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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland

Parshas Vayera

Avraham came forward and said, "Will You also stamp out the righteous along with the wicked?" (18:23)

Avrahamís love for all people is exemplified in its noblest form as he intercedes on behalf of the people of Sodom. Even the wicked inhabitants of Sodom were worthy of his sympathy. He prayed to Hashem to spare them from impending doom. Avraham Avinuís most significant strength was his total devotion to Hashem. Representing the greatest aspect of his personality, this trait caused Hashem to say that during the ten generations from Noach until Avraham, He spoke to no one other than Avraham. Avrahamís commitment, to the point of self-sacrifice, was definitely the zenith of his life's achievement. Chazal, however, imply that the apex of Avrahamís endeavor, the attribute for which Hashem rewarded him with nevuah, prophecy, was his caring for people, his tendency to view people through the prism of tzedek, to judge them in the most positive light.

Avraham emulated Hashem; as He is compassionate, so was Avraham. This is evidenced in his prayers on behalf of the wicked Sodomites. Avraham loved chesed, to perform acts of loving-kindness. Yet, he prayed for the people of Sodom who hated to act kindly to others. Their laws were the antithesis of social justice and, certainly, were counter to everything in which Avraham believed and for which he sacrificed himself.

Conversely, we find that for a comparatively minor infraction, Avraham severed his relationship with his cousin, Lot. The shepherds of Lot "allowed" their sheep to graze in property which was not theirs. These actions brought Avraham to tell Lot, "Separate from me. If you go to the left, I will go to the right; if you go to the right, I will go to the left." Chazal infer from Avrahamís words that he was totally severing his relationship with Lot. They could not assimilate with one another. Where is the consistency in Avrahamís actions? Does he care about all people, or is he particular about whom he cares for? Why does he pray for Sodom, but divorce himself from Lot?

Horav Elchanan Sorotzkin, zl, derives from here a compelling lesson regarding a Jew's relationship with the rest of the world. Avraham cares deeply. He is devoted to helping humanity. He prays for them, he opens his home to them when they are in need; he seeks justice for all mankind. He draws the boundary, however, concerning living and interacting with them. Klal Yisrael must maintain a distance which does not permit assimilation to germinate and grow. The nation that sublimates itself to Hashem, that decries idol worship, does not mix with other nations. Avraham prayed for Lot. He even risked his life to fight for him, but he would never have become a single nation with him.

And Lot went out and spoke to his sons-in-law and he said, "Get up and leave this place, for Hashem is about to destroy the city. But he seemed like a jester in the eyes of his sons-in-law."

In the Midrash, Chazal recount the dialogue between Lot and his sons-in-law. When Lot implored them to leave because of the impending doom, they countered derisively, "The city is singing and dancing, music is playing, and you say the city is about to be destroyed? Nonsense!" Horav A. Henach Leibovitz, Shlita, observes that Lotís sons-in-law would have heeded the warning to leave the city had they not seen the people in a state of joy and frivolity. They believed that Hashem could destroy the city; they did not believe that He would. Intellectually, they knew it might happen, but the present circumstances, albeit deceiving, did not lend themselves to such foreboding.

Why would the people's lack of awareness counter what was rationally evident? Horav Leibovitz explains that one cannot perceive doom and destruction amidst joy and dancing. It just does not penetrate. If things remain as before, if business continues as usual, human nature does not permit an individual to believe that the status quo is going to change.

Regrettably, the same inconsistency affects us. We see people suffering; we see sickness, bad luck, people who have fallen on hard times. We do not, however, believe it can happen to us. It is always the other one who will be hurt, never us. This is because things seem to be progressing well. We do not take into account that maybe, beneath the surface, they are not as smooth. We also tend to forget that circumstances can change instantaneously.

Chazal say that the fear of death should have a compelling effect upon us. It should imbue an individual with fear and inspire him to perform teshuvah. One never knows when his time is up. At least if he repents today, and tomorrow he is called back to the Olam Haíemes, he will leave as a righteous person. Why then do so many people defy this reality? Frequently, people are, unfortunately, faced with an impending meeting with the Angel of Death. Yet, many ignore this fact and continue to do as they please. Where is their fear? How long can they deny the truth? The answer must be that people may have an intellectual awareness of their end, but as long as everyone around them is having a grand time, it becomes difficult to accept. Only after the message reaches home, do some wake up. Regrettably, others still continue to ignore the truth.

