30 Jan

Chapter 12: The Birth of Rivka

12.1 The Birth of Rivka

As a result of the connection between Abraham’s hesed and Isaac’s gevura that was established during the Akeda, Jacob’s tiferet can be born, and therefore, Abraham is told about the birth of Rivka immediately after the Akeda.

12.2 Nahor’s Family

All the marriages of the forefathers related to us in the Book of Genesis occur within the Terah clan called Ivrim, which has two main branches—that of Avraham and that of Nahor. Nahor’s wife Milcah was Haran’s daughter and Sarah’s sister (Genesis 11:29) which means that both Abraham and Nahor were married to their nieces who descended from Terah’s other wife.

The relationship of the various branches in Terah’s clan can be presented, according to the Midrash: as following: After the events in Ur Kasdim (The Chaldean furnace) when it became clear that the Ivrim were being persecuted in Babylon (Abraham was thrown into a fiery furnace and Haran died), the question arose what Terah’s family should do in this situation.

Terah, the seller of idols, was not an active supporter of Eber’s religious system, but he did strive to return to Canaan (Genesis 11:31), to the Land of the Jews (Genesis 40:15), seemingly for nationalist reasons (in some sense he can be considered a prototype of secular Zionism). However he made it only to Haran where he remained.

His sons Abraham and Nahor who survived the catastrophe in Ur Kasdim differ as to what direction their family should take. Nahor (in some sense he can be considered to be the founder of cosmopolitan Judaism) decides to integrate into the then dominant Aramean culture. However, he does not succeed in remaining an Ivri: his family assimilates very quickly and his children are called Arameans: “Bethuel the Aramean, of Paddan-aram, the sister of Laban the Aramean” (Genesis 25:20).

Nahor, a cosmopolitan universalist, thought it right to influence the nations of the world from the inside. (It is interesting that this point of view, a religious approach towards exile, galut leshma, still exists among the Jewish people. For example, Rav Hirsch who lived in the middle of the 19th century in Germany, claimed that the role of the Jewish people is to live among the other nations and their enlightened countries, for example in Germany, and influence them from within.)

Conversely, Abraham is the representative of a universal-nationalistic concept. He goes to the Land of Israel not because he wants to return to nature and the earth (as was the case with Terah), but to attain the rectification of the entire world when “in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). In our days, this is the approach of Religious Zionism. However, it would be wrong to stop at the nationalistic stance, even if it has a universal direction. Therefore, the men from Abraham’s family (Isaac and Jacob) marry the daughters from Nahor’s family (Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah) so that the line of universality would also be represented in the Jewish nationalistic worldview.

12.3 Twelve Sons and a Daughter

When reading the Torah we often do not pay much attention to genealogical lists—for example, the enumeration of Nahor’s children in this chapter. However, besides their factual significance, these enumerations have one more critical aspect. The genealogy of characters described in the Torah usually has a main branch that has few children, and a side branch that, on the contrary, has many children. This corresponds to the view that the chief, i.e. noble members, of a family must have few heirs while the subordinate common folk must be numerous. Indeed, in the Torah we see in several place that the younger, secondary son from the sideline, has twelve sons and a daughter (or twelve overt sons and one covert son), meaning “twelve-and-a-half successors” are continuing him. The reason is that the main line is a heliacal line while the side line is lunar. Therefore, the side line must have “twelve and a half” children to correspond with the correlation of heliacal and lunar cycles (in the heliacal year there are approximately 12.5 lunar months).

For instance, Ham, the son of Noah, has a main line—Cush whose son was Nimrod and a secondary line—Canaan who has 12 children (Genesis 10:8, 15). The Torah enumerates 11 sons and additional “Canaanite tribes” i.e. it is also a separate nation. Eber also has two sons: the older, Peleg, whose descendent is Terah and Abraham’s race, and the additional line of Yoktan who has 12.5 sons (Genesis 10:26). In Terah’s family Abraham is the main line and he has two chief sons (Keturah is a side line) while Nahor has 12 sons and a daughter (Rivka is Bethuel’s daughter and it is not by chance that she is mentioned here). Later, Abraham has the main line through Isaac while Ishmael has 12 sons and a daughter (Genesis 25:13; 28:9).

The most significant example of this pattern occurs with Jacob. He also has 12.5 sons which implies that originally Jacob was supposed to have been a side line and Esau the chief line. But Jacob was able to ascend and attain the level of a founder of the Chosen People by transforming a side line into the main line. For a line to become the main line it is insufficient for its leader to be born first. Jacob’s greatness was that he could transform himself from a younger brother to the older, the secondary into the primary.

30 Jan

Chapter 11: The Binding of Yitzhak

11.1 Lessons of Akedat Yitzhak

The episode that occurred on Mt. Moriya is called in the Jewish tradition Akedat Yitzhak, or The Binding of Isaac, and in the Christian (European) tradition, The Sacrifice of Isaac. The Christian approach focuses here on the intention of “bringing Isaac as a sacrifice” while the Jewish approach concentrates on what happened in reality—Isaac was bound but not sacrificed.

This incident is often interpreted as a glorification of Abraham’s greatness: God commanded him to sacrifice his son and he went to fulfill the order without having pity on his son. This analysis cannot be called erroneous but it definitely insufficient. It emphasizes Abraham’s obedience but first of all, obedience is not Abraham’s characteristic trait, and secondly, his obedience is not what is important in the Akeda story.

Looking through the prism of “forefathers in dynamics” in which the forefathers are seen as personalities going through an on-going dynamic process of development, the very question about the meaning of this episode must me formulated differently: How did Abraham advance during these events and a result of them? This approach sees the Akeda (binding) as a process of making contact and a correct interrelationship between Abraham’s hesed and Isaac’s gevura.

The Akeda is the last story in the Vayera portion. This section begins with an announcement to Abraham about the future birth of Isaac and ends with Abraham’s establishing a dialogue with Isaac. Thus the Vayera portion as a whole is deals with the conversion of “an Abraham only” system to “an Abraham+ his son Isaac” system which enables the future formation of the Jewish nation.

In Hebrew the word ben (son) is related to the verb boneh (to build). Through a son, a person’s future is built: his race, his endeavors, and even he himself only fully becomes himself after becoming conscious of his relationship with his son. Therefore, only after building a relationship with Isaac who epitomizes gevura, can Abraham finish the purification and formation of the hesed category.

11.2 Isaac or Ishmael?

(22) And He said: ‘Take now thy son, thine only son, whom thou lovest, even Isaac, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt-offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.’

God emphasizes kah na (please take) i.e. God does not command but invites Abraham, otherwise it would not have been a test for Abraham.

The Midrash (Bereishit Raba 55:7) explains the following enumeration “Take now thy son, thine only son, whom thou lovest, even Isaac” not as God’s monologue but as a dialogue between God and Abraham. To God’s suggestion “take now thy son,” Abraham answers, “I have two sons: Isaac and Ishmael.” God specifies, “thine only son,” to which Abraham replies, “each one of them is an only son to his mother.” God specifies even more, “whom thou lovest,” Abraham: “I love both of them.” And only then does God say straight out, “Isaac.” God does not make His request immediately because Abraham needed to once more go through the steps of comprehending and accepting that his only successor is Isaac.

We remember that since Isaac’s birth there has been an ongoing dispute between Sarah and Abraham about which son is Abraham’s true son. On numerous occasions God shows Abraham that it is Isaac who is his real son: Ishmael is merely the son of a slave-woman who is also his descendent but not his “son.” A descendent inherits some characteristics of the father: he can even receive his father’s blessing, but he is not the continuator of his work. However, after Abraham seems to have accepted the interrelation between his children— all of a sudden the situation is reversed.

11.3 A Successor by choice. From a “Back to Back” Union to a “Face to Face” Union

During the Akeda, Abraham alters his attitude towards Isaac: at the beginning of the story he accepts Isaac as his successor only due to pressure from Above, but in the end Abraham has to recognize it himself, by his own choice. For this Abraham needs to be set free from the Divine decision that Isaac is the successor.

This type of spiritual mechanism the Kabbala calls nesira, translated literally as “sawing.” A classical example of this kind of sawing is the creation of Eve from Adam. Adam was dual—his male and female categories connected “back to back.” God severed a side (“a rib”) from him and used it to form a woman, after which Adam and Eve can reunite as two individual people, by their own choice, “face to face.”

While two people are connected “back to back,” by force, because they are related, they are incapable of seeing the other as a separate individual. For example, for a parent, a child is an integral part of them and therefore they cannot fully see him as a separate being. Therefore, a child cannot develop into an individual in his own right all the while he is associated with his parents—he can do so only after he gets married, “face to face” with another individual. In a similar fashion, for Adam to unite with Eve “face to face,” he first needed to sever the “back to back” connection, which is exactly what nesira (sawing) means.

Abraham was connected to the idea of Isaac as his successor with the “back to back” kind of unity. It was a forced upon succession, a decree without personal choice—God strictly instructed Abraham that no one besides Isaac is suited for this job. Clearly Abraham accepted this Divine command, but this compulsory union is imperfect while the continual development of a nation requires hesed and gevura to be united in a perfect bond. To attain this ideal unity, hesed must be shaped and constrained so that it will become proper and then this purified hesed can unite with gevura. But for a full-fledged bond between hesed and gevura to be formed, Abraham and Isaac need to build a relationship of two independent individuals. For this to happen, the “descended from Above” idea that Isaac is Abraham’s successor needs to be broken so that Abraham could come this realization on his own. This is precisely the idea behind Akedat Yitzhak. God purposely puts Abraham in a situation where everything seems set and it is clear who the successor is—and then everything again becomes unclear and vague.

11.4 Three potential successors

(2) And He said: ‘Take now thy son, thine only son, whom thou lovest, even Isaac, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt-offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.’ (3) And Abraham rose early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son; and he cleaved the wood for the burnt-offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him.

Abraham wakes up “early in the morning”—the time of hesed when God is ready to show additional mercy to the awakened world. Hoping for Divine hesed, Abraham starts his journey to find out who will eventually be his successor. Because the situation has once more become uncertain and could have any outcome, Abraham takes along two more youths in addition to Isaac. The Midrash claims they were Ishmael and Eliezer. (Note that the concept of “young men” also means “servant” and does not necessarily connote age, and could therefore refer to both Eliezer and Ishmael.)

11.5 A Three-day Journey—Abraham’s Conscious Decision

(4) On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off.

The fact that Abraham walked for three days shows us that Abraham did not have to fulfill the Divine command while experiencing religious ecstasy, without having a chance to reflect about what he is about to do. Abraham had to walk for three days so that nothing would be left of religious ecstasy. During this time he had to recognize the crisis regarding the question of his successor. Only when Abraham judiciously and consciously confirms his readiness to fulfill God’s command is he able to see Mt. Moriya from afar. And this was an indication for him that the time had come to make a decision. When one understands just how severe a conflict is, one begins seeing the place where the conflict will be resolved.

11.6 Abraham selects Isaac

(5) And Abraham said unto his young men: ‘Abide ye here with the ass, and I and the lad will go yonder; and we will worship, and come back to you.’

Nothing held Abraham back from going along with his companions all the way to the top of the mountain. But when he sees “the place afar off” and feels that the time has come to make a decision, he makes an act of the utmost significance: He chooses Isaac and separates him from Ishmael and Eliezer. Earlier Isaac was forced upon Abraham as his successor. Now God opens the question of succession once more and Abraham, after pondering on the question for three days, makes his choice independently this time.

The act of separating Isaac of his own accord and understanding that he must go on with him alone and leave the others where they are is an extremely significant step in Abraham’s personal development. Only after this independent decision can Abraham and Isaac begin their dialogue. The Torah does not relate about any conversations Abraham had with Isaac while they were living in Beer Sheba. Apparently they did not have any conversations because Abraham was not ready to converse with Isaac. Only when Abraham designated Isaac of his own free will, did dialogue become possible.

By commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, God separates Isaac from Abraham’s succession: he “saws” their connection. Now, when Abraham sets Isaac apart from the others through personal choice and not because of any other circumstances, he connects with him “face to face” instead of the previous “back to back” union. He comes to the realization that he has no other option besides Isaac. From this point on, Abraham walks with Isaac freely, consciously, and without coercion, although he does not know what is going to occur later. Abraham tells the youths they would “go yonder and we will worship, and come back to you” i.e. he hopes everything will end well. But in any case Ishmael and Eliezer cannot continue their trip with him.

11.7 “And they went both of them together”

(6) And Abraham took the wood of the burnt-offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took in his hand the fire and the knife; and they went both of them together.

This is the first instance in which Abraham sees Isaac as “his son.” For this reason the Torah emphasizes that, “they went both of them together.” Previously they were distant from each other. In the beginning Abraham does everything himself: “saddled his ass,” “took the wood”—all are in the singular form. There is no dialogue with Isaac at this stage. Abraham was confused: he did not know who would be his successor and therefore did everything by himself. Now Abraham becomes close to Isaac—he hands the wood over to Isaac and leaves the donkey (as a symbol of materialism) at the bottom of the mountain. “Together” indicates that an authentic unity between Abraham and Isaac emerges; it arises because Abraham realized his choice.

11.8 Secondariness of Gevura in Relation to Hesed

(7) And Isaac spoke unto Abraham his father, and said: ‘My father.’ And he said: ‘Here am I, my son.

When Abraham and Isaac walk of their own accord, when they have united “face to face,” a dialogue is established between them, and this is the most significant moment in the Akeda episode. “My father” does not only connote that Isaac is addressing Abraham (the Torah would go out of its way to tell us this) but it means that Isaac now recognizes Abraham as his father.

Gevura, the category of Isaac, addresses hesed, the category of Abraham, and tells it that it accepts it as its “father” i.e. as its foundation. Gevura tells hesed that it does not render itself absolute, that it is secondary to hesed, only its derivation. The aim is not to realize justice, judgment, and law—they have no value in them of themselves. On the contrary: the aim is mercy and grace. Judgment and law are only supporting (although necessary) tools for a more comprehensive realization of hesed.

Isaac admits that all of his traits originate from Abraham and therefore he subjects himself to his father’s aspirations. This rectification of gevura is the paramount idea in the Akedat Yitzhak story.

The category of hesed is full-fledged, sense-bearing, and target-oriented. If you could make everyone happy, that would be wonderful. However, at some point it becomes apparent that making everyone happy is simply impossible if other sefirot-categories are missing. Yet hesed remains the main framework. The situation with gevura is completely different: Gevura is the desire for everything to be just and correct. If gevura decides that justice and law are the essence, the world will collapse. It is a great mistake to make one’s goal the attainment of justice. Further still, Kabbala teaches that evil comes into the world from the “absolutization” of the gevura category. Tearing away gevura from hesed is the source of evil because evil roots itself in the world when law, judgment, and order is applied too strictly. Everything that exists in this world is imperfect and, therefore, when the category of judgment is applied too strictly, the universe turns out to be guilty and accused, and therefore collapses. Hence, gevura cannot think of itself as a self-contained category, but only as secondary.

Upon seeing that Isaac-gevura accepts its subordination, Abraham-hesed says to him: “Here am I, my son” (the second “here I am” in this episode.) And these words are addressed not only to Isaac, but to God as well. Abraham recognizes Isaac as his son (previously only the Torah called Isaac Abraham’s son while Abraham referred to Ishmael when he said “my son” and not to Isaac). Hesed accepts that it too is not absolute and that gevura is essential for its existence. This is precisely the meaning of establishing contact, uniting “face to face”: when each side understands that the other is indispensible and when there is a desire to lead a dialogue with them. Each of life’s ideals taken separately presents only one side, while a complete realization requires the unification of ideals.

11.9 “G-d will provide”

(7)And he said: ‘Behold the fire and the wood; but where is the lamb for a burnt-offering?’ (8)And Abraham said: ‘G-d will provide Himself the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son.’ So they went both of them together.

Isaac, as the epitome of the gevura category, wants everything to be right. Therefore when he sees wood and fire he asks about the lamb. In response he wants to hear how he can correct this incorrect situation. Hesed answers him: God will provide. By responding in this way, Abraham means to say to Isaac that from a logical point of view there is no answer to this valid question. By saying “God will provide” Abraham wants to convey to Isaac the idea that gevura should not try to be so right. In life, things often turn out unexpectedly and illogically because life is much more complex than any correctness and it does not fit into a formal scheme. It thus follows that the aim of Abraham’s words is not to calm Isaac but to alter his world view.

From this moment on Isaac walks together with Abraham. His gevura stopped being so rigid. He is ready to accept a world that appears to be illogical and imperfect.

“God will provide”: The Midrash connects the word ro’e (will provide) with yir’a (awe), from which the name Mt. Moriya gets its name. “God will provide” i.e. will find a way out of the contradiction. In a situation when hesed and gevura contradict each other, we need to try to find a way for both of them to be realized. But because we cannot unite them of our own accord, we hope for Divine aid—“that God will provide” by finding a way to unite both of these contradictory categories. For this reason Isaac and Abraham bond on their way to Mt. Moriya.

Mt. Moriya is “the mountain of provision” and “the mountain of awe.” The union of hesed and gevura is possible only if awe before the Almighty is present and at the same time if this union is “provided” by Him.

Integration of seemingly incompatible categories is possible only within the framework of solving the Divine problem that God “provided” for us. Only during the solution process you truly understand that you need the other person and that he completes you—just like you complete him. Then the union between hesed and gevura occurs not through compromise, not through diminishing one category on account of the other, but through recognition that both categories are essential for the Divine task.

The phrase “so they went both of them together” is repeated twice in this section. The first time Isaac and Abraham walked together in a physical sense: they separated themselves from Ishmael and Eliezer, and traveled with the comprehension that only they comprise the Jewish nation. Now they walk together in a spiritual sense with an understanding that they complete each other and can attain perfection only through an authentic unity.

11.10 Akeda–The Binding of Isaac

(9) And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built the altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar, upon the wood.

“Akeda” translated as “binding” is what needs to be done to gevura, the category of judgment. Gevura needs to be bound, dependent, and subservient to hesed—but it need not be eliminated. It would be a mistake to do away with gevura altogether.

11.11 Abraham responds to the Divine Calling

(10) And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. (11) And the angel of HaShem called unto him out of heaven, and said: ‘Abraham, Abraham.’ And he said: ‘Here am I.’

God calls on Abraham at the beginning of the Akeda: “Abraham” and he responds: “Behold, here am I.” Now God calls Abraham again (this time on a completely different level) and receives the same answer again. This is the third hineni in the Akeda story. In order to reach this new level in his interaction with God, Abraham had to answer “here am I” when addressed by Isaac. To advance in our interaction with God we need to advance in our interaction with other people.

11.12 A Binding, but not a Sacrifice

(12) And he said: ‘Lay not thy hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him;’

When Abraham binds Isaac, God lets Abraham know that it is sufficient just to bind, that the sacrifice is canceled, and that there is no need to eradicate gevura. Thus, Abraham’s binding of Isaac is not only a physical act or one that prepares him for bringing a sacrifice, but a form of dialogue, a way of making contact and interacting. And although Abraham clearly loved Isaac very much, a covert idea could have sneaked in that gevura should be eliminated for the sake of lofty perfection, so that the world would be left with only hesed. And perhaps for this reason (although following a Divine command) Abraham places Isaac on an altar, takes a knife and spreads his hand over him—and at this moment God stops Abraham because Abraham is not able to stop himself of his own accord. Moreover, “lay not thy hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him” (22:12) means do not do gevura any harm.

Through the process of the Akedat Yitzhak both Abraham and Isaac go through an experience of personal development. Isaac agrees to be bound, and this means that gevura is prepared to limit itself and this is Isaac’s advancement. Hesed, on the other hand, stops itself before the bound gevura.

