Thursday, November 16, 2006

Was Avraham in the Kiruv Business?

Although these observations relate more directly to last week's Parasha, they are well worth mentioning anytime.

Parashat Vayera presents us with an inspiring view of Avraham's kindness and charity in action. The Torah describes the gourmet delicacies and the considerate attention that Avraham provided to his guests. This, in and of itself, is quite impressive. The Midrash, however, informs us that Avraham used his meals with passersby as opportunities to teach them about monotheism as well. At the conclusion of each repast, when the guests thanked their host and readied themselves to leave, Avraham would respond "don't thank me, thank Hashem!" This served as the point of departure for endless theological discussion.

While sharing this Midrashic vignette with my son two weeks ago, it occurred to me that it can be - and often is - interpreted in a way that I believe is unflattering to Avraham. On the surface, it seems as if the Midrash is portraying Avraham as a disingenuous outreach professional who invites people into his home only to indoctrinate them. Some might go so far as to construe Avraham as a crafty salesman who "wines and dines" his guests in order to persuade them to accept his religious ideas.

I think that this attitude toward Avraham's activities is fundamentally flawed, and that the Rabbis are teaching us something much more profound here. The Midrash does not mean to suggest that Avraham used food and drink as bait to lure unsuspecting travellers in so that he could brainwash them. Instead, the Rabbis are pointing out that genuine kindness, when extended to a human being, cannot be directed to the body alone. It must embrace and enrich the entire person.

If I provide for the material and emotional needs of my fellow man, but I neglect his intellectual and spiritual yearnings, then I have not completely taken care of him. If I focus my charity on only one or two dimensions of a human being - his physical body and/or his psyche - then I have failed to address the totality of his personhood.

When Avraham prepared elaborate banquets for anonymous travellers, his kindness and generosity were absolutely sincere. He saw creatures of God who were hungry and thirsty and, emulating the ways of God, he responded to their basic needs without the slightest hesitation.

However, Avraham understood that acts of kindness that satisfy the body, while important, are never sufficient on their own. They must be combined with acts of kindness that nurture the soul. Therefore, as soon as he finished providing his guests with the food, drink and personal warmth that they craved, Avraham made sure to offer them knowledge, insight and inspiration as well.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Hittites in Patriarchal Times

Parashat Hayye Sarah describes Abraham's purchase of the Cave of Machpelah from Ephron, who is a member of a group collectively referred to as "The Hittites" or "Children of Heth."

It is currently popular among scholars to dismiss this narrative as an anachronism and to claim that no Hittites dwelled in Canaan during Patriarchal times.

However, a little bit of research reveals that this difficulty was created by the scholars themselves. The suggestion was first made (by some) to identify the Hittites in our Parasha with a specific kingdom that existed in Biblical times. It was subsequently discovered that these alleged "Hittites" did not migrate to Israel until long after Abraham's lifetime. The conclusion was then drawn that the Hittite presence in Canaan, described in Hayye Sarah, cannot possibly reflect historical reality.

The link above demonstrates that the various scholarly hypotheses about the identity of the Hittites are inconclusive at best (for more details, consult Nahum Sarna's 19th Excursus in the JPS Commentary on Genesis.). In fact, there were (and are) legitimate approaches to this issue that pose no problem for the Torah's account. So there is no basis here for questioning the Tanach's historicity.

In the arena of Biblical studies, there is a marked tendency to cry "anachronism" prematurely, based on the latest unsupported scholarly conjecture. This happened with regard to the identification of Ur and the Phillistines, as well as with regard to the existence of domesticated camels in Patriarchal times.

The lesson to be learned here is that our ability to accurately reconstruct the past is limited, and that even scientific-sounding conclusions about the realities of the ancient world are always somewhat tentative.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Who Wrote Psalm 119?

Psalm 119, also known as the Alfa-Beta, is my favorite Psalm. It is a moving tribute to the beauty of the mitsvot and the enthralling experience of Torah study. Boasting 176 verses, Psalm 119 also happens to be the longest chapter in the entire Bible.

