In This Issue:
Rabbi Josh Kahn
Rabbi Chaim Jachter
One of the more cryptic personalities in Sefer BeReishit is Haran, Avraham Avinu’s brother. The Pesukim do not tell us much about Haran and a few Midrashim include only brief stories. Yet, it is from Haran that David HaMelech was destined to descend (through Lot who had a son, Moav, who had a descendant, Rut who was David HaMelech’s grandmother). What was it about Haran that merited such a great descendant?
The most famous episode of Haran is described by the Midrash (BeReishit Rabbah 38:13) and recounts Haran’s tragic death. After Avraham destroyed the idols of his father, Terach, King Nimrod threw Avraham into a burning furnace. With Divine assistance, Avraham managed to emerge from the furnace unscathed. While Avraham was in the furnace, Haran made a calculated decision that if Avraham miraculously emerged alive, Haran too would believe in God. But if Avraham would die in the furnace, Haran would reject the beliefs that Avraham had espoused. Consequently, when Avraham came out of the furnace, Haran declared his loyalty to Avraham and was then himself thrown into the furnace by Nimrod. But because Haran did not have the same absolute faith in God, he did not merit being saved, as Avraham had. Interestingly, the Matnot Kehunah, a commentary on the Midrash, notes that Haran’s deficiency in Emunah was not in waiting until he saw Avraham return safely from the furnace to declare his belief in Hashem. Rather, when Haran allowed himself to be thrown into the furnace, it was with confidence that Hashem would perform a miracle for him and return him alive. Avraham had no such demands on Hashem, but rather believed that God would deal with the situation appropriately and for the best. This provides two fundamental insights into Emunah and the impact it has on our wishes. Specifically, trust in God means deferring to what He thinks is best, even if that is not what we had in mind. Secondly, as soon as doubt creeps in, we become lacking in complete faith and so become susceptible to natural consequences.
The Sfat Emet suggests that Haran’s merit can be attributed to the Mesirat Nefesh (willingness to sacrifice) he displayed by risking and ultimately losing his life in service of Hashem. Although this episode may be seen as Haran making a safe, calculated decision, the Midrash does not mention others who were willing to do what Haran did. Haran displayed incredible faith in siding with Avraham. However, how does this story relate more specifically to the merit of David HaMelech being a descendant of Haran?
Although Haran may have been confused, the one concept he grasped was the need to attach himself to a Tzaddik such as Avraham. The loyalty that Haran ultimately displayed to his brother, Avraham, was a unique characteristic, especially during those times, to the extent that Haran risked his life to stay loyal to Avraham. This loyalty was passed down to Lot, who traveled with Avraham to Eretz Yisrael, again based on loyalty to Avraham. Lot, like his father, Haran, had a confused sense of loyalty but Lot remained quiet when they went to Egypt and Avraham said Sarah was his sister. This is another example of the loyalty of Lot to Avraham.
Haran’s loyalty was bequeathed to Lot. However, the difference between Avraham and Haran was too significant, leading to the ultimate split that would happen between Avraham and Haran’s son, Lot. The Slonimer Rebbe points out a fundamental difference between Avraham and Lot. When the two split, Lot chose to go to Sedom, the paradigm of physical pleasure, whereas Avraham chose the spiritual path. This description of Lot as confused between the spiritual and physical, began a generation before, with his father Haran. Avraham survived the burning furnace because anything all-spiritual is not consumed by fire. But Haran was killed by the fire as a result of his physical interests. This duality of Haran was shared by Lot.
Ultimately, the descendant who broke the legacy of Haran and Lot was Rut. Rut retained the loyalty of her ancestors, remaining connected to Naomi a descendant of Avraham, much as Haran and Lot were loyal to Avraham. However, Rut was willing to sacrifice everything in order to remain with Naomi. Rut rose to the next level, resulting in her being the progenitor of the royal house of David.
The seeds planted by Haran began to grow with Lot, but ultimately were realized thousands of years later by Rut. It is important for us to focus on both Avraham and Rut, emulating their model of Emunah, and not Haran and Lot’s example of lacking absolute belief.
Noach and Avraham share many distinct attributes. Each of them became the father of a great people, all of humankind in Noach’s case and the Jewish nation in Avraham’s. The linguistic parallels between the Pesukim that describe Noach and those that describe Avraham establish an even deeper connection between them. The Pasuk which describes Noach, “Noach Ish Tzaddik Tamim Hayah BeDorotav Et HaElokim Hithalech Noach,” “Noach was a righteous man, perfect in his generations, Noach walked with God,” (BeReishit 6:9) starkly resembles the Pasuk in which Hashem commands Avraham, “Hithaleich Lifanai VeHyeih Tamim,” “Walk before Me and be perfect” (17:1).
Similar though they may be, certain discrepancies between their actions clearly distinguish the natures of Avraham and Noach.