It should be noted that in Kabbalistic instructions for the attainment of the proper intentions during prayer (kavanot) it is written that when a person reads the Akedat Yitzhak in the morning prayers, he should think about the binding of the category of din—the prosecutors of Israel. We should not pray for their eradication but we ask God to prevent them from having the freedom to act.

11.13 God will provide

(12)…for now I know that thou art a God-fearing man, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, from Me.’ (13) And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in the thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt-offering in the stead of his son. (14) And Abraham called the name of that place Adonai-jireh; as it is said to this day: ‘In the mount where HaShem is seen.’

“Behind him a ram”—not only in the sense of the physical location in relation to Abraham, but also in time: it was “prepared from the start.”

It seems Abraham has reached the pinnacle: first he saw the place from afar and then climbed the mountain. But it turns out that it is possible to go even further: “Abraham lifted up his eyes” (this is undoubtedly a continuation of verse 4: “On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off”). And when Abraham reaches this even higher level, it turns out that the seemingly hopeless situation has a solution—and then the ram appears.

Abraham names this place “God will provide,” using the same words he earlier said to Isaac. Understanding that “God will provide” is an expression of hope for synthesis, despite the fact that the contradictions remain for things which seem incompatible to humans can be united in Divine light. By calling the place God Will Provide, Abraham wants to convey his newly acquired understanding to the entire world.

It is on Mt. Moriya, on the Temple Mount, that the Jewish Temple must stand. This idea emphasizes the recognition that God will find solutions to problems which seem unsolvable to us. He will offer us solutions through a mutually reinforcing relationship with those who internally strive to reach the same goals, but whose external character is extremely different from ours.

11.14 Blessing to the Nations

(15) And the angel of HaShem called unto Abraham a second time out of heaven, (16) and said: ‘By Myself have I sworn, saith HaShem, because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, (17) that in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the seashore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; (18) and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast hearkened to My voice.’

The acquired recognition, expressed through naming of the mountain “God will provide” caused an increase in reward. For the second time an angel of God tells Abraham about the blessing all of humanity will receive through him: “And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” is an allusion to a verse at the beginning of the Lekh Lekha portion: “ in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). But here the attainment is secured: the nations of the world will be blessed through Abraham’s descendents because of his achievement, i.e. not only because he realized hesed, but because he understood the necessity of combining hesed and gevura. Because without the integration of hesed with gevura there will be nothing with which the nations of the world could be blessed. For Abraham the repetition of the universal blessing is a sign that although the following path lies through Isaac i.e. nationalism—universality will not be lost.

11.15 Beginning of Jacob’s birth

“Because thou hast hearkened to my voice”: the Hebrew word ekev (because) comes from the same root as the name Yaakov (Jacob). This indicates that because of the Akedat Yitzhak story and the unity of Abraham’s hesed and Isaac’s gevurah, Jacob, who will later add the tiferet category, can be born. Later the Torah will say about Jacob: Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents” (Genesis 25:27). “Tents” are in the plural to connote the tents of both Abraham and Isaac.

11.16 Abraham’s Return

(19) So Abraham returned unto his young men, and they rose up and went together to Beer-sheba; and Abraham dwelt at Beer-sheba.

“So Abraham returned”—the verb is in the singular form because although physically both of them returned, mentally only Abraham returned. Isaac, who had attained the level of self-sacrifice, remained at this summit for the rest of his life. Everything he will do afterwards—eat, drink, farm, live with his wife—will be life from the perspective of Mt. Moriya. Isaac is a live person because sanctity according to Judaism is living life to its fullest. Nevertheless, he could not return to the other youths. Thus, on a metaphysical level, “the sacrifice of Isaac” did take place, although in reality it could not have happened under any circumstances because then it would have lost its meaning; since the meaning of the Akeda was to touch Heaven—to bring the Divine light down upon the earth.

30 Jan

Chapter 10: Abraham’s Covenant with Abimelech

10.1 Abraham’s Covenant with Abimelech

(22)And it came to pass at that time, that Abimelech and Phicol the captain of his host spoke unto Abraham, saying: ‘G-d is with thee in all that thou doest. (23)Now therefore swear unto me here by G-d that thou wilt not deal falsely with me, nor with my son, nor with my son’s son; but according to the kindness that I have done unto thee, thou shalt do unto me, and to the land wherein thou hast sojourned.’

Abraham settled in Beer Sheba, on the edge of the dessert—although located within the boundaries of Abimelech’s kingdom, it was remote from the capital city. He now receives recognition as “a righteous man living in alienation.” Abimelech sees Abraham’s tremendous success and acknowledges the reason for his accomplishment, “God is with thee in all that thou doest,” i.e. Abimelech accepts Abraham as a spiritual authority. Therefore, as a sign of respect, he makes a government visit together with his commander. Abimelech sees Abraham as a strategic threat and therefore decides to make a pact with him which binds their descendents as well.

Abimelech exaggerates his merits when he claims, “according to the kindness that I have done unto thee…” He notes “to the land wherein thou hast sojourned” using the verb gar (to reside as an alien, without any rights). But Abraham pays no attention to these discrepancies and also doesn’t take into account the fact that God promised him the entire Land, and agrees to make this treaty.

The Midrash sees this episode as a sin on Abraham’s part because he had no right to promise Abimelech part of the Land, and claims this covenant resulted in the Akeda, the Binding of Isaac. However, it would be incorrect to understand the connection between these two incidents in terms of “sin and punishment”; rather it should be seen through the prism of faults and their rectifications.

Abimelech, who looks at the situation from the side, understands it better than Abraham: he sees its political aspect and doesn’t want to miss out on any gain; he wants to receive a promise from Abraham that he will not to steal his leadership and the leadership of his descendents. Abimelech sees that Abraham has huge potential and will rule the Land in the future. For Abraham, this aspect is less important, at least until he becomes a nation. What is significant for him is that he spreads his views by teaching people. He knows his descendents will one day become a nation, but he hasn’t internalized it yet. Only later, the Binding of Isaac episode will force him to change his approach.

Abraham accepts Abimelech’s suggestion to be the “religious leader” within the boundaries of Abimelech’s kingdom (“And Abraham planted a tamarisk-tree in Beer Sheba, and called there on the name of HaShem, the Everlasting G-d.” [Genesis 21:33].) The Philistines were distinguished in sea trade, economic and technological advancements (for example, in the Book of Samuel it mentions that the Philistines already had iron while the Jews still use bronze weapons). For this reason, Abraham envisions that by making a covenant with the Philistines, he will be able to influence the entire world.

It seems that the option of making a treaty with Abimelech is preferable to Abraham over a demanding independent political-military life in Hebron, and therefore Abraham “sojourned in the land of the Philistines many days” (Genesis 21:34).

10.2 Judaism as a Synthesis of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob

If we extract from Abraham a purely “Abrahimic” streak (an all-embracing love, hesed, grace, universalism in the cosmopolitan sense, refusal to make claims on political realization, rectification without coercion, aim to unite with Egypt’s leading world culture) i.e. detach Abraham from Isaac and Jacob, we will get some sort of an idealized form of Christianity. And if we extract from Isaac a purely “Isaaic” streak, we will get something analogous to Islam (gevura, self-isolation, rigidity, readiness to self-sacrifice, acceptance of the world as it is without any attempt to improve it, a strict adherence to the received legacy). In other words, if you absolutize Abraham and Isaac individually, then they can be seen as the spiritual forefathers of Judaism’s two daughter religions—Christianity and Islam. In contrast, Judaism is founded on the synthesis of all three forefathers—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Some “derivative” branches on the tree of the Jewish ethical monotheism can deviate to either side, but the stem must always remain mainstream, because, in the end, the entire system rests on the stem.

10.3. Abraham’s Oath to Abimelech

(24) And Abraham said: ‘I will swear.’ (25) And Abraham reproved Abimelech because of the well of water, which Abimelech’s servants had violently taken away. (26) And Abimelech said: ‘I know not who hath done this thing; neither didst thou tell me, neither yet heard I of it, but to-day.’ (27) And Abraham took sheep and oxen, and gave them unto Abimelech; and they two made a covenant. (28) And Abraham set seven ewe-lambs of the flock by themselves.

Even after reaching an agreement with Abimelech, Abraham notes that there are still issues they have not solved. Only post factum it becomes clear that Abimelech’s words, “according to the kindness that I have done unto thee” are inconsistent with the fact that Abimelech’s slaves appropriated Abraham’s well. Abimelech doesn’t answer to the point; he claims that he knows nothing about it and will take care of it later. Abraham is left with no choice but to trust him.

This teaches Abraham a lesson not to express eternal hesed and to claim at least that which is rightfully yours. Therefore, this time he puts in a lot of effort to fence in his well in Beer Sheba from attempts of Abimelech’s slaves to capture it.

10.4 The Essence of Beer Sheba

(29) And Abimelech said unto Abraham: ‘What mean these seven ewe-lambs which thou hast set by themselves?’ (30) And he said: ‘Verily, these seven ewe-lambs shalt thou take of my hand, that it may be a witness unto me, that I have digged this well.’ (31) Wherefore that place was called Beer-sheba; because there they swore both of them. (32) So they made a covenant at Beer-sheba; and Abimelech rose up, and Phicol the captain of his host, and they returned into the land of the Philistines. (33) And Abraham planted a tamarisk-tree in Beer-sheba, and called there on the name of HaShem, the Everlasting G-d. (34) And Abraham sojourned in the land of the Philistines many days.

Thus, an agreement between the political and spiritual powers has been reached: “Abraham planted a tamarisk-tree in Beer Sheba, and called there on the name of HaShem.” In other words, he received an opportunity to spread his ideas and therefore “And Abraham sojourned in the land of the Philistines many days” i.e. he was quite satisfied with his status as a religious leader living in a remote place in the Philistine government under Abimelech’s sovereignty.

Abraham has reached a personal climax but now he has to build his relationship with Isaac. This relationship is not only important for Abraham but for Isaac as well and therefore can be built only when Isaac has grown up. All this time, Abraham has been living in Beer Sheba.

30 Jan

Chapter 09: The Birth of Isaac and the Expulsion of Ishmael

9.1 The Birth of Isaac

(1) And HaShem remembered Sarah as He had said, and HaShem did unto Sarah as He had spoken. (2) And Sarah conceived, and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the set time of which G-d had spoken to him. (3) And Abraham called the name of his son that was born unto him, whom Sarah bore to him, Isaac. (4) And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as G-d had commanded him. (5) And Abraham was a hundred years old, when his son Isaac was born unto him.

After the story of Sodom showed Abraham that hesed alone does not suffice, and the episode with Abimelech partially taught him to act within the category of gevura, Abraham becomes capable of fathering Isaac.

The Torah does not specify where in the country Abraham’s family was living at the time. From verse 14 we can conclude that after solving the problems with Abimelech, Abraham left Gerar and relocated to the Beer Sheba region. A more detailed discussion of this topic will be given in later sections.

Isaac is the first child to be circumcised at the prescribed time on the eighth day. Compared to Abraham, Isaac is on a higher level because he lives within the framework of a covenant with God from the very beginning. This is a huge merit, but also the source of a problem: when someone develops independently, overcomes a long journey and then attains the covenant with God on his own, this covenant is a huge accomplishment. But for someone born into the framework of the covenant, this is not an achievement. Therefore, for a “righteous man, son of a righteous man,” it is always difficult not to lose previous accomplishments and all the more so enrich them with new ones.

Isaac resolves this problem by limiting the category of gevura. As we will see further, this restriction process is connected with laughter and to Isaac’s name, which literally means “he will laugh.”

9.2 The Laughter Surrounding Isaac

(6) And Sarah said: ‘G-d hath made laughter for me; every one that heareth will laugh on account of me.’ (7) And she said: ‘Who would have said unto Abraham, that Sarah should give children suck? for I have borne him a son in his old age.’ (8) And the child grew, and was weaned. And Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned.

Sarah says that people will laugh at her (or, more precisely, “with her”) but there is nothing negative about this: everyone who sees this will begin laughing out of joy, due to a reminder that it is possible for a miracle to intervene in our lives.

In this situation, Sarah is no longer embarrassed by her laughter and understands that, even earlier, her laughter was justified.

Sarah represents the category of gevura within Abraham. Therefore, for her, a miracle is a reason to laugh. Her personal advancement consists of believing in miracles, in other words, learning to laugh.

Isaac, whose main task is preserving tradition (and this is also the category of gevura), is also connected with laughter. By preserving tradition he teaches us to laugh at ourselves, our excessive righteousness, and even our customs and tradition, and such laughter overcomes an “excessive category of gevura.”

It is vital to laugh at one’s own serious religious convictions because all of our perceptions of the universe are true only to a certain extent; they cannot be absolutely true. Our understanding of the Torah as well is also always imperfect—it always has some defects. One cannot relate to one’s ideas and convictions with fanatic seriousness. If one does not laugh at them sometimes, one could easily die from one’s own dullness.

9.3 Ishmael’s Mocking Laughter

(9) And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne unto Abraham, making sport.

However, everything is not so simple about laughter. Abraham’s laughter, Sarah’s laughter, and God’s laughter (“G-d hath made laughter for me”) are all positive. But when we reach Ishmael’s laughter, his laughter is so evil that it causes Ishmael to be banished from his home. This is the time to distinguish between proper and improper laughter.

As we have already noted, laughter is the overcoming of the category of gevura, a way out beyond the limits of the law (the Hebrew tzhok is associated with “tze hok,” literally, go beyond the law), beyond the bounds of norms and properness. This situation is one in which a person sees an unexpected turn of events, when something happens not as he expected, and in this “unexpected” turn of events the person sees more harmony and beauty, more sense and spirituality, than if everything had occurred according to the natural order of things. Happiness that stems from the overcoming of the expected order of things is expressed through laughter. On the other hand, an egress beyond the limits of norms and righteousness is problematic because whereas one can rise above the level of norms, there is also the possibility of falling below it. It is imperative that we learn to differentiate between the laughter of a righteous man—rising above the law, and that of a villain—falling below it.

Isaac spreads precisely this ability of distinguishing between proper and improper laughter to the world. Isaac is connected not just to laughter, but to laughter oriented towards the future. The name Isaac means “he will laugh,” in the future tense. Laughter completely oriented towards the present is the laughter of evil.

Proper laughter emerges from the ability to see the harmony of the world that exists above simple logic. He who is able to laugh at himself, such as Abraham, Sarah and Isaac, can laugh also at the world, with positive laughter (it is partly because of this that “Jewish anecdotes” consist of Jews laughing at themselves; this is essential for a nation to survive). But improper laughter is a mocking joke, a desire to destroy somebody with one’s laughter. This is how people act who are incapable of laughing at themselves. And Ishmael’s laughter is of this kind.

This laughter is destructive for the one who laughs and for those around him, and this is why Ishmael must be exiled.

Wherefore she said unto Abraham: ‘Cast out this bondwoman and her son; for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac.’ (21:10)

Sarah connects Ishmael’s behavior, specifically his derision of Isaac, with his being the “son of this bondwoman.” The desire to laugh at others is one of the characteristics of a slave psychology.

The word metzahek used to describe Ishmael’s behavior is a verb in the present tense. Mocking laughter is always in the present tense, because its essence is laughing at the future, at unrealized hopes. Isaac’s laughter is of a different kind: it is directed at the future, with hope for the future, as if to say: we will laugh again, don’t despair, everything will be alright. Reality is never ideal, and so hope for the future is the source of good. Consequently, destruction of this hope is the source of evil.

The Midrash notes that in the Tanakh the verb metzahek (to mock, to make fun of) has a connotation of adultery (Genesis 39:17), idolatry (Exodus 32:60), and murder (II Samuel 2:14). Hence, this word can serve as an indication of the danger emanating from Ishmael which explains why Sarah chose to take such harsh measures.

9.4 Expulsion as a Method of Re-educating Ishmael

We have already discussed that the relationship between Ishmael and Isaac (Islam and Judaism) differs from that of Jacob and Esau (Judaism and Christianity). Jacob and Esau have both a mother and a father in common–they are full brothers. The question is only about who was “first,” who has the birthright. In either case, the second remains a full brother to the first and a member of the family. Isaac and Ishmael are in a different situation: if Isaac, the wife’s son, exists, then Ishmael, the son of the slave-woman, is not an heir at all. Thus, unlike Esau who recognizes Jacob, recognizing Isaac is very problematic for Ishmael.

The consequences of this difference are very significant. For example, Christianity recognizes that the Tanakh is a Divine book, the foundation of a common Judeo-Christian civilization, and its disagreement with Judaism consists of how to properly understand this text. For Christianity, the Torah, the Temple, and Jewish history and tradition are all important—the controversy revolves around the question of who has the birthright. Ishmael has a different approach: while recognizing Abraham, Moses, and David as prophets, Islam tries to take them away from Judaism by declaring them “Muslims” or “proto-Muslims” (“ancient monotheists”), but not “Jews.” The Tanakh, in Islam’s opinion, is an erroneous book, because the Jews have distorted the original covenant. The idea is widespread among Muslims that a Jewish kingdom in the Holy Land and a Temple on the Temple Mount never existed. (For this reason they fight against any factual evidence of Jewish history, for instance by hindering Jewish excavations on the Temple Mount.)

Ishmael, a lunar civilization, lives in many ways in an imaginary world. The only way to rectify Ishmael’s mocking laughter directed at Isaac is by exiling him from the family, giving him the opportunity to confront reality alone, without Isaac’s presence.

This is why Sarah wanted to exile Ishmael, for it had become the only method of setting Ishmael on the right path and of protecting Isaac from his influence.

9.5 Development within the Hierarchy

Ishmael could not remain in Abraham’s family, and this was not inevitable from the very beginning: Isaac’s birth in and of itself did not in any way have to lead to Ishmael’s exile. Had Ishmael been able to recognize his status (not the highest but also by far not the lowest), had he been able to recognize his intermediate position in the framework of the family hierarchy and learn to behave accordingly, everything would have been alright. Hagar stands as an example of this idea: as long as she acknowledged her place in the family and recognized her job as Sarah’s slave, she not only received permission to continue living in Abraham’s house, but was even bestowed a special Divine blessing. As soon as she stops recognizing Sarah as her mistress, she is banished. The same is true of Ishmael: if he recognizes Isaac’s birthright, his life is normalized, but if he cannot accept it, he must be exiled from the family. Essentially, Ishmael is expelled for a psychological inability to take the place in which he could be constructive, and becomes a destructive force as a result.

The essence of destructiveness is an inability to accept one’s designated place. This place must not, by any means, be the boss’s chair—not every person can or should lead. A situation in which an unfit candidate takes the helm will not only fail, but will also prevent him from taking his proper place. The place which is truly yours in life is the place where you bring a positive development into the world. In this place, you will live happily and pleasantly, and others will relate to you accordingly, since you change the world for the better.

In the given situation, Ishmael could not receive his share in Abraham’s heritage, but it was not because he was not allowed to do so, but only because he did not know how to realize that which was truly meant for him. Sarah does not want to deprive Ishmael of his portion, but believes that since Ishmael is incapable of inheriting the part befitting him as long as he lives next to Isaac, he must be exiled.

9.6 Why Ishmael had to be born before Isaac

The conflict between Ishmael and Isaac occurred because Ishmael was born earlier and Isaac pushes him out, depriving Ishmael of his status as firstborn. Had Ishmael been the younger, there would have been no conflict. In this case, what was the purpose of having the older son be born to a slave-woman, and not to Sarah; what is the spiritually justification of this conflict ?