Despite its inspiring content and exquisite form, Psalm 119 is one of the "orphan psalms"; in other words, unlike many other chapters in the Book of Psalms that begin with phrases like "A Song of David", the author of Psalm 119 did not incorporate his name into the text of the chapter.

The Rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash, followed by Rashi and Radaq, maintain that Psalm 119 was composed by King David. This should come as no surprise, since there are other instances of "orphan psalms" that we know were penned by David (take, for example, Psalm 105, and the commentaries there).

By contrast, Ibn Ezra (as well as many modern scholars, some of whom are cited in Daat Miqra's commentary to the chapter) suggests that this Psalm may actually have been written by an unknown individual who lived during the Babylonian Exile. Some even attribute the Psalm to Ezra the Scribe.

Because of my partiality to Psalm 119, I have long been intrigued by the question of its authorship. I would like to offer what I believe are compelling pieces of evidence in support of the traditional position that King David was, in fact, responsible for Psalm 119:

1) The structure of the Psalm, in which the first letters of the verses follow an alphabetical acrostic, is found only in psalms explicitly attributed to King David.

2) Throughout the Book of Psalms, only King David refers to himself (or is referred to) as "Your servant" when addressing Hashem. This phraseology appears in Psalm 119 several times.

3) The phrase "Pneh elai v'honeni" - turn to me and show me favor - is found only in Psalms composed by David, and appears in Psalm 119.

4) Only in Psalms by King David are the commandments referred to as "pekudim"; this terminology is employed in Psalm 119 as well. (There is one exception to this rule, Psalm 111, but it is also an "orphan psalm" that shows signs of being the work of King David.)

5) The author of Psalm 119 states that noblemen sit around and talk about him, and that he speaks of Hashem's testimonies in the presence of kings. This certainly indicates that the Psalmist was not a commoner, but a king, i.e., David.

6) The themes of Psalm 119 bear a striking resemblance to the words of King David in Psalm 19, "The Torah of Hashem is perfect, restoring the soul, the testimony of Hashem is trustworthy, making the simpleton wise, etc., etc." They are also reminiscent of Psalm 18, ""For I guarded the ways of Hashem, and did not commit evil before my God; For all of His laws are before me, and His statutes I shall not remove from myself." Also compare Psalm 25, "Hashem, make known to me Your ways, teach me Your paths. Lead me in Your truth and teach me, for You are the God of my salvation." And Psalm 86, "Teach me, Hashem, Your ways; I shall walk in Your truth; unify my heart to fear Your name." I am sure that there are more examples of this motif that are not coming to mind right now. However, these sentiments do seem to be uniquely Davidic in nature.

7) Psalm 119 uses the phrase "Ger Anochi Baaretz" ("I am a stranger in the land"). This kind of expression appears only one other time in Psalms - namely, in Psalm 39, which is openly attributed to King David. The same is true regarding "Shiviti Mishpatecha", a phrase in Psalm 119 that closely resembles "Shiviti Hashem L'negdi Tamid" found in Psalm 16. Examples like this are simply too numerous to list here.

8) Psalm 119 describes experiences of suffering - being unjustly pursued, etc. - that are strongly reminiscent of the travails of King David as characterized elsewhere in Psalms and in Nach.

Considered together, these observations seem to provide a very strong (if not incontrovertible) argument in favor of the traditional view that King David was the author of Psalm 119.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Charity and Justice

Parashat Vayera offers us two examples of hospitality to strangers. One is provided by Avraham and the other by his nephew, Lot. A comparison and contrast of their "styles" highlights what I believe is a fundamental aspect of Avraham's personality and philosophy. Let us examine the key features of the incidents described in our Parasha in order to identify the similarities and differences between them:

1. Initial Reaction

And Avraham lifted his eyes and looked, and behold, there were three men standing before him; and he saw, and ran to greet them from the entrance of his tent, and he bowed down to the ground.


And two of the angels came to Sedom in the evening, and Loy was sitting at the gate of Sedom; and Lot saw, and rose to greet them, and he bowed down with his face to the ground.

