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Torah Attitude: Parashas Vayeira: Every effort counts
Every effort to do what is right is worthwhile. In the merit of Abraham's efforts to attend to his visitors, G'd provided for the Jewish people during their forty year sojourn in the desert. G'd rewards measure for measure to the smallest detail. Every word uttered by Abraham in his prayers was a merit for him and his future offspring. A prayer could achieve the intended result at a different time, even generations later. Every little step and every single action taken by Abraham and Isaac to fulfill G'd's commandment during the Akeidah resulted in tremendous merit for them and for their offspring throughout all future generations. We should draw strength and encouragement to follow in the footsteps of our Patriarchs and not hesitate to do what we know is right, even if we are not sure if will we finish the job.
Every effort accomplishes
People often think that if they cannot do a complete and perfect job they should not even get involved. They rationalize to themselves: What is the purpose? Why should I bother to get involved? The Mishnah (Pirkei Avos 2:16) teaches us that this is not the case. It says, "It is not your obligation to finish the job. However, you are not free not to get involved in doing the job." Similarly, people often are disillusioned after expending effort, time and money when they did not achieve what they set out to do. They feel that it was all wasted. However, the Chofetz Chaim used to say, "We are not obligated to achieve. We are obligated to do." The truth is that every effort we expend to do what is right is worthwhile.
In this week's Torah portion, we find several instances where our Patriarch Abraham expended much time and effort to get involved in righteous deeds, and, at the end of the day, it appears that he did not achieve what he had set out to do. In the beginning of the portion, it is related how the elderly Abraham went out of his way to bring strangers into his house and look after them three days after his circumcision. He was old and sick but nevertheless exerted himself to be hospitable to his visitors. Our sages explain that these visitors were not human beings but angels sent from heaven. They neither ate his food, nor did they benefit from any of his other efforts on their behalf. It seems that this was a total waste of Abraham's time and energy. Why did G'd put Abraham through such an ordeal when He knew how ill Abraham was feeling? However, our sages teach that in the merit of Abraham's efforts to attend to his visitors, G'd provided for Abraham's descendants, the Jewish people, during their forty year sojourn in the desert. The Talmud (Bava Metzia 86b) says: "As a reward for three things (that Abraham did, his descendants) merited three things: In reward for the butter and milk they merited the Mann; in reward for standing over them they merited the clouds of glory; and in reward for providing water they merited Miriam's well."
Measure for measure
G'd rewards measure for measure to the smallest detail. The Talmud (ibid) explains that whatever Abraham did on his own, G'd rewarded his children directly. Whatever Abraham did through an intermediary, G'd reward his children also through an intermediary. We clearly see here how a seemingly worthless effort reaped an immense and worthy reward many generations later.
Further on in the Torah portion, we find Abraham immersed in prayer for the wicked inhabitants of Sodom. Several times, Abraham tried to find a way to save them. The commentaries ask, why did G'd not tell Abraham immediately not to waste his time and effort as there was absolutely no hope to save Sodom from destruction? Why did He allow Abraham to repeat his prayers so many times for seemingly no purpose? The answer is that Abraham was not wasting his time. Every prayer is an accomplishment. Even if he did not save the inhabitants of Sodom, every word uttered by Abraham in his prayers was a merit for him and his future offspring. Abraham extracted a promise from G'd that wherever there is a place with ten righteous people this could save the entire populations from destruction. We have no idea how many towns and places have been saved throughout the generations as an outcome of Abraham's prayers with the resulting promise made by G'd. Obviously, when G'd punishes it is beyond our comprehension to understand the rationale of G'd for doing so. We find situations where G'd punishes the righteous together with the wicked rather than saving the wicked in the merit of the righteous. The Talmud (Shabbos 55a) explains that sometimes this is because they should have rebuked the wicked. In other instances, G'd punishes the righteous due to their own shortcomings (see Midrash Rabba Bamidbar 15:24). In a time of punishment, extraordinary merit is required for the righteous to even save themselves. If they do not have sufficient merits to save themselves how much more do they not have the merit to save others.
We sometimes feel frustration when we pray for the health and welfare of ourselves and others and it appears that our prayers are not answered. The truth is that our prayers, just as Abraham's prayers, are never wasted. Firstly, it is a merit for both the one who is praying and the one who is being prayed for. Secondly, even in a situation where G'd, for reasons known only to Him, decides not to grant us what we pray for, this prayer could achieve the intended result at a different time, even generations later. For example, a mother prays for her sick child, and the child passes away. Generations later her great-grandchild is sick but is suddenly healed to the wonderment of the doctors and all others present. The serious sickness appears to have mysteriously vanished. In fact, the sickness only healed in the merit of the great-grandmother's prayer many years ago. In another instance, the parents are devastated when they find out that their daughter is dating and planning to marry a gentile. They fast and pray and do everything in their power to stop the marriage but to no avail. Years later, their grandson starts showing interest in his Jewish roots and eventually brings his mother back to the fold as well. No one realizes that this is the direct result of the parents' efforts so many years back. However, G'd remembers everything and keeps account of every detail. Nothing is lost or forgotten.
In the end of the Torah portion, Abraham was put to the greatest test by G'd and was told to bring his beloved son, Isaac, as an offering. In his great love for G'd, Abraham did exactly as he was told and Isaac willingly joined his father in allowing himself to be sacrificed. At the last moment, an angel called from heaven and commanded Abraham not to bring Isaac as an offering. The angel told him that G'd did not intend that he should kill his son. Abraham looked up and saw a ram that he brought instead of his son. Again, it seems that Abraham did not achieve what he had set out to do and we may ask, what was the purpose of telling him to bring Isaac as an offering if the test was never completed? However, here as well, every little step and every single action taken by Abraham and Isaac to fulfill G'd's commandment, resulted in tremendous merit for them and for their offspring throughout all future generations. Our prayers are full of references to this test of the Akeidah, especially during the Days of Judgment. We plead to G'd to have mercy on His children and for Him to show His love for His chosen people in the merit of Abraham and Isaac's willingness to make this tremendous sacrifice in their great love for G'd.
Do not hesitate
In our daily life and efforts, we should draw strength and encouragement to follow in the footsteps of our Patriarchs. We may never hesitate to do what we know is right, even if we are not sure that we will be able to finish the job. Neither, should we get disillusioned if we do not see that we have accomplished what we had set out to do. For the truth is that the real accomplishment is in our every effort.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network