by R. Gidon Rothstein
‘Akedat Yitzchak, Finishing the Sixteenth Sha’ar
Appreciating How Far Avraham Got
R. Arama has been showing us Avraham’s lifelong path to better understanding of Hashem (including the remarkable idea he did not know of Hashem’s ability/willingness to change Nature until he was 86!). As far as he went, he did not ever learn ideas Ya’akov would be taught early in his life (on his way out of Canaan, in the ladder dream).
Pioneers start where they start, move along their paths to the best of their abilities, paving the way for others. Those others often surpass them, without it reducing the contribution they made [I have thought this about R. Sa’adya Gaon, who innovated many of the forms of Torah literature we take for granted, yet was superseded by later contributions to those fields, such as Rambam’s Guide for the Perplexed. It does not take an iota from his greatness to see others followed him and went further.
Or, le-havdil, in a different, exponentially less important area, Julius Erving’s revolutionary moves on a basketball court would not raise an eyebrow in a high school game today, yet he will always have been Dr. J.]
Similarly, Jewish tradition views a lack of circumcision as a blemish. Ya’akov’s sons declare their familial unwillingness to give Dinah to a member of an uncircumcised society (R. Arama here assumes Ya’akov’s sons were honestly unwilling to allow the match until the townsmen underwent circumcision, where it seems plausible to read the Torah as saying they were making a condition they expected the people of Shechem to reject, or setting them up to be weak for an invasion/slaughter).
As support, R. Arama points to Sifrei Ve-Zot Ha-Berachah, which says Bil’am was unable to stand before Hashem because he was uncircumcised, as was Avraham before he was circumcised. R. Arama thinks Nedarim 32a says Avraham was three years old when he recognized his Creator as a way of calling our attention to the extraordinary fact he was able to have any vision of Hashem without circumcision.
Bereshit Rabbah 64 says he was forty-eight, which R. Arama thinks lines up with a tradition in Berachot 13 forbidding us from using Avraham’s precirucmcision name.
Without circumcision, we cannot apprehend Hashem in certain ways.
Quasi Prophecy in the Early Days
The barrier to prophecy tells R. Arama Avraham’s experiences of Hashem before were never full prophecies. Rambam, too, in Guide II;48 casts those early experiences more as sudden intuition or insight. For example, when Avraham risked all in Ur Kasdim, was almost killed in the furnace, and then had the idea to move to a new place (where people would be more receptive to his ideas, as descendants of Shem), R. Arama thinks it all happened as intuition or insight, not a call from Hashem [which doesn’t fit the simple sense of the verses, meaning he is sure enough of his idea, he feels the need to re-read the verses].
The promise of “I will bless those who bless you” (which, let’s recall, R. Arama does not think came as in a prophetic vision, communicated from Hashem, more as a confident idea which developed inside of him) shows us Avraham had trouble with contemporaries, who would curse and denigrate him. He suffered their abuse as a true sanctification of Hashem’s Name, and understood the promise of their punishment would be a way to increase awareness of Hashem in the world.
Steps Forward, Less Far Than We Would Want
Avraham followed the push of his internal voice in terms of leaving his old land, yet took Lot with him. To R. Arama, this was a misstep, a failure to live fully up to Hashem’s message to leave behind all his family and society. This will come back to bite Avraham.
He passes throughout Canaan, the verse tells us, surprising R. Arama at his having made it all the way to Shechem with no opposition, although the Canaanites were at that very time conquering the land from the descendants of Shem.
(R. Arama here anticipates a problem Biblical critics raised. The verse says “the Canaanites were then in the land,” which academic Bible scholars take as an aside by the supposed later authors, to clue in contemporaries who no longer lived among Canaanites. R. Arama instead says the verse means the Canaanites were just arriving, worth our while to know because it alerts us to Avraham’s divine protection from the war then tearing up the land.)
Hashem tells Avraham he will inherit the Land at this point, because the Canaanites’ taking it makes it easier to transfer to Avraham’s descendants. He thinks the Canaanites performed a similar function to the one R. Papa identifies for Sichon in Gittin 38a (and other places in the Gemara), cleansing parts of Ammon and Moav for conquest. The Jews were not allowed to conquer Ammon or Moav, but whatever Sichon conquered, they could take from him. (R. Arama does not quite explain why the Jews would not have been allowed to conquer the Land from whoever had it before Canaan, unless he thinks it was also Ammon and Moav.)
