Parashas Lech-Lecha

This week’s parashah describes several episodes in the life of Avraham Avinu. One of them is the war Avraham waged against the four kings to rescue his nephew Lot. Regarding this war, the Torah states (Bereishis 14:15): “And he and his servants divided up against them on that night.” If we read the words of the verse very literally, we obtain the following rendering: “And the night divided up on them.” Building on this point, the Midrash in Bereishis Rabbah 43:3 remarks that just as Avraham went out to war at midnight, so too, Hashem smote the Egyptian firstborn at midnight. The Midrash relates: “Said the Holy One Blessed Be He, ‘Their father did good for Me at midnight, so I am going to do good for his children at midnight.’” Now, we would say that Hashem did Avraham a wondrous kindness by granting his small group of fighters victory over the mighty army of the four kings. But Hashem declared that Avraham did good for Him in the war against these kings. It is baffling. What did Hashem mean?
The Maggid builds his answer to this question on a Midrash. After the war, Hashem said to Avraham (Bereishis 15:1): “Do not fear, Avram, I am a shield for you – your reward is very great.” The Midrash expounds (Bereishis Rabbah 44:4):
Avraham was afraid, for he thought: “I went into the fiery furnace [of Nimrod] and I was saved; I went to war against the four kings and was saved. Perhaps I have received my reward in this world, and I have nothing left for the world to come.” Said the Holy One Blessed Be He: “Do not fear – I am a shield for you. All that I did with you in this world I did for you for nothing, and you have great reward in store for you in the world to come.” Your reward is very great, as it is written (Tehillim 31:20), “How great is Your blessing that You have hidden in store for those who fear You!” [The Midrash builds on the similarity between the word מָגֵן, meaning shield, and the Aramaic word מַגָן, meaning for nothing.]
This Midrash prompts two questions. First, why did Hashem save Avraham for free? Our Sages teach that, in general, Hashem does not dispense kindness and mercy indiscriminately. What made Avraham’s case different? Second, why was Hashem so expansive in His assurance? Avraham was concerned only that he had used up his reward. We would expect Hashem to respond simply by telling Avraham that his reward remained fully intact. Instead, He said that “your reward is very great,” indicating that Avraham gained added reward as a result of the episodes of the fiery furnace and the war against the four kings. Why did Hashem grant Avraham added reward?
We can understand Hashem’s intent by considering closely the ordeals our forefathers underwent. Avraham faced a series of ordeals, including being cast into a fiery furnace, suffering famine, and fighting a war against the four kings. Yitzchak, too, faced various ordeals. And Yaakov, the chief of the forefathers, was beset with troubles, without a moment’s rest, for almost his entire life. Why did our forefathers suffer all these ordeals?
Surely it was not in retribution for evil deeds; indeed, it would be a sacrilege to suggest so. Rather, the Maggid says, all the experiences that Hashem put the forefathers through were for the benefit of their descendants. Hashem foresaw that the Jews of future generations would face various troubles, and would be unable on their own merit to gain relief. He therefore put the forefathers through troubles of the same kind, to lead them to produce a reservoir of salvation from which their descendants could draw at all times. This key idea is the focal point of the prayer that sets the stage for the morning Amidah: “You were our forefathers’ aid in times of yore, a shield and a savior unto their children after them in each and every generation.” As we prepare to stand before Hashem to pray for His help, we draw on the reservoir of salvation that we inherited from our forefathers.
Now, when Avraham faced the war against the four kings, he himself reckoned that Hashem brought this hardship upon him because of some sin on his part – for it is the way of righteous men to regard Hashem’s dealings with them as just. Hence, after Hashem saved him from the four kings, he feared that his merits had been used up. Indeed, our Sages teach that when someone is granted a miracle, he incurs a deduction in his merits. But Hashem told Avraham not to fear. He said: “All that I did with you in this world I did for you for nothing.” He was telling him that the ordeal he suffered was “for nothing” – he had done nothing to deserve such suffering, but had been subjected to the ordeal so that he could produce reservoirs of salvation for his descendants, as we explained above. Accordingly, not only did Avraham not have his merits reduced due to the miraculous salvation he was granted, he actually earned great reward for going through the experience. And so Hashem told him: “You have great reward in store for you in the world to come.” The Sages conclude by quoting Tehillim 31:20. We suggest a homiletical reading: “How great is your blessing that you [Avraham] have put in store for the God-fearing ones who will descend from you.” By enduring the war against the four kings, Avraham produced great blessing, and put it in store for the Jews of future generations.
We can now understand very well Hashem’s view that, in Avraham’s war against the four kings, He had not done a kindness for him, but rather had received a kindness from him. Had Avraham deserved to suffer the war, the victory Hashem granted him would indeed have been a kindness on Hashem’s part to him. But since Avraham was in fact subjected to the ordeal “for nothing” – not on account of any sin on his part, but rather as a means of achieving Hashem’s goal of benefitting the Jews of future generations – it is apt to say that Avraham did a kindness for Hashem by going through the war.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

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