On the one hand, the fact that Ishmael was born first was the result of Sarah’s mistake because she did not believe in the future birth of her own son, and therefore gave her slave-woman, Hagar, to Abraham as a concubine. But on the other hand, it was apparently very important for Abraham to go through the experience of conflicting with Ishmael and then exiling him. As a result of this experience, Abraham understood that it was impossible to build the chosen people on Egypt’s foundation. He had to personally reject the Egyptian option, since one can wholeheartedly discard an option only if one has personally tried it and felt its improperness. In some sense, this was a “mistake which was impossible not to make.” (In the terminology of the Kabbala, Ishmael’s birth and upbringing were tied to a “shell” from which Abraham had to free himself for Isaac to be born.)

In the same way, it was psychologically necessary for Sarah to follow the erroneous path by giving Hagar to Abraham, because this was the only way she could overcome her excessive gevura.

In life, there are mistakes which have to be made and it is from this type of mistakes that we must learn our lessons. And although the historical price for these lessons is fairly high, we cannot do without them.

9.7 Sarah corrects Abraham

(11) And the thing was very grievous in Abraham’s sight on account of his son. (12) And G-d said unto Abraham: ‘Let it not be grievous in thy sight because of the lad, and because of thy bondwoman; in all that Sarah saith unto thee, hearken unto her voice; for in Isaac shall seed be called to thee. (13) And also of the son of the bondwoman will I make a nation, because he is thy seed.’

For Abraham, “his son” is Ishmael (verse 11). But God corrects him: Ishmael is only “seed”; Isaac is the son (verse 13). God not only supports Sarah’s position here, but also instructs Abraham “in all that Sarah saith unto thee, hearken unto her voice.”

Sarah insists on Ishmael’s exile because it is impossible to properly raise Isaac without banishing Ishmael. In her eyes, all other concerns—Abraham’s vision of passing on something important to the surrounding world through Ishmael or Hagar, which in itself is a positive thing—instantly recedes to the background, if Isaac and the survival of the Jewish people are at stake.

Sarah’s position corrects the mistakes in Abraham’s worldview, and this is her role—one of the most important roles in the family. Abraham aims for universality, commonality—he is the father of many nations. He loves Ishmael also because he is Ishmael’s father. But Sarah redirects Abraham from this general approach to a concrete mission: the creation of a Jewish people. She represents the force that helps Abraham focus on the main goal and, at least temporarily, leave everything else on the side.

God confirms Ishmael’s important role in history. However, Ishmael’s mission can be accomplished only after Isaac’s potential is realized. (In particular, this principle was manifested when the Arabs, Ishmael’s descendants, forgot Abraham’s monotheism until Muhammad reminded them about it, relying on the Jewish, and not the Muslim, tradition.) For this reason, priority must be given to Isaac’s upbringing.

9.8 Islam as a Counterbalance to Western Civilization

Abraham was promised two things: that a covenant would be made with his offspring, and that his offspring would be as numerous as the “sands on the seashore.” This phrase is repeated in the Torah several times, but at some point they are disconnected: the covenant is for Isaac, and numerousness is passed down to Ishmael. Since Abraham accented his relationship with Ishmael, an important part of the Divine promise was bestowed to him.

Ishmael’s numerousness is not purely a quantitative phenomenon; it is also important in a spiritual sense. Islam has an important role in influencing and rectifying the world. In particular, Islam counterbalances some twisted principles in Christian civilization: for example, it professes a purer form of monotheism.

Islam contains important positive ideas, and as long as the West cannot “extract” them from Islam and integrate them into its own culture, it will not be able to defeat Islam. This is actually a classic situation in spiritual wars: to achieve victory, it is necessary to understand the enemy’s positive aspects, isolate them, identify their relationship with your own basic values, and then correct yourself with the help of these foreign, but positive, qualities. Only then will victory be possible.

9.9 Hagar wanders in the Desert

(14) And Abraham arose up early in the morning, and took bread and a bottle of water, and gave it unto Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, and the child, and sent her away; and she departed, and strayed in the wilderness of Beer-sheba. (15) And the water in the bottle was spent, and she cast the child under one of the shrubs. (16) And she went, and sat her down over against him a good way off, as it were a bow-shot; for she said: ‘Let me not look upon the death of the child.’ And she sat over against him, and lifted up her voice, and wept. (17) And God heard the voice of the lad; and the angel of God called to Hagar out of heaven, and said unto her: ‘What aileth thee, Hagar? fear not; for God hath heard the voice of the lad where he is. (18) Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him fast by thy hand; for I will make him a great nation.’

The Torah repeatedly says Abraham “rose early in the morning” and usually this emphasizes his hesed. But this time, Abraham rises early in the morning not to offer a kindness to someone close to him, but to exile Hagar and her son, that is, to display gevura.

The Midrash adds that, having left Abraham’s home, Hagar decided to return to her previous world, to Egypt. Had she reached her destination, she would have lost the spiritual level she had attained in Abraham’s house. However, she gets lost, not only physically, but also spiritually-psychologically; she gives up hope of correcting the situation, and therefore abandons her child.

Hagar cannot help Ishmael, but he can help himself. He is 15-18 years old at this point, and is entirely independent. Ishmael was exiled for his own misconduct and not that of his mother.

The Torah says: “And God heard the voice of the lad,” that is, Ishmael makes himself heard, and God hears him. A person can bring salvation to himself only independently. To be saved, he must pray for himself and actively correct the situation, and not think someone else’s prayer will be better than his own. Ishmael “gave voice”—he recognized that he had been in the wrong. At the level he was at, this “giving voice” was enough to put him in a position where he could be saved.

9.10 Ishmael saves Himself

(19) And G-d opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water; and she went, and filled the bottle with water, and gave the lad drink.

Hagar was ruined not because there was no well. The well existed, but she did not see it because she had gotten “lost” in the desert, turned towards Egypt, and so could no longer see the surrounding reality correctly.

Hagar is psychologically dependent. The breakaway from Abraham’s home is catastrophic for her. Ishmael has an opposite personality: he can learn to see the world correctly only if he is exiled and left in the desert alone with reality. Only when he cannot blame his problems on anyone else (as he could in Abraham’s home) does he begin to see the real order of things. Because Ishmael feels despair and turns to God for help, salvation comes for Hagar as well: she sees the well, and they survive.

9.11 Abraham’s Universalism

(20)And G-d was with the lad, and he grew; and he dwelt in the wilderness, and became an archer. (21) And he dwelt in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother took him a wife out of the land of Egypt.

Having settled in the desert, separate from Isaac, Ishmael found his true self and took up his proper place in life. Only then does he receive Divine support. Now Ishmael can recognize the hierarchy and his subordinate role in relation to Isaac: for one who has self-realized, this is not problematic. Later on we will see that at Abraham’s funeral, Ishmael will be alongside Isaac but second to him (25:9). This means that in principle, there are no problems with Ishmael if he is kept within firm limits. Otherwise he begins to mistakenly lay claims to a position that is not his and destroys the world.

The Midrash tells us that Abraham never lost contact with Ishmael and continued to be in touch with him even after he was banished. He visited his son’s tent to see whom he had taken as a wife and how he was doing. Abraham continued to remain “the father of a multitude of nations,” continued to possess universality. He is not only the forefather of the Jews, but also the spiritual founder of the entire world. Therefore, he takes care of the entire world and in particular, passes part of his legacy to the entire world through Ishmael.

30 Jan

Chapter 08: Abraham and Abimelech in Gerar

8.1 Abraham in Gerar

(1) And Abraham journeyed from thence toward the land of the South, and dwelt between Kadesh and Shur; and he sojourned in Gerar.

The Torah emphasizes that Abraham “journeyed from thence.” He does not have a specific destination. He wants to leave Hebron and distance himself from Sodom and Lot.

Lot’s departure from Sodom became the beginning of a descent into the world of the Messiah’s soul—so why does Abraham leave rather than continue his contact with the spark of sanctity which was conceived in Lot’s family? Could it be that Abraham did not feel that something historic, even providential, was occurring here?

The answer apparently is that it was not yet time to integrate this spark into the Jewish people. There are some things which require extensive cleansing before they can unite with the sacred. Acting before the right time could lead to losing the thing itself in addition to the sacredness. And so, at that moment, Abraham had to pull away from Lot’s family.

We have already discussed that the reason for Abraham’s departure from Hebron was the destruction of Sodom.

The Midrash explains that after the destruction of Sodom and the fading of its influence, travelers stopped passing through Hebron (geographically, Sodom is located on the southern border of the Dead Sea and is connected to Gerar through the southwestern route that passes through the Hebron region.) Therefore Abraham no longer wanted to stay there.

But we can also look at this from another perspective: Hebron, which would become the capital of the future Judea, represents malkhut, the category of kingship. This is the category that Abraham cannot yet acquire. Sodom, located east of Hebron, was the original and potential source of kingship, but which implemented it in the wrong way, whereas Gerar, located west of Hebron, was the opposite of Sodom: it was an advanced Philistine trading kingdom located on the seashore in the midst of civilization and culture (the sea was the primary connecting route between different nations). Abraham goes to this kingdom to settle there and thereby advance towards the category of malkhut.

8.2 Abraham again calls Sarah his Sister

(2) And Abraham said of Sarah his wife: ‘She is my sister.’ And Abimelech king of Gerar sent, and took Sarah.

The story which occurred in Egypt recurs here—it is as if Abraham is returning to a point he had passed long ago. Why does he act this way?

The simple answer is that, much as he had in Egypt, Abraham is afraid Gerar will attack him in order to take Sarah away. But is Abraham so defenseless if he only recently had an entire army with which he defeated several kings? The answer, seemingly, could be that Abraham once again left all of his students and left for Gerar with only his family. At one time he had brought his Babylonian students to Israel, settled them in Shechem and then left them there to continue to Egypt on his own. From Egypt, Abraham again came out with slave-students, settled in Hebron, fought, and advanced, but now, having left them in Hebron, only he and his family went to the Philistine lands. Thus, Shechem and Hebron remained the settlements of Babylonian and Egyptian “representatives” within the Land of Israel.

Thus, Abraham is left by himself, and again faces the problematic situation regarding Sarah. But this time Abraham can exercise gevura. It is difficult and challenging for him, but he slowly learns this category, learns greater rigidity.

But there is one more facet to Abraham calling Sarah his sister. That is, subconsciously, Abraham does not yet fully feel Sarah to be his wife, the potential mother of his children. For now, she is more of a “comrade-in-arms” in the mission of spreading monotheism to the people around them. Abraham does not yet have a deep sense that Sarah’s destiny is not to help him train his students, but to produce a nation from him, and so it is easy for him to call her his sister. And here, Abraham learns a valuable lesson: that it is no longer appropriate to treat Sarah as a sister.

In this episode with Abimelech, Abraham was supposed to definitively understand that Sarah is his wife, and only after this realization could Isaac be born.

8.3 The Guilt of Abimelech

(3) But God came to Abimelech in a dream of the night, and said to him: ‘Behold, thou shalt die, because of the woman whom thou hast taken; for she is a man’s wife.’ (4) Now Abimelech had not come near her; and he said: ‘L-rd, wilt Thou slay even a righteous nation? (5) Said he not himself unto me: She is my sister? and she, even she herself said: He is my brother. In the simplicity of my heart and the innocency of my hands have I done this.’

Abimelech emphasizes that strictly speaking he is in the right. On the face of it, he did not do anything wrong and did not try to steal anyone’s wife. Our Sages teach us that he deserved death, not for transgressing the prohibition of adultery, but for breaking universal moral norms. This is the general principle: the nations of the world are punished for breaking those obligations which they took upon themselves.

From Abraham’s response further on (20:11) we see he called Sarah his sister in self-defense. He comes to a city where he doesn’t know anyone and is questioned about the woman with whom he came: it is only natural that Abraham feels in danger (the style of questioning in Gerar is described in detail further on in the Torah, in an analogous story featuring Isaac, in 26:7). The sin perpetrated in such inquiries is the sin of breaking universal moral norms. As king, Abimelech was responsible for the atmosphere of danger in his city, which compelled Abraham to lie.

And God said unto him in the dream: “Yea, I know that in the simplicity of thy heart thou hast done this, and I also withheld thee from sinning against Me. Therefore suffered I thee not to touch her”. (20:6)

God recognizes that Abimelech did this “in the simplicity of his heart” but not “with the innocency of his hands.” God protected Abimelech from committing even a worse crime, but he is still responsible for the atmosphere in Gerar and therefore cannot be considered blameless.

8.4 The Essential Connection between Prophecy and Prayer

(7) Now therefore restore the man’s wife; for he is a prophet, and he shall pray for thee, and thou shalt live; and if thou restore her not, know thou that thou shalt surely die, thou, and all that are thine.’

The words “prophet” and “pray” appear in the Torah for the first time in this verse. Subsequently, whenever the Tanakh refers to prayer, it is often in connection with prophets. In ancient times, there was an irrevocable connection between prayer and prophecy. One of the tasks of a prophet was prayer.

Such an approach is strange to us, since today everyone can pray. However, in the past, people did not consider themselves worthy of directly addressing God. People felt an abyss between men and God, a chasm so wide that people did not understand how they could possibly overcome it.

Within the framework of religious discussion, it is customary to say that prayer is an entirely natural act; it goes without saying that man is capable of addressing God directly. But we see that in the Tanakh the mindset is entirely different.

The Shulkhan Arukh (Code of Jewish Law) said:

He who is praying must understand in the depths of his heart the sense of the words produced by his mouth. He must imagine that Shekhinah (God’s presence) is before him. He must banish all thoughts which may distract him, so that the sense with which he imbues his words will be worthy of prayer. After all, if he were talking to a king of flesh and blood, then he would arrange his words and imbue them with sense, so as not to make a mistake. Even more so must one behave before the King of Kings, who senses all thoughts. In the olden days, good men did so: they withdrew and focused on the meaning of the prayers to such an extent that they achieved freedom from materialism, and so approached the level of prophecy.

The Shulkhan Arukh explains that in order to pray, man must come close to the level of prophecy.

In the olden days, it was thought that only prophets could pray because to earn the right to address God, He must first address you. Until this happens, you have no such right.

The reasoning behind such an approach is that when addressing God, it is important not only to recognize with Whom you are about to have a dialog, but also to find the right words and form of address. One of the biggest problems of prayer is that in a certain sense, it lies on the border of magic. Indeed, does not God Himself know what we need? Do we really need to inform Him of what we lack? And besides, how can a human being even attempt to influence the Almighty?

In order to prevent prayer and magic from mixing, it is necessary for a prophet to pray because he, unlike the common people, understands the relationship between the Divine and the human.

In the Book of Samuel (1:12), there is an episode in which the prophet Samuel tries to admonish the people and calls out to the Almighty. It begins raining in the middle of the summer (rain in the middle of the harvest season is dangerous because it can destroy all of the crops). The people turned to Samuel, asking him to pray to God to stop the rain. Samuel responded, “Do not worry, God loves you, and I will not stop praying for you.” He prays, and the rain stops. However not a single person comes up with the idea of praying on his own; everyone asks the prophet to do so.

(Another example which is also interesting in this respect is Hannah’s famous prayer, the mother of Samuel the prophet. Jewish tradition considers Hannah to be one of the prophetesses and her prayer is in itself an example of prophecy (I Samuel, chapter 2). Nonetheless, the High Priest Eli, who sees Hannah entering the Temple and whispering something to herself (1:13), thinks that she is drunk because he cannot fathom that a common person could be praying).

When it comes to our modern-day prayers, they were established by the Men of the Great Assembly in an era when prophecy still existed. The last of the prophets felt that prophecy would soon come to an end and that humanity was in great danger of losing a feeling of a direct connection with God. For this reason the Men of the Great Assembly wrote down and established the order of prayers: they created a text which combined the entire world of prophetic experience. The very act of formulating prayer is a reduction of the distance between man and God, something that can be done only by a prophet.

Only after the last prophets composed the text of the prayers, could prayer become accessible to all. There are various instructions which help those that are praying enter into a state of mind that brings them closest to a prophetic level.

8.5 Prayer and Sacrifice—Compare and Contrast. The Third Temple

It is important to note that prayer is an entirely different religious act than sacrifice. The nature of prayer is even opposite to that of sacrifice. Sacrifice is intended to preserve the given order of the world; it is an expression of gratitude to God for what already exists. Prayer, on the other hand, is needed to transform the world. A person prays because he wants to improve the world: he wants the sick to become healthy, the poor to be granted help, and the destroyed Jerusalem to be rebuilt…

When the Temple stood, there were two forms of service: prayer and sacrifice. Even after prayer became universally accepted toward the end of the Second Temple era, these two forms of service remained distinct.

Only after the destruction of the Second Temple, prayer took upon itself the additional function that used to be played by sacrifices. In some sense it turned into sacrifice and began fulfilling both roles. This transition was achieved by establishing a strict order and times for prayer (in accordance with the order of the Temple services).

It is also important to note that the Third Temple, as said by the prophets, “shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:7). The onset of the Messianic time does not, by any means, imply that at the End of Days everything will be ideal and there will be nothing to ask of God or to be changed in the world. Quite the opposite: if there is nothing left to change, it is death and not life. Thus, the Messianic period is an era in the future when the world will be actively corrected brought closer to God, and this process is never-ending.

8.6 Mutual Accusations of Abraham and Abimelech

(8) And Abimelech rose early in the morning, and called all his servants, and told all these things in their ears; and the men were sore afraid. (9) Then Abimelech called Abraham, and said unto him: ‘What hast thou done unto us? and wherein have I sinned against thee, that thou hast brought on me and on my kingdom a great sin? thou hast done deeds unto me that ought not to be done.’ (10) And Abimelech said unto Abraham: ‘What sawest thou, that thou hast done this thing?’ (11) And Abraham said: ‘Because I thought: Surely the fear of God is not in this place; and they will slay me for my wife’s sake.

At first, Abraham does not respond to Abimelech. Seemingly, he feels uncomfortable in the given situation, and therefore Abimelech asks him again in verse 10. Later, Abraham begins answering, and explains to Abimelech that the general atmosphere in his kingdom compels deception. Here, Abraham is no longer justifying his actions, but practically blaming Abimelech for improper behavior. In this way, Abraham begins, although in a small way, to implement the category of judgment–and this is very important for the birth of Isaac.

8.7 Familial Relations of Abraham and Sarah

And moreover she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife. (13) And it came to pass, when G-d caused me to wander from my father’s house, that I said unto her: This is thy kindness which thou shalt show unto me; at every place whither we shall come, say of me: He is my brother.’

We can see that Abraham really did relate to Sarah as a sister, that is, he did not perceive her enough as a wife. After reasoning with Abimelech, Abraham can no longer relate to Sarah this way, and this is also an important step in his advancement to the level necessary for Isaac to be born.

Abraham also clarifies an important aspect of his relationship with Sarah which we did not know earlier. It turns out that Abraham’s father Terah had two wives. One wife bore Abraham and Nahor, and the other, Haran, whose children were Lot, Milka (Nahor’s wife) and Iska, née Sarah, Abraham’s wife. (That is, Abraham and Nahor both married their own nieces, but they were not full nieces as they came from different wives of Terah).

Seemingly there is a certain “gene” that Terah’s second wife carries– Abraham does not carry it but Sarah and Lot do. Subsequently, this “gene” is transferred through Ammon and Moab to Ruth and the House of David. This is the “redhead gene,” an aspect which is very important for David (see I Samuel 16:12 and the relevant commentaries). Isaac’s wife Rivka also carries it (she is a descendent of Nahor from his wife Milka), and this “redheadness” will be displayed in her son Esau who is called Edom, the red one. Redheadness, or redness is a category of judgment in the aspect of power, violence and severity. This is the gevura which for Abraham is realized through Sarah.

