Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Eminently Reasonable Avram

This week's Parasha begins the story of the travels, trials and tribulations of our forefather Avram (later Avraham). One of the most remarkable things about Avram is his attitude toward the Divine promises conveyed to him. Hashem tells him that he will be blessed and will achieve fame and fortune. Yet, when he departs from his homeland, we read:

And Abram took his wife Sarai, and his nephew Lot, and all of the wealth they had amassed, and all of the servants they had acquired in Haran; and they set out to go to the land of Canaan, and they arrived at the land of Canaan.

Ralbag, in his commentary to this verse, makes an interesting observation about Avram's conduct. Despite the promises he received from God, Avram is careful to bring all of his possessions with him. He does not leave home empty handed. Ralbag indicates that this is one of the key lessons we derive from this story. We must wonder - why is this so important?

We should note that this is not the only evidence of Avram's practicality. When a famine takes hold in the Land of Canaan, rather than wait for miraculous sustenance from Hashem - who, after all, told him to go to the Land in the first place - he immediately travels to Egypt to procure food.

When he approaches Egypt, Avram again demonstrates strategic thinking. Although Hashem has promised him manifold blessings, he is concerned about the possibility that the Egyptians might murder him and take his wife. So he asks Sarai to pose as his sister to avoid any such calamity. Apparently, Hashem's assurances did not cause Avram to develop a fantasy of invincibility. He still felt the need to protect himself at all costs.

All of these aspects of Avram's behavior revolve around the principle that the Ralbag highlighted; namely, Avram's pragmatism. Upon reflection, we can see why this characteristic is so important. Religious visionaries tend to be idealistic crackpots who believe God is with them no matter what and who pay little attention to the practical details of life. Because they feel they have been appointed by God for a special purpose, they exempt themselves from having to be concerned about their welfare and simply trust in Providence.

Avram stands in stark contrast to this image of the religious personality. He certainly responds to the call of God and leaves his birthplace. However, throughout his journey, Avram assumes as a matter of course that God expects him to behave in the most prudent way possible. Avram's God is a God of wisdom. He demands that His worshipers exercise their reasoning and intelligence to the fullest extent possible in all that they do; then, and only then, does Hashem intervene to assist them.

Of course, some of the factors that were crucial to Avram's success lay outside of the sphere of human influence. He had to depend upon God to arrange these matters in a way that would be favorable to him and his cause. However, Avram understood that the effects of Divine Providence are always contigent on the actions of its (potential) recipients. If those actions are not guided by wisdom and forethought, then the impact of Providence may never be felt.

Consider the following application: If Hashem promises us one million dollars and we already have 500K in the bank, we should not liquidate our account and wait for a million dollar check to arrive in the mail. God may be expecting us to use our minds to identify and pursue an investment opportunity with the 500K - and this may be how He plans on fulfilling His commitment. If we squander our resources in foolish anticipation of a miracle, we will lose out on the chance to benefit from God's blessing.

In the same way, regardless of his conviction in the promises of the Almighty, Avram displayed a consistently reasonable, cautious and strategic approach to handling the exigencies of life. His wise decisions to descend to Egypt and misrepresent his relationship with Sarai wound up gaining him the attention of the Pharaoh and his court. When he finally left Egypt, he did so as a wealthy celebrity - he was now acknowledged 'internationally' as a very special individual. Achieving this measure of fame and fortune enabled Avram to more effectively spread knowledge of God in the world.

When Avram made his choices, he had no idea that this would be the outcome. In retrospect, though, we see the effects his behavior had on his eventual success. Had he not opted to pursue the most prudent course of action to begin with, he would not have been in the right place at the right time for Providence to bless him.

We see from all of this that Avram was by no means a religious fanatic. He was a man of impeccable wisdom and foresight. And as the first Patriarch of the Jewish people, Avram serves as the ultimate example of a true man of God. He embodies the Torah's standard of human perfection.

It is worth mentioning one way in which this story has tremendous relevance for today. Many Jews anxiously await the arrival of the Mashiah and the fulfillment of Hashem's promise to redeem us from exile. In reality, though, the keys to the final redemption lie in our hands, not His. Hashem has assured us that, once we prepare the way for salvation, He will take care of all of the loose ends. But the process is one that it is our responsibility to initiate.


Yehuda said...

You beautifully brought out Avraham's pragmatism as one of the central themes in the story of his life.