Avraham builds an altar in thanks. However, his continued closeness to Lot prevents him from receiving a message from Hashem as to how to avoid or live through the famine, because the company of evildoers damages the righteous (he says; another idea I’m not sure would be well accepted today).
Left to his own devices, Avraham’s only thought was to leave (Baba Kamma 60b advises moving away from famine, showing R. Arama it’s the human way to react). R. Arama thinks Avraham also worried buying food at inflated famine prices would expose him to theft or worse by poorer locals.
Their Time in Egypt
I am running out of room on the third installment of this rich sha’ar, so let me summarize even more briefly. R. Arama thinks as Avraham headed to Egypt, he adjusted his ordinary strategy for Sarah. Where usually he would only refer to her as his sister if asked, Egypt was sufficiently corrupted, he worried they would kill him without asking. To prepare, he, Sarah, and all of their retinue spoke of her as his sister all the way down to Egypt, lest someone they encounter on the road out her as his wife when they got there.
He also thinks the verse stresses Par’oh only took her because he did not know she was his wife as praise, showing Avraham exaggerated his lack of morals. Had he known she was his wife, he would have refrained, would not have killed Avraham to get her. On the other hand, when Par’oh eventually confronts Avraham, he does not complain about the ruse (as does Avimelech, in the second iteration of this drama), because he knows his people might in fact have killed Avraham to get to Sarah.
The Wealth of Egypt and the Problem of Lot
When the verse tells us Avraham leaves Egypt wealthy, as does Lot, R. Arama thinks it means us to notice Avraham benefitted financially from his time in Egypt, not spiritually, and was—to his detriment and disgrace—still linked to Lot. Hashem therefore brought about a disagreement to separate the two.
To Avraham’s credit, when the dispute arose, he tried to resolve it peacefully; Lot did not cooperate, nor did Lot mind the company of neighbors as evil and sinful as the people of Sodom. [It feels to me, although I have no specific evidence, R. Arama’s comments here are also addressed to his audience, who were too comfortable living among evildoers; certainly in our time, I do not think many of us take into account the righteousness of the surrounding society when we choose places to live. I’m with R. Arama in thinking it’s a problem.]
Bereshit 13;14 makes a point of Hashem’s coming to Avraham after Lot left, and only then does Hashem make a full and expansive promise to give the Land to Avraham’s descendants.
Make Sure It’s Not About the Money
The battle with the four kings confirms Hashem’s promise, in the person of Malkitzedeck, the king of Shalem, a priest to Gd, who blesses Avraham in words Hashem also uses, Hashem’s being a shield to Avraham.
Avraham turns down the offer of spoils of war from the king of Sodom, telling the king he does not want to give him the possibility of claiming he had enriched Avraham. It may sound arrogant, says R. Arama, as if the king is too beneath Avraham to accept his money.
In fact, Avraham was making a different point, contasting their attitudes towards money. The king of Sodom saw money as valuable in its own right, where Avraham focused on more ultimate rewards, such as advancement in his relationship with Hashem.
Which he gets, because Hashem appears to him right after, to tell him he will be greatly rewarded. It teaches us how we will be judged by Hashem, how we should answer to critics (such as the accusing angel, whom R. Arama sees as played in this instance by the king of Sodom) who claim we cared only about money, put our lives and efforts at risk in the name of making money.
Were it to be true, we would be in trouble, left without the money (you can’t take it with you), and without any righteousness to speak on our behalf before the Heavenly Court. Avraham shows his biological and intellectual descendants how to respond, by raising their hands to the Supreme Gd, to take nothing of the material world, to search only for the true life, for the advancement of our souls.
We are not done with Avraham, nor is R. Arama. We’re just done with this sha’ar, where R. Arama began to portray Avraham as someone who used his freewill to make remarkable strides from the idolatrous world in which he started, progressing (as far as we’ve seen him so far) to become someone who received communication from Hashem despite not yet being circumcised; found his way to circumcision, to a greater understanding of Divine Providence, to a better appreciation of the limited value of money, and the need to separate from his original evil influences and family; and the full promise his descendants would receive the Land of Israel.