It is possible that it is this characteristic that Sarah possesses (but Abraham does not) that separated him from her. And so, having departed on a journey with Sarah, he asks her to say he is her brother. On the one hand, this declaration was supposed to protect him from danger, but on the other hand, it subconsciously allowed for the possibility for Abraham to find another wife who would be the continuer of his nation. In other words, when God commanded Abraham to create the Jewish people, Abraham did not initially think that this would be realized through Sarah.

Sarah cannot bear a son for Abraham until he stops perceiving her as a sister. (Meaning, the blame for Sarah’s inability to bear a child lies with Abraham). In Egypt and in Gerar, God teaches Abraham to stop relating to Sarah as a sister. When Abimelech rebukes Abraham, this is essentially a rebuke from God (incidentally, in life we must learn to hear Divine messages and rebukes in the words of strangers). Abraham truly felt in danger and therefore he had reasons to call Sarah his sister and these reasons were justified—however, the situation required him to revise his position. Abraham alters his approach, and it is thanks to this that Isaac can be born.

8.8 Abraham again attains a High Status

(14) And Abimelech took sheep and oxen, and men-servants, and women-servants, and gave them unto Abraham, and restored him Sarah his wife. (15) And Abimelech said: ‘Behold, my land is before thee: dwell where it pleaseth thee.’ (16) And unto Sarah he said: ‘Behold, I have given thy brother a thousand pieces of silver; behold, it is for thee a covering of the eyes, to all that are with thee; and before all men thou art righted.’

Presenting Abraham with gifts of great value emphasizes Abimelech’s high esteem for Sarah, and in the social system of relationships in those times, this was a sign of an apology.

Sarah is acquitted “before all men,” not only in the sense that she has received a confession from Abimelech, but also in the sense that Abraham understands to the fullest extent her importance to him as a wife. Earlier she had to constantly fight for her place. She tried to set her family life right by giving Hagar to Abraham, then kicking her out, and then fighting with Abraham—but now, at last, she is cleared, her status is recognized, and the family can develop further. And this is the most important progress in Sarah and Abraham’s relationship which occurs as a result of the story with Abimelech.

For the third time (after Haran and Egypt) Abraham obtains a huge fortune and a multitude of slaves. Abraham’s status is so high and his renown so great that he can no longer live as a private person. He must find a new, suitable place for himself in the system of social relations. And this is why we will later see that Abraham moves to Beer Sheba, the city on the edge of the desert.

8.9 Abraham’s Prayer

(17) And Abraham prayed unto G-d: and G-d healed Abimelech, and his wife, and his maid-servants; and they bore children. (18) For HaShem had fast closed up all the wombs of the house of Abimelech, because of Sarah Abraham’s wife.

The text emphasizes that a society which raises its hand against Abraham becomes barren. Only if Abraham prays for it does it regain its ability to bear children.

30 Jan

Chapter 07: The Destruction of Sodom and Lot’s Daughters

7.1 Lot – the Judge of Sodom

Earlier we read that “HaShem said: ‘Verily, the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and, verily, their sin is exceeding grievous,” meaning it was impossible to let this behavior continue any longer. Sodom was ripe for destruction and this meant that the seed contained in Sodom was ripe to be released. The time had come to perform a trial, that is, to separate the positive spark from the general evil of Sodom (the idea of a trial (gevura) is in itself a kind of separation). But before making a final decision regarding Sodom, God descends (i.e. sends angels) to the city: “I will go down now, and see whether they have done altogether according to the cry of it, which is come unto Me; and if not, I will know” (Genesis 18:21). This was the final test for Sodom, as well as for Lot.

We should note that this episode introduces us to an important function of the angels—to act as a test and at the same time a trial, “an educational playground” for humanity. Meeting with angels is a challenge sent to a person, and at the same time a test of his inner content. Abraham and Sarah rose to a higher level in the process of talking to angels; Lot withstood his trials upon meeting the angels (although with difficulty), but Sodom ultimately failed. (1) And the two angels came to Sodom at even; and Lot sat in the gate of Sodom; and Lot saw them, and rose up to meet them; and he fell down on his face to the earth; In Biblical language, “to sit in the gate” usually means “to judge,” “to be the judge.” Here, the word “sits” (yoshev) is written without the letter “vav,” a verb which can be understood not only as written in the continuous tense but as the perfect tense as well: “yishav,” i.e. “By this time Lot had sat himself down in the gates of Sodom.”

Lot’s judgment category is emphasized further in the text: This one fellow came in to sojourn, and he will needs play the judge” (19:9), although Lot did not judge the Sodomites who attacked his house, but simply urged them to stop.

The Midrash discusses that Lot was appointed to the post of judge in Sodom very recently. Apparently, after Abraham’s war with the kings, Lot became an “internationally recognized” celebrity and the Sodomites decided to use him to create a good image for themselves by appointing Lot to one of the most important positions in the city. Lot hoped he would be able to improve the judicial system and fix Sodom. Even at the very moment when the citizens were attacking him, Lot probably thought that since he had received such a high status the Sodomites would attend to his words—but the citizens of Sodom, naturally, did not intend to do so.

We should note that in contrast to Abraham who ran to meet the angels, Lot only stands up and bows to them, although to his credit he bows “with his face toward the ground.” Abraham goes towards union and synthesis, of his own accord: he is found in movement and development. Lot is spiritually immobile, although those spiritual values which he does accept are fairly deeply ingrained in him. Lot does not have a thirst for inner development, and this is one of his essential problems. He advances only under pressure from the outside (the angels, his daughters, etc.) and therefore pays a high price for his advancement.

The judgment of Sodom occurs in Lot’s house, who was not only nominal clerk-judge of Sodom, but its true judge in all respects. The Sodomites thought they had appointed Lot as judge in name only, but from the point of view of Divine judgment, Lot was “appointed” to become the judge of Sodom, and events related to him determined the fate of the city.

Sodom presented itself as a law-abiding society and judicial government, although, in reality, it was far from being such. Appointing a “relatively good” judge but treating him villainously became the last indication that Sodom could not be fixed.

Lot is simultaneously a righteous man in Sodom (in whose shadow the sins of Sodom became more noticeable) and its judge, and therefore it is precisely through Lot that Sodom is doomed to destruction. In a sense, every Sodom has its own Lot, and it is this Lot which determines the fate of the Sodom. Of course, any Sodom is in conflict with its Lot, but as long as it cooperates with him, or at least somewhat heeds him, the Sodom can continue existing. Sodom’s uprising against its Lot predetermines the city’s downfall.

7.2 Conscience and Legislation

(2) And he said: ‘Behold now, my lords, turn aside, I pray you, into your servant’s house, and tarry all night, and wash your feet, and ye shall rise up early, and go on your way.’ And they said: ‘Nay; but we will abide in the broad place all night.’ (3) And he urged them greatly; and they turned in unto him, and entered into his house; and he made them a feast, and did bake unleavened bread, and they did eat.

Lot strongly implored the travelers not to spend the night on the street, but the Midrash notes that the expression “turn…into your servant’s house” most likely does not mean “enter” but “go in a roundabout way.” It is as if Lot were saying to the guests: “I am explaining to you where my house is and you will somehow get to me through the alleys.”

When Lot sees that the people have nowhere to go, he invites them to be guests at his house—after all, hospitality was one of the central religious principles of Abraham’s family. Being the Sodomite judge, Lot is tested on his readiness to put morals ahead of the city’s laws, and this becomes his important spiritual achievement, although he acts with caution. We remember that earlier Lot contains the category of malkhut (Kingliness), and in this category everything that pertains to the functioning of the kingdom, including a strict observance of the laws, is vital. We have also noted that the trials of the forefathers are connected to “constraining and limiting” their presiding categories. Abraham is hesed and his trials teach him that it is not always necessary to display hesed; Isaac is gevura and his trials consist of limiting gevura. But Lot, as the representative of malkhut, which is comprised of obligation, order, and abiding by the laws of the kingdom, must recognize that these laws must not be followed at any cost, and that the principles of morality must be placed above the laws of the kingdom.

7.3 Lot–A Righteous Man on Sodom’s Level

Although Lot repeats Abraham’s actions, he does so on a lower level. Abraham runs to meet the guests, while Lot only stands and bows. Abraham gives the guests “a calf, and butter, and milk,” but Lot only “did bake unleavened bread.” Lot had to convince the travelers to enter his home, but Abraham, radiating hospitality, did not have to plead with the travelers. Of course, Abraham had full freedom to accept guests, while Lot endangered himself by doing so—but he chose these conditions of life for himself when he settled in Sodom.

Lot is a righteous man on Sodom’s level. He does not want to live near Abraham, and wants to live in Sodom so that he can be righteous against the background of his environment.

Lot has basic moral principles, but he does not stand firm on them; he is a “spineless” righteous man. He wants things to be good, but is not capable of putting in enough effort to achieve his goal. Once in the world of Sodom, Lot falls under its influence, and this, in part, is demonstrated in his offer to give his daughters to the citizens.

Lot’s position is twofold. On one hand, he personally wants kindness; but, on the other hand, he is the conductor of evil—since he becomes a judge in Sodom, Sodomite laws are realized namely through him.

Lot is a kind of representative of “half-Judaism,” a prototype of the fate of many Jews who departed from the Jewish people and decided to assimilate into the non-Jewish surroundings. He is talented and so upon arriving at Sodom, is appointed to a high position. But, in the end, his Jewish character leads him to come into conflict with Sodom and to the destruction of his initial hopes.

7.4 Sodom as a Pseudo-Messianic Category: the Messiah comes from the Depths of Evil

(4) But before they lay down, the men of the city, even the men of Sodom, compassed the house round, both young and old, all the people from every quarter. (5) And they called unto Lot, and said unto him, ‘Where are the men which came in to thee this night? bring them out unto us, that we may know them.’

The Midrash relates that Lot’s wife was much assimilated into the Sodomite lifestyle, or perhaps even came from Sodom herself (after all, from the moment when Lot settled in Sodom until these events happened, more than 20 years had transpired, and by then Lot had achieved a high position in Sodom, and his children had grown up there). She went to their neighbors and asked for salt, complaining that “that intolerable Lot brought home some guests, they need to be fed, but there is no salt in the house.” The neighbors then spread the news around the city and united against Lot. It was because of this that Lot’s wife eventually turned into a pillar of salt.

Although the Sodomites’ behavior combines homosexuality and violence towards foreigners, Sodom has the appearance of a very organized society. The Midrash describes Sodom as almost a “pseudo-messianic” category. Sodom and Gomorrah were two of the most prosperous cities in the world (“And Lot lifted up his eyes, and beheld all the plain of the Jordan, that it was well watered everywhere, before HaShem destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, like the garden of HaShem” (13:10)). Reminiscent of the Garden of Eden, Sodom was a place so rich that its citizens achieved the peak of material prosperity. But this prosperity turned out to have a flip side as well.

The people of Sodom claimed prosperity was the purpose of life, which led them to a complete spiritual downfall. However, from a religious and spiritual point of view, the presence of prosperity in a society is not bad in and of itself. Moreover, prosperity is one of the parameters of Messianic times. Sodom’s problem was that it made this parameter absolute (“economic Messianism”) and limited the ideal society to his own city.

In general, the essence of pseudo-Messianic teachings is taking a single Messianic idea to an extreme and neglecting all the others. This distortion of Messianic concepts is what led to Sodom becoming, in some way, the first pseudo-Messianic society in history.

A society’s pretence that it is the peak of human development is eventually transformed into the idea that trying to improve the world is absurd and shameful. This leads to the Sodomite prohibition to give charity: after all, the necessity for charity shows not everything is right in the world, and is insulting to the Sodomites. The prophet Ezekiel described Sodom in this way: “Behold, this was the iniquity of thy sister, Sodom: pride, fullness of bread, and careless ease was in her and her daughters; neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16:49).

Who are the beggars in a prosperous society? Only visitors and strangers. And so in Sodom, egoism was realized on a societal level. In Sodom, they hated newcomers and acted in a way that no one would want to seek hospitality.

Sodom became the center of evil, but the Messiah must come from Sodom in order to be connected to it, since the Messiah will have to fix everything in the world, including evildoers. For this reason, the Messiah’s path has always been, from the very beginning, “along the edge,” along events that were borderline from a moral perspective (additional examples are: Lot’s daughters who gave birth from their own father; the story of Judah and Tamar; the story of Ruth; the relationship between David and Batsheba). But the Messiah must pass through all of these problematic situations in order to get a feel for them from within, and, as a result, learn to correct even them.

The Messiah ascends from below, both morally and “geographically.” It is no coincidence that Sodom is located at the lowest point on Earth.

7.5 The Distortion of Morals in Sodom

(6) And Lot went out unto them to the door, and shut the door after him. (7) And he said: ‘I pray you, my brethren, do not so wickedly. (8) Behold now, I have two daughters that have not known man; let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you, and do ye to them as is good in your eyes; only unto these men do nothing; forasmuch as they are come under the shadow of my roof.’ (9) And they said: ‘Stand back.’ And they said: ‘This one fellow came in to sojourn, and he will needs play the judge; now will we deal worse with thee, than with them.’ And they pressed sore upon the man, even Lot, and drew near to break the door. (10) But the men put forth their hand, and brought Lot into the house to them, and the door they shut. (11) And they smote the men that were at the door of the house with blindness, both small and great; so that they wearied themselves to find the door.

Lot calls the Sodomites brethren because he still believes he will be able to convince them. Subsequently his behavior seems to be entirely mindless when he offers his two unmarried daughters to the Sodomites.

There are two possible explanations for Lot’s actions: either he hoped they would not touch his daughters, since they are, after all, Sodomite citizens. Alternatively, Lot had lost his moral orientation and stopped understanding where the limits of acceptability lie.

We must note that in declaring its society to be ideal, Sodom had a great influence on those around it—and later on, we will see that upon arrival in Sodom even the angels become disoriented about their assessment of the situation. Lot, of course, was Abraham’s relative and pupil, but life in Sodom twisted his morals. Not knowing how to advance independently and find true solutions to new problems, Lot reduces righteousness to the list of items inherited from his youth. Since he knows perfectly well that one must be hospitable to travelers, he selflessly does so. But, when faced with the opposition of a roaring crowd, Lot becomes completely lost.

Living in Sodom causes Lot to lose his true, intuitive, sense of morality. The principles and life mindset of the city and country where we live affect us very strongly, and so a person, especially if he is alone with his family, should not settle in a place of evildoers and hope to rectify them. Rather, one should settle in a place where righteous people live, in order to perfect oneself and one’s family—this will have a profound influence on the world.

7.6 The Angels extricate Lot from Sodom

(12) And the men said unto Lot, ‘Hast thou here any besides? Son-in-law, and thy sons, and thy daughters, and whomsoever thou hast in the city; bring them out of this place: (13) For we will destroy this place, because the cry of them is waxed great before HaShem; and HaShem hath sent us to destroy it.’

Three processes are happening in parallel: on the one hand, the city is being destroyed; on the another, all the righteous people (and even those who are only potentially righteous), that is, Lot’s family, are being saved from the destruction; and at the same time, a third, hidden process is occurring—a preparation for the future birth of the Messiah. For this to transpire it is necessary not only to extract Lot from Sodom, but also to “extract Sodom from Lot” because Lot’s spark needs to be purified before it can be attached to the Jewish people.

“And the men said unto Lot, hast thou here any besides?” The angels not only ask Lot, but also invite him to reflect: is there anything else valuable in this city? What is there for you to seek in Sodom, if its citizens act in such an awful manner? Any connection between a Sodomite resident and Lot means this person is not hopeless, and gives him hope for salvation–and the angels emphasize this. But a connection to Sodom, conversely, destroys. Lot was able to sever his connection with the city, although he was unable to influence even the members of his household in this respect. We are not told whether Lot’s wife was originally a Sodomite, or if, after twenty years, she had so much become attached to Sodom that she could not resist turning around, but this resulted in her ruin.

7.7 The Echo of Divine Laughter at Sodom

(14) And Lot went out, and spoke unto his sons-in-law, who married his daughters, and said: ‘Up, get you out of this place; for HaShem will destroy the city.’ But he seemed unto his sons-in-law as one that jested.

Besides his two unmarried daughters who lived in his house, Lot also had two married daughters, and it was their husbands that Lot went to convince to leave with him. These two, of course, did not go to riot at Lot’s house, but stayed at home and did not try to stop the Sodomite demonstration. Everything that is connected to Sodom loses all chance of salvation unless it finds the strength within itself to disconnect from Sodom.

Lot “seemed unto his sons-in-law as one that jested” both in the sense that it seemed to them that he was joking, and in the sense that they laughed at his words. It was funny to them: it did not make sense to them that something bad could happen in such a wonderful place. The Torah’s mention of this laughter is not accidental: it comes to echo a different laughter—the Divine laughter at Sodom (“Divine laughter” is an important concept and we will discuss it in greater detail below). Thus, the laughter in response to Lot’s words was not a complete mistake on the part of his Sodomite sons-in-law. They felt the reflection of a metaphysical, lofty Divine laughter (and this is why they wanted to laugh), but were not capable of properly interpreting it.

Laughter is an integral part of geula, Messianic liberation, because the Messianic process never goes the way it was initially expected. This laughter is reinforced and combined with Divine laughter, as it is described in the Talmud: “There is no full laughter before the Most Holy, but only on the day of Deliverance, since “He that sitteth in heaven laugheth, the L-rd hath them in derision.” (Psalms 2:4). Upon Lot’s departure from Sodom, the breakthrough in the direction of geula begins and King David’s soul begins to descend into the world; the Messiah’s origin from the ruins of Sodom’s evil contradicts standard logic, and therefore it is “laughable.” Laughter is overcoming of the laws of logic, bound to the radiance of the new world.

7.8 The Extraction of Lot from Sodom

(15) And when the morning arose, then the angels hastened Lot, saying: ‘Arise, take thy wife, and thy two daughters that are here; lest thou be swept away in the iniquity of the city.’ (16) But he lingered; and the men laid hold upon his hand, and upon the hand of his wife, and upon the hand of his two daughters; HaShem being merciful unto him. And they brought him forth, and set him without the city.

Night is the time for preparation for the Exodus, but the departure from Sodom occurs only at the break of dawn, which symbolizes the beginning of the Geula.

Lot is incapable of recognizing his role in the Messianic process. He delays his departure because he is not personally inclined to advance forward; it is necessary to “take him by the hand,” to lead him out by force.

As long as the night lasted, Lot could remain in Sodom. But when the dawn (that is, Geula) began, delaying departure could lead to death.

“Lest thou be swept away in the iniquity of the city”—he who does not distance himself from Sodom dies with it, even if he personally is not guilty of anything.

The angels led Lot because “HaShem being merciful unto him.” Lot himself was not worthy of salvation, and was led out of Sodom only because otherwise, the future David would not be able to be born.

“And set him without the city”—in order to encourage him to continue advancing on his own.

7.9 Why Lot does not escape to the Mountain

(17) And it came to pass, when they had brought them forth abroad, that he said: ‘Escape for thy life; look not behind thee, neither stay thou in all the Plain; escape to the mountain, lest thou be swept away.’ (18) And Lot said unto them: ‘Oh, not so, my lord; (19) Behold now, thy servant hath found grace in thy sight, and thou hast magnified thy mercy, which thou hast shown unto me in saving my life; and I cannot escape to the mountain, lest the evil overtake me, and I die.

The angels lead Lot out of the city, but do not take him to a safe haven. They only explain how he must further act on his own: “look not behind thee, neither stay thou in all the Plain; escape to the mountain.”

This is a test for Lot, because if now, already outside of Sodom, he is unable to continue alone, then he will not be able to be rescued. It is impossible to rescue a person by force. One must act on one’s own—once Lot has been led out, he must move onward as far from there as possible on his own. Lot is capable of this (although with difficulty), while his wife is not, and so she turns back.