Noach was the type of man who followed Hashem no matter what; he did not act without being commanded. Conversely, when he lacked directives, he remained motionless, as evidenced by his remaining aboard the Teiva until Hashem commanded him to leave. Noach did not question Hashem’s judgment but rather completely accepted Hashem’s decisions, as the Pesukim indicate by never noting an appeal from Noach to Hashem to save the world.
Avraham, on the other hand, assumes an opposite approach. He does not wait for Hashem to give him a command before taking the initiative. For example, he sets out to rescue Lot before receiving the command. Avraham is also not afraid to question Hashem, doing so on multiple occasions. On one instance, Avraham questions how Hashem intends to make him the father of a great nation as he lacked children. In another instance, he challenges Hashem’s decision to destroy Sedom, pleading until he is forced to concede that the city is corrupt.
The essence of their differences lies in the fact that Noach walked with God while Avraham was to walk before God. Walking with God connotes always being on the same page as God and having no qualms or problems with following Hashem’s commands to the letter. Walking in front of God does not allow for the same trust as walking beside Him, as the person walking in front does not know exactly what is transpiring behind him. Walking in front of God leaves room for questioning and challenging.
Avraham was chosen as the patriarch of the Jewish nation because even though he walked in front of God, he “followed” Hashem just the same. As Bnei Avraham, we must learn from Avraham to follow Hashem’s will, even while we occasionally question that which we do not understand. Through this, we will be able to walk before Hashem and become “Tamim,” perfect.
After defeating the alliance of the four kings and releasing his nephew Lot from captivity, Avram receives a vision from Hashem, who reassures him saying, “Al Tira Avram Anochi Magein Lach Secharecha Harbeih Me’od,” “Fear not, Avram, I am a shield for you; your reward is very great” (BeReishit 15:1). Rashi explains that this vision was necessary because Avram was afraid that during the war he had already received rewards for all his merits and was going to be punished for killing the kings’ armies. Therefore, Hashem gave him a two-part assurance: “Anochi Magein Lach,” “I am a shield for you,” protecting Avram against the punishment that was due to him, and “Secharecha Harbeih Me’od,” “Your reward is very great,” telling Avram that he does not have to fear the depletion of his merits as Hashem still has much reward in store for him.
Rav Moshe Shternbuch, in his Sefer Taam VaDaat, asks why Avram had any reason to be afraid. He fought the war with the good intention of saving his nephew, and as a result he shouldn’t have deserved punishment; he should have gained merits and increased his future reward!
Rav Shternbuch answers that although Avram knew that attempting to save his nephew was a good action, he was afraid he chose the wrong means to do so. Avram could have tried to bribe the four kings to release Lot, which would have saved many lives. However, he chose to fight a war in which he was vastly outnumbered (the Midrash claims that only Avram and Eliezer fought the four kings), so that Hashem would perform a miracle and his victory would demonstrate publicly that everything was dependent upon Hashem. The outcome of the war would influence others to serve Hashem. Nevertheless, Avram was afraid after the war that the reward of Nisim Geluyim, obvious miracles, had depleted too many of his merits in Olam HaZeh. Additionally, he was afraid his reward in Olam HaBa would be diminished as well because the Nisim Geluyim would influence him so much that he would no longer have Bechirah Chofshit, free choice, in a test whether or not he believes in Hashem. After seeing Hashem’s miracles, it wouldn’t be possible for Avram not to believe in Him. Due to Avram’s worries, Hashem reassured him stating, “Anochi Magein Lach” – I will not punish you for asking for Nisim Geluyim, and your merits in Olam HaZeh will remain intact – and “Secharecha Harbeih Me’od” – you will keep your great reward in Olam HaBa even though you have depleted your Bechirah Chofshit.
Rav Shternbuch then quotes the Chafetz Chaim’s explanation of the Pasuk in Kriat Shema that states, “VeAhavta Eit Hashem Elokecha BeChol Levavecha U’VChol Nafshecha U’VChol Me’odecha,” “You shall love Hashem, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your Me’od” (Devarim 6:5). The word Me’od means “very much,” and in this context is usually translated as money, which is something people love very much. The Chafetz Chaim interprets Me’od as something else which people love very much: their spirituality. It is important to be ready to give up even a spiritual sense of accomplishment to love Hashem.
Combining this with Rambam’s view (Sefer HaMitzvot Mitzvat Aseih 3) that influencing others to serve Hashem is included in loving Him, Rav Shternbuch suggests that this is why Avram did not lose Sechar in Olam HaBa. By asking for Nisim Geluyim and diminishing his Bechirah Chofshit, Avram lost a large amount of personal spiritual satisfaction he would have experienced after making the right decision in future tests of Emunah. Now, after seeing the Nisim Geluyim, Avram wouldn’t see it as so great to pass those tests. This should have diminished his Sechar for passing those tests. However, since Avram’s goal in asking for those Nisim Geluyim was to influence others to worship Hashem, which according to Rambam is part of Ahavat Hashem, he received Sechar for sacrificing that spiritual satisfaction to love Hashem. In the vision, Hashem reassured him that that sacrifice had not caused a depletion of his Sechar, and this is why “Secharecha Harbeih Me’od.”