Whereas Avraham, upon sighting the travellers, runs to greet them, Lot waits until they are right in front of him to respond to their presence.

2. What is Offered


If I have found favor in your eyes, please do not pass by your servant. May water be brought that you may wash your feet, and rest underneath the tree. Then I shall take some bread and you may feast to the satisfaction of your heart and then leave, for you have indeed passed by your servant...


And he said, "Behold now, my masters, turn now to the home of your servant, and spend the night; then wash your feet and go on your way."

Avraham offers a whole range of services to his guests. Lot only promises lodging for the night.

3. Response of Guests


And they said, "Do as you have spoken."


And they said , "No, we shall sleep in the street."

The guests gladly accept Avraham's offer, but hesitate to agree to Lot's.

4. What is Prepared and By Whom


And Avraham rushed to the tent, to Sarah, and he said "Hurry, knead three seah of fine flour and bake cakes." And Avraham ran to the cattle, and he took a young, fine calf and gave it to the youth, and he hurried to prepare it. And he took butter and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and he placed it before them; and he stood over them, under the tree, and they ate.


And he made for them a meal, and he baked matsot, and they ate.

Avraham engages his entire family in the mitsvah of feeding the guests. He dotes over them during their meal. Lot, by contrast, acts alone, and eats together with his visitors.

5. Relationship with Children


For I know him [Avraham], such that he will command his children and household after him - to keep the way of Hashem, performing charity and justice.


Behold, I have two daughters who have not known a man; let me bring them out to you, and you may do to them what is good in your eyes. Only, do not do harm to these men, for they have come underneath the protection of my roof.

And Lot went out and spoke to his sons-in-law, the husbands of his daughters, and he said, "Get up and leave this place, for Hashem is destroying the city"; but he was viewed as a clown in the eyes of his sons-in-law.

While Avraham educates and inspires his descendants, Lot treats his daughters like objects and is not taken seriously by his family.

6. Concern with Justice


And Avraham approached and said, "Will you indeed destroy the righteous together with the wicked...Far be it from You - Will the Judge of the entire Earth not do justice?"


And Lot went out to them through the doorway, and he closed the door behind him. And he said, "Please, my brothers, do not do evil. Behold, I have two daughters..."

And they said, "Step aside!" And they said, "This one came to dwell, and now he presumes to judge us - now we will harm him more than them!"

Avraham intervenes on behalf of people with whom he has no relationship, and seeks to clarify his understanding of God's justice. Lot's intervention extends only to the guests in his home, and involves a "perversion" of priorities.

. Justification of Kindness/Justice


Ki-Al-Ken-Avartem Al Avdechem: For you have passed by your servant.


Ki Al Ken Ba-oo B'tsel Korati: For they have come under the protection of my roof

Avraham's concern for the men is related to their situation of need, the fact that they are passersby. Lot's concern, on the other hand, is related to the "sanctity" of his domain.

Clearly, the parallels identified here are not accidental. Why does the Torah seek to compare Avraham and Lot in this manner? What does it teach us about their respective personalities, worldviews, and destinies?

Avraham's motivation to pursue kindness and justice was rooted in his unique philosophy. He recognized that every human being is a creature of God who deserves to receive sustenance and support. Avraham's exuberance in serving guests stemmed from his general commitment to imitating the benevolent and equitable ways of the Creator.

Avraham runs from his tent to bring guests into his home and escorts them out when they are ready to leave. This demonstrates that his care for them is not tied to the fact that they are inside his 'domain'. Before the arrival of the travellers, from the moment he spots them on the horizon, Avraham is already preoccupied with their welfare. During the meal, Avraham does not rest - he stands over his visitors like a waiter so as to be vigilant in attending to their needs. Even after they exit his home, their value in his eyes is not diminished. He insists on accompanying them outside.

In a similar vein, Avraham, though he has no personal ties to Sedom, feels compelled to question the Divine judgment pronounced against it. He struggles to fathom the basis for God's decision to destroy the city, and is not satisfied until he perceives the principles of justice that underlie it. Avraham's intervention here is not a reflection of any identification he has with the people of Sedom. Rather, it emerges from a sincere desire to understand and emulate the wisdom of the Almighty.