The angel suggests that Lot should escape “to the mountain.” We have already noted the unique geography of this region. Sodom is the lowest point in the world both geographically (420 m below sea level), and morally. Abraham lives in Hebron next to Sodom, on a fairly high mountain (920 m above sea level). The geographical incline symbolizes a moral incline as well. Thus, when the angel suggests to Lot to escape to the “geographical” mountain, this means that a moral advancement towards Abraham is required of Lot.

But Lot is afraid of this advancement: “I cannot escape to the mountain, lest the evil overtake me, and I die.” Lot wants to avoid being Abraham’s neighbor. Lot knows his own moral level: although against the backdrop of Sodom he is a righteous man, in comparison to Abraham he might be classified with the evildoers. Abraham’s moral level is an indictment of Lot. This is why it is common in life that righteous men of Lot’s type (who appear worthy against the backdrop of Sodom) try to steer clear of righteous men of Abraham’s type.

7.10 Zoar–the Border City

(20) Behold now, this city is near to flee unto, and it is a little one; oh, let me escape thither–is it not a little one?–and my soul shall live.’ (21) And he said unto him: See, I have accepted thee concerning this thing also, that I will not overthrow the city of which thou hast spoken. (22) Hasten thou, escape thither; for I cannot do any thing till thou be come thither.’—Therefore the name of the city was called Zoar.—

Lot aims to find himself a place separate both from Sodom and Abraham. For this, he needs a small town on the border of “Sodomite influence.” It is geographically and morally located somewhat above Sodom, but is not too remote from the city. Like Lot, Zoar is a borderline city both geographically and spiritually.

Lot feels that although he was unable to influence the large city of Sodom, he may be able to influence the small city of Zoar, and asks to be given this opportunity. Lot is incapable of rising from the Sodomite lowlands directly to the top of the mountain. He needs an “intermediate stage,” which becomes Zoar (the next such station will be the cave in the center of the mountain). This advancement shows that Lot has some positive moral dynamic, for which he is saved, strictly speaking. And the angel agrees to give him this opportunity.

7.11 Do not look back

(23) The sun was risen upon the earth when Lot came unto Zoar. (24) Then HaShem caused to rain upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from HaShem out of heaven; (25) and He overthrow those cities, and all the Plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and that which grew upon the ground. (26) But his wife looked back from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt.

If a person is half righteous and half wicked, then he does not have the right to observe evildoers die from the side, acting as if he has no connection to them. For it is entirely possible that he deserved a similar punishment, but is saved for some reasons unknown to him. Therefore, if such a moderate righteous man looks upon the punishment of evildoers, he will be lost alongside them. Only completely righteous men can watch the death of evildoers without harming themselves.

Having turned around, Lot’s wife showed she was more connected to Sodom than to the future Messianic process, and so Divine kindness did not extend to her. It is possible that God did not punish her “in an individual manner”; it is more likely that her natural status as a citizen of the doomed Sodom was returned to her.

7.12 Abraham watches Sodom’s Destruction

(27) And Abraham got up early in the morning to the place where he stood before HaShem: (28) And he looked out toward Sodom and Gomorrah, and toward all the land of the Plain, and beheld, and, lo, the smoke of the land went up as the smoke of a furnace. (29) And it came to pass, when God destroyed the cities of the Plain, that God remembered Abraham, and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow, when He overthrew the cities in which Lot dwelt.

Once again the Torah notes, “And… God remembered Abraham, and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow.” On his own Lot did not deserve salvation, but he is necessary for the future development of the world.

The words “early in the morning” are always related to the category of hesed, characteristic of Abraham. But now he returns to the “place where he stood before HaShem,” the mountain from where he can see the entire plain of Sodom and to which he now returns—that is, to the place of gevura, where he had his argument with God about the fate of Sodom. Abraham now feels hesed alone is insufficient–he is ready to complement hesed with gevura, and observe the unfolding of events in Sodom from this newfound perspective.

Abraham, unlike Lot, can look at Sodom’s destruction. Moreover, it is necessary for him to do so to understand the ways of Divine rule of the world. He sees “smoke of the country…as the smoke of a furnace.” A furnace is a place where nothing is left, where everything is completely annihilated. After Lot’s exodus from Sodom, nothing is left there, and so there is no hope for reconstruction. The incident with Sodom became a reproach for Abraham for unrealized opportunities and the downfall of hopes.

And so a little later we read that Abraham left Hebron for Gerar. The Midrash says that Abraham left Hebron because after the destruction of Sodom, people stopped walking through Hebron so Abraham had no one to influence there. Strikingly, it was due to Sodom, the city of evildoers, that Hebron, the city of the righteous Abraham, had the opportunity to influence the world. The destruction of Sodom undermined the point of Abraham’s life in Hebron.

7.13 Lot’s Daughters decide to bear Children from him

(30) And Lot went up out of Zoar, and dwelt in the mountain, and his two daughters with him; for he feared to dwell in Zoar: and he dwelt in a cave, he and his two daughters. (31) And the first-born said unto the younger: ‘Our father is old, and there is not a man in the earth to come in unto us after the manner of all the earth.

During the demolition of Sodom, Zoar evaded destruction, but the catastrophe itself affected Lot so strongly that he decided to distance himself from everything related to Sodom in any way. So Lot leaves Zoar and begins to live “in the mountain”—not on the mountain and not below the mountain, but in the middle of the mountain, in a cave, separate from everyone, between the top of the mountain, Abraham, and the bottom of the Earth, Sodom, at the midpoint between good and evil.

However, after this effort, Lot is incapable of moving further. His potential has been entirely depleted. His daughters notice this when they say that “our father is old”—that is, it is not worth waiting for him to solve the problem; they must take action on their own.

The words “there is not a man in the earth” are puzzling. Lot’s daughters can’t think that literally there are no people left on earth. They knew that Zoar for example was not destroyed. The wording of the phrase “to come in unto us” is also irregular. Usually to denote a sexual relationship, the Torah uses the phrase “lavo el,” to come to; but here another expression is used, “lavo al.” This expression is used only one other in time, in the book of Deuteronomy (25:5) when the Torah describes a levirate marriage (“If brethren dwell together, and one of them die, and have no child, the wife of the dead shall not be married abroad unto one not of his kin; her husband’s brother shall go in unto her (lavo al), and take her to him to wife.”) The preposition “al” is usually understood as an addition, “in addition to the passed away husband.”

Lot’s daughters can talk about a levirate marriage only if they see themselves as “widows of the passed away Sodom” and their relationship with their father as an opportunity to reenact “the seed of Sodom.”

Because their father is “old,” Sodom cannot come alive again on its own. But the hope for extracting Divine sparks must exist because otherwise the future King David will not be born. The messiah needs to originate from Sodom and their father carries the necessary spark and therefore can continue the Messianic process.

Had Lot had more energy, he easily could have taken a new wife for himself, had children with her, and found husbands for his daughters. Then the Messianic process would have advanced in the right direction. But Lot was no longer capable of doing anything himself. His daughters’ words, “there is not a man in the earth” mean only that besides Lot, there is no one left for a levirate marriage with them and there is no one else capable of retrieving the Divine spark from Sodom.

We have already noted that while residing in Sodom, Lot loses his natural moral instinct, causing him to come up with the wild idea of giving his daughters to the Sodomite crowd. In the simple sense, this action was never realized, but on a deeper level, Lot “married off his daughters to Sodom,” and now, after the death of the city, they are its widows. This is why they consider themselves morally obligated to revive it. Lot’s daughters are so strongly attached to Sodom that they are ready to restore it even by having relations with their father—the last remaining Sodomite.

A true idealistic Sodomite is not only a criminal, a greedy and soulless inhabitant of the city, but one who considers the majority of Sodom’s ideas to be a prototype for the future; one who despite the destruction of the city, believes in its potential Messianic ability. Lot’s daughters need precisely this kind of person for the continuation of the human race.

Of course, at first glance, this seems horrific. However, from a formal point of view, what Lot’s daughters did was not a huge crime because in the culture of the time liaisons between daughters and their fathers were, while undesirable, not strictly forbidden. And, furthermore, a levirate marriage at that time could be conducted not only by the brother of the husband, but by any family member (for example, Tamar seduces her father-in-law Judah in order to bind him to her through a levirate marriage). After the gift of the Torah, such types of liaisons because forbidden, but at the time of the Patriarchs, this was still permissible.

Paradoxically, Lot’s daughters want to do hesed for Sodom, the city which did not recognize hesed. Thus hesed occurs once they are outside Sodom, in the midst of the mountain, at the point midway to Abraham. The positive spark contained in Sodom could not be extracted from the city until Sodom was destroyed.

7.14 Lot is given Wine to Drink

(32) Come, let us make our father drink wine, and we will lie with him, that we may preserve seed of our father.’ (33) And they made their father drink wine that night. And the first-born went in, and lay with her father; and he knew not when she lay down, nor when she arose. (34) And it came to pass on the morrow, that the first-born said unto the younger: ‘Behold, I lay yesternight with my father. Let us make him drink wine this night also; and go thou in, and lie with him, that we may preserve seed of our father.’ (35) And they made their father drink wine that night also. And the younger arose, and lay with him; and he knew not when she lay down, nor when she arose.

Wine is a necessary element for the implementation of this plan. Lot is incapable of doing anything while sober. His potential has run out. Besides, he would not have agreed to a liaison with his daughters, since he adheres to a moral standard. However, he is unstable, and it is easy to get him drunk.

The Midrash tells us something incredible: the wine which Lot’s daughters used to get him drunk was brought to this cave from the Garden of Eden and was prepared even from the time of the Creation of the World, specifically for this occasion. It was intended for Lot’s daughters to be able to get their father drunk and bear his children because, as bad as this story may seem, it is a part of the Messianic process. This means that although their behavior was their personal sin, on a deeper level it realized necessary paths of the universe.

We are once again faced with the principle that the Messianic process often looks abnormal, not as it is “supposed to be,” and it always occurs on the border of the permissible. If Lot had behaved properly, this borderline of the permissible would not have passed through him, but rather though Zoar (whose citizens were close to Sodom and, to a certain extent “Sodomites”), and husbands for Lot’s daughters would have been found there. But Lot lost his will to advance. He did not think that as a father he was obligated to put effort into marrying off his daughters; for this reason the essential process occurred through him personally.

7.15 Moab and Ammon, the Sons of Lot’s Daughters

(36) Thus were both the daughters of Lot with child by their father. (37) And the first-born bore a son, and called his name Moab–the same is the father of the Moabites unto this day. (38) And the younger, she also bore a son, and called his name Ben-ammi–the same is the father of the children of Ammon unto this day.

Moab (Moav in Hebrew) literally means “me-av,” (from the father). The oldest daughter considers her relationship with her father as a levirate marriage, although it is not entirely ordinary, and is not shy about announcing this to the world at large. But Lot’s youngest daughter is shyer. She conceived and gave birth not as a result of her own decision, but because she was told to do so by her older sister. Therefore she gives her son a neutral name, Ben-Ami (the son of my people).

Subsequently, the peoples who come from Lot’s daughters settled not far from Cannan: Moab on the western shore of the Dead Sea and Ammon further north, on the western shore of the Jordan River (the capital of the Ammonites, Rabat Ammon (see II Samuel 11:1) is known today as Amman, and is the capital of Jordan).

Lot’s daughters acted with hesed towards Sodom that embodied the complete opposite of hesed. Therefore the two nations who came from them catastrophically lack hesed, although there are cases when women of super-hesed descend from them, and contribute to the birth of the Messiah.

The Midrash tell us that the older daughter’s merit was greater than that of the younger one, since the older one was the initiator of the liaison with their father and was embarrassed by it. Because of the oldest daughter’s merit, her descendant Ruth the Moabite, the great-grandmother of David, would contribute to the creation of the Jewish kingdom earlier than the descendant of the younger daughter, Solomon’s wife Naamah the Ammonite.

Our Sages viewed the behavior of Lot’s daughters in their favor because they sought Redemption and the arrival of the Messiah. Their decision to bear from their own father in order to revive the spark of Sodom was, from their point of view, a sacrifice for the sake of an ideal rather than a crime.

However, this does not mean that Jewish tradition feels favorably about the descendants of Lot’s daughters, the Moabites and the Ammonites. On the contrary, these are very problematic nations, and only some of their representatives merit to participate in the birth of the Messiah.

7.16 Moabites and Ammonites, Peoples with a Catastrophic Lack of Hesed

The peculiarity of their origin made the Moabites and Ammonites two “abnormal” nations, bordering between Abraham’s righteousness and Sodom’s wickedness.

The desire of Lot’s daughters to revive their people and city is positive, because it is right to aim to protect that which is dear to you. Their desire is entirely selfless and idealistic: they want the rectification of Sodom, and so allow themselves to bear children from their father. In of itself the concept of “allowing” refers to the category of hesed. But still, the decision to do something of this nature is a manifestation of “impure hesed.”

We already know that hesed, as any other spiritual category, can be pure and impure, and its excess can lead to evil. It is unlikely that Lot was twice so drunk that he truly “did not notice” what his daughters were doing with him. It is not that he purposely went for a liaison with them, but he allowed himself to do so. This is also a manifestation of excess, impure hesed. Lot has a particular type of hesed which is excessive for Abraham and the entire Jewish people (and this is why Lot is separated from Abraham)—although a certain spark hidden within him is needed for the creation of the kingdom in the future people of Israel. And it is thanks to this spark that the proper hesed of Ruth the Moabite and Naamah the Ammonite will be able to be manifested in the future.

Lot’s daughters unite Abraham’s hesed with Sodom’s anti-hesed. But these things are contradictory and incompatible and as a result the Moabites and the Ammonites cannot exist “in the middle” and are faced with a difficult choice—either to approach Abraham or go in the direction of Sodom. Other peoples can live an intermediate existence—being neither as righteous as Abraham nor as evil as Sodom. But for the Moabites and Ammonites this is impossible: they can either rise up high or fall down low.

Finally, the Ammonites and Moabites went in the direction of Sodom and did not show even elementary compassion towards the Jewish people—they did not give the Jews even bread and water upon their arrival in the desert.

And since the Sodomite inclination prevails within them, the Torah says about them that “An Ammonite or a Moabite shall not enter into the assembly of HaShem; even to the tenth generation shall none of them enter into the assembly of HaShem for ever. Because they met you not with bread and water in the way when ye came forth out of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 23:3-4).

Why is it so terribly that “they met you not… with bread and water” (Deuteronomy 23:4)? There were other nations who fought against the Jews, but it is not forbidden to accept converts from them. It is apparent that the Egyptians felt incomparably worse about the Jews than the Ammonites and Moabites, yet the Egyptians could become Jews after going through a conversion process. Although Edom threatened the Jews with war, it says about Edom “the children of the third generation that are born unto them may enter into the assembly of HaShem” (Deuteronomy 23:9).

The Ammonites and Moabites did not make wars, but their sin consists of displaying total indifference. It is precisely for this that they were forever denied the opportunity to enter the Jewish community. Such a seemingly disproportionate punishment is imposed upon them because the Ammonites and Moabites have only two extreme options: to be either like Abraham or like Sodom. If they deny hospitality, that is, do not behave like Abraham, it means that they have chosen Sodom. Total indifference to those around them was a characteristic Sodomite quality, the result of their presumptuous self-containment and disdain for others, a manifestation of the prototypical “anti-hesed.” And so, not only will they not “enter into the assembly of HaShem,” but they await an even worse fate: “Moab shall be as Sodom…Ammon as Gomorrah” (Zephania 2:9).

However, unlike the Ammonite and Moabite men, the women of these nations are allowed to undergo conversion. The ban does not extend to women because welcoming travelers was the men’s prerogative, not befitting women. So the Ammonite and Moabite women were not guilty of the sin of inhospitality and indifference towards to the Jews and therefore have permission to join the Jewish people.

30 Jan

Chapter 06: Three Angels and the Manifestation of God

6.1 The Correlation between the Lekh Lekha and Vayera Portions

As noted above, the weekly sections in the Book of Genesis come in pairs; just as the first story of humanity is described in the Torah in two weekly sections, Bereshit and Noah, so too the story of Abraham is told to us in two weekly sections, Lekh Lekha and Vayera.

The Lekh Lekha portion, literally translated as Go for Yourself, describes Abraham’s departure as a parting not only from his father’s house and previous life, but also as a gradual divergence from his original plan: he gradually shifted from the idea of creating a universal religion to the acceptance of God’s plan of creating a unique monotheistic nation, after which this universal idea would be transmitted to all of humanity.

In the course of his journey across the Land of Israel, Abraham gradually recognizes that the continuation of his teaching cannot be implemented, neither through Eliezer nor Lot, nor Ishmael, but only through Abraham’s son born to Sarah. Eliezer, Lot, and Ishmael were close to Abraham and followed his teachings, but this was not enough for them be his successors. To bear Abraham’s teachings, it was necessary not only to know and understand his philosophy, but also possess an immense creative potential. After all, the creation of the chosen nation and Judaism does not end with Abraham, and the successor to this mission must not just follow in Abraham’s footsteps, but forge his own path. Only his son born to Sarah could be strong and clever enough to become his true successor.

Lekh Lekha was Abraham’s transition from an individual level of understanding to a national level, a shift from Abram to Abraham.

This pivotal point begins the new portion of Vayera, literally “And HaShem appeared unto him.” In this section, HaShem reveals himself to Abraham specifically as the founder of a nation. The key moment in this turning point is the birth of Isaac. Abraham, the righteous man of the category of hesed, begins to recognize (and this is very difficult for him) that his successor would be a person of an entirely different mindset, a pious man of a different nature: he will be tzaddik of the category gevura. Abraham had to learn and accept that hesed must not be manifested on its own, but requires integration with other categories, primarily with gevura.

The Lekh Lekha portion describes the emergence of Abraham, while the Vayera section discusses Abraham’s relationship with Isaac, because it is vital not only to attain something that already exists but to go beyond it. This story begins with the prophecy of Isaac’s birth and ends with the story of Akeydat Yitzhak (the Binding of Isaac) which signifies the climax of establishing mutual understanding between Abraham and Isaac.

Isaac could have been born only after Ishmael’s maturation, because in the process of Ishmael’s birth and rearing, a certain “shell” (klipa) was removed from Abraham, which interfered with his advancement (this is the “impure hesed” of Ishmael; we will discuss this theme below), and so begins his formation as the forefather of the Jewish nation. Only after his circumcision and change of his name can Abraham become the progenitor of a nation.

6.2 The Afternoon Revelation—Beginning of the Journey towards the Category of Gevura

(1) And HaShem appeared unto him in the terebinths of Mamre, as he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day.

The previous appearance of HaShem to Abraham happened very recently (Genesis 17:1), but since then Abraham has changed, having circumcised himself and his household. Consequently, this time he does not “bow himself toward the ground” upon meeting HaShem, but can rather continue the dialogue with Him.

The Terebinths of Mamre is the city of Hebron (13:18) where Abraham lived during and after the war with the kings (14:13). The Kabalistic category (sefira) of Hebron in the context of the Land of Israel is malkhut, (kingdom), the category of implementation. And this is the category of David, who began ruling specifically in Chevron. On the other hand, Abraham’s category of hesed, and the quality of malkhut is foreign to him. Abraham has not yet created a nation; he has only begun the colossal task of creating it. The structure of the sefirot tree builds up towards malkhut, David and the Messiah the son of David—Abraham is but the commencement point of its growth. Abraham settles in Chevron, the city of kingship, because deep down he wants to progress in the direction of malkhut, wants to begin to learn this category. (However, it is later shown that Abraham cannot yet stay in Chevron, and therefore leaves for Grar and then Beer Sheba).

