By Rabbi Avraham
Fischer. A publication of the Orthodox Union in cooperation with the Seymour
J. Abrams Orthodox Union Jerusalem World Center
October 26, 2002
After the cities of the plain were destroyed, Avraham removed
himself to the Negev. Finding himself in the Philistine city of Gerar, he
fears for his life, as he once did in Egypt (Bereishit 12:10-20), and says
that Sarah is his sister. The king of Gerar, Avimelech, takes Sarah, but
before he comes near her, G-d warns him (in a dream) that he will die if he
does not return Avraham’s wife.
And Avimelech arose early in the morning and he summoned all his
servants, and he spoke all these matters in their ears. And the people were very
fearful (VAYIRU). And Avimelech summoned Avraham and said to him, “What have you
done to us? And how have I sinned against you that you brought a great sin upon
me and upon my kingdom? You have done with me things that are not done!” And
Avimelech said to Avraham, “What did you see that you did this thing?” And
Avraham said, “Because I said, ‘However (RAK), there is no fear of G-d (YIRAT
ELO-HIM) in this place, and they might kill me because of my wife.’ Furthermore,
she is in fact my sister: she is my father’s daughter, although not my mother’s
daughter; and she became my wife. And it was, when ELO-HIM made me wander (HIT’U
OTI) from my father’s house, I said to her, ‘This will be your kindness that you
will do with me: everywhere we come, say of me, He is my brother’” (20:8-13).
Unlike Rashi, Ramban and Chizkuni (R. Chizkiya ben Manoach, mid 13th Century)
argue that Avraham’s suspicions regarding the sinfulness of the Gerarites were
unfounded: They were innocent, G-d-fearing people, and the king would never have
taken Sarah had Avraham not offered the misleading information first.
In the course of his explanation, Avraham speaks of his wanderings, when he
might encounter many people of questionable ethics:
And it was, when ELO-HIM made me wander (HIT’U OTI) from my father’s house . . .
The words HIT’U OTI ELO-HIM pose particular problems of translation:
• Does ELO-HIM refer to G-d? If so, why is the verb HIT’U in the plural?
• Perhaps ELO-HIM should be understood, as it sometimes is, as “judges,
• Or, could our Patriarch Avraham be referring to Avimelech’s “gods”?!
• What difference, if any, is there between HIT’U, the causative form of the
root (???), TAV-AYIN-HEI, and the root (???), TET-AYIN-HEI, which means “to
• Could Avraham be imputing, before Avimelech, that G-d led him astray?
As R. Chanin, declares in exasperation in Bereishit Rabbah (52:11):
If only we could expound this verse in three ways, and [perforce] fulfill our
duty [to find the truth]!
The majority view of our Sages is that ELO-HIM refers to G-d (Shavuot 35b), and
so does Rambam rule (Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 6:9). In order to accommodate the
plural verb, however, the sentence is parsed differently and the verb is
connected with “error” (???):
They [the nations] would have led me astray, had it not been for
G-d . . . (Sofrim 4:6; Yerushalmi Megillah 1:9).
Onkelos also punctuates and interpolates differently:
When the nations strayed after the works of their hands, and G-d
drew me near to His worship . . .
But Rashi considers this too removed from the plain meaning.
Rashi agrees that ELO-HIM means G-d, and then defends the use of the plural verb
by showing examples elsewhere (e.g., Shmuel II 7:23). Rashi further argues that
HIT’U OTI has nothing to do with error:
And it was, when G-d made me wander (???) . . .
Those who concur with Rashi’s explantion include Saadiah Gaon
(882-942), Rashbam and Ibn-Ezra.
Nonetheless, there is a minority view among the Sages that ELO-HIM here is not
holy (Sofrim and Yerushalmi Megillah, loc. cit.). Consequently, there is room
for other translations.
Chizkuni says ELO-HIM refers to Nimrod and his cohorts, the “judges” of the land
who challenged Avraham and forced him into exile.
Sforno (R. Ovadia ben Yaakov Sforno, c. 1470-c.1550) renders ELO-HIM as “the
gods,” but renders Avraham’s explanation in ideological terms:
And it was, when the “gods” [which I rejected] caused me to roam . . .
Radak (R. David Kimchi, c. 1160-c. 1235), like Rashi, insists that Avraham is
thinking about G-d when he describes his wanderings, and even cites additional
verses to defend the use of the plural verb (e.g., Tehillim 149:2). However,
Avraham purposely uses the name ELO-HIM and the plural form of the verb because
Avimelech would be thinking of his “gods.”
[This is particularly surprising in view of the fact that the One G-d spoke to
Avimelech in a dream the night before, and Avimelech even addressed Him
directly, in a manner strikingly similar to that used by Avraham himself in
arguing for the people of Sodom. Compare:
And (Avimelech) said, “L-rd (ADO-NOI)! Will You even kill a
righteous nation?” (verse 4)
And (Avraham) said, “Will You even destroy the righteous with
the wicked?” (18:23).]
Similarly, Haamek Davar (R. Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, 1817-1893) argues that
the word ELO-HIM can be sacred and profane simultaneously! He explains: Since
the nations of the world worship their gods, G-d commanded Avraham to wander
from place to place and teach them the truth.
Hirsch (Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, 1808-1888) agrees to this double
entendre, and adds a rationale for Avraham’s and Sarah’s deception:
Perhaps also, through his known opposition to heathenism it was more dangerous
for him than for anybody else not to acquiesce to any objectionable custom
sanctified by heathenism and this made it more imperative for him to impose this
Again, the bitter irony is that, in Gerar, Avraham has chanced
upon the first place that this rule was uncalled-for.
We might have thought that this is not a shining moment for Avraham. Actually,
the opposite is true: Unbeknownst to Avraham, some people have progressed from
“the gods” to “G-d.” Avraham’s success in spreading the word of G-d has been
greater than even he knows.
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"Abraham arose early in the morning...on the third day, Abraham raised his
eyes and percieved the place from afar"
A journey from Hevron to Yerushalayim should take no more than a days
walk, why did it drag on for three days. What happened to the journey that
started with such eagerness?!
The Midrash accounts for this discrepancy,
describing impediments such as great rivers that tried to block Avraham's
progress. But Avraham is not deterred. He knows that even if the mission
seems impossible, even if conditions are telling him to turn around and
try on another day, even if in the deepest corners of his heart he is
hoping for some miracle to get him out of this daunting assignment, he
must press on.
How does Avraham find the strength? He has a secret
weapon! Avraham was able to lift his eye and see!
"Abraham raised his eyes and percieved the place
from afar" He senses the holiness of Har Hashem from afar, and knows...
The message is simple and powerful. Our destiny is not easy to accomplish.
For a Jew, living in material comfort, the thought of embarking on a
permanent journey towards Eretz Yisrael may seem daunting and unrealistic.
The turmoil and upheavals of Aliyah provide "wonderful" excuses for
delaying Aliyah by just another day, just another year, just another...
We must turn to our secret weapon, hidden deep within every Jewish soul.
The ability to feel the holiness of Eretz Yisrael from afar, to awaken
that yearning that motivates you to cross the great river! So wake up Am
Yisrael, wake up early and pack your bags. It is time to embark on the
Rabbi David Marcus, Efrat