Thoughts Lead to Action, and Growth in God’s Service

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Rewarding Good Thoughts

Hashem phrases the promise of protection to Avraham, early in Parshat Lech Lecha, va-avarecha mevarechecha, u-mekallelcha a’or. I will bless those who bless you, and those who curse you, I will curse.”  Kli Yakar points out the switch of order, God’s act first in the blessing, second in cursing. The first, longer, explanation, assumes meverachecha means those who think to bless you, where mekallelcha are those who have already cursed.

It models the principle that God rewards thoughts to do well along with the action, punishes wrongs only once committed. R. Luntshitz then digresses to a discussion of prayer I think illuminates his comment here, too. He wonders why God requires us to verbalize our prayers, if God knows our thoughts?

Turning to Prayer

To explain, he first reminds us of Yevamot 64a, the Matriarchs’ infertility was partially a function of God’s “desire” for the prayers of the righteous. Kli Yakar sees a parental element, just as a father enjoys hearing from his child, wants the child to ask for things the father would give anyway to extend the conversation, Hashem “wants” to hear from us.

He contrasts our tradition of Hashem’s attitude to the nobility of his time, who would interrupt petitioners as soon as they understood the request. God gives us as much time to pray as we want, indeed prefers longer prayers, then brings it back here, because prayers require advance thought, and Hashem promises to reward the thought as well as the words.

[He again seems to be talking to his time rather than the verse. Grant his first claim, Hashem was telling Avraham those who think to bless Avraham would be blessed, the relevance of prayer is tenuous at best, even with Mishlei 16;1, the verse he referenced to support his point. It seems to me he wanted to encourage greater engagement with prayer among his listeners, and saw a way to connect it.]

Or, God Blesses the Blessers to Increase the Blessing

His second option understands the phrase to mean God will bless those who are about to bless Avraham before they do. Just like the hazzan blesses the kohanim before they bless the people, to fill them with blessing so they can pour it out more easily and effectively on the Jewish people, Hashem will bless those who are about to bless Avraham, so their blessings, too, come from a place filled with blessing.

[His claim the hazzan is blessing the kohanim is not obvious; I had always heard it is to be sure the kohanim do not mix up the words. The idea of pouring from a full cup producing more blessing seems to me more common; it is an idea I had hear attached to education, any teacher should fill his/her own cup until the teaching is just overflow.]

God’s blessing comes first to those who bless Jews, either to reward their intentions or to enhance their ability to administer that blessing most fully.

Rising In His Service of God

The Vilna Gaon’s comment to 12;8 isn’t fully clear to me, but he doesn’t have that many comments, so it’s the best I can do. When Avraham gets to Israel, he goes to Shechem, to Elon Moreh, where Hashem appears to him and builds an altar. Then, in verse eight, he goes to the mountain, with Bet El to the west and Ai to the east.

Aderet Eliyahu thinks these travels were spiritual as much as physical, the mountain here a reference to Tehillim 15, which asks who will live in God’s tent, who will reside on God’s holy mountain. Just like there were steps in the Temple, to symbolize the ascent to the spiritual level of God’s Presence, Avraham here takes steps as well, rising gradually in God’s service, marking each stage with the building of an altar.

I am a fan of noticing that Avraham grows and develops, doesn’t arrive in Canaan fully formed, at his spiritual height. And of the idea each altar he built marked more than yet another place he declared God’s Presence.

Avraham’s Acquisition of the Land, Regular People’s Acquisition of Any Land

The question of Avraham’s spiritual growth underlies the Hatam Sofer comment I chose for this parsha, too. In 13;17, Hashem tells Avraham to travel the land, length and breadth. Baba Batra 100a quotes a debate about how to acquire land (changes of ownership in Jewish law need a ma’aseh kinyan, some act of acquisition), with R. Eliezer claiming walking the land is enough, because that’s what Hashem had Avraham do.