Because Avraham's concern for others was based upon a set of ideas, it was inherently teachable. It should come as no surprise, then, that his entire family - students imbued with the spirit of his "Torah" - participates eagerly in serving the visitors together with him.

Indeed, we can also appreciate why Avraham and Sarah are informed of the upcoming birth of Yitschaq at the same time that they are told of the imminent destruction of Sedom. As Hashem states, Avraham will instruct his descendants in the ways of Hashem, i.e., the pursuit of kindness and justice. Avraham's "star pupil" and successor is destined to be his son Yitschaq, who will need to receive a thorough education from his father if he is to carry on the tradition faithfully.

In order to fulfill his obligation to teach Yitschaq properly, Avraham has to develop and refine his own understanding of kindness and justice as completely as possible. The incident of Sedom was an opportunity for him to deepen his knowledge of the paths of God and to prepare himself to share this knowledge with his son. This is why God introduces the topic of Sedom and engages Avraham in dialogue at this time - to connect Avraham's grasp of God's wisdom with his moral responsibility to communicate it to Yitschaq. It is this tradition of wisdom, conveyed from Avraham to Yitschaq, from Yitschaq to Yaaqov, and from Yaaqov to his children, that will ultimately form the spiritual foundation of the Nation of Israel.

Lot, by contrast, has a fundamentally different orientation to kindness and justice. He has an attachment to these ideals, but for personal rather than philosophical reasons. He desires to be charitable and just only because this satisfies his inner need to feel good about himself.

For this reason, Lot only greets his guests after they approach him. At that point, he will feel guilty if he fails to invite them in. Furthermore, when they resist his overtures, he pressures them to enter - in fact, the same verb "and he was insistent" is used to describe the Sodomites who attempt to break down his door only a few verses later. The pressure that Lot applies to the visitors is a sign that his interest in charity is more self-serving than altruistic.

The content of what Lot offers is also noteworthy. He commits to the minimum amount of hospitality necessary to alleviate his sense of obligation. And his family is nowhere to be found - he prepares the modest repast himself. During the meal, rather than doting over the guests, Lot partakes of the meal together with them.

All of these features of his behavior indicate that Lot's attraction to kindness was a personal idiosyncracy. The enjoyment he took in providing for his guests was not based upon a philosophy of life that he could have imparted to his family. Therefore, he could not possibly "mobilize" his relatives around the performance of this mitsvah like his uncle Avraham did.

This trait of Lot manifests itself in his attitude toward justice as well. Unlike Avraham, Lot is remarkably disinterested in the fate of Sedom. When his guests are threatened by an aggressive mob, his defense of them is not principled or profound. He doesn't appeal to objective standards of justice or morality; rather, in his mind, his visitors are worthy of protection only because they have "come under the protection of his roof." The Sodomites recognize his hypocrisy and offer a sarcastic rejoinder, "this one came to dwell here, and now presumes to judge us?" Ultimately, Lot's willingness to use his own daughters as pawns is the most egregious symptom of his distorted sense of propriety.

Lot's unsophisticated approach to justice is no secret to his family. When he tries to share the news about Sedom's impending punishment with his sons-in-law, they consider his warning laughable. They realize that Lot, regardless of his attempts to imitate the ways of Avraham, is no authority on matters of Divine judgment. To them he remains little more than an old-fashioned, eccentric man who is out of step with Sodomite culture.

From the comparison and contrast that the Torah delineates here, we gain an insight into what was truly unique about Avraham and his household. Under his leadership, they sincerely dedicated themselves to the realization of the divine ideals of charity and justice. Their motivation to do so was the function of deep understanding and was bereft of any selfish interest. Avraham taught his family to appreciate the intrinsic worth of every human being and to act accordingly. Thus, he became the progenitor of a great nation that would receive "righteous statutes and judgments" and serve as a model for all of mankind.