It sets up a striking contrast with the "Akeida". The ultimate man of pragmatism now heeds the call of prophecy. I believe Ralbag points out (I can't check right now) that the Akeida is a proof for the clarity and certainty with which a prophet receives his nevua - otherwise Avraham would not do this distasteful activity. Your point would further Ralbag's proof - even this ultimately pragmatic man follows G's call to sacrifice his only son.

BTW, if you have a chance check out my latest post.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

Yehuda, I am especially interested in hearing your thoughts on the chronology/genealogy post (and comments) from last week. Please take a look at them when you find the time.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

I remember the Ralbag on the Akedah to which you refer.

Yehuda said...

I did read the genealogy post and it is a topic I thought a lot about - I really like your approach.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

To be honest, the more research I do, the more it becomes clear to me that this is not "my" approach. While I haven't seen or heard it discussed much in Orthodox Jewish circles, there are definitely Biblical scholars out there who maintain this view.

dilbert said...

However, this 'practical' approach, while praiseworthy, does have real life consequences. By asking Sara to say she is his sister, Avraham brings on a different set of possible consequences, which could have been as dire as the ones avoided by the ruse. Also, a sister does not usually share a future with a brother, while a wife does. This apparent willingness to jettison Sara(even if only as a ruse and for a practical purpose) does seem a little troubling, and may be the instigation for the episodes with Hagar(after all, according to the midrash, Hagar was picked up on one of the trips to Eygpt). Maybe a bit more faith in Hashem and Sara would have been a better way to go. After all, useful pragmatism has to end when it encroaches on unassailable ideals.

Anonymous said...

Chatam Sofer in the last Tshuva Chelek Orach Chaim addressed to Maharatz Chajes, explains why we say in Zichronot veakedat Yitzchak lezare'o shel Yakov tizkor what about avraham in this interplay? Isn't he one who sacrificed too?
Imagine thisnold father gets up in the morning and anounces to his 30 tear old son that he had a dream. i have to kill you. Any normal person would have reacted that the old man lost his marbles. The fact yitzchak accepted that Avraham was a navi, that made him the greater hero.

yehuda's comment brought this to mind

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...


The Rambam, of course, would disagree with that interpretation. According to his son Avraham, he vehemently rejected the Midrash about Yitschak being 37 years old at the Aqedah.

Anonymous said...

Never mind the age, the concept is based on moreh 3:24 where he explains two reasons for the akedah - see the second one.

Shabbat Shalom.

dilbert said...

I came across the Ramban who says that Avraham chata chata'a gedola b'shegaga by asking Sarah to say that she was his sister. In addition(I think it was the Ramban) the comparison between Avraham and Ya'akov, where Ya'akov waits in the land for two years while the famine is raging before even thinking of getting wheat from Eypgt, while Avraham high tails it to Eygpt at the first sign of famine(or so it seems) right after Hashem tells him 'lech lecha.' In fact, it is suggested that shibud Mitzrayim is a punishment for Avraham's too willing relinquishment of the land. So while pragmatism is certainly to be admired, it has to be balanced by faith in Hashem, and it seems that Avraham may have fallen too far to the pragmatic side.

What do you think?

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

Dilbert, you are correct that this is Ramban's approach. My post reflects the view of the majority of rishonim and aharonim who see Avraham's behavior as appropriate.

They note, for example, that Yitschaq engages in similar subterfuge, and has to be commanded not to descend to Egypt - implying that, otherwise, he too would have gone. It seems clear that the Avot did not perceive these choices as mistakes, but as practical strategies.

In his shiurim on Sefer Beresheet, Rabbi Yoel bin Nun also argues against the Ramban's position. He points out that, at the time Avraham descended into Egypt, he had not yet been told that the Land of Israel would become his.

As far as he knew, the land would only be occupied by his descendants. Avraham had been commanded to travel to the land, and he fulfilled that commandment. There was nothing in his prophecy that suggested a requirement to stay in the land.

The majority of Rishonim maintain that "faith in Hashem" applies only with reference to factors that are outside of our control.

Ramban probably agrees with this general approach, but holds that, in this particular case, Hashem had communicated an expectation to Avraham - that he should remain in the land - and Avraham ignored it because of fear or discomfort. Obviously, a person who is directly commanded by Hashem to remain in a difficult situation must do so, even if it is not pragmatic!

In summary, the debate here revolves around how we construe the initial commandment that Avraham received. Was it to travel to the land, or to dwell in it?