Although we may not be able to reach the level of Avraham Avinu, we must remember that we should be ready to help others in their relationship with Hashem and not just focus on ourselves. Even though it may seem that we are diminishing our own spiritual accomplishments in doing so, our Sechar remains intact, and we fulfill the important Mitzvah of “VeAhavta Eit Hashem Elokecha…BeChol Me’odecha.”
Hashem commands Avraham Avinu, “Lech Lecha MeiArtzecha,” “Go for yourself from your land” (BeReishit 12:1), which, according to Rashi, means that Avraham should leave his land for his own benefit. However, if Hashem told Avraham to leave his land and birthplace for his own benefit, why is this command numbered among Avraham’s ten tests?
The Panim Yafot explains that to fulfill Hashem’s command LiShmah, for Heaven’s sake, is not an easy task; moreover, doing something completely LiShmah is exponentially more difficult if the person who does it benefits directly from his duty. Albeit Hashem told him that Eretz Yisrael will bring him personal benefit, Avraham trekked to Israel with no intentions other than to obey Hashem’s command, a task far harder than simply obeying Hashem’s command. The Torah records that “KaAsher Dibeir Eilav Hashem,” “(Avraham went) as Hashem had spoken to him” (12:4), exemplifying how Avraham’s personal gain played no role in his fulfillment of Hashem’s command and his only goal was to obey Hashem.
Rav Chaim of Volozhin suggests an alternative, though similar, approach based on a teaching of Antignos Ish Socho (Avot 1:3). The Mishnah teaches that one should serve Hashem not out of a desire to be rewarded but rather out of love, yet the Gemara (Sotah 14a) teaches that Moshe Rabbeinu longed to enter Israel in order to fulfill and get reward for the Mitzvot HaTeluyot BaAretz, the commandments that can be fulfilled only in Israel. How can the Mishnah teach thus in light of Moshe’s motive?
Rav Chaim explains that God, as the Ultimate Good, desires to inundate others with His kindness; however, favors are humiliating to the beneficiary if not properly earned. Thus, Hashem created Mitzvot to be fulfilled so He could properly bestow His kindness, and one who ideally performs Mitzvot wants to enable Hashem to fulfill His wish of bestowing kindness upon others. Perhaps Chazal intend this when then state in Pirkei Avot (4:2), “The Reward of a Mitzvah is a Mitzvah,” since allowing Hashem to have pleasure by doing a Mitzvah and obtaining His compassion is a Mitzvah in itself. This ideal Mitzvah-doer would thus not care if his reward went to someone else. Since, however, most of us are not on this level, Antignos felt it necessary to warn us not to serve Hashem as a servant who seeks reward. Only Moshe, who was totally dedicated to Hashem, legitimately could do Mitzvot and receive reward, in order that Hashem’s desire to bestow kindness be satisfied.
Thus, we can understand Avraham’s test. Even though immigrating to Israel was for Avraham’s good, Hashem was testing Avraham whether his motives for fulfilling the Mitzvah were ideal, and Avraham fulfilled the Mitzvah to facilitate Hashem’s wish, or whether Avraham would fulfill the Mitzvah for the enticing materialistic rewards. Avraham passes the test, as the Torah writes, “KaAsher Dibeir Eilav Hashem,” “(Avraham went) as Hashem had spoken to him” (12:4).
Rav Pinchas Horowitz of Frankfurt, the author of the Haflaah, explains that the test was solely about Avraham’s motivation to leave his land. Would Avraham go to Israel because of the material gains, or would he leave to fulfill Hashem’s command? Avraham’s motivation was the latter, as the Torah writes “KaAsher Dibeir Eilav Hashem,” “(Avraham went) as Hashem had spoken to him” (12:1). Acing the test to determine if he was worthy of fathering a nation that will inherit Israel, Avraham disregarded his physical and financial needs and jumped at the opportunity to make Aliyah, as Hashem commanded.
From these three approaches we see about a modulated version of Avraham’s test in our own lives. This test of uprooting himself and moving, the Midrash HaGadol teaches, was the hardest test posed to Avraham, who disregarded financial needs and made Aliyah to fulfill Hashem’s will. Nowadays, we are blessed that Jews control much of the land of Israel, but uprooting oneself and making Aliyah is still a grueling test, as it was in Avraham’s time. Jews, however, belong in Israel. No other nation banished from their native land for two millennia has prayed thrice daily for return or kept the nation’s name the same as the land’s (the etymology of ‘Jews’ is Judea, another name of Israel). One does not have to look far in the Torah to realize that it is Hashem’s will for His children to be in the land He promised to them, Israel. Perhaps after more fully understanding Avraham’s test and that the same test applies today, we, children of Avraham, should strongly consider following in his footsteps.
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