type of behavior and the very fact that Hashem miraculously saved him is in fact the proof that what he did was not wrong in any sort of way.

There are times when a character trait like scoffing is most likely a negative trait, with very severe ramifications. But there are also times when the same trait can and should be used, and is proper to be used, as in this circumstance by such a terrible sin as idolatry. Especially since they are convincing him to give in to the practice as the king tried submitting him to do. It does not matter who the person is, or if you embarrass him in public, such a heinous crime against Hashem deserves tactics of belittling and disrespect, on the contrary by Avraham using such creativity and wit showed his utmost dedication to Hashem and for that reason he passed the test with flying colors.

Lech Licha –

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What Is Love
  Last week’s Torah portion of Noach ended with us being introduced to Avraham Avinu, this week’s portion of Lech Licha begins the story of our forefather and his trek to ultimate greatness. The Mishna in Pirkey Avos says, “Our forefather Avraham was tested with ten trials, and withstood them all; to show the degree of our forefather Avraham’s love [for Hashem]” (Avos 5:3).

There is an argument amongst the early commentators what exactly the ten trials were. Rabbeinu Yona says the ten trials were:

  1. Nimrod threw him into the fiery furnace in Ur Kasdim.
  2. The command to leave his land where he grew up, which he did.
  3. The famine in Eretz Canaan where he wound up. Even though he was promised blessing he did not question what Hashem was doing now.
  4. Sarah Immeinu being taken by Pharaoh in Egypt.
  5. The war of the four kings where he overpowered the enemy with only 318 men. Avraham trusted in Hashem and was provided with a miracle to save himself, Lot, and all the treasures of Sodom and Amorah. He accepted all that happened for his good and merit.
  6. At the age of 99 he had his bris milah, he put himself into danger at an old age and was saved.
  7. Avimelech, King of Plishtim, took Sarah Immeinu.
  8. Yishmael and his mother Hagar were banished from Avraham’s house at the command of Hashem. Even though it hurt him to see what was being done to his son, Avraham still fulfilled the command.
  9. Akeidas Yitzchak, the binding of Yitzchak his son. This was the greatest test and proved he was a big fearer of Hashem.
  10. The burial of Sarah Immeinu. After his wife died he had difficulty finding a burial plot until he bought one for a very expensive price and still he did not question Hashem, though he was promised the entire Land of Caaan to belong to him and future generations.

Rabbeinu Yona says that these ten trials were to show the degree of Avraham Avinu’s love for Hashem which means that these tests showed the world that he was G-d fearing and perfected all his character traits. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
What does fear of Hashem and perfecting his character traits have to do with Avraham Avinu’s love of Hashem? Chaza”l say fear might lead to love but what does it have to do with love itself? And perfecting his character had to do with his own personal development, what does that have to do with Avraham’s feeling of love for Hashem?

If I would prove how much Avraham Avinu loved Hashem I would have mentioned how Avrahaham built  the four alters to bring gifts of offerings up to Hashem. (This, the Sforno in his introduction to the Torah says that in that merit there were 4 alters that the Jewish people merited to build from the time they wandered in the desert until the first Beis HaMikdash was built.) Another expression of love was by teaching tens of thousands of people who Hashem is, by bringing them closer to Hashem and teaching them how to bless Hashem. Or even the very fact that Avraham found Hashem from the age of 3 and kept on developing the close bond with Hashem by performing all His Torah and mitzvos through just looking around the world and  realizing what Hashem wants  him to do, meaning caring for Hashem and His will is also a tremendous expression of love. So why does the Mishna say passing these tests, which the Rabbienu Yonah says shows that Avraham was a G-d fearing Jew and perfecting his character, are what defines his love for Hashem?

What we see from here is that one’s expression of love is really defined by the respect and dedication one has for the loved one. It is not the gifts or sharing the love with others by showing them why it is so worth it to love Hashem. It is not even caring, which is, the focus of one’s love (though all these things contribute and is a part of one’s expression of love). However, by Avraham Avinu showing his utmost fear of Hashem and perfecting his character traits by unwaveringly surmounting all the challenges all while building and cementing a solid belief and trust in Hashem, proves his utmost respect and dedication towards Hashem which really defines true love.

Lech Licha – Blind Faith: A History of the Arab World

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Towards the end of this week’s Torah Portion of Lech Licha Hashem gives a blessing to Yishmael because Avraham, his father, prayed to Hashem that he should receive a blessing; not because he was part of the covenant with Yitzchok, as the Rabbeinu Bachye (17:20) points out based on the pesukim in the Torah: “And regarding Ishmael, I have heard you; behold I have blessed him, and I will make him fruitful, and I will multiply him exceedingly; he will beget twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation. But My covenant I will establish with Yitzchok, whom Sarah will bear to you at this time next year.” (Breishis 17:20, 21).