Abraham sits at the entrance of his tent “in the heat of the day.” “Of the day” is interpreted to mean “in the afternoon”—this is the time of the gevura category. Dawn and early morning are hesed, the time of mercy, the time of Abraham; the afternoon, however, is the time of gevura, of giving an account and judgment, the time of Isaac (and night, as we will see below, is the time of tiferet, the time of Jacob).

In the morning, light appears, and we feel it to be HaShem’s gift to the world after the darkness of night. God returns each person’s soul after sleep, after which the person resumes his life. In the morning prayer, shaharit, a person celebrates that he has woken up and received the gift of life. During the day the sun beats down fiercely and it is difficult to be beneath it; this is the time of law and judgment. Accordingly, in the afternoon prayer, minha, a person makes himself accountable before God for work he has accomplished during the day—this is the deeper essence of this prayer. The purpose of the category of judgment is to justify one’s existence, the reciprocal output for the given opportunities. And this is the personality of Isaac.

For this reason it is important that in this account, Abraham’s vision begins after noon, during “the heat of the day,” rather than in the early morning; this is a sign that the time is approaching for the birth of Isaac, the righteous of the category of judgment.

“In the tent door”: the Midrash states that by sitting in the doorway, Abraham displayed a readiness to invite travelers into his home.

6.3 “Three Men” as the Union of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob

(2) and he lifted up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood over against him; and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed down to the earth, (3) And said, My Lord, if now I have found favour in thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee, from thy servant: (4) Let now a little water be fetched, and wash your feet, and recline yourselves under the tree. (5) And I will fetch a morsel of bread, and stay ye your heart; after that ye shall pass on; forasmuch as ye are come to your servant.’ And they said: ‘So do, as thou hast said.’

Who were these “three men” whom Abraham meets here? The story about them begins with “And HaShem appeared unto him” (18:1), but we do not find here an address from God to Abraham; rather, the text immediately transitions to “and, lo, three men stood over him” (18:2). Further, it is said the people with whom Abraham spoke “looked out toward Sodom…and the two angels came to Sodom” (18:16, 19:1). So, with whom was Abraham conversing?

Tradition offers several interpretations of this passage: either these were three ordinary travelers, sent to Abraham by God with a mission, or they were angels, or, finally, this was the Almighty himself, revealing himself to Abraham in a vision. In different eras, Jewish commentators emphasized those aspects of understanding this story which were important specifically to the people of their generation.

For us today, the commentaries of the Book of Zohar would probably be the most interesting. This commentary states that the three figures, the three people Abraham saw, are the three forefathers; that is, Abraham himself in the company of Isaac and Jacob. This means Abraham saw and recognized himself not only as an individual and an independent sefira of hesed, separated from other sefirot, but also as a link in the chain of generations, in both the spiritual and physical sense, as part of the bigger picture of the nation’s development. Abraham saw and began to understand that the category of hesed cannot successfully operate autonomously (or, in other words, it is impossible to improve mankind and the universe with only love, kindness and generosity), and he was only the first link in the chain of prophets who would continue what he began. The category of Abraham must be completed by the categories of Isaac and Jacob, and understanding this is a huge step for Abraham.

Abraham not only sees his connection with the categories of Isaac and Jacob, but also accepts them. We see this by “he ran to meet them.” The word ran (ratz) is connected in Hebrew to the word ratzon (a desire which forces one to chase after the desired); thus, Abraham is open to unification. Abraham recognizes that all three forefathers constitute a unified whole, and that he is not the sole founder of the people, but of all of them together, i.e. the founding of the Jewish nation must consist of not only hesed, but of other categories as well. This understanding is his enormous spiritual advancement.

Having reached such an understanding, Abraham is ready for Isaac’s birth. With circumcision, Abraham recognized his “uniqueness,” but he has now moved farther and recognized himself to be only the beginning of an expansion. As a result of this acknowledgment he can bear Isaac, a righteous man of a direction different from his own. Without having passed this stage, Abraham would not have been able to bear Isaac, but would only be the father of Ishmael, who is a kind of “weak copy of an earlier Abraham.”

6.4 Overcoming Fanaticism

There is a tendency in each person’s nature to see one’s own opinions and views as the most correct and important. This part of our personality is obviously necessary; otherwise, one would not be able to defend his opinions, nor be able to realize his own mission in the world. However, it is bad if a person becomes such a fanatical supporter of a certain belief (that is in and of itself wonderful!) that he considers its realization to be the sole panacea for all problems. For example, love, beauty, and social justice are all important values. But absolutizing them and declaring that “only love will save the world” or “only beauty will save the world” or “only social justice will save the world,” would be destructive fanaticism and evil.

A person stands on an incomparably higher level when he actively defends one’s thoughts and ideas, but also sees them as part of the larger picture, i.e. admits that his favorite idea must also have spiritual opposition, and that this opposition will only benefit his idea.

Naturally, it is very important not to discard one’s own views, but to assert and defend them. If I will not support my own beliefs, then who will support them? (As Hillel said, “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me?”) Yet, it is vital not to consider one’s own way to be the only possible approach.

For this reason, fanaticism is not a person’s views, if he’s left or right-wing, an extremist or “moderate.” Fanaticism is when a person does not see and does not want to see anything except his own opinions. He does not understand the importance of opposition, counterbalance, and other points of view, and so cannot advance correctly.

Any positive thing or idea can be right, if set in its proper place. But if it tries to spread over everything, then it is no longer in its own place, and cannot function properly. In Kabbala, such a “blind to others” approach is called olam nekudim (a World of Spots), in which every sefira, that is, an idea that is good and right in and of itself, tries to incorporate into itself all the surrounding Divine light, and, as a result, bursts from excess internal pressure, breaks and shatters (a process known as shvirat kelim—(the breakdown of vessels). Thus any system which tries to suppress an opposing view loses its counterbalance and inevitably collapses. Tikkun (correction) is, on the contrary, the acquisition of this balance. Abraham’s transition from a “total reliance on hesed” to an understanding of the importance of the equilibrium of the “three men” who appeared to him is the overcoming of potential fanaticism, a very important step towards repairing the world.

6.5 Ishmael’s Impure Hesed

When we say that Ishamel is a “weak copy of an earlier Abraham,” we mean that Ishamel is also a person of hesed, like Abraham, but he incorrectly directs this hesed (in the terminology of the Kabbala, he is hesed detuma, impure hesed). However, since Ishamel also expresses his hesed, he is similar to Abraham and, despite all of his mistakes, Abraham understands him. But Isaac, who symbolizes gevura, is different from Abraham and so is incomprehensible to him. This is the reason why Abraham loves Ishmael more than Isaac. Establishing a connection with Isaac is difficult internal work for Abraham, which is nonetheless necessary for his development.

Tradition sees a demonstration of Ishamel’s impure hesed in the words “his hand shall be against every man, and every man’s hand against him” (16:12), which indicates a lack of a sense of boundaries, and this is precisely what makes hesed impure. Similarly, the words describing how Ishamel was “mocking” (metzahek) Isaac (21:9) are understood by the Midrash as a “sexual drive without a sense of boundary” (the word metzahek, to mock or flirt, has a sexual subtext in the Torah: refer to 26:9).

This “impure hesed” induces Ishmael to turn his hesed towards himself; he has a tendency to permissiveness, as a result of which the dark side of Western hospitality turns into mass murder of infidels. It is due to this permissiveness that Ishmael’s descendants “find a balance” by choosing Islam, a religion of the opposite category, i.e gevura[1], with its minimalistic monotheism and exceedingly harsh system of restrictions. (In contrast, Esau’s descendants whose essence is gevura, take upon themselves the religion of hesed and love, that is, Christianity, because they feel the necessity to balance out their natural tendencies, for otherwise life would go entirely to pieces…)

One can learn much about any civilization by understanding its conception of heaven, as this reflects the deepest aspirations of its “collective soul.” In some sense, “Tell me what your heaven is, and I will tell you who you are.”[2]

It is not by accident that in the consciousness of Ishmael’s descendants, “Heaven is a place where men are awaited by 72 virgins.” This vision demonstrates the deepest inclinations of the Arab soul, its innermost yearning for debauchery. (They understand that this is their inclination and so they try—for their own self-preservation!—to severely limit themselves and introduce exceedingly harsh “anti-lewdness” measures: let the women walk covered from head to toe so that they do not seduce the men).

All of this “impure hesed” had to be separated from Abraham (and this occurred when Ishmael was born) so that purified hesed could be inherited by the Jewish nation.

6.6 The Character and Role of the Angel

If we interpret Abraham’s guests as angels (especially in light of what is said later, “And there came two angels at Sodom”), we must ask why there were either two or three angels, rather than one? The Midrash explains that each angel can perform only his own assigned role, but can never carry out two tasks. One angel was the “angel of good news” (Michael), who came to inform Sarah about the birth of Isaac; the second was the angel of healing (Rafael) who cured Abraham of his pain after the circumcision (later he was the one who led Lot out of Sodom, as healing and saving is counted as one task here); the third angel was the angel of judgment (Gabriel) and his mission was to destroy Sodom.

This interpretation portrays the Jewish understanding of an angel as a somewhat limited aspect of Divine Will, descended into the lower world, and in a sense, separated from Him. The angel is a type of materialized or sort of “concentrated” Divine Will sent to the lower world for the completion of a particular assignment.

Such a manifestation of Divine Will can be a one-time occurrence (that is, used only for a particular occasion), or it can be constant (in the form of a certain natural law or some recurring event).

Incidentally, from this perspective all forces of evil are also angels. For example, in Jewish philosophy, the Satan (“Satana”), is one of the angels and, like all others, he unconditionally carries out the tasks assigned to him, but in no way is he a “power that opposes the Almighty.” The work of Satan is to be the prosecutor, to blame, to send people various kinds of problems, but this task is entrusted to him by God. This approach differs significantly from the Christian perspective, in which Satan is God’s adversary.

6.7 Hospitality as Abraham’s Religious Value

(6) And Abraham hastened into the tent unto Sarah, and said: ‘Make ready quickly three measures of fine meal, knead it, and make cakes.’ (7) And Abraham ran unto the herd, and fetched a calf tender and good, and gave it unto the servant; and he hastened to dress it. (8) And he took curd, and milk, and the calf which he had dressed, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree, and they did eat.

Hospitality is not something unusual in our times, but in the ancient world the situation was different and kindness to strangers was not commonplace. However, for Abraham, hospitality was one of, if not the most, characteristic feature of the everyday manifestation of his religiosity, which he sought to realize to the highest possible degree. (The Talmud in Bava Metzia 87a emphasizes that the righteous man says little, promises only water and a slice of bread, but does much, giving also meat and milk).

The essence of monotheism that Abraham preached consists of love for God, expressed through love for others who are representatives of God on earth. After all, the essence of monotheism is not that there is only one God, but that man is created in God’s image and likeness. And so, by taking in the travelers and expressing his love for them, Abraham, realizes his religious values.

Likewise Lot, Abraham’s relative and pupil, is hospitable, but Sodom, Abraham’s antipode, is “anti-hospitable,” and so does not earn the right to exist. Sodom’s inhospitality towards induces God’s “inhospitality” towards Sodom.

6.8 Mahpela: The Link of Jewish Tradition with Adam

The Midrash connects the story of the angels’ appearance to Abraham with the discovery of the Cave of Mahpela. In the verse “And Abraham ran unto the herd…” (18:7) the pronoun el (towards) is fairly uncommon and usually means “run after” rather than “run towards” so that the verse means, “And Abraham ran after the herd.” The rare use of this pronoun prompts the Midrash to explain that a calf ran away from Abraham into the cave of Mahpela; Abraham ran after him and saw this was the grave of Adam and Eve. Abraham saw the light of the Garden of Eden leading out of the cave and decided to make this cave his family tomb.

The idea of this Midrash is not merely that Abraham received the cave of Mahpela as a reward for his hospitality. It is important that Adam is also buried in the cave of Mahpela, the tomb of the forefathers, and this means that Jewish tradition dates back not to Abraham, but to Adam (through Noah, Shem, and Eber), that is, it emanates from the very beginnings of humanity. This emphasizes that Jewish tradition is universal, and by its very nature is common to all mankind, rather than particular to Judaism; its task is to bring all of humanity to God.

6.9 The Maturation of Ishmael and his Trial

(7) And gave it unto the servant.

Since the servant is not named, tradition seeks to identify him as one of the characters named earlier in the narrative, and claims it was Ishmael, who was 13 at the time: he has attained the age of maturation and is therefore fully capable to choose and make his own decisions. Abraham could bear Isaac only after Ishmael became an adult, since Ishmael’s trial was to learn to accept and recognize Isaac.

Passing the trial God places before Ishmael is his only way to receive his part of the inheritance; the trial consists of recognizing his lower position on the hierarchy and acknowledging that Isaac is the full fledged heir, while Ishmael is only the youngest member of the family. When Ishmael accepts this hierarchy, he will certainly receive his part of the inheritance, in the same way that Hagar, having realized Sarah’s superiority and her own status as a slave-woman, received a reward, although was previously expelled for her pretentiousness.

For this reason, it is vitally important for Ishmael to learn about all this as early as possible, and it will be even better if he finds out about it while Isaac is still “in the works,” so that he can start adjusting in advance. To be able to re-adjust, Ishmael had to be an adult—13 years old. Then, with the right to make his own decisions, he can choose for himself to agree or disagree with his new position in the family.

In the end, Ishmael was unable to cope with the trial and was expelled, but, from God’s perspective the opportunity to choose had been offered to him.

On the other hand, Abraham also had to ascertain that Ishmael could not be the successor of his movement. But for Ishmael to manifest himself, and for Abraham to understand this, Ishmael had to be an adult. Only then could Ishmael’s behavior convince Abraham that Abraham’s endeavor had to be continued by another son.

 

6.10 The Correlation of Judaism to Christianity and to Islam

As part of comparing the relationship between Ishmael and Isaac to that between Jacob and Esau, we will analyze the question: which of the two “daughter religions,” Islam or Christianity, is closer to Judaism? This is a very complicated question, having a few facets that need to be considered.

 

Comparing the degree of monotheism in Islam and in Christianity.

 

It is important to note that comparing the degrees of monotheism of these two religions is fairly difficult. In Christianity, the idea of Jesus is added onto God (this kind of religion is classified by Judaism as shituf [association]). For Jews, the Torah has a unique commandment, “Do not make any gods to be alongside” (Exodus 20:23), and therefore a religion of shituf is considered for Jews to be idolatry. But for the peoples of the world, shituf is not forbidden and not considered idolatry.

In Islam, no image is added to Allah, and therefore it is more purely monotheistic than Christianity.

However, the problem is that in Islam, Divinity is so deprived of attributes that its monotheism could easily degenerate into something “faceless.” The essence of monotheism is the dialogue between God and man, which is harder to attain if the “likeness of man and God” is hidden. Therefore, the Islamic form of monotheism contains an intrinsic error.

Incorrect understanding of Maimonides’ words about the possibility of Jewish prayer in a mosque.

We must note that in Jewish circles, one can often hear incorrect conclusions drawn on the basis of the famous statement made by Maimonides (Rambam) that “in times of need, a Jew can pray in a mosque, but never, under any circumstances, in a church.” They draw the incorrect conclusion from this that Islam is supposedly closer to Judaism than Christianity. But in reality, the possibility to pray is not a criterion for the closeness of religions. For example, an Orthodox rabbi would forbid praying in a Reform temple, because this legitimizes Reform Judaism, but this does not mean that Reform Judaism is farther from Orthodox Judaism than Islam. Thus, permission to pray in a certain place is not an indication of the closeness of religions, and people are simply drawing incorrect conclusions from Maimonides’ words.

The possibility of religious dialogue

Maimonides, however, made an additional halakhic decree (mentioned earlier), which states that, in principle, it is possible to have a religious dispute with Christians, but not with Muslims. The reason is that Christianity, at the very least, recognizes our texts and considers the Tanakh to be a sacred book (“The Old Testament”). On the basis of this common text, it is possible to explain our perspective to them, discuss different interpretations of the words, and analyze various translations of the Tanakh, etc. The Muslims, on the other hand, consider the text of the Tanakh to be false, so there is essentially nothing to discuss with them. They are a priori convinced we have distorted the words of God, so it is impossible to prove anything to them.

In Summary: Christianity is closer to Judaism than Islam

Considering the above discussion, Judaism has a great deal more common ground for a dialogue with Christians than with Muslims. Moreover, from the Jewish point of view, acceptance of the truth and Divinity of the Tanakh by the nations of the world is substantially more significant than the level of purity of their monotheism.

In light of this, it can be concluded that Christianity is much closer to Judaism than Islam.

6.11 Sarah’s Laughter and overcoming of her Gevura

(9) And they said unto him: ‘Where is Sarah thy wife?’ And he said: ‘Behold, in the tent.’ (10) And He said: ‘I will certainly return unto thee when the season cometh round; and, lo, Sarah thy wife shall have a son.’ And Sarah heard in the tent door, which was behind him. (11) Now Abraham and Sarah were old, and well stricken in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. (12) And Sarah laughed within herself, saying: ‘After I am waxed old shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?’ (13) And HaShem said unto Abraham: ‘Wherefore did Sarah laugh, saying: Shall I of a surety bear a child, who am old? (14) Is any thing too hard for HaShem. At the set time I will return unto thee, when the season cometh round, and Sarah shall have a son.’ (15) Then Sarah denied, saying: ‘I laughed not’; for she was afraid. And He said: ‘Nay; but thou didst laugh.’

Ostensibly the situation is as follows: Sarah displays lack of faith by not believing in the possibility of a miracle. God reproaches her for this, but Sarah does not want to admit to her lack of faith. The lesson usually learned from this episode is that it is important to believe in the possibility of a miracle from God, and that even if Sarah did not consider the visitors to be angels she should have nevertheless wished for their words to come true, rather than saying that their prophesy was impossible.

However, delving deeper into an analysis of this dialogue, we see it should be understood differently. The usual interpretation of Sarah’s words, “my lord being old,” refers to Abraham, that is, a child cannot be born because both she and Abraham are too old. However, when God quotes Sarah’s words to Abraham, He “changes them for the sake of peace,” so that Abraham would not be angry with her. But such an understanding encounters several problems. First of all, if Sarah is too old to bear children, this is enough of a reason on its own, and adding that Abraham is also old makes no sense. Secondly, forty years after these events, after Sarah‘s death, Abraham marries Keturah, who bears him many children (see Genesis 25:1), which shows that Abraham has no problems with impotency. Moreover, if the words “Sarah laughed within herself” means “to herself” (“not out loud”), why does God ask Abraham, “Wherefore did Sarah laugh?” After all, if Abraham did not hear her laughter, how could he explain it? Not to mention the fact that it is unclear why God “complained” about Sarah to Abraham—can anything positive really be achieved in this way?

Thus, a typical understanding of this excerpt, firstly, does not agree with the text and, secondly, paints Abraham and Sarah’s dialogue with God in a monstrously primitive light, as a series of petty naggings and reproaches, which do not fit in the least with their image in the Torah.

And so, apparently we need to completely rework our understanding of Sarah’s words and God’s response. Specifically, the words “my lord being old” refer not to Abraham, but to God; that is, here “My Lord” is being discussed, not “a lord” (we should note that there are no capital letters in Hebrew).

By God’s “old age,” Sarah means that He no longer interferes with the natural order of things. “Old age” here refers to a cessation of variability, a loss of dynamics. Such an understanding agrees perfectly with God’s response: He does not mention Abraham’s old age, but says, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” In addition, if one supposes Sarah is referring to “the Lord’s old age,” then her sentence becomes logical: “I have become old, and God has stopped changing the world, and everything goes according to unchangeable laws of nature and therefore I will not be able to have a child.”