Lot, despite his good intentions, ultimately exhibits a self-centered attitude toward other people. He pursues kindness and justice only in order to satisfy the demands of his guilty conscience. As such, he fails to transmit these quintessential Abrahamic values to his family. In the end, Lot becomes the ancestor of two nations who inherit his outlook and who, as a result, are destined to clash miserably with the Children of Israel.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

A King, A Priest and A Rabbi

No, this is not the beginning of a bad joke...It is a reference, of course, to a key incident in this week's Parasha:

And the King of Sedom came out to greet him [Avram], after he [Avram] returned from smiting Kedorlaomer and the kings who were with him; and he met him in the Valley of Shaveh, which was the valley of the king. And Malkizedeq, King of Shalem, brought out bread and wine; and he was a priest to the Most High God. And he blessed him and said, 'Blessed is Avram to the Most High God, possessor of Heaven and Earth. And blessed is the Most High God who delivered your enemies into your hand." And he gave him a tenth of everything.

Certainly the most fascinating and mysterious character in this whole episode is Malkizedeq. Who was he? How did he become a priest of God in a world immersed in idolatry? And, even more basically - why did he make a sudden appearance at the conclusion of the battle against the four kings? We understand that the King of Sedom came to negotiate the release of his citizens who were taken hostage by Kedorlaomer and liberated by Avram. But no explanation is offered for the presence of Malkizedeq at this important meeting.

Before we can account for Malkizedeq's role in this situation, we must identify him. The Midrash and the majority of classical commentators maintain that Malkizedeq was none other than Shem, the son of Noah. If we accept this interpretation, then the fact that he was a worshipper of Hashem is easier to fathom. Unlike Avram, who had to discover the existence of God independently, Shem would have received a tradition of monotheism directly from his father.

However, the traditional interpretation rests upon a foundation that has been shaken by modern scholarship. We now know that El Elyon was not Hashem; rather, it was a Canaanite god popular during the period of the Patriarchs. Most likely, Malkizedeq was a priest of this god, and not a believer in the God of Avram. Therefore, we need not feel compelled to identify Malkizedeq with Shem in order to account for his religious orientation. His theological beliefs were quite typical of the era in which he lived.

(See the commentary of Daat Miqra, where this view is adopted and also attributed to the Ramban; however, it is difficult, in my opinion, to interpret Nachmanides this way.)

We can now explain why Avram chose to refer to God as 'El Elyon' in his response to the King of Sedom:

And Avram said to the King of Sedom, "I lift my hand to Hashem, Most High God, possessor of Heaven and Earth...."

Malkizedeq perceived Avram as one who was favored by El Elyon, the supreme god of the Canaanite pantheon. He tried to understand Avram in terms of his own religious categories. In all likelihood, the King of Sedom concurred with this view.

Through a subtle manipulation of language, Avram corrected this misconception. He declared his allegiance to Hashem, who is the Most High God. The addition of the name 'Hashem' differentiated Avram's concept of divinity from the one expressed by Malkizedeq. Unlike the pagan god El Elyon, the God of Avram is One, eternal, incorporeal and transcendent.

Through adopting the Canaanite terminology, Avram asserted his rejection of idolatry while simultaneously educating Malkizedeq. He explained his belief in a way that a Canaanite priest could comprehend, while emphasizing the name "Hashem" so that the uniqueness of his philosophy was not diluted.

Avram's dialogue with the King of Sedom is also noteworthy. He refused to avail himself of any of the spoils of war:

"I shall not take even a string or shoelace - I shall not take anything of yours - that you shall not say, 'I made Avram wealthy.'"

Here Avram demonstrated that his involvement in military conflict was not for the purpose of building an empire or amassing wealth. It was purely with an eye to rescuing his nephew from harm. Avram walked away from the war victorious but disinterested in capitalizing on his success from a political standpoint. This must have left the King of Sedom with a strong impression of the greatness of Avram and the sophistication of his principles.

We can now better understand the reason why three very different personalities - Avram, the King of Sedom and Malkizedeq - all converged after the battle against the four kings.

