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In this week’s Torah portion of Vayera, perek 20, Avraham goes down to Gerar and there is a confrontation between Avraham, the populace, and Avimelech, the king. In this encounter Avraham, scared, feels he must tell them that Sarah is his sister in order to save his own life.
Unlike when Avraham went down to Egypt because of a famine, and when Yitzchak went to Gerar because of a famine, the Torah does not mention that Avraham went to Gerar because of a famine. Why then did he go there? The Radak says he traveled from there to the Land of Plishtim in order to dwell in every spot that Hashem promised him he would inherit so that he will have acquired every portion of the land. Plishtim was also part of the inheritance, belonging to the tribe of Yehuda as mentioned in Yehoshua 13:3. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
In fact, when they get to Gerar the pasuk says “Avimelech, the king of Gerar sent [soldiers] and took Sarah” (20:2). Rabbeinu Bachye asks, “After Sarah was taken in Egypt to Pharaoh and a great miracle happened, that great blemishes started showing up [on Pharaoh and his palace,] which forced him to return her, then why did he now go down to Gerar, and say she is my sister, is it appropriate to rely on a miracle each time, maybe a miracle won’t happen this time? Rabbeinu Chanannel zt”l writes that now when he came to Gerar, he divorced her because he was afraid that they would kill him if he would say she is his wife. Nevertheless, Hashem didn’t let him be totally separated from her and leave such a righteous woman by a wicked man because it’s not right to let the scepter of the wicked be left on the fate of the righteous. This divorce was under duress, and this is why Hashem told [Avimelech in a dream] that she is married, for it wasn’t a complete divorce.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
Avraham, out of fear for his life not only said what appears to be a white lie, although it did contain an element of truth since Sarah was indeed his niece, the daughter of his brother, so she was like a sister once removed. (See the end of this piece in the Rabbeinu Bachye.) In order to minimize the reliance on a miracle, which there is a rule in Jewish Law that one should not rely on miracles, rather believe they can happen if Hashem wants them to happen, Avraham even divorced his wife. And even though he was motivated by fear, and therefore Hashem didn’t allow the separation to be complete, and Avraham, unbeknownst to himself at the time, but undoubtedly thankful afterwards, was in fact still married to Sarah. Therefore Hashem decided a miracle once again was needed to be performed, to save Sarah’s dignity and life.
Eventually, after Avimelech gave Sarah back to Avraham, he insisted on making a peace treaty with Avraham, and Avraham acquiesced. Later in the next perek the Torah relates, “And Avraham contended with Avimelech about the well of water that the servants of Avimelech had forcibly seized” (Breishis 21:25). The Ralbag learns two lessons from this pasuk (Click here for Hebrew text.):
- It is proper for a person to distance himself as much as possible from any sense of oppression in business and of stealing. We see this from the fact that Avraham rebuked Avimelech even though he was the king, over the robbery that his servants oppressed Avraham with, thinking that it was done under the king’s command.
- A person should be brave-hearted when appropriate and soft of heart when appropriate. For we see that Avraham Avinu was originally afraid of Avimelech and therefore said about Sarah that she was his sister, out of fear of being killed. But now he strengthened himself to claim against the king about the king’s servants oppressing him, so that it will be clear to him that Avimelech did not want anything bad to be done to him since Avimelech was seeking out peace with him.
Fear is an emotional reaction which is inborn and very hard to control and to turn on and off. Even if Avraham was a good actor, it is known that actors go crazy from constantly playing different roles and changing their emotions on a sporadic basis. In reality we can assume Avraham wasn’t acting; so how was he able to control his emotions? What’s even more astounding is that the Ralbag says what he did should be a lesson for everyone to emulate. How can we be expected to control our emotions and be brave-hearted at the appropriate times, and soft-hearted at the appropriate times?
However, if one was to analyze what Avraham did and felt, and the motivations behind them, there is a common thread which binds it all together. That is doing Hashem’s will. Hashem wanted him to go place to place to live in every single spot he would be inheriting. Hashem did not want him to rely on miracles, and Hashem wanted him to admonish unlawful business, violence, and theft.
Therefore there will be times where Hashem will want him to be in a state of natural fear because no one really wants to die, it’s instinctive to want to stay alive. He was also afraid of relying on a miracle to be saved from death, so he felt he had to reduce that threat of relying on a miracle by divorcing his wife, which Avraham thought was Hashem’s will. But when Avimelech’s servants robbed Avraham’s wells he got angry and stood up to King Avimelech because he thought they confiscated them under his direction. If you look closely at the Ralbag he did not “strengthen his heart” because Avimelech’s servants took something away from him, being a personal issue, rather because he felt he had to rebuke the king for allowing or maybe even enforcing such injustice. Avraham understood and felt the detriment of these actions on the world and therefore he knew it was Hashem’s will to stand up to the king whom he previously feared and to set him straight. One would think Avraham would want to appease him since Avimelech was trying to make peace with him. Instead, the right thing to do was to rebuke Avimelech at this point; that is what Avraham calculated was Hashem’s will at that time and he acted in that fashion.
Running one’s life with the attitude of what does Hashem want from me at this moment, what is Hashem’s will right now, is not only an attitude that Avraham could live his life by, but the Ralbag is teaching us that you and I, everyone, has the ability to live every moment of one’s life with the attitude of what is Hashem’s will for me at this moment.
Through living by this attitude, it makes sense that at the right time one can have a brave heart, and at another right time have a soft heart, it is all for the same reason, what is Hashem’s will.