Parashas Lech-Lecha

In Tehillim 45, an ode to the Jewish king and his queen, it is written (verse 8): “You loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of joyous consecration above your fellows.” The Midrash interprets this verse as referring to Avraham. The Midrash teaches (Bereishis Rabbah 39:6):
When Avraham arose before Hashem to plead for mercy for the men of Sodom, he said: “Far be it from You to such a thing, to put to death the righteous along with the wicked, so that the righteous should be treated like the wicked.” He argued: “You swore not to bring a flood upon the world, but now You are going to cleverly sidestep this oath? Instead of bringing a flood of water, You are going to bring a flood of fire? If this is what You do, you will not be truly keeping Your oath.” He said further: “The Judge of the entire world will not do justice?” He argued: “If You want there to be a world, You cannot impose strict justice. And if You want to impose strict justice, there will not be a world. You are trying to hold onto both ends of the rope – You want both a world and strict justice. Pick one of them. If You don’t compromise a little on imposing justice, the world won’t be able to stand.” Said Hashem to Avraham: “‘You loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of joyous consecration above your fellows.’ Who are your ‘fellows’? The ten generations from Noach down to you. I did not speak with any of them – only with you.”
The Maggid links this Midrash to the following Gemara (Shabbos 112b): “If those of former times were angels, we are men. And if they were men, we are donkeys.” The Maggid explains this deep teaching, and then he discusses how it is connected with the Midrash. He brings out the idea with an analogy. Suppose someone standing in a store sees the owner sell a certain item for $100, and then later sees him sell the same item to another customer for $75. He is then left to wonder: Did the first customer pay the market value and the second get a discount, or did the second customer pay the market value and the first volunteer to pay extra?
This, the Maggid says, is exactly the type of question that the Tannaim were prompted to ask when they compared their level of service to Hashem with the level of those of former times. In former times, the world was filled with spiritual giants: prophets, great sages, and saints – individuals who were part of Hashem’s inner counsel. They, like us, were mortals – born of a woman and made up of earth – yet, in terms of spiritual achievements, the little finger of one of them was thicker than the waist of one of us. Did those of former times go beyond what is expected of man, and reach the level of angels? If so, then we can reckon that we are serving Hashem at the level of expected of man. But if they merely fulfilled what is expected of man, then we are serving Hashem at a level much lower than expected of man – at the level of a donkey. Fortunately, a Midrash in Vayikra Rabbah 1:1 suggests that we can resolve the doubt in our favor. In speaking of how Hashem took us out of Egypt under the leadership of Moshe, the Torah states (Bamidbar 20:16): “He sent an agent [מלאך – angel] and took us out of Egypt.” From this statement, the Midrash in Vayikra Rabbah 1:1 concludes that the prophets were like angels, implying that we are worthy of the noble title of “man.”
We now return to the Midrash with which we began. Let us consider again the analogy of the customers in the store. If the second customer paid the market value and the first one paid extra, then the owner would naturally rejoice over receiving a windfall from the first customer. But if the first customer paid the market value and the second paid less, the owner has no cause to rejoice over what he received from the first customer; on the contrary, he would lament having received less than he should have from the second. Now, before Avraham prayed for mercy for the men of Sodom, Hashem expected from His world, so to speak, a superior level of service, in line with His greatness. Hence, He had no cause to rejoice over Avraham’s exemplary service to Him, for it was no more than what He expected. Rather, He was upset over the deficient service that others rendered Him. But after Avraham’s prayer, Hashem lowered His demands, so to speak, in recognition of the fact that He could not demand His “full rights” and expect the world to remain standing. He then had cause for great joy over Avraham’s service, for it far exceeded what He now expected of man.
Thus, Hashem declared: “You loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of joyous consecration above your fellows.” He was saying: “You loved righteousness and hated wickedness. Yet, you also desired to vindicate man, and opposed indictments against him. You preferred to prevail upon Me to lower My demands on man. Therefore, I have anointed you with the oil of joyous consecration. I am joyous over your righteousness and piety, which so greatly exceeds that of your fellow men. I therefore set you above your fellows – I single you out as the one with whom I speak.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

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