Og's Odyssey

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Summary by Channie Koplowitz Stein

            The first recorded war in Tanach appears in Parshat Lech Lecha. As in any war, then and subsequently, prisoners and captives are taken, and sometimes the captives are significant to the ensuing events. In this war, none other than Lot, Abraham’s nephew, was taken captive, and the events that followed changed the course of the war and provide lessons in human behavior.

The Torah relates that a survivor came to Avraham, residing among his allies Mamre, Eshcol and Aner, and informed him that his nephew had been taken captive. Avraham arms his entourage of 300 men and pursues and vanquishes the four kings with their full armies, and frees his nephew. Who is this mysterious survivor, and why did he choose to inform Avraham of the capture of his nephew?

Many commentators cite the Medrash that this survivor was not only a survivor of this battle, but also a survivor of the flood that destroyed the world ten generations earlier. According to the Medrash, this man is Og, later King of Bashan. He held on to the side of the Ark, while Noach fed him through an opening for the entire duration of their confinement within the Ark.

The question begs to be asked: Of that entire generation, other than the family of Noach, why was this man saved? Rabbi Wolbe in his Lessons on Chumash notes that Og, although not a righteous man, did not succumb to the sexual depravity of his generation. Even here, when our commentators attribute an ulterior motive to Og’s informing Avraham of Lot’s capture, of wanting Avraham to die in battle so that he could marry Avraham’s widow Sarah, Og would not succumb to immorality but would wait until Sarah was a widow so that he could legitimately marry her. In spite of these ulterior motives, Hashem rewarded Og with an additional 400 years of life, writes Rabbi Yehudah Leib Chasman  quoted in Yalkut Lekach Tov, and Moshe feared doing battle with Og until Hashem reassured Moshe that He would deliver Og into his hands.

Why attribute ulterior motives to Og? Couldn’t he have wanted just to do Avraham a kindness by telling him of Lot’s capture? Here we must get into a discussion of human nature. First we have the simple explanation of Rabbi Schrage Grossbard in Daas Schrage. One who is evil will always have some personal motive, even when seemingly acting altruistically. Although Og was circumspect in sexual behavior, he was in other ways no more righteous than the rest of his generation, and so we can attribute evil undertones to his actions. Further, as Rabbi Chasman reminds us, every human being is a composite of the lowest and the highest elements, dust of the earth and the breath of God which animates him. That dust of the earth from which our bodies were formed is the same material from which animals were created, and thus retains within each human being the base animal instincts. Only through Torah can we discipline ourselves to overcome these instincts and develop the human potential of godliness and holiness.

Building on this theme, Rabbi Issachar Dov Rubin in Tallelei Orot  quoting Rav Shach warns us that there is a constant tension between these two elements within us, and we must always be aware that even the loftiest intentions can be tainted with a thread of personal motives, whether for recognition or for honor, for example. Og represents this duality within each of us.

Rabbi Pliskin consults with many great men of our generation for guidelines in helping us develop our positive character traits while uprooting our negative ones. Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz offers that we should seek out role models who are in control of the negative behavior we are trying to correct. If we can ask them how they can control themselves in situations which are so challenging for us, we will find guidance.

Another question can now be asked. If Og had ulterior motives, why was he rewarded? The answer goes to one of our fundamental beliefs about the Ribbonoh shel Olam, which is that Hashem is always trustworthy to repay anyone for any good deed, no matter what selfish motivation may be involved. Rabbi Mordechai Druck gives several examples in Dorash Mordechai. Besides Og, Rabbi Druck cites both Yitro and Eglon, among others. Yitro’s daughters were helped at the well by the fleeing Moshe. When Yitro told his daughters to invite “the Egyptian” to eat with them, he was hoping a proposal of marriage to one of his daughters would eventually develop. Nevertheless, Yitro was rewarded that his descendents were part of the Sanhedrin. Similarly, Eglon, a Moabite king who was persecuting Bnei Yisroel, stood in honor of Hashem when Ehud the Judge approached him wanting to impart God’s words to him. For this respect Eglon showed to the Jewish God, he merited that Ruth, the ultimate convert to Judaism and the mother of Jewish monarchy, would descend from him. If these non Jews merited such rewards, continues Rabbi Druck, imagine the rewards for good deeds earned by those who follow the Torah selflessly.

