Judaism: Lessons from Avimelech
Rabbi Avraham GordimerThe writer is a member of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) and the New York Bar.
One of the most mysterious episodes in the Torah, despite its seeming simplicity, is the sojourn of Yitzchak Avinu in Eretz Pelishtim, the Land of the Philistines.
After experiencing enmity and subsequently being expelled from the Gerar area of Eretz Pelishtim due to his material success, Yitzchak moves to the nearby Nachal Gerar area, where Yitzchak’s shepherds are subjected to the belligerence of the locals when his shepherds dig wells. After finally digging a well that is not accompanied by local belligerence, Yitzchak departs Nachal Gerar for Beer Sheva, where Hashem appears to him in a nighttime prophecy and tells him not to fear, as He is with him and He will grant His blessings to Yitzchak.
Yitzchak then erects a mizbe’ach (altar) to Hashem, and his servants dig a new well, after which Avimelech King of Gerar and his general approach Yitzchak to beseech that Yitzchak enter into a treaty with them, due to his superior prowess and stunning success, starkly evidencing Hashem’s special blessings, berachos, upon him. (Bereshis ch. 26)
It is noteworthy that in contrast to Avraham Avinu, who sojourned in Eretz Pelishtim for 26 years (v. Rashi on 21:34) and was never expelled therefrom despite significant initial friction with the local king, Avimelech, and material success, Yitzchak faced expulsion from Gerar at the hands of Avimelech and even felt compelled to depart Nachal Gerar for Beer Sheva due to the enmity of the Pelishtim (per Rashbam on 26:23).
When Avraham departed from Eretz Pelishtim, he did not receive a prophecy from Hashem for protection and the fulfillment of His promises, yet Yitzchak did receive such a prophecy, due to the intimidation he faced by the inhabitants of that land.
Why the differences between the experiences of Avraham and Yitzchak in Eretz Pelishtim? While it is true that Avraham also had a rough start with Avimelech, Avraham's overall experience in Eretz Pelishtim was apparently positive and amicable; he did not retreat as did Yitzchak, nor did he experience fear and need Divine reassurance upon his stay there.
Avraham Avinu had earned the reputation and achieved the stature of a popular and beloved leadership figure during his sojourn in Eretz Yisroel (v. Rashi on 14:17, 23:10), and through his prestigious and honorable persona, he publicly sanctified Hashem’s Name and brought the Shechinah (Divine Presence) into the world, laying the foundations for Am Yisroel (the Jewish People) at every step.
However, it can be suggested that Yitzchak, who was charged with the furtherance of his father’s mission, sensed personal failure in this regard. In contrast to Avraham, whose popularity and likeability increased by the day, enabling him to accomplish his holy mission, Yitzchak felt that he was not succeeding in becoming a leading personality whose example and reputation were a sanctification of God's Name, as reflected by the enmity, expulsion and degradation that he had experienced.
This feeling of failure was manifest by Yitzchak’s retreat to Beer Sheva, whereupon Hashem had to appear to him to comfort him and allay his fears that he was not living up to the mission with which he was tasked.
“And Hashem appeared to him that night, and He said, ‘I am the God of Avraham your father. Do not fear, for I am with you, and I will bless you and increase your progeny for the sake of Avraham My servant.’ “ (Bereshis 26:24) Yitzchak needed the reassurance that he was fulfilling his charge and that his actions were contributing solidly to the holy mission that he had to perform, setting the stage for the emergence of Am Yisroel. Although from Yitzchak’s perspective, things seemed very rough and unsuccessful, in truth, Yitzchak was doing exactly what he was supposed to do and was indeed being mekadesh Shem Shamayim (sanctifying the Name of God) by his actions and bringing dignity to His service.
Yitzchak’s apprehension was alleviated by Hashem’s comforting message and was subsequently shown to be unwarranted, for the same Avimelech who tormented Yitzchak and made Yitzchak feel dejected and unsuccessful (in a societal sense) now came with his chief aide beseeching Yitzchak to enter into a treaty with him, while extolling Yitzchak’s prestige and persona as testimony to Hashem’s special blessings upon him.
Whereas Yitzchak’s self-image in Eretz Pelishtim was one of failure, due to the incessant tribulations he faced that ended with expulsion and retreat, Yitzchak had no idea of the actual success that he was attaining. It was specifically through Avimelech, who was the primary source for Yitzchak's feelings of lack of accomplishment of his life-mission, that Yitzchak's life-mission was validated as a successful continuation in the path of Avrahaom.
Despite the enmity of Avimelech and the Pelishtim, Yitzchak had in fact set a holy example in Eretz Pelishtim and had earned the utmost respect of all.
Through the episode of Yitzchak in Eretz Pelishtim, the Torah teaches us that fulfilling the Ratzon Hashem (Will of God) as best as we can is our ultimate success. Even if we do not realize it, thinking that we are drudging through spiritual life and pushing boulders up mountains, accomplishing close to nothing, unbeknownst to us our lives are in truth smashing success stories if we trust in Hashem and do our best to fulfill His Will.
The example of Yitzchak illustrates that the success of a Jew in performing the Ratzon Hashem is not measured by feelings of self-accomplishment or readily realizing tangible results; we are often unaware of what we are achieving.
Rather, living a life of Avodas Hashem (Divine Service) with sincere and complete effort is our greatest possible achievement, the effects of which are immeasurable and eternal.