Moreover, given such an understanding, the deeper essence of the problem will also become clear: Sarah is Abraham’s gevura, and the tendency to follow laws, including the laws of nature is the most important characteristic of gevura; thus, Sarah’s words dramatically express the essence of this category.

Let us remember that hesed is not only kindness, but also a desire to change that which exists, while gevura is not only law and justice, but also an attempt to preserve the existing, since gevura believes the existing state of things is the proper state. Abraham is hesed, but Sarah, as part of Abraham’s family, is “gevura within hesed.” When they act as a family, Sarah together with Abraham realize hesed: turning others to believe in one God, receiving visitors, etc. However, in the relationship between Abraham and Sarah, she represents the category of gevura within the family.

It is because of her gevura that the natural law seems to Sarah to be immutable, and it is difficult for her to accept that God can change the laws of nature. The Almighty opposes her, saying that this too is possible.

In this interpretation, God’s response becomes understandable. His goal is not to nag and reproach, but to help Sarah in her spiritual development: He aims to teach Sarah to accept miraculous changes in the world and in life.

God speaks to Sarah and Abraham simultaneously, but it is His addressing Abraham, the category of hesed, that is emphasized.

To Sarah’s approach of “God created the world, launched it, and does not change its laws further,” God answers “Is any thing too hard for HaShem?” God expresses his willingness to break the laws governing the way the world runs, and thereby alters Sarah’s concept of the creation of the universe. It is this change in Sarah’s consciousness (which is also a development and refinement of the category of gevura), and not “telling Abraham of Sarah’s laughter,” that is the purpose of God’s words. And laughter plays a very important role here.

6.12 Sarah’s Inner Laughter

What does the concept of “laughter” mean? We laugh when the development of events or a story is unexpected, illogical, or unpredictable, and an opportunity arises to see more intricate connections between things than previously seen. Thus, the essence of laughter is happiness because, by rising above logic, by defeating it, we are able to see a higher level of world harmony. Destruction of the shackles of logic materializes in an unexpected plot twist in an anecdote, in a paradox, or in an emerging solution to a seemingly insolvable problem. Overcoming barriers driven by our former narrow-mindedness and overly primitive logical understanding of how the world works, gives us immense pleasure, and we express our joy through laughter. None of us like predictability and logical inevitability, but like being free, and overcoming the predetermined. Because freedom (and not compulsion) is a Divine quality, and laughter is a feeling of advancing towards God, who, according to Jewish belief, also laughs.

In other words, laughter is joy from overcoming gevura. Thus, laughter is Sarah’s correction. In Isaac’s case, who embodies gevura, even his very name speaks of laughter (Isaac literally means “he will laugh” in Hebrew).

In its essence, gevura always accepts life as it is, maintains that God set everything up in the best possible way and that praying for change is entirely senseless and unnecessary. This is why Sarah cannot believe that God will interfere and change her life. Sarah’s main problem, her disbelief in miracles, is not caused by a doubt in God’s almightiness, but because she does not believe in the necessity of miracles. Therefore, Sarah and Isaac, who embody gevura, rigidity, law, and “correctness” are tested in situations where the world develops illogically, unpredictably, and unexpectedly. It is good to be a proper person, but to be “overly proper” is ridiculous; the world is “not entirely proper,” and this is exactly what makes it so wonderful.

Subconscious joy at the overcoming of logic is the essence of Sarah’s laughter, but it is still “internal,” that is, Sarah is not yet aware of it. Sarah’s faith in overcoming nature has only been kindled, and God, by explicitly speaking about her laughter, invites Sarah to recognize it whereby He helps her with this advancement. (We should note that Abraham, hesed, does not have this challenge; he immediately laughs outwardly [Exodus 17:17]).

For this reason, Sarah’s laughter is not an expression of disdain for the overheard prophecy, but rather an emerging feeling of a possible breakthrough. However, on the conscious level she still does not believe in this breakthrough, since she knows that physiologically she cannot give birth. This is why she is unaware of her subconscious joy, her laughter.

Therefore, she sincerely denies it: “Then Sarah denied, saying ‘I laughed not,’ for she was afraid.” Certainly, saying that Sarah feared punishment or reprimand because she laughed at the words of the angels would be too primitive. The intension here is different: she feared to admit to herself that she had laughed, that she had believed in the illogical, nonstandard development of events. Like anyone, what frightened Sarah was the possibility that her entire worldview could collapse. For this reason she was afraid to recognize her laughter.

6.13 God Supports Sarah’s Laughter

As soon as the angel promises Sarah a son, Isaac’s soul begins descending into the world. This is why Sarah already feels that Isaac is growing within her, but for now she feels this subconsciously, in the deepest part of her soul. Physically, Isaac could not be manifested yet—the situation is still too covert—but a new reality has already entered the world. Sarah begins to sense this reality, and her subconsciousness recognizes and accepts the seemingly unreal possibility of motherhood.

Sarah’s laughter is a manifestation of hope, the first step in accepting the possibility of the unexpected. Thus, when Sarah pessimistically speaks of her old age and the old age of “her Lord,” inside she is subconsciously laughing at it. God does not rebuke Sarah; on the contrary, he assures her that she fears her own laughter in vain, because there is nothing unachievable for the Lord, and her son can come into existence.

God supports Sarah in her laughter; He wants her to believe in the new opportunity, that she will no longer fear laughing but recognize that this is normal, and thereby attain a new level. Consequently, the dialogue ends with God’s words: “Nay, thou didst laugh.” In reality, the dialogue continues, not right away, but when Sarah names her son Isaac, she means to say that “everyone, having seen, will laugh with her.”

(It should be noted that we can only understand why Sarah named her son Isaac if we accept that her laughter was a positive act. If Sarah’s laughter had been inappropriate and God had rebuked her for it, she would not have named her son “He will laugh.”)

In naming her son Isaac, Sarah gave a positive answer to God’s words: she has not only recognized that her laughter is necessary and that gevura must be limited, but has also invited everyone around her to join her.

In the same way that Abraham’s development consisted of limiting hesed, Sarah’s development consisted of limiting her gevura. These themes will be explored in the subsequent chapters.

6.14 Abraham advances toward the Judgment of Sodom

(16) And the men rose up from thence, and looked out toward Sodom: and Abraham went with them to bring them on the way.

After the angels healed Abraham and informed him about his offspring, they stood up and went to Sodom.

The phrased used is “looked out toward Sodom” (lehashkif) which means “gazed with condemnation,” in preparation of judging it. This word belongs to the category of gevura, of judgment. It is not by chance that the destruction of Sodom coincides with the news of Isaac’s birth: when a righteous man of the category of judgment is about to be born, this category increases and intensifies and this means that the time has come to destroy Sodom. Abraham “went with them to bring them on the way”: he goes along with gevura because he wants to watch over the development of events himself, to understand what the category of judgment is, how it is realized, and how to properly utilize it. Abraham is not yet ready to accept the category of judgment, but is ready to progress in this direction.

6.15 God brings Abraham closer to the Category of Gevura

(17) And HaShem said: ‘Shall I hide from Abraham that thing which I am doing; (18) Seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? (19) For I have known him, to the end that he may command his children and his household after him, that they may keep the way of HaShem, to do righteousness and justice; to the end that HaShem may bring upon Abraham that which He hath spoken of him.’

Why can’t God conceal His plans from Abraham? How are the Divine plans about Sodom related to Abraham? Why is it necessary to relate them to him?

Of course, God could have destroyed Sodom even without discussing this problem with Abraham, but He wanted to draw Abraham into the judgment of Sodom, because it was necessary for Abraham’s training so that he could learn to develop within himself the category of judgment.

God invites Abraham, and now Abraham must express his opinion, act upon the category of judgment and begin learning about it.

6.16 Abraham’s Covenant as God’s Journey

In verse 19, God explains the reason for the selection of Abraham: “that he may command his children and his household after him, that they may keep the way of HaShem, to do righteousness and justice.” Several aspects of this verse will be discussed here.

Firstly, God chose Abraham “so that,” rather than “due to.” In other words, Abraham is chosen not for his merits, but for a mission. There were, and always are, many worthy people in the world deserving of reward. Selection in Judaism is not a reward, but a burden and mission of the Jewish people in relation to humanity.

Secondly, Abraham is chosen “that he may command his children and his household after him.” Abraham himself is not what matters here, as great as he is, but his house and his descendants; the nation that will emerge from them is important, as is the direction in which this nation will develop.

And finally, “Keep the way of HaShem” is a much broader concept than observance of commandments. The Torah contains two phases of the Jewish covenant with God: (1) with Abraham and the forefathers, and (2) with Moses on Sinai. These covenants are combined in Judaism into a single whole, although they are quite distinct. Abraham’s covenant is the “journey of HaShem,” the first stage in the development of Judaism, in which the foundation is laid, the ideals and general direction are set, but there is no formalization of the commandments. On the other hand, the covenant of Moses, made on Sinai, is about specific commandments, details, and instructions.

On the level of the forefathers, a system of commandments does not exist yet; it develops much later during the Exodus from Egypt. The first primary level of Judaism is ideals, and the commandments come only in the second phase. If we forget that Judaism is, first and foremost, a religion of ideals, and begin to perceive it only as a religion of a system of commandments, we make a grave error. This kind of primitiveness leads to Judaism losing its essence and driving force, and turning into a parody of itself. We will discuss this question in more detail below.

6.17 Judaism’s Ideal as the integration of Mercy and Justice

What does “way of HaShem” mean, if not a compliance with the system of commandments? This “way” is formulated here as “to do righteousness and justice,” tzedaka u’mishpat. We have already noted that the word tzedaka has two distinct translations: “mercy” and “justice.” Since the idea of justice is already expressed here in the word mishpat (justice), then tzedaka most likely refers to mercy here, that is, the category of hesed. In this way, Abraham must command his descendants to mix mercy and justice, hesed and gevura, Law and Grace. Jewish tradition sees the ideal of Judaism in this combination, as a “way of HaShem.”

From the Jewish point of view, the contrast between hesed and gevura must be resolved not by prioritizing one over the other but by synthesizing them. It need not be mentioned that joining these two concepts is extremely difficult. Moreover, there are not and cannot be any specific instructions for the search of harmony between the two; rather, to implement this kind of synthesis, each person in every individual life situation should use his own moral and religious intuition. The system of ideals is based on a person’s choices and personality.

It is also important to note that, as opposed to the system of commandments, which cannot contain contradictions (and when they do appear they are resolved with the help of a legislative mechanism), the system of ideals not only can, but must, contain contradictions and oppositions. The subject will be discussed later in more detail.

6.18 Stories about Sodom

To open the discussion of Sodom’s destruction, we will present a few stories from the Midrash. Naturally, the Midrash does not suggest a literal understanding of these accounts, but claims that they are important not from a “historical-factual” point of view but for an understanding of how Jewish tradition views Sodom.

The Midrash says this was a city-kingdom under the rule of law, although, all its laws were distorted and violated justice. The laws of Sodom aimed to oppress those who did not have wealth or their own welfare. Each received only that which he earned: if someone was rich, that meant he was a worthy person, and had full opportunity to oppress those poorer than him (that is, those who were not affluent). If a person was very poor, or a traveler without shelter, then he had no rights whatsoever.

For example, the Midrash says the citizens of Sodom organized a communal herd, so it would not be necessary for each to hire his own shepherd. Despite this, someone who only had one cow was considered to have not “invested” enough property into the communal herd, and so was obligated to herd it for two days; the owner of two cows only had to herd for one day.

They also adopted a law that forbade giving charity to a poor man calling at the city, so that the poor would not come to Sodom and disturb its citizens. Sodom was a rich city, and had no need for neighboring beggars. But so as not to look bad in the eyes of the neighboring cities and create an image of generosity, they passed a law that each person must have a coin outside of circulation with his or her own name engraved on it, and it was permitted to give only these coins to the beggars. In this way, when a beggar asked for help in the Sodom Square, everyone tossed him coins, but each coin had the name of the person who had given it inscribed on it, and therefore nothing could be bought with it. The beggar died of starvation amidst all these coins, after which all the Sodomites took back their coins.

Here is another example of a Sodomite law: if a person hit another, then the beaten one had to pay his attacker for “constructive bloodletting.” Once, Eliezer, Abraham’s slave, was walking around Sodom, and a local assaulted and hit him. Eliezer grabbed him and brought him before the court, but the judge ordered Eliezer to pay the attacker “for bloodletting.” Then Eliezer hit the judge and said, “The money which you owe me, pay to him.”

An additional story is related in the Midrash: A traveler was making his way through Sodom and rented a room from a Sodomite for the night. Since the traveler feared thieves and had no bodyguards, before going to sleep he gave the owner of the house an expensive rug from his baggage to guard. In the morning, the traveler wanted to collect his rug, but the host answered that the traveler did not have any rug, and he had not taken anything to safeguard. The traveler said, “But there was a rug—it was colorful, with tassels.” The owner responded that color represented a long journey, and tassels meant good luck; as if to say, “There, I have interpreted your dream, now be on your way.” The traveler brought the owner before court, and the judge ruled: “this person is a very respectable citizen of Sodom, and you are a nobody. Therefore, pay him for the wonderful dream interpretation and leave.”

When someone came and asked for lodging for the night, he was presented with a standard Sodomite bed. If he was taller than the length of the bed, his legs were cut off. If he was shorter, they were stretched out on the rack. Indeed, how dare a traveler not correspond to the wonderful and ideal Sodomite beds! Such insolence on the part of the traveler demanded that he be subjected to “Sodomite correction.”

In this way, Sodom is presented in the Midrash as a place of lawfulness and order, in which, however, the laws were so hideous that they themselves became crimes. Because of this, Sodom had to be destroyed. If people have ethical laws and positive moral guidelines, but violate them, they can, nevertheless, at some point, improve; their conscience might yet awaken. But if they have formulated their crimes into a hideous, legislative system, they will continue believing that this is how one should live, and so there is no hope they will one day repent. Had the people of Sodom not been destroyed, they would have continued to kill; the very existence of Sodom in the world destroys it. For this reason, the Almighty decides to destroy Sodom.

6.19 The Trials of Sodom, Lot, and Abraham

(20) And HaShem said: ‘Verily, the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and, verily, their sin is exceeding grievous. (21) I will go down now, and see whether they have done altogether according to the cry of it, which is come unto Me; and if not, I will know.’ And the men turned from thence, and went toward Sodom: but Abraham stood yet before HaShem.

God informs Abraham (and here, He deliberately addresses Abraham) that “the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and… their sin is exceeding grievous”—that is, the cup of His patience is overflowing. “I will go down now, and see”—God (through the angels, His representatives) will go to Sodom, to give its citizens a last chance to mend their ways; he is doing a final check to see whether or not the time has come to destroy the city. But, at the same time, these words invite Abraham to “go down… and see” Sodom, to judge it. God presents Abraham with a challenge and gives the following overview: the time has come to judge Sodom, and you will decide together with Me whether they should be persecuted to the fullest extent, or if they can still be saved.

Thus, this situation is a test and a lesson not only for Sodom and Lot, but also for Abraham. Abraham accepts the challenge: although the angels are already on the way to Sodom, Abraham “stood yet before HaShem”—i.e. he does not leave, but prepares himself to raise objections.

God needs Abraham to protest, fight, and oppose Him. Only when Abraham argues with God will he be able to understand something on his own. After all, in order to advance in understanding, one must learn to think independently, to formulate and defend one’s point of view. Therefore, arguing with God is an important characteristic of the Jewish spiritual paradigm. This topic will be discussed in later sections of this book.

In order to give Abraham a lesson (God’s goal here, as we have just noted, is to bring Abraham closer to the “integration of mercy and judgment”), God needs to place him in a situation in which he will need to argue on the spot. And so God says he must make a final decision regarding Sodom right then and there.

As for Sodom, its main trial is Lot. At this time, Sodom had reached a critical period in its development, and, as the Midrash informs us, Lot was elected as its municipal judge.

The abomination of Sodom was its awful legislation. But Sodom also had positive elements: its citizens wanted to be a real social organism and live in a city with an organized and developed infrastructure. Despite this, even positive ideas in Sodom were realized perversely. When, finally, they elected Lot to be their judge, the Sodomites gained an opportunity to begin moving in a better direction. Electing Lot was Sodom’s last chance to change and be saved.

On the flip side, such a situation was also a trial for Lot—how will he behave?

Thus, everyone is tested here: Abraham, Lot, and the citizens of Sodom. These trials provide the opportunity for progress and improvement, but they can also become a cause for death. Sodom completely failed the test and was destroyed; Lot withstood his trial, more or less, although not completely; and Abraham was able to use the tests for his spiritual advancement.

6.20 The Destruction of Sodom and the Cleansing of the Category of Gevura

We have already mentioned the connection between the news of Isaac’s birth and the destruction of Sodom. Outwardly, this connection is displayed in that, when Isaac’s gevura is preparing to descend into the world, the category of gevura is strengthened throughout the universe. As a result, the Almighty destroys Sodom, and invites Abraham to judge it, so that Abraham can begin learning to combine mercy with law and judgment. But there is one more connection: before Isaac is born, a kind of cleansing of the quality of gevura needs to take place, and this occurred with the destruction of Sodom.

The “Sodomite sin” did not consist primarily of sexual perversity: this was just one of its external manifestations. The main quality and determining characteristic of the city of Sodom was its disproportionate and repulsive legality, its excess of gevura. The residents of Sodom approached human existence with a severe system of law: a person must earn his own sustenance, and so he who is poor, and even more so, he who asks for charity, is a parasite, and does not deserve to live. In their opinion, God did not create man so he would beg for charity—behavior below the dignity of a human being. “We,” the Sodomites would say, “live in this fertile valley, and have earned a good life for ourselves through hard work, yet now some scum beggars come and expect us to support them, and thus corrupt the world?”

Out of these same considerations, the citizens of Sodom forbade hospitality and kindness. After all, if God made this person poor or sick, without money for healing, then this must be God’s will, and what right do you have to help this person and interfere with Divine resolve? Let every man earn and pay for himself, and heal himself, and care for himself.

It should be noted that this approach contains some element of truth, but as a whole it is, of course, false. We cannot logically determine what God wants with respect to the beggar: for him to remain poor, or for us to help him. We do not know whether God wants the sick to remain sick, or if He is purposely giving the doctor a chance to heal him. If one does not want to earn money for his own sustenance, does not want to take care of himself, then, of course, outside aid will not help him. But there are many people who end up in a difficult situation because of various outside factors, and aid could help them get back on their feet.

Naturally, limitless hesed is corruptive, and can bring the world to collapse, but all-out gevura is even worse. If each person receives only that sustenance which he earns for himself, then the world (and such a society) does not have the right to exist, for even our ability to support and feed ourselves is Divine hesed. And if we do not show compassion to those closest to us, then we do not deserve it from God. In a world built entirely on the category of judgment, no one can survive. Isaac-gevura exists only because he is the son of Abraham-hesed. It’s true that a person must earn a living for himself, but it is your duty to help him. Try not only to give him money, but organize an opportunity for him to earn a living in such a way that your help will only serve as a starting point after which he will be able to support himself independently.

Gevura as an awareness that one must earn one’s own sustenance is a necessary quality, but it is needed to emphasize God’s goodness and mercy. God’s goodness is so great that God not only feeds us “from a spoon” (which would be “the bread of shame”), but gives us the opportunity to earn our sustenance, to feel that we are independent source of our own existence—and this is an expression of unity between hesed and gevura. Gevura is positive as an addition to hesed, but if it becomes self-sufficient, it leads to death. If hesed exceeds the limits, it turns unto corruption which lead to the Global Flood; but if gevura is overabundant, it makes the existence of human society impossible. Gevura must be severely restricted.