While the body must be engaged in the performance of mitzvoth (after all, we are physical beings) these acts can achieve transcendence by investing the mind with the proper intention, withkavononoh that we are performing this act because Hashem has so commanded, writes Rabbi Akiva Tatz in Worldmask. Nevertheless, even mitzvoth performed without the proper intention are always rewarded, provided they meet the minimum requirements of the mitzvah. That can help explain why the wicked often lead easy lives while the righteous suffer in this world. The wicked may perform some good deeds, but their intentions are based on the physical world as are their motivations. Therefore, continues Rabbi Tatz, their reward will be granted in the only world they value. On the other hand, the righteous perform their deeds with the motivation of coming closer to God. Hence, they may suffer in this world for their few sins while earning their rewards in the eternal world with proximity to their Creator. It is only through joining the intentions of the mind with the physical acts that one can achieve transcendence and affect both this world and the next.

It is this concept that draws us to the reason Avraham here is called HaIvri, the one from the other side. It was not so much that Avraham came from the geographical other side, but that his values were completely different from the values of everyone else. How did he get this way? From a very early age, Avraham practiced reflection and contemplation, writes Daas Schrage, citing Rambam. Avraham was looking for a master of the world, When the sun was chased away by the moon and stars at night, and the situation was reversed at daybreak, Avraham knew neither of these could be the Master. Continuing with observing other areas of nature, Avraham soon realized there had to a Creator of the entire world, and thus through observation and contemplation Avraham became the teacher of monotheism for all time. Rabbi Akivah is another example of a major change achieved through observation and contemplation. Akivah the shepherd grew to be a great Torah scholar after observing how constant drips of water eventually made an impression and ate away at solid rock. He started learning at age forty and kept at it until Torah entered his “hard as rock” head. We, too, must learn to pause and contemplate our world and learn lessons from everything around us, to recognize God’s presence everywhere, and to act with that awareness at all times, writes Rabbi Segal, the Manchester Rav.

Rabbi Zaks in Menachem Zion drives home the essence of being an Ivri, the nation on the other side. We are charged with the mission of fitting the world into God’s view and His rubric rather than manipulating our view to fit the world and its political correctness. In fact, Avraham’s battle here can be considered a recap of a previous confrontation. Haketav Vehakabbalah writes that Amrafel, King of Shinar, one of the combatants, is none other than Nimrod who threw Avraham into the furnace for defying him and declaring Hashem God.

Rabbi Druck presents another reason for calling Avraham the Ivri at this point. Og knew that only someone with as strong a conviction as Avraham would attempt to fight such a foolhardy war against these four powerful kings, but Avraham would rely on Hashem. The lesson for us is that we too are called upon to fight Hashem’s battles, and we too must rely on Hashem at such times, writes Rabbi Sternberg in Taam Vodaath. And, like Avraham, we are further called upon to stand up and fight for the safety of our brethren, even if we stand alone, as Avraham did, even if we are disinterested in politics or other current events, writes the Ner Uziel.

Avraham risked his life to save Lot also from a sense of gratitude for Lot’s not revealing to Pharaoh that Sarah was Avraham’s wife rather than his sister. It is this sense of gratitude that also set Avraham apart from others in his generation and continues to be the hallmark of Yehudim (those who offer thanks), Jews, throughout history. According to Daas Schrage, Og knew this history and counted on Avraham to act on this gratitude and go to war. Similarly, we are all called upon to acknowledge any chessed we receive, even when the donor had no specific intention of benefitting you, says Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz in his Discourses. Such is the example of Reuven who felt so elated when Yosef spoke of a dream in which eleven stars bowed down to him. Yosef had  not excluded Reuven as worthy of being one of the twelve tribes of Yisroel, and although this was not Yosef’s intention and he was only recounting his dream, Reuven felt such gratitude that he felt compelled to try to save Yosef when the other brothers plotted to kill to kill him.

Rabbi Chaim Ephraim Zaichik offers an interesting explanation for the name Og, attributed to this messenger. This survivor had witnessed the destruction of the world and seen its rebuilding through Noach and his descendents. Yet that made little impact on him. Here he approached Avraham to present his information. It was Pesach, and Avraham was baking oogot matzot, matzo cakes, (as he had done when the three angels appeared). He was filled with the joy of performing the mitzvah of the future. Witnessing this spiritual high had an impact on the survivor, and henceforth his name was Og, in reference to the oogot matzoth. By surrounding ourselves with good people, righteous people, we too can be permanently positively impacted.

In Mikdash Halevi, Rabbi Dinner offers a unique interpretation to the identity of the“survivor” who came to Avraham with news from the battlefield. According to Rabbi Dinner, this survivor was none other than the angel Michael who appeared to Avraham because Avraham was the Ivri, the one to stand up for his beliefs. As descendents of Avraham, we too can merit Heavenly assistance when we stand up for our beliefs.

This one verse in the Torah offers us so many insights into who we are, who we should strive to be, and little hints on how to get there. And when we are convinced that Hashem is on ourside, it is much easier to be an Ivri.