Lech Lecha: A Life of Loving – More and More

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06 Nov 2008

Everything about Avraham is love.

Everybody loves Avraham and he loves back.

Consider that only Avraham, in all of Tanach is called by God, ohavi (1), the one who loves Me. In turn, God reflects that loves back:

Ki yedativ, lemaan asher yetzaveh es banav v’es beiso acharav

For I love him, because he commands his children and his household [to follow in Hashem’s path]

Here’s the logic: One who is lovesick can’t really keep it a secret. Love – of something or someone, creates a desire to share that passion. Avraham’s love of God is manifested in his incredible desire to outreach.

Further, Avraham’s real love for people, states midrash Shir Hashirim, forms a major part of his kiruv approach (2):

Rabbi Chunya … Avraham would bring the people into his home, feed them , give them to drink, love them , bring them close, convert them and place them under the wings of the Shechina

Yet even Avraham, chessed entrepreneur, giant of spirit, intellectual titan, man of lofty faith does not escape Chazal’s laser analysis, whose surprising critique of his behavior (on his level) offer us a penetrating insight.

Here’s the background: Melech Sodom (King of Sodom), beneficiary of Avraham’s battle exploits, comes for a handout. First tentative, and then emboldened by Avraham’s generosity (3), he approaches Avraham with a request.

Tein li hanefesh v’harechush kach lach.Give me the souls and the property take for yourself.

Avraham passionately responds by swearing off any benefit from Sodom assets.

V’lo tomar ani he’esharti et Avraham. And you shall not say I made Avraham wealthy.

Everything in life costs, said the Chofetz Chaim, and often the cheapest price is money. Avraham, the paragon of virtue refuses to be indebted to the Sodomite king and his worldview; nor did he not want to touch tainted money, adds Alshich. Was he obliged to return the money? – Surely, not! (4) To the victor (via the mechanism of yeiush or kivush milchama – conquest) goes the spoils! Avraham however was not interested in mere obligation justified; it was Kiddush Hashem, (sanctifying God’s name) that he sought.

Given Avraham’s noble response – what room is there for critique? Here we come to Chazal (5):

R. Abbahu said in R. Eleazar’s name: Why was our Father Abraham punished and his children doomed to Egyptian servitude for two hundred and ten years?… R. Johanan said: Because he prevented men from entering beneath the wings of the Shechinah, as it is written, [And the king of Sodom said it to Abraham,] Give me the persons, and take the goods to thyself.

“Yes, melech Sodom, you may keep the money – but I want the people!” should have been Avraham’s appropriate response. One may wistfully wonder, how many Sodomites could have been inspired under Avraham’s tutelage.

Stop! Avraham, whose whole adult life was one massive outreach effort, who in Rambam’s lexicon, kibeitz alaphim urevavos, gathered thousands and tens of thousands in his MJOP (Mesopatamian Jewish Outreach Program) is criticized for not reaching out?! Is it possible that Avraham overlooked this opportunity?

One plausible answer works for me. I invite other responses.

We must say that Avraham gave up on the people of Sodom- and for good reason. One chapter earlier we are told v’anshei Sodom raim v’chataim l’Hashem meod , the people of Sodom were exceedingly wicked and sinful. Peering into their ignominious end would only seem to confirm the rectitude of Avraham’s suspicions.

And yet, implicit in Chazal’s critique is the rejection of that premise. Ultimately, the Sodom citizenry became unredeemable – but at the right time (after their humbling defeat), with the right person (Avraham) and the right approach (love), they could have been moved. Alas, the window of time passed and they met their terrible end.

On a most basic level, we must learn to not give up on people. Stay with people long enough and they will surprise you with their goodness. In my day to day dealings – I have yet to meet a candidate who would qualify as a Sodomite (although occasionally people do vie for the honor). If they were redeemable, then there is hope for most people. Indeed, the redemptive spirit laden in man is great.

For me, it is Avraham’s ability to grow and learn that is most moving. Consider that a few chapters later:

1. Avraham and Sarah fight over the proper approach towards Yishmael. Avraham refuses to cast him away. Sarah argues and receives Divine approbation. He must go. The midrash teaches that Avraham did not let Yishmael get away and would visit him – always maintaining a warm relationship. In the end, Yishmael turns around and dies a tzaddik. Why? Probably because Avraham refused to let him go.

2. The people of Sodom are to be destroyed. This time, Avraham picks up the mantle and prays hard – negotiating with the Lord in stupendous fashion (achieving an 80% reduction of the terms). Remarkably, even when he walked away an apparent failure, the midrash comments

I have found David My servant (Ps. LXXXIX, 21): where did I find him? In Sodom.

For Avraham’s prayer saved Lot, which ultimately yielded Ruth , the Messianic matriarch

Avraham’s greatness, the one who loves man and God, is that he never stops learning to love more. In the end, Yishmael comes back and the mashiach is born – for redemption of self ultimately leads to redemption of the world.

1. Yeshayahu, 41:8.
2. שיר השירים רבה (וילנא) פרשה א ד”ה ג ר’ יוחנן
ויקח אברם את שרי אשתו ואת לוט בן אחיו ואת כל רכושם אשר רכשו ואת הנפש אשר עשו בחרן והלא אם מתכנשים כל העולם לבראת יתוש אחד אינן יכולים לבראתו, אלא אלו הגרים שגיירו אברהם ושרה, לכך נאמר ואת הנפש אשר עשו בחרן, אמר רבי חוניא אברהם היה מגייר אנשים ושרה הנשים, ומה ת”ל אשר עשו בחרן, מלמד שהיה אברהם אבינו מכניסן לביתו ומאכילן ומשקן ומאהיבן ומקרבן ומגיירן ומכניסן תחת כנפי השכינה, הא למדת שכל המכניס בריה אחת לתוך כנפי השכינה מעלין עליו כאלו הוא בראו ויצרו וריקמו,
3. Cf. Ramban who uses this idea to explain the Torah’s break between Melech Sodom’s approach and his request with the Malkitzedek interlude.
4. Cf. Rashi, 14:20 – Why would Avraham have been permitted to give tithes of his victory to Malki Tzedek? (cf. Chizkuni, Alshich and others that understand that Malki Tzedek gave Avraham – not vice versa for this very reason)
5. Nedarim, 32a

Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.