And so, the future arrival of Issac, the bearer of proper gevura, requires that the world to be rid of the perverse gevura of Sodom.

6.21 Abraham’s Dispute with God

(23) And Abraham drew near, and said, ‘Wilt Thou indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? (24) Peradventure there are fifty righteous within the city: wilt Thou indeed sweep away and not forgive the place for the fifty righteous that are therein? (25) That be far from Thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked: that so the righteous should be as the wicked, that be far from Thee; shall not the Judge of all the earth do justly?’

Sodom, a city deserving of annihilation, a city of villains guilty of countless sins, unexpectedly finds its defender in Abraham.

Abraham uses fairly strong language in his argument. “That be far from Thee to do after this manner…that be far from Thee…” The Hebrew chalila—unacceptable, unworthy—is a rather harsh term. Such words cannot be called a “plea for kindness”; it is a fairly serious conflict. It is important to understand: how does Abraham know what is right and good? Why can he speak against God’s resolve? Is such behavior acceptable?

In the classical Christian worldview, arguing with God is entirely unthinkable, and suggesting to speak against Divine decision sounds outrageous. According to Christianity, God’s relation with man is entirely based on God’s mercy: everything that God gives is a gift, an act of kindness, while man himself deserves nothing. If this is the case, then what could there possibly be to argue about? “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”

The Jewish concept is different. It insists that not only is it possible to argue with God, it is even necessary to do so. Abraham and Moses both argued with God, and Jacob was rewarded for arguing with the name Israel, whose literal translation is “he who combats God.” Disputing with the Almighty is a normal way to establish a dialogue with and become closer to Him, rather than an expression of rebellion against Him. This is a fundamental notion of Jewish tradition.

Although on the one hand, Jewish religious consciousness declares that “no matter what God does, it is all for the best,” it also creates a mindset which encourages people to actively transform their life and even dispute with God. Such a dispute is far from being a “rebellion against God,” because He Himself encourages us to conduct this kind of debate.

It is important to note that a person’s relationship with his children in particular, and people in general, directly corresponds to his approach to the relationship between man and God. If, for example, a person believes that God only gives people incomprehensible and unquestionable orders, and that man’s duty is only to obey and submit, then he will himself be inclined to give commands to those around him and dictate his will to others. Alternatively, if one believes that “God is love” and that God’s relationship to man is purely mercy, then children are primarily expected to love and agree, and the main value becomes humility.

But the Jewish approach looks at the world differently. Naturally, God wants both love and agreement from us, and sometimes submission, but above all else and most importantly, He wants maturation. He wants us to rise to the level of dialogue with Him, to become co-partners with Him in the management of the world. To become this co-partner we must not only love and agree, but sometimes also argue, insist upon our point of view, think critically. It is not accidental that Jews who have argued with Him since ancient times acted the same way in their relationships among themselves and with other people, so much so that the inclination to argue and dispute became a characteristic trait of the Jewish nation.

6.22 Godliness within us as the Basis for Dispute with God

What is Abraham relying on when he argues with God that “be far from thee to do?” Where is the religious and moral support for his arguments? Is not God Himself the source of morality, kindness, and justice? So then why does Abraham take it upon himself to determine what is right and proper, and what isn’t; what is good and what is evil? If this is Abraham’s personal opinion, then how can it be held up against the words of God?

The fact is that by arguing with God Abraham is also drawing on Godliness—on that Godliness which is within himself. To argue with Divinity, one must oppose it with another Divinity. Since man is made “in God’s image,” God is not only “external to us,” but also “within us.” In this sense, Adam, Abraham, and all of us are “demigods” (and this is exactly the Judaic concept of a “demigod”). It is the Divine spark within us that allows us to disagree with God. In other words, this is the argument between “transcendent Divinity,” that manifestation of God which speaks to us from the outside (for Abraham, it was the word of God, while for us today it is Divine tradition that comes from Sinai), and “immanent Divinity,” i.e. the manifestation of the Godly spark within us, which tells us how things ought to be. This image of God within us is called our conscience. The conflict between the moral-ethical feeling (immanent Divinity) and tradition-halakha (transcendent Divinity) is a vital source of Judaism’s development throughout its centuries of existence.

Thus, Abraham, a person of hesed and mercy, accuses God Himself of unworthy behavior, and puts forth a demand to call-off the trial. He does not beg God to spare the righteous or the sinners, but rather adamantly (although very respectfully) rejects God’s decision and twice repeats: “That be far from thee.”

Generally speaking, we had not at all expected such words or tone from Abraham. If someone today used this manner of speaking against, for example, a human judge, it could be qualified as contempt of court. But God allows Abraham to speak to Him in this way, because His goal is not for a person to agree with Him and reject his own point of view. God’s goal is for man to become an individual with whom He can have a dialogue, capable of opposing Him. An opponent must be fairly independent, to know how to argue and to have the courage to disagree. Psychology teaches us that a child has matured only when capable of disagreeing with his parents. And what God wants from humans above all else, as we have noted, is maturation.

6.23 The Contrast between Abraham and Noah

We have already noted that the debate between Abraham and God reflects one of the most important differences between Abraham and Noah. As a result of this difference, only Abraham was able to become the forefather of the chosen people. When God informed Noah that the world would be destroyed and that he must build an ark for his own deliverance, Noah did not argue with God, and did not try to discuss salvation of all humanity or the possibility of changing the situation. He simply agreed and did as he was told.

However, compliance is not at all the Jewish ideal. The Jewish approach is to first ask God, “Why must it be done this way? Must it be done in exactly this way? Can it not be done in some other way?” and then to condemn the Divine command as not being merciful or just enough.

Noah is obedient; he “walks with God.” Abraham “walks before God” (17:1) and argues with Him, if he sees it necessary.

Jewish teaching calls Abraham’s actions “an awakening from below” which, in turn, bring about “an awakening from Above.” Naturally, God Himself can do anything, but often He does not act of his own initiative, does not exhibit His own qualities until “the awakening from below” occurs. Only in response to the awakening from below does the Divine awakening from Above occur and then the situation is repaired.

Even the smallest awakening from below, a person’s small advancement towards God, can prompt God to come a great distance towards the person. All the while that a person doesn’t make any movements of his own accord, God does not help him; He waits. Abraham is a symbol of an awakening from below. He begins to act on his own. He is active—he argues with God about Sodom, even though Sodom is not the entire world, but only a part of it, a place quite far from Abraham’s spiritually. This is why God said to him, “Walk before Me”—be independent, call for the awakening of My mercy, and even fight with me.

6.24 Abraham’s Hesed and the Salvation of Evildoers

This was Abraham’s original position in his argument with God: conducting justice is impossible because any attempt to do justice leads to injustice. How can the Judge of all the earth, the very category of justice, not act justly—that is, allow His punishment to be inflicted on the innocent?

Abraham does not ask God to have mercy on the citizens of Sodom. Abraham formulates his argument in terms of justice, although, in effect, he does not speak of justice.

Justice would require reward for the righteous and punishment for the evildoers. Thus, acting in accordance with justice would require separating the righteous from the evildoers, leading the righteous out of the city and then destroying the evildoers. But Abraham completely ignores this method of saving the righteous. He insists that these fifty (or forty-five, or forty, thirty, twenty…) righteous people must save the entire city. Thus, Abraham’s goal is not to save the righteous (which would be just); rather it is to save the wicked. He wants hesed, general mercy, and grace. More than this, Abraham uses the existence of the righteous as a plea for the salvation of the wicked!

Abraham does not even ask God to wait until the evildoers possibly repent. If he had wanted to wait for the sinners to repent, he could have said “Do not destroy the city now; give them time…” But Abraham takes up a different position.

The Midrash puts the following words into Abraham’s mouth: “If You want judgment, there will be no universe (that is, the world will be destroyed). If You want the world to live, do not apply the category of judgment.” From this point of view, there is no room for the category of judgment in the world. No matter how carefully the destruction of evil is conducted, something good will inevitably die as well, and therefore evil should not be destroyed.

Essentially, Abraham presents a position which is still far from the ethics of Judaism. He says to God, “Since it is natural for You to give, and You created people with the free will to be villains, then You must take responsibility for what You created and not destroy them.”

In this way, Abraham is not yet ready for the idea of combining mercy and justice. He does not yet feel these ideals can be combined; for him, they are too different. Moreover, establishing justice will not be a worthy deed since the righteous would die alongside the sinners.

In modern times, people who hold such opinions oppose, for example, leading a real war against terrorist organizations, because, during the war “blameless people” could suffer. From a balanced Jewish point of view (Abraham + Isaac + Jacob), it is clear that such a position is false, and leads to a collapse of the world. But Abraham was still only at the beginning of the Jewish path, epitomizing pure hesed. Later on, he would have to be completed and balanced out by Isaac and Jacob.

6.25 Sodom as Abraham’s Spiritual Failure

However, there is an additional very significant reason why Abraham defended Sodom. This reason is not apparent from a simple reading of the text.

Sodom is the complete opposite of Abraham, his antithesis. If Abraham accepts guests and is hospitable to everyone, then Sodom, conversely, does not accept guests and is inhospitable to everyone. Abraham aims for mercy; Sodom forbids it. Despite their differences, Abraham is nevertheless tied to Sodom through a fairly long tale of interrelations: Lot’s settling in Sodom, Abraham’s participation in the war of kings, the forthcoming birth of Ammon and Moab from sons of Lot and his daughters, and lastly, the Moabite Ruth’s and Ammonite Naamah’s part in the founding of the house of David, of which the messiah is a descendant. Without a spark from Sodom, the messiah can never be born.

The reason for Abraham’s request is not only that the Divine spark from Sodom is necessary for the birth of the messiah. The other, more covert, reason is that Abraham feels partially responsible for the destruction of Sodom. It has been discussed that after the war with the kings, Abraham could have become the ruler of Sodom and restructured its life, but he did not want to rule. He wanted people to come to God and justice on the basis of their own free will—and this is the result of his decision.

The king of Sodom asked Abraham to “Give me the persons, and take the goods to thyself” (14:21), that is, in this situation, the souls of the Sodomites were truly in Abraham’s hands. He could have forced the Sodomite king to submit and establish proper laws in the city. But Abraham did not do any of this because he did not want to employ power—that is, gevura.

Now, Sodom is condemned to destruction, and this, at least partly, is a result of Abraham’s passivity. Sodom’s punishment is a reproach to Abraham. That is why now, when God is preparing to destroy Sodom, He invites Abraham to the trial—as if to see the consequences of his actions. And Abraham argues with God and bargains about the number of righteous people in the city not only out of hesed, but also because this problem contains a personal aspect for him. The collapse of Sodom is to a large extent a personal tragedy for Abraham as well.

6.26 The Fault of the Righteous in the Calamities of the Generation

A righteous man is responsible not only for himself, but also for the people around him. There is an enormous difference between the concepts “righteous man” and “non-evildoer.” An evildoer is one who does not commit crimes and leads a worthy life. But a righteous man falls into an entirely different category. His job is to perfect and reeducate those around him. In other words, if those around him act unworthily, it means the righteous man is not fulfilling his obligations.

However, teaching is only one aspect of a righteous man’s responsibilities for his generation. Another aspect of the righteous’ fault for his generation’s problems is his intensifying (even unwittingly) the category of gevura. Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz, in the book Midrash Pinchas wrote, “Why must the righteous men of every generation pray for the entire generation? It is because they are guilty of the misfortunes which plague humanity.”

The very existence of a righteous man in the world is an accusation against the evildoers. Before Noah, no one was referred to as a righteous man, but then Noah appeared, and a flood was released upon the world. When the righteous Abraham arrives, catastrophe strikes Sodom and Gomorrah. The very appearance of the righteous man, his ability to ascend to a level that everyone else is unable to attain, is a charge against them. For this reason, the righteous should be very wary that their righteousness does not lead to judgment of other people, because they too would be partially at fault for their punishment. Righteousness must be lofty—one must strive for people to reach repentance, without emphasizing their flaws and sins.

6.27 Sodom can be improved only by the Messiah who emerges from Sodom

Is it possible, in theory, to rectify Sodom? Of course it is, but you can fix something only if you bear a relationship to it—otherwise, what could you possibly know of it? Therefore a person, who is capable of rectifying Sodom, must have a spark of Sodom in his soul, contain something from the place, must be a part of it to some degree. Such a person is, of course, David and the Messiah after him because David hails from Sodom (through Ruth and Moab).

In other words, the element of “Sodomness” is a reality of the world, whose existence cannot be ignored, and so the Messiah who rectifies the entire world must also carry this spark within him.

To correct Sodom using hesed is impossible. David is malkhut, kingship, and he is suitable for repairing Sodom. Sodom aims to be a socialized, government structure, and without clear-cut laws and strict measures that ensure their observance it could not exist. And so it is not accidental that the very category of malkhut (David) begins to be born with the aid of Sodom.

Later (19:15) we will read the words of the angel who addresses Lot: “Take thy wife, and thy two daughters, that are found here.” The Midrash connects these words with the words from Psalms (89:20) where God says: “I have found David my servant; with my sacred oil I have anointed him.” “Where did God find David?” asks the Midrash. It responds, “He found him in Sodom.” Lot’s two daughters were “the find,” without which David and the Messiah would not have been possible.

6.28 The Saint within the City

Let’s return to the dialogue between God and Abraham regarding the question of forgiving Sodom.

(26) And HaShem said: ‘If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will forgive all the place for their sake.’

God, who was speaking about the destruction of Sodom, suddenly recognizes that Abraham is right. Abraham criticizes God, and God agrees with him, but on one condition.

Abraham requests that God “save the whole place for the sake of the righteous people within it.” The righteous person must not only save himself, but his presence must also save the entire city. In His response to Abraham, God agrees overall with this principle, and considerably refines it by emphasizing two important points: Firstly, the city can be saved not by an individual righteous man, but by a community, a group: “If I find fifty righteous men…” And in fact, if there are fifty righteous men in a city of evildoers, this means that the citizens are not real evildoers—if they were real evildoers, they would have killed their righteous men—and this means that the city can still put right. And even when God agrees to a smaller number of righteous people, He does not go below ten, since this is the minimum number necessary to constitute a community.

Secondly, the community of righteous men must be “within the city,” i.e. legally recognized as its resident. That is, a righteous man is not someone who lives in his corner, not doing evil to others but also not noticed by anyone; rather, righteous people must be some sort of social class, albeit a minimal one, but still noticeable, visible within the city. From this we can understand that the righteous save a city (or a country) only when they are given the opportunity to live normally and openly in this place.

The general idea that righteous people do not only save themselves, but the entire city is connected with the hope that the evildoers will be rectified. But this is possible only when the righteous are granted the possibility to influence the city. If the righteous are not a social class, if the citizens suppress or drive out their righteous, then, in a critical moment, there is no one to save the city.

6.29 Reduction of the Righteous to a Necessary Minimum

(27) And Abraham answered and said: ‘Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the L-rd, who am but dust and ashes. (28) Peradventure there shall lack five of the fifty righteous; wilt Thou destroy all the city for lack of five?’ And He said: ‘I will not destroy it, if I find there forty and five.’ (29) And he spoke unto Him yet again, and said: ‘Peradventure there shall be forty found there.’ And He said: ‘I will not do it for the forty’s sake.’ (30) And he said: ‘Oh, let not the L-rd be angry, and I will speak. Peradventure there shall thirty be found there.’ And He said: ‘I will not do it, if I find thirty there.’ (31) And he said: ‘Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the L-rd. Peradventure there shall be twenty found there.’ And He said: ‘I will not destroy it for the twenty’s sake.’ (32) And he said: ‘Oh, let not the L-rd be angry, and I will speak yet but this once. Peradventure ten shall be found there.’ And He said: ‘I will not destroy it for the ten’s sake.’

Since God “gives in” during the argument, Abraham insists even more. However, Abraham does not ask God, “Why will you not have mercy on forty-five?” but rather phrases the question as, “Will you really destroy the whole city for a lack of righteous people?”—he is trying to “bargain” more mercy out of God.

6.30 An Approach to God through Dispute with Him

Despite Abraham’s increasing demands, God continues the dialogue with him, and in doing so trains Abraham to think in terms of argument with God.

During the argument, Abraham maintains his distance and reverence: “I have taken upon me to speak unto the L-rd, who am but dust and ashes” and “let not the L-rd be angry.” Abraham does not forget, even for a second, who he is in relation to God, yet nonetheless he continues to insist.

Additionally, it is important to note that Abraham’s argument with God does not move him away from God, but rather draws him closer to Him: “And Abraham drew near” (18:23). Following Abraham’s example, Judaism considers it entirely legitimate to discuss the fairness or unfairness of Divine actions; for example, the entire Book of Job is dedicated to this theme. But such questions are constructive only if a person asks them to strengthen his connection with God; they will become destructive if they are used as an excuse for rupturing this connection, when the person says, “I do not understand how God allows this or that, and so I reject faith.”

As we have already noted, the argument between Abraham and God is founded on the conflict between the immanent and transcendent manifestations of Divinity in the world. What are the possible solutions to this conflict? Rabbi A.I. Kook was of the opinion that the (transcendental) Law and (immanent) Conscience have a common Divine source, and if they are conflicting, it is only because of our mistaken understanding of one or the other. That is, if our conscience opposes some instruction from God, this means there is a mistake somewhere: either we have misunderstood the transcendental (i.e. what exactly the Law prescribes in the given situation), and then we need to refine this understanding, or on the contrary, we were mistaken in our perception of the imminent, which is often the case when rash “conclusions drawn on the basis of impulsive manifestations of conscience,” are made, and then it is necessary to once again gather complete information about the situation and analyze it to a greater depth.

In life, we often see that different community groups are more inclined either towards paying considerably greater attention to the transcendental, or, conversely, in the direction of immanent manifestation of Divinity. For example, in contemporary Israeli society, the ultra-Orthodox often take the transcendental manifestation of God (Law) as absolute, while the “non-religious” absolutize His immanent manifestation (the Conscience). Moreover, both groups often do not want to notice the other manifestation of Divinity. The solution consists of seeing elements of the Divine in someone else’s values without rejecting one’s own principles.

6.31 The Conclusion of the Discussion between God and Abraham

(33) And HaShem went His way, as soon as He had left off speaking with Abraham; and Abraham returned unto his place.

God leaves only when the discussion is over. Abraham stops asking—i.e. Abraham inwardly agrees that it is necessary to judge evildoers and that there is a place in the world for the category of judgment, but at the same time he does not express an explicit agreement with the destruction of Sodom, even if ten righteous men are not found in it. Abraham does not leave the category of hesed because he “returned unto his place,” but he gradually stops being a “fanatic of hesed,” and this is an important step in Abraham’s personal development as well as a rectification of the category of hesed in the soul of the Jewish people. (Similarly, in our lives, it is important to be a supporter of peace and love, but it is destructive to be a “fanatic of love” or a “fanatic of peace.”)

Surely, God does not need sanction from Abraham to destroy Sodom. He simply wants Abraham to understand that there is a limit beyond which evildoers must not only be judged, but also destroyed, and precisely this understanding was reached at the outcome of the debate.

[1]It is possible that the Islamic idea that the Koran was passed down to Muhammad by the angel Gabriel (Dzebrail) who is associated with the category of gevura, is connected to this.

[2] For example, according to the Torah, Adam had to work in heaven, to cultivate the garden (2:15). Jewish heaven is a place where one can work using one’s head, a place of intellectual toil, where the physical is realized on its own, as a result of spiritual advancement. (For further reference: this is discussed more in detail in “Two Stories of the Creation of the World,” chapter 5). The European-Christian heaven, described as a “place of peace,” would be completely intolerable for a Jew, as he would die of boredom there.