Lech Lecha: Not A Penny From Evil

It is so easy to find justification for the claiming of reward and the avoidance of inconvenience, and so very much harder to undertake the opposite.

Table for Five: Lech Lecha

 Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

I will not take so much as a thread or a sandal strap from what is yours, so that you shall not say, ‘I made Abram wealthy.’ – Gen. 14:23

Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn, B’nai David-Judea Congregation

Avram’s response is curious. He accepted gifts from Pharaoh and later from Avimelech, so why not from the king of Sodom? Tur HaAroch explains that Avram intended not to benefit from an ‘adam rasha’ (a wicked person). This detail transforms Avram’s potentially arbitrary stance into a deep lesson in morality, including upholding it when it’s inconvenient.

It is clear to Avram that benefitting from someone who has acted immorally (as the king of Sodom had) makes him complicit in that same wickedness. What’s all the more fascinating is that our tradition teaches that Avram’s decision is rewarded with the mitzvot of tzitzit and tefillin– both mitzvot that emphasize an awareness of God at all times.

This story yields a two-fold lesson: First, we can choose to distance ourselves from immorality, which can sometimes mean forgoing personal benefit. And second, ultimately everything we have in this world comes from God. Neither Pharaoh, nor the king of Sodom, nor Avimelech made Avram prosperous. God did. And the spiritual reward for Avram’s words confirms it.

As we read the entire story of Avraham, let’s reflect on how we can better walk in his footsteps as Jews. What and whom do we choose to surround ourselves with and why? What does it look like for us to personally uphold morality even when it’s inconvenient? How can we better internalize gratitude to God for all we have and enjoy? May God bless us as He did Avraham– with the riches of wisdom, courage, and faith.

Rabbi Avraham Greenstein, AJRCA Professor of Hebrew

In this verse, the patriarch Abraham (at this moment still called Abram) displays the generosity and humble faith for which he is well known in Jewish tradition. He refuses payment of any sort for defeating the four eastern kings, and he allows the king of Sodom to keep all of the spoils of war. Abraham trusts that God will fulfill His promise to make him wealthy in a manner that more directly shows that it was the fulfillment of a divine promise rather than serendipity or the product of Abraham’s own initiative. He prefers that the name of God be glorified rather than his own.

The Mishna in Avot (5:19) describes those who emulate Abraham’s generosity, selflessness, and humility as his “students.” Abraham the patriarch is not merely the progenitor of a nation, an Abram (a “Distinguished Father”). Rather he is also a teacher and role model for all of humanity, an Abraham, a “Father Figure to a Multitude of Nations.”

With this in mind, it is worth noting whom Abraham is addressing in this verse. He is addressing the king of Sodom, a city known for its official lack of generosity (Avot 5:10). Abraham is modeling to Sodom a generosity and lack of self-interest that he hopes makes an impression on this people and its culture. Even later when Sodom proves irredeemable and is sentenced to destruction, like a good father Abraham prays on their behalf. Abraham does not give up on any human being, and neither should we.

Rabbi Miriam Hamrell, ahavattorahla.org

We recite in our daily prayers that for doing Gemilut Hasadim, Deeds of Loving-Kindness, one is rewarded with a portion both in this world and in the world to come. When Abram rescued his nephew Lot from captivity, he not only risked his own life and displayed a supreme degree of love, but he also Rescued the Captive, Pidyon Shevuyim which is considered throughout our tumultuous history as a cardinal obligation.

According to Maimonides (12C), Rescuing the Captive is more important than giving charity to the poor. The Talmud teaches that one may even use money saved for building a synagogue for rescuing Jews from captivity. If for some reason one delays freeing the captive, it is considered as if he was murdered. Abram became our ethical model for this important Mitzvah. He believed that Loving-Kindness and Freeing the Captive were among the highest ways to serve God. When the king offered Abram the riches of war spoils, Abram refuses to accept, “even a thread or a sandal’s strap!” He refused to “owe” him a favor, or for the king to take credit for his wealth. After all, why should Abram accept monetary wealth when the real reward is being in a loving-kindness relationship with God, which is worth more than all the riches of the world.

May we be blessed with many opportunities to show loving-kindness to the captives we free from prison, and not let riches blind our eyes and distract our hearts from Deeds of Loving-Kindness toward each other. Amen.

Miriam Yerushalmi, CEO SANE, Counselor, Author

With these words, Abram publicly declared his belief in the One G-d, Who supports him with all his needs. With minimal human assistance but obvious major Divine providence, Abram had just rescued his nephew Lot from the clutches of the warring kings. The king of Sodom, acknowledging Abram’s impact on his own narrow victory, offered to split the spoils with him: he would take the people, and Abram could take their things. But Abram—now, and later as Avraham—understood, and wanted others to understand, that neither his personal efforts nor those of any other human being were responsible for his wealth and success.

Abram took the opportunity to teach a lesson in emunah and bitachon, faith and trust in Hashem, to the people of his household who had fought alongside him as well as to the kings involved in the conflict. Just as G-d controls the major details of life, such as war, so too does He provide our mundane, minor needs such as thread. We are of course responsible to pursue a livelihood, but G-d decrees our parnassah for the year on Rosh Hashanah. Excessive efforts in this area will not reap additional income. Obsessive focus on material pursuits may even obstruct our blessings and interfere with our spiritual growth. However, in the spiritual sphere, minimal effort can reap maximal reward.

Our prayers and gratitude to Hashem increase the flow of blessings from Above. We may be satisfied with a shoe-strap, but Hashem wants to reward our faith with a treasure-house.

Rabbi Scott N. Bolton, Congregation Or Zarua

Abraham fought to free his nephew Lot. Allying himself with Canaanite kings he was victorious! There we see that Jewish roots go back to Canaanite connections. The battles of chapter 14 are as important as the Lekh L’kha moment or the Akeidah. Our Jewish roots are bound up in that Canaanite-Israelite pact. After the war, it is Malkhi-Tzedek, King of Shalem, who was the first to say “Barukh HaShem!” (14:20)

Early Zionists interested in reclaiming our ancient roots and friendships looked to the kings of the Tanakh for inspiration. This informed Yitzhak Danziger’s famous sculpture: “Nimrod.” Why did the art-piece become such a point of focus and discussion among new Israelis? Nimrod is the first king in the Tanakh, a man of flesh and blood establishing presence. While he pursued the wrong project with the Tower of Babel, Nimrod relied upon unity and connection. He was even willing to rebel against God! (Don’t we see that today?!)

Abraham tapped into the spiritual strength he needed to fight the war that he must. With the right friends in the region, the Jewish People could survive and thrive. The Abrahamic strike-force was as important in our history as Abraham’s pledges to pursue peace and tzedakah or his arguments with God about injustices regarding Sodom and Gemorrah. Pledging to take and receive only the blessings God had in store for him and check his greed; his faith and power journey was truly blessed.

With thanks to Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn, Rabbi Avraham Greenstein, Rabbi Miriam Hamrell, Miriam Yerushalmi, and Rabbi Scott N. Bolton

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Read more at the Jewish Journal.

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