And Hashem tested Avraham and said to him, "Avraham," and he replied, "Here I am." (22:1)

Avraham Avinuís loyalty to Hashem was ratified through ten trials, which he passed with exemplary devotion. Every trial had its own unique degree of challenge. The tenth, and most significant trial, was the Akeidah -- when Hashem instructed Avraham to bind Yitzchak and sacrifice him. Avraham responded, "Hineni," I am prepared and ready to serve You in any way that You ask. In response to a test of this caliber, the Satan was working overtime, challenging Avraham every step of the way. The Satan appeared to Avraham in the guise of an old man. He questioned Avraham regarding his destination. At first, Avraham was evasive, but when he saw that the Satan was not giving up, he told him emphatically, "I will not listen to you. Leave me alone!" Avraham refused to have any dialogue with the Satan. He knew that any relationship with the Satan would be devastating. Noach also had an interchange with the Satan, but, unlike Avraham, he seemed to have no problem learning an ethical lesson from him. When Noach was about to plant the vine, the Satan appeared and asked Noach if he would like him to join, to become his partner in nurturing the vine. Noach readily agreed. Satan left, returning with a little lamb which he slaughtered over the vine. He left again, only to return with a lion, which he slaughtered and whose blood he poured over the vine. He left yet again, returning with a monkey which he slaughtered, pouring its blood over the vine. Finally, he brought a pig which he slaughtered, and its blood stained the earth under the vine.

The lesson was: excessive drinking can have repulsive results. One cup of wine can make a man docile as a lamb. If he drinks two cups, he behaves like a lion--arrogant, boasting about his physical prowess. After three cups, he dances foolishly, like a monkey. Four cups will bring him to the point of inebriation, when he will vomit and roll in the mud like a pig. "Be careful," the Satan told Noach, "if you imbibe excessively, it can have such results that you enter into my domain. You will no longer have self-control; you will act like a swine, wallowing in the filth. You will be mine!"

Two great people--Noach and Avraham. One chooses to accept mussar from the Satan, while the other banishes him from his presence. Avraham refused to talk with the Satan. What are we to learn from these disparate approaches? Horav Moshe Schwab, zl, observes that herein lies the distinction between Noach and Avraham. Noach and his followers/students have no compunction to derive from the Torah only those lessons that the Satan disputes. Those things with which the Satan agrees, on the contrary, learn from the Satan! When it comes to social laws, manners, character refinements, etiquette, they want to be students of Satan.

Avraham Avinu and his students view Torah as a code which encompasses every aspect of life. Torah does not focus on Olam Habah; it should be our guide and directive as to how we should relate and act in Olam Hazeh. Noach and his milieu believe in Torah study, tefillah--indeed, everything spiritual. They also believe that this world is for enjoyment--not necessarily the enjoyment as seen through the perspective of the Torah. Their perspective is secular. In those areas which they know are not antagonistic to Torah -- or simply should not be in the Torah's domain -- they have no problem inviting the Satan to teach them ethics. Avraham understands that only when an endeavor is totally guided by the Torah can it become part of one's psyche and, thus, be bequeathed to the next generation. The answer for every question concerning life, from birth until the end of life, can be found in the Torah. One only has to be willing to look.

And Hashem tested Avraham. (22:1)

With the Akeidas Yitzchak, Avraham Avinu reached the summit of spiritual commitment to the Almighty. He was prepared to sacrifice everything--even his only son, his future--to serve Hashem. Avraham Avinu demonstrated obedience by listening to the command of Hashem. He showed unparalleled yiraas Shomayim, fear of Heaven, when he listened to Hashem without question. The Netziv, zl, emphasizes Avrahamís readiness to accept Hashemís command without questioning, as one might listen to a close friend. Avraham was in awe of Hashem, a state of being which precludes the question, "Why"? Fear is equated with unequivocal acquiescence; no questions are asked, one just readily performs the will of Hashem.

