Good or bad?

A heavy burden.

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg,

Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg
Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg

One of the greatest challenges that can be faced when studying the Torah is dealing with apparent contrary presentations of the events and the people associated with them. When reading about what surely seems to be a great individual, the Sages seem to have no compunction in skewering him or her. As well, there are times when a person seems to be fairly evil, in the simple understanding, but is showered with praise by the Sages.

This disconnect can appear to be troubling, but it is actually an opportunity to understand the deep wisdom of the Sages, and in turn the important people of the Torah. 

There are many momentous events concerning Avraham in the Torah portion of Lech Lecha. We see the great compassion Avraham has for his nephew, assembling a small commando unit to rescue him from his captors (Bereishit 14:12-14):

“And they took Lot and his possessions, the son of Abram's brother, and they departed, and he was living in Sodom. And the fugitive came and he told Abram the Hebrew, and he was living in the plain of Mamre the Amorite, the brother of Eshkol and the brother of Aner, who were Abram's confederates. And Abram heard that his kinsman had been taken captive, and he armed his trained men, those born in his house, three hundred and eighteen, and he pursued [them] until Dan”

Another pivotal event is the famed covenant between God and the Jewish people in consecrated through Avraham (ibid 15:7-8): 
“And He said to him, "I am the Lord, Who brought you forth from Ur of the Chaldees, to give you this land to inherit it." And he said, "O Lord God, how will I know that I will inherit it?"”

We also see Avraham committed to an ethical ideology that has no place for the king of Sodom (ibid 14:21-23):
“And the king of Sodom said to Abram, "Give me the souls, and the possessions take for yourself." And Abram said to the king of Sodom, "I raise my hand to the Lord, the Most High God, Who possesses heaven and earth. Neither from a thread to a shoe strap, nor will I take from whatever is yours, that you should not say, 'I have made Abram wealthy.'”

In all of the above cited verses, the general consensus among commentaries is effusive praise. There does not appear to be a hint of anything negative in any of those instances. 

Yet, when we see the Talmud, a whole other angle becomes apparent (Nedarim 32a):

“R. Abbahu said in R. Eleazar's name: Why was our Father Abraham punished and his children doomed to Egyptian servitude for two hundred and ten years? Because he pressed scholars into his service, as it is written, He armed his dedicated servants born in his own house. Samuel said: Because he went too far in testing the attributes [i.e., the promises] of the Lord, as it is written, [And he sand, Lord God,] whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it? R. Johanan sand: Because he prevented men from entering beneath the wings of the Shechinah, as it is written, [And the king of Sodom said it to Abraham,] Give me the persons, and take the goods to thyself.”

The proposition of the Talmud is astonishing. First, the statement is a damning indictment of Avraham’s actions. Rather than see any one of these three moments as praiseworthy, the Talmud recasts them as sins. Whatever sheen of positivity attached to the above is lost when reading the Talmud’s account. It is bad enough to view these as sins; it is far worse to see these as somehow being the cause of the future enslavement of the Jewish people. How do Avraham’s actions, even if considered to be sins, somehow lead to the two hundred and ten years of oppression? 

To begin formulating a reasonable answer, we must consider the principal perspective to take regarding Avraham’s actions. If we consider them to be essentially wrong, then we are left with the serious issue of both the adulation of the commentators and the fact there is not a single condemnation by God. It would appear, then, that we should categorize his actions as being positive. However, it is possible that Avraham’s actions, while noble at their core, resulted in some unintended consequences. 

In the first example, without question the plan to save Lot was deserving of praise. However, as the Talmud characterizes it, he “pressed” those in his household to fight. The people who joined his small army were his students. They had dedicated their lives to following the creed taught to them by Avraham. They were not naturally soldiers, never trained to fight battles or attack enemies. Understanding the dire situation of Lot, and the importance of saving him, they came forward to assist. We would assume their motivation came from their attachment to the correct ethical imperative. However, there is another possible view of why they acted the way they did. The Talmud is opining that pressure was placed on Avraham’s students. It could be that one can view this episode as the height of irresponsibility. Taking untrained soldiers, swayed by their charismatic leader to engage in an enterprise that could easily fail, is an alternate version of the story. 

God reveals to Avraham that he will be the progenitor of the Jewish people. A covenant is established. Avraham, though, wanted to understand more. How would this covenant work? What would happen if the Jewish people rejected the path of God? How would their relationship be maintained? These questions are reflective of an individual motivated by a search for truth. The Talmud, though sees it differently. Avraham is challenging God, questioning His promises. The language he uses indicates a serious issue with God’s covenant, an almost disrespectful questioning. In this second version, Avraham’s questions are changed to be inappropriate.

The war between the kings ended in a victory through the efforts of Avraham and his soldiers. In the post-war discussions, Avraham first deals with Malki-tzedek, someone who clearly identified with the proper outlook. Then there was the king of Sodom, whose ideology was centered on man. Avraham would not consider any dealings with such an individual, a display of true dedication to the correct path. The Talmud seems to take issue with this. Avraham may have stayed true to his outlook, but he sacrificed the opportunity to bring more people into the fold. If the great proselytizer abandoned potential recruits, maybe he did not completely buy into his mission. Avraham’s dedication to the cause seemed quite questionable in leaving some souls behind.

Are we really to believe these condemnations of Avraham? It is hard to conceive of the founder of Judaism to be this type of person. One challenge we face is how to see Avraham through the lens of the era he began his quest to bring the ideas of God to the world. The genesis of the ideology was a tenuous period of time. Our ideological enemies would be searching for some type of flaw, a thread to take hold of and expose Avraham and the subsequent monotheistic faith as a fraud. Indeed, when we see these three stories, we see some potential unintended consequences. The great courage exhibited by his students could be looked at as blind followings of a demagogue. In Avraham’s conversations with God, his intellectual inquiry would be sold by our enemies as the disrespectful inquisition of a person who clearly did not appreciate the good being given him. And, of course, the ideological stand by Avraham against the king of Sodom would be slandered as the abandonment of the cause itself. The Talmud is not impeaching Avraham’s greatness. Rather, it is pointing out that no matter the greatness of Avraham’s actions, there would be methods construed by our enemies to destroy the religion before it got off the ground.

This may be all well and good. Yet how do we understand the future enslavement of the Jews? If this were a matter of Divine Justice, it would be hard to understand such a punishment. The point of the Talmud, though, is a necessary by-product of the process of enslavement. The Jewish people, in order to forge their distinctiveness properly, needed to undergo a period of time where their prior identity was eviscerated. The years of slavery meant that there were no longer any condemnations that could be directed at them. While we knew we were the descendants of Avraham, our enemies ceased to view us in this light. We were a nation of slaves, nothing more, and from the depths of our bondage we could rise up, phoenix like, and become a “new” nation.

Unfortunately, the attempts to undermine Judaism have not disappeared. Our actions today are constantly under a microscope. Our enemies are always searching for a weakness, never pausing in their quest to try and expose Judaism as a fraud. It is a mark of the anti-Semite, and it has been a part of our history since Avraham first introduced the idea of monotheism to the world. We cannot allow their attacks to sway us from the proper path. At the same time, we must be acutely aware we are always being judged, never buckling under the burden. It is only with the future Redemption, when the world unites under one ideological umbrella, can we rest easy and know we will be viewed in the proper light.

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