Thursday, October 18, 2007

The War Of The Kings (Lech Lecha 5768)

Avraham became involved in a war between the powers of his time because of the capture of his nephew Lot. We learn:

They took Lot, the son of Avraham’s brother, and his property and they went. He was living in Sedom. (BeReishit 14:12)

Avraham felt a need to attempt to rescue his hapless nephew, putting himself at enormous risk to do so. The Maharal has no doubts as to the warriors’ true intentions - ‘for these four kings who took Lot, their objective was really Avraham.’ The capture of Lot was a bait to attract their true enemy – Avraham. Why were the four rulers interested in an elderly nomadic monotheist, who kept himself to himself? The Maharal suggests taht this was the first religious war in history, a concerted attempt to wipe the One God and Avraham, His chosen ambassador, from the face of the earth. The new spiritual order and focus that Avraham had introduced caused a major threat to the establishment of the time – one founded on pagan principles, selfish pursuits and little grasp of the sanctity of human life. Avraham sought to subvert all this through monotheism, moral responsibility and the rights and duties of Man. He posed no physical threat to the rulers of his world, yet he challenged the very basis of their values in the most profound way.

This was the true motive for the war – to eliminate Avraham and his new ideas before he became too successful. This is the deeper reason that there were four kings aligned against Avraham, as the number four represents the pull of the physical forces in all directions away from the centre. If we picture Avraham as the one man of God, the ambassador of the One God, then we can envisage the destructive, anti-spiritual forces attempting to undermine his achievements by attacking him on all sides. That the one (Avraham) faced the four kings indicates that the ravages of negativity and un-holiness threatened true spirituality.

Apart the self-sacrifice that Avraham exhibited by saving his nephew, the aftermath of the war has much to teach:

The king of Sedom said to Avram, ‘give me the people and take the wealth for yourself.’ Avraham said to the king of Sedom, ‘I have lifted my hand towards the Lord, the supernal God, ruler of heaven and earth. From a thread to a shoe-strap, nor shall I take from anything that is yours; you shall not say, ‘I have made Avram rich. (BeReishit 14:22-23)

Avraham decided not to take the spoils of war – after all, his motivation for involvement was not personal aggrandisement, but saving his nephew. However, Chazal find a much deeper meaning in these verses. Ravo notes that in the merit of Avraham’s reference to a thread and a shoe-strap, his descendents merited two Mitzvot – the thread of t’chelet / sky-blue that adorns the tzitzit and the strap of tefillin. (See Sotah 17a) The Midrash, which finds references to further Mitzvot in Avraham’s declaration. The thread is seen to refer to tzitzit, the Mishkan, which was decorated with threads of sky-blue and purple, or even the offerings that were brought on an altar whose upper and lower parts were divided with a red thread. Apparently, the shoe-strap makes an oblique reference to the strap of the shoe used in the chalitzah ceremony, the tachash skins that formed a protective covering over the Mishkan or the footsteps of the pilgrims attending the Temple on the shalosh regalim.

The Maharal (Sotah ad. loc.) comes to our aid again. It is axiomatic to Jewish thought that since God is perfect and infinite, we can give Him nothing; rather He gives to us in a unilateral fashion, while He takes nothing from this world. Further, emulating the Divine characteristics is considered to be one of the greatest possible achievements of Man. As the Rabbis put it – just as He clothes the naked, visits the sick and comforts the bereaved, so should we. (Sotah 14a) Imitatio dei, the imperative to become Godlike, underlies much of Jewish life. It follows then that Avraham’s refusal to take something rightfully his was demonstrative of his capacity to realise a Godly life within the physical world. According to the strict law, the spoils of war were his for the taking – they were considered ownerless and therefore available to him. It is even possible that he could have used his material gain for holy purposes, yet he chose to abstain. The law of tzitzit is, in the words of the Maharal, ‘complete connection to God through a Mitzvah.’ The tzitzit represent the notion that through a simple physical object it is possible to connect to God in the most profound way. Both tzitzit and tefillin are made from the simplest materials: wool and leather and, as such, are the reward for Avraham’s refusal to benefit from even the most basic items of the spoil – threads and shoe-straps. They show us the refinement of true Jewish spirituality, in which even the most mundane article hints to a wealth of subtle thoughts and ideas.

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