The Sages required a more formal expression, such as digging in the land or weeding it. They said God told Avraham to walk the Land to ease his descendants’ road to conquest of it, not because it would effectuate a change of ownership right then [his idea of how Avraham’s walking the Land simplified the later conquest is not our topic right now].

The Gemara says the Sages agreed with R. Eliezer about a path through vineyards. Such paths are made for walking, so travelling them would be using them as an owner would, an acquisitive act (making use of the land).

The Point of Owning Israel

Hatam Sofer adds a piece of background to his explanation of this Gemara in the context of our parshaR. Menahem Azariah of Fano had wondered whether God gave the Jewish people Israel to enjoy its physical bounty, its being flowing with milk and honey, or because of its spiritual superiority as a place to host people’s growth.

Were it the latter, says Hatam Sofer, it would become like a path through a vineyard; made for spiritual growth/travel rather than use, everyone would agree it can be acquired by walking it. The “love of Avraham” in the Gemara was Avraham’s love of Israel, certainly only for its spiritual benefits, making it like a path in a vineyard for him.

[I would have thought he would say Avraham could acquire Israel by growing within it, since that’s the “travel” he means, not need to walk it physically. He seems to blur those lines, is saying a person can express ownership over Israel by travelling it, for all views, if that person values it as a way to expand his/her spiritual horizons.

Regardless, it displays his derush sense, taking a seemingly very practical debate about how to become the owner of a piece of land, with a side comment about Avraham being an exception according to the Sages, and turning it into a question of the purpose of Israel, the certainty Avraham had the “better” purpose in mind.]

The Four Kings Were Gunning For Avraham

Ha’amek Davar’s reading of 14;7-13 offers an original perspective on Avraham’s mixing into the war of the four kings vs. the five kings. It starts at verse seven, where the kings come to Ein Mishpat (literally “the eye of justice”). Bereshit Rabbah said the name refers to the Eye that brings the Attribute of Justice into the world, and they wanted to blind it [without the Netziv, I think we would have said they sought to stop God’s rule of law in the world].

Instead, Ha’amek Davar says they were looking for Avraham, who had made God’s Providence more present in the world. Until then, Netziv says, life was completely natural, which the four kings preferred to having to live up to God’s Justice. He says he will say the same when Amalek attacks the Jews on the way out of Egypt [a bit ironic, because this verse names Amalek among the victims of the four kings. Rather than back Avraham and his worldview, Netziv is saying, they eventually came to the four kings’ side, agreed with them in resisting letting the Divine Attribute of Justice into the world.]

In verse eleven, the verse says the four kings took rechush, possessions, to Netziv a way to say they did not plunder the cities, took only the wealth the kings and armies had brought to war. When they took Lot captive, in the next verse, we are told he was living in Sodom. Netziv thinks it means Lot had not gone to war, was back in Sodom, and the four kings made a special trip to take him, despite their conscious choice not to loot the city, because they wanted to provoke Avraham into a response.

A Religious War, Not a Conquest

His portrayal of the four kings as aimed at Avraham and his worldview, puts Aner, Eshkol, and Mamre in a new light. Described in verse thirteen as “ba’alei berit Avraham, pact-partners of Avraham’s,” Ha’amek Davar assumes it means they had adopted his faith, had joined him in serving God, the way to make a berit, a covenant with God, Who will then protect them.

Any attack on Avraham’s worldview then becomes an attack on them as well, since the attempt to eradicate Avraham’s ideas would force extirpation of anyone who holds those ideas. Backs to the wall, they went to war with him, also trusting God to take care of matters.

He has changed what looks like Avraham coming to his relative’s rescue into Avraham reacting to a religious war, a first attempt by those who do not accept his worldview to remove it from the world, to get back to the old days when natural might made right.

Avraham, with Hashem’s backing, joined by his co-religionists, showed them they were in the permanent wrong.

Our thoughts can already earn us reward, Kli Yakar said, we grow through our travels in Israel, Gra and Hatam Sofer said, and Avraham brought about an earthquake in how the world works, one the four kings thought they could reverse.

About Gidon Rothstein

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