The military campaign that Avram waged was a turning point in establishing his reputation in the land. His success attracted the interest of politicians and philosophers, kings and theologians. All now recognized that there was something very special about Avram. All were interested in explaining what it was. This required Avram to expound upon his philosophical views as well as to share his attitude toward wealth and honor. He showed Malkizedeq and the King of Sedom that his understanding of God demanded a change not only in belief but in lifestyle and values. Love of power and luxury cannot be reconciled with worship of the God of Avram.

The story of the meeting of the King of Sedom, Malkizedeq and Avram illustrates a key dimension of Avram's mission. Avram's ultimate purpose was to revolutionize both theology and politics. He wished to draw mankind toward proper knowledge and service of the One God, and away from the pursuit of material gain and self-aggrandizement. Avram's interaction with key religious and political figures afforded him the opportunity to spread his message and to try and effectuate positive change in society. Unfortunately, mankind has yet to internalize the lessons he taught.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous

Avram is certainly regarded as a spiritual giant - someone who was willing to sacrifice everything in order to properly serve God. It seems justified to assume that he was not particularly interested in material gain. Yet, when Hashem commanded Avram to set out for the Land of Canaan, he promised him the "American Dream":

And I shall make you a great nation, and I shall bless you and make you famous; and you shall be a man of blessing. And I will bless those who bless you, and he who curses you, I shall curse; and all the families of the Earth shall be blessed through you.

Why did God use fame and fortune to entice Avram to leave his home? Was this really his motivation in heeding the call of prophecy? This doesn't seem to square with anything else that we know about Avram, or about prophets in general.

An examination of the first verse of our Parasha may lead us to a better understanding of Avram's situation:

And Hashem said to Avram: "Go forth from your land, your birthplace and the house of your father, unto the land that I will show you."

Why did Hashem describe Ur Kasdim with three different terms ("land", "birthplace", and "house of your father"). On the surface, this seems superfluous. All of these words refer to the same location!

The fact that Hashem used three terms to identify a single place tells us that there are three different dimensions of the place that were significant to Avram. It was, first of all, his land. He derived part of his sense of political identity and "belonging" from it, in the same way that many of us say "we are American." This experience was a mutual one. Avram had a feeling of connection with the inhabitants of Ur Kasdim, and they felt a connection with him as well.

Second, it was the place where he was born and raised; he was familiar with it. He possessed an understanding of its culture, customs and mores, and was comfortable moving about within it.

Finally, his family lived there. He had social connections in the area and was well known among the people. Avram was by no means a stranger in Ur Kasdim.

Why were all these things so important to Avram? After all, he was not a teenager going away to college for the first time. He was a seventy-five year old man!

We must remember that, since his youth, Avram had dedicated himself to sharing the philosophy of monotheism with as many people as he could. He believed that because he was a member of the community of Ur Kasdim - familiar with its ways and recognized among its citizens - he had a better chance of succeeding in that environment than in any other. If he had been an outsider, he reasoned, the likelihood of his preaching having any influence would have been drastically reduced.

There was another powerful incentive for Avram to remain at home. As long as he was in Ur Kasdim among relatives and neighbors, securing a livelihood was not problematic for him. He had all of the business and familial connections that he needed.

This was a crucial factor insofar as his spiritual mission was concerned. After all, part of what was so impressive about Avram was that, despite his wealth, he was fully devoted to a unique religious outlook and way of life. We witness examples of this phenomenon all the time in the world of commercial advertising. Celebrities, and not homeless men, are the ideal spokespersons for new products. This is because the average person has a natural tendency to respect the views of attractive and successful individuals. We can understand then that, were Avram to become poor, he would risk losing his credibility in the eyes of potential students.

Thus, Avram wasn't interested in the material or social benefits of living at home for their own sake. Nor was he drawn after the fame and fortune that God promised to give him. Rather, he was simply concerned that becoming a wandering, impoverished and anonymous nomad in the Land of Canaan would undermine his efforts to reach out to others.

Hashem therefore informs Avram that he need not worry. He will be blessed with financial success and his reputation will be extolled throughout the land. Avram was assured that the spiritual mission to which he had devoted his life would not be compromised by his departure from Ur Kasdim.