The Rabbeinu Bachye goes on to explain in more detail the blessing given to Yishmael, and how it came into fruition. “Yishmael had 12 sons who were enumerated by name at the end of the Torah portion of Chaye Sarah. It was written there: ‘The first born of Yshmael was Nevayot, [then came] Kedar, Adabel, Mivasem, Mashma, Domeh, Masa, Chadad, Teimah, Yitur, Nafish, and Kedmah, which equal out to 12.’ The fact that it says he begot 12 princes and not 12 nations is to show us their leadership and the profound greatness which was placed upon them because of the blessing, more so than on other nations, just as Hashem the Blessed One promised:  ‘Behold I will bless him and cause him to multiply very, very much.’ There is another implication to the word ‘princes,’ ‘נשיאים’ in that they disappear from the world after their profound greatness. For it comes from the pasuk, ‘נְשִׂיאִ֣ים וְ֖רוּחַ, Clouds and wind’(Mishlei 25:14), and it is coming to hint that they will be destroyed and lost from the world, like the language of ‘Just as a cloud is consumed and goes away’ (Iyov 7:9). This is also why the word for princes in this pasuk is spelled ‘נְשִׂיאִם֙’ without a yud towards the end of the word. The pasuk is coming to teach you about the kingdom of Yishmael that in the beginning they will be strong and in the end they will be weak. So to the angel said to Hagar ‘And he will be a pere adam’ (Breishis 16:12), meaning he will act amongst people like a barbarian who defeats everyone, and afterwards the hand of everyone will be upon him.”

Yishmael and his descendants were blessed by Hashem, due to Avraham’s merit and prayers, to be great and mighty rulers of enormous multitudes, for a long period of time; but only temporarily. Yet their time seemed not to have come too quickly, as Rabbeinu Bachye writes in the name of Rabbeinu Chananel: “We have seen that this promise was delayed for them by 2,333 years and this delay was not because of their sins, and they were yearning for its fulfillment all these years, and in the end it was fulfilled, and afterwards their empire was strengthened. As for us, whose kingdom was taken away because of our sins, and a time of 1,335 years was set, all the more so we should be yearning for His promise and never give up!”  (Click here for Hebrew text.)

We must put into perspective what Rabbeinu Chananel means, and the lesson he is trying to drive home. It so happens that his calculations are exact, for Avraham and Yishmael had a bris in the year 2047 (on the Jewish calendar) and Yishmael’s reign started in 4374 (622 C.E.) which is the year Mohamad fled Mecca, which started the Arab conquest, ten years before they spread throughout the world (4374-2047=2,337 years which is just 4 years off of Rabbeinu Chananel’s calculation of 2,333).

The 1,335 referenced for the Jewish people is referring to the second to last pasuk of Daniel, where it is discussing the Final Redemption and coming of Moshiach. It writes there: “Fortunate is he who waits and reaches days of one thousand, three hundred, and thirty-five” (Daniel 12:12). What this number means is completely obscured; it definitely does not mean, according to Rabbeinu Chananel, that Moshiach was supposed to come 1,335 years after the time of Daniel, for Daniel lived between 3304-3399 / 457-362 BCE which means, at latest, from Daniel’s death, 362 BCE. 1,335 years later would put it at the year 973 CE, and Rabbeinu Chananel lived from 965 CE until 1055 CE, which would have made him 8 years old at the time. It is evident that he wrote this many years later, and yet still said with confidence that ‘all the more so we Jews should have full trust in Hashem for our reckoning since there is some timetable even though that timetable is totally incomprehensible, and was purposefully written in that fashion.’ In fact, the Metzudas Dovid, many centuries later, said on that pasuk in Daniel: “It says happy is the one who waits for it and will then reach that moment and it then explains what we are hoping for which reaches a certain number but we don’t know what this is referring to (anything of its kind).”

Rabbeinu Chananel is trying to teach us a lesson from Yishmael’s descendants. Just as they knew without a doubt, and had blind faith that Hashem’s blessing and promise to them would one day come to fruition, as it did, all the more so we have to have unyielding trust in Hashem that He will bring the ultimate salvation to his Chosen People. Why should it be so obvious for us? Rabbeinu Chananel says our kingdom was only taken away from us because of our sins so it is up to us to repent and rectify the matter but it is also because we were given a number to look forward to, a sign, and though it is obscure and unknown, it is something to “hang our hats on,” as an impetus to strengthen our trust that His word will come true.

The History of the world is quite vast! It took 1,656 years before Hashem decided to send the flood. Yishmael and his descendants, the Arab world, were steadfast for 2,333 years in their blind faith and trust in Hashem, without any indications of when His promise to them would be fulfilled, and look where they are today!

We not only have that clarity of belief in Hashem, just as they do, but Hashem, out of his love and mercy for us, gave us some hint, albeit a very subtle one, in order to strengthen our yearning, drive for the End of Days and our Salvation.