Avraham listened to Hashem's command to sacrifice Yitzchak. He also listened to Hashemís angel when he was told to halt the sacrifice. Avraham did not suddenly "come to his senses," as some alienated Bible scholars would have us think. Avraham acted with complete obedience. In fact, he set the criteria for halting the sacrifice; the ram that was to replace Yitzchak must carry the same degree of holiness as if Yitzchak had been sacrificed. Regrettably, these people refuse to acknowledge the truth that one can reach the spiritual zenith of serving the Almighty and still remain in complete control of his faculties.

Avraham set the standard for avodas Hashem, serving the Almighty through mesiras nefesh, self-sacrifice. The pasuk attributes the test to Avraham. Is this title misplaced? After all, Yitzchak was the one who was to be the korban, sacrifice, not Avraham. In the Drashos Haíran the point is made that a test is a test the first time it is initiated. After the first person undergoes the trial, it becomes easier for the person who follows. With this in mind, Sefer Aperion comments that Yitzchakís test, his willingness to give up his life for Hashem, was not novel. He inherited his devotion from his father, who was thrown into a fiery furnace and who risked his life in battle to save his cousin, Lot. Avraham, on the other hand, was undergoing a trial that had not been previously experienced. Never had an individual been asked to slaughter his son for the sake of the Almighty. This was the supreme test. Avraham had no one from whom to learn.

Horav Elchanan Wassermann, zl, observes that mesiras nefesh, sacrificing one's life in order to sanctify Hashemís Name, is not really a significant test. One is exchanging a temporal world for an eternal world. An individual who is bound up in the mitzvah of Kiddush Hashem acts with remarkable courage and enthusiasm, excited in the knowledge that he is relinquishing Olam Haízeh for Olam Haíbah. He will now be inducted in the Yeshivah Shel Maíalah, the Heavenly Yeshivah, where he will accompany the great tzaddikim of old. If this act of Kiddush Hashem causes him to lose his portion in the World-to-Come, if by performing this act of mesiras nefesh he is left with nothing, will he still go forward for the sake of the Almighty?

That is the definition of true mesiras nefesh, claims Reb Elchanan. A nisayon is a test of one's dedication to the Almighty. Throughout history, Jews have demonstrated their commitment and have given up their lives as they have sacrificed themselves for the Almighty. They were oriented towards Olam Habah. They always had something to look forward to. The opportunity to die as a Jew, to achieve the ultimate closeness with Hashem, to have a "ticket" to Gan Eden, is the reward of he who is moser nefesh. Avraham Avinu did not undergo that type of mesiras nefesh. If he had carried out Hashemís will, if he had sacrificed Yitzchak and passed the test, he would have lost everything. What did Avraham want most of all? His greatest desire, his ultimate goal, was to spread Hashemís Name throughout the world. His mission in life was to unite the world in monotheistic belief in Hashem. He told Hashem, "What can You give me, if I go childless? What benefit is Olam Habah if I have no son to carry on my work? What good is Olam Habah for me if all the work I have accomplished in this world is to be wasted because I have no heir to continue what I have initiated?" This was Avrahamís test. His mesiras nefesh comprised his willingness to sacrifice Yitzchak, to give everything up, to relinquish his Olam Habah for Kiddush Hashem. Yitzchakís death would bring an end to Avrahamís dreams. He would not have Olam Hazeh or Olam Habah. No, we cannot compare Avrahamís zenith of mesiras nefesh to that of the ensuing generations.


QUESTIONS

1. Why did Hashem appear to Avraham specifically in Elonei Mamre?

2. What did Avrahamís descendants receive from Hashem as reward for Avrahamís giving bread to the three strangers?

3. What good middah did Lot learn from Avraham?

4. Was there at least one tzaddik in Sodom?

5. A. At what time of the day was Sodom destroyed? B. Why?

6. Who did Yitzchak look like exactly?

7. Who was a greater prophet, Avraham or Sarah?

8. Who was Rivkahís paternal grandfather?


ANSWERS:

1. It was Mamre who encouraged Avraham to have the Bris Milah.

2. They received bread from Heaven--manna.

3. To look out for and give hospitality to wayfarers.

4. No.

5. A. Alos hashachar, when the morningstar rises.
B. At that time one is able to see both the moon and the sun. This way the worshippers of both these heavenly bodies would see how their gods were unable to protect them.

6. Avraham.

7. Sarah.

8. Nachor, Avrahamís brother.

Shema

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