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Torah Attitude: Parashas Vayeira: The new President-elect
Last week's presidential election has only added to the uncertainty and insecurity as reflected in the financial markets worldwide. We turn to the Torah for guidance how to view and understand current events. Sarah was abducted and taken to the palace of Avimelech, King of Gerar. Pharaoh knew that he could not protect the distinguished visitors from his subjects, and therefore had no other choice than to send them away. Abraham did not respond to Pharaoh's complaint. When Abraham said "there is just no fear of G'd", he indicated that in general Gerar was a perfect civilized society, emphasizing the right priorities but they were not G'd-fearing people. It was as if G'd spoke to all of Creation to include them in the formation of man. Man can be the most dangerous in all of Creation and he needs to be constrained with heavy chains, not to act upon his beastly instincts. The Torah teaches us that without the fear of G'd a person will not be able to overcome any test in life when it affects his innermost cravings and ambitions. "Fear G'd and keep His commandments, for that it what man is all about." The knot at the end of the string that keeps everything in place is a person's fear of G'd.
Uncertainty and insecurity
We continue to experience trying and challenging times. Last week's presidential elections in the last remaining superpower in the world, has only added to the uncertainty and insecurity, as reflected in the financial markets worldwide. There is no country in the world that will not be affected by how the President-elect will deal with the current financial crisis. An added concern, which is of special importance to the Jewish people, is what will happen in the Middle East. This very much depends on his approach to Iran, the greatest threat to peace and security in the world.
As always, we turn to the Torah for guidance how to view and understand current events. It is well known that the Torah is not a book of chronicles that just relates the history of the Jewish people. As the word "Torah" implies, this is a book of instructions and lessons that teaches us how to deal with any situation that we experience, both as a nation and as individuals.
Sarah abducted in Gerar
In this week's Parasha, the Torah relates how Abraham and his family travelled to Gerar (Bereishis 20). Soon after their arrival Sarah was abducted and taken to the palace of Avimelech, King of Gerar. This was an exact repetition of what happened when they travelled to Egypt, as related in last week's parasha. The obvious question arises, what additional lesson do we learn from this incident that we did not learn from the events in Egypt?
Pharaoh vs. Avimelech
However, if we take a closer look at the two situations we find some very significant differences. When Pharaoh found out that Sarah was the wife of Abraham, he said to him, (Bereishis 12:19): "And now, here is your wife. Take her and go." Rashi quotes the Midrash Tanchuma (paragraph 5) that points out that this was very different to Avimelech's reaction. Avimelech said, (Bereishis 20:15): "Behold, my land is before you. You may reside wherever it is good in your eyes." The Midrash explains that Pharaoh was well aware that the Egyptians were extremely immoral. He knew that he could not protect the distinguished visitors from his subjects, and therefore had no other choice than to send them away.
Abraham not trust Egyptians
The Sforno explains why Pharaoh still complained to Abraham. When he said (Bereishis 12:18): "Why did you not tell me that she is your wife" (emphasis added), he indicated that he understood that Abraham did not trust the Egyptian population, but he felt that Abraham could have trusted him. Abraham did not respond to Pharaoh's complaint. The Or HaChaim explains that Abraham felt that just because Pharaoh was king it did not put him above the rest of the population, and Abraham did not trust him more than the other Egyptians. But out of respect for the king, he decided not to respond.
"Just no fear of G'd"
Abraham reacted very differently when Avimelech complained and said (Bereishis 20:9): "What have you done to us …" This time Abraham answered (ibid 11): "For I said there is just no fear of G'd in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife." Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman, the famous Rosh Yeshiva of Baranovitch, who was brutally murdered with his students in the Holocaust, points out that when Abraham said "there is just no fear of G'd", he indicated that in general Gerar was a perfect civilized society, emphasizing the right priorities. They had only one flaw. They were not G'd-fearing people. It is uncanny that Rabbi Wasserman referred to pre-war Germany with this interpretation when he was visiting that country in the 1930s. People were very surprised that he would describe a civilized and cultured nation like Germany with comparisons to Gerar. Today we can only stand in awe at this Torah sage's keen perception of that society.
"Let us make man"
Rabbi Wasserman explained why Abraham was concerned that they would kill him due to their lack of fear of G'd. He quoted from the Zohar's explanation of the deeper meaning when G'd said on the sixth day of creation (Bereishis 1:26): "Let us make man." The Zohar says that at that point everything had been created and it was as if G'd spoke to all of Creation to include them in the formation of man. Every being has its special nature and every animal has its specific, instinct. All of this was included when man was created. From the highest beings to the lowest, from the tamest to the wildest, they all contributed and man, as a mini-cosmos, has it all within him.
Man most dangerous
As such, man can be the most dangerous in all of Creation. And he needs to be constrained with heavy chains, not to act upon his beastly instincts. The only "chain" that can securely control man is fear of G'd. This serves as a constant reminder that at some point one has to give an account for every act, and that for every deed there will be a reward or punishment. Fear of G'd is what enables man to control his lust and cravings, as well as his arrogance and anger. As long as the going is smooth, every one will behave correctly. But when a person's base instincts are stimulated, neither civilization nor culture will control him. It is well known that Aristotle, the great Greek philosopher, lived a life of immorality. And like him many great minds faired no better than their simple fellow beings in their private lives.
Abraham not trust Gerar
Rabbi Dessler explains that Avimelech considered himself and his subjects, righteous people. As he said to G'd, (Bereishis 20:4): "Are you going to kill even a righteous nation." He felt that since they were a civilized society with ethical values and righteous laws, they were straight people, and he could not understand why Abraham did not trust them. However, the Torah teaches us that without the fear of G'd a person will not be able to overcome any test in life when it affects his innermost cravings and ambitions.
This is how King Solomon sums it all up when he concludes Koheles (12:13-14): "The end of it all, when everything has been heard: Fear G'd and keep His commandments, for that it what man is all about. For G'd will bring every deed to judgment, everything that was hidden, whether good or bad."
String of pearls
In the introduction to The Way of the Righteous, the author explains this with a beautiful parable. All character traits of a person are like a string of pearls. The knot at the end of the string, that keeps everything in place, is a person's fear of G'd. As long as the knot is in place, everything remains in the right order. But the instant the knot is gone, the necklace loses all its pearls and everything goes haywire. Neither a person's race, colour, nor gender will be decisive of how he deals with his position in life. Ultimately, it all depends on his fear of G'd.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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