Surrendering The Spoils

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Shira Smiles shiur 2016/577

Summary by Channie Koplowitz Stein

A major event in Parshat Lech Lecha is the “world war” between the four kings and the five kings. During this war, Lot, Avraham’s nephew who had moved to Sodom, was captured. Avraham sets out with a group of 318 men to fight the five victorious kings so that he can free his nephew. When Avraham is victorious, the King of Sodom tells Avraham to give him back “all the people (the souls) and take all the wealth for yourself.” Avraham responds hat he will take nothing. To emphasize his point, he raises his hand to heaven taking an oath, to take “not even a thread or a shoe strap or anything of yours, so you shall not say, ‘It is I who made Avram rich.’ ’’

Rav Dovid Hofstedter raises a very interesting question. Avraham had previously taken gifts from Pharaoh and would later take gifts from Avimelech. Why was he resolved not to take gifts from the King of Sodom? How would these gifts be different? Further, why is so adamant that he even swore to this resolution?

We begin our discussion with Rabbi Mordechai Druck, who notes that taking anything from the King of Sodom would cause a chilul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name. The King of Sodom was different from Pharaoh and Avimelech. In Egypt, the society was so corrupt that nothing Avraham did or didn’t do would have changed the situation, notes the Ner Uziel. In the situation with Avimelech, Avimelech understood that Hashem was controlling the events. In this situation with Sodom, however, if Avraham would take the spoils of the war, people would say that Avraham entered the war to get rich, for his own profit, rather than to save his nephew.

Rav Hofstedter takes this reasoning one step further. He posits that this war was not so much a political war as it was a religious war against monotheism. The capture of Lot was the bait that would lure Avraham into the battle. Against these powerful adversaries, he would surely be killed, and with him would die the idea of monotheism. By not taking any of the spoils for himself, Avraham was testifying that it was not Avraham who had won the war, but Hashem. He was thus creating a sanctification of God’s name and increasing his influence over the beliefs of others.

Rashi notes that Hashem rewarded Avraham’s descendents for his selflessness with two mitzvoth that are alluded to in Avraham’s response to the King of Sodom. For refusing to take even a thread, Bnei Yisroel were rewarded with the mitzvah of tzitzit, the “threads” on a four cornered garment, and for refusing to take even a boot strap, Bnei Yisroel were rewarded with the mitzvah of tefillin to be bound with leather straps on the head and arm. How are these mitzvoth reminiscent of Avraham’s motivation in refusing the spoils of the war? Rabbi Bick answers that these two mitzvoth are the seal of Hakodosh Boruch Hu attesting to His presence, just as Avraham was attesting to Hashem’s presence in the outcome of the battle.

The Ner Uziel also delves into the motivation of the king of Sodom. Avraham, with his conquest had tremendous influence over the captives as he was returning to Sodom, and his conversations with them formed a kind of kiruv that had them considering the truth of monotheism. This group of former captives could form a real challenge to the king’s authority. So the king was trying to undermine Avraham in the eyes of his erstwhile disciples. If they would see Avraham accept all this money, Avraham and his beliefs would be diminished in their eyes, and they would no longer pose a threat to the king’s rule. The king would claim that it was he who had made Avraham rich, and not God, even though it was God Who had promised to enrich Avraham. The king would not realize that he was but an instrument Hashem was using to make Avraham rich, just as Hashem guides the surgeon’s hand in life saving surgery, or, on a more mundane level, that it is the author writing the book and not the pen. In our own lives, we must put in our own effort, our hishtadlus, to show Hashem that we desire this gift, but we must never lose sight of Who is bestowing these gifts upon us.

Taking this lesson into our own lives, when we help someone or give tzedakah, writes Rabbi Gamliel Rabinowitz in Tiv Hatorah, we should realize that it is not I who am helping, but that Hashem has given me the opportunity to be His instrument to help the other individual.

We should all understand that our gifts and our opportunities come from Hashem. In fact, Rabbi Mordechai Ezrachi suggests that we should all keep a notebook in which we daily enter moments of Hashem’s benevolence to us and recognize His hashgacha in the simple occurrences of daily life. Then, at least once a week, we should review the entries. So why didn’t Avraham take some memento of this victory to remind Him of Hashem’s chesed, asks Rabbi Ezrachi? Because Avraham knew that anyone else looking at this memento would think of it as a souvenir that Avraham took to remind himself of his own victory. (I am reminded of a hunter’s moose’s head over his fireplace.)

Rabbi Wolbe notes that we ask Hashem that He not make us depend on gifts from flesh and blood, but that even if we accept help from others, those who help us should understand that it was Hashem Who gave them the opportunity to help us.

Rabbi Goldwicht provides a different perspective on Avraham’s refusal to accept Sodom’s money. While the wealth of Avimelech and of Pharaoh was generally honestly obtained, Sodom was filled with theft. It could be assumed that most if not all the wealth of Sodom was somehow tainted with theft or other chicanery. Since the mindset of Sodom was so materialistic and avaricious, even to embracing theft and bribery, everything they touched would be tainted. Although Avraham was entitled to the spoils of the war, he was afraid that these Sodomite possessions would have absorbed some of the negative influence or energy of the Sodomite people. If he took possession of these things, would they exert an influence on him so that he too would take on Sodomite traits that would affect not only himself but everyone he tried to influence? Are we equally careful to obtain everything we have honestly? (I wonder if hospital wings built with Mafia money donations are “kosher”.)

While all the preceding explains why Avraham refused to take any of the spoils of the war, they do not explain why Avraham felt it necessary to swear that he would take nothing. Letitcha Elyon cites Rav Shach who heard from his Rebbe the Saba of Slabodka that one should always be wary and suspect of his yetzer horo. The psyche of man is that once one has benefited and enriched himself even from something as negligible as a shoelace, he is aroused to want more. Therefore Avraham strengthened his determination to take nothing by vowing and creating a barrier to following the natural inclination to take something from that which he had even legitimately earned here. He would not transgress a vow,

Rabbi Wolbe takes a lesson for all of us from Avraham’s behavior. Certainly, if Avraham felt a need to erect a barrier to sin when he might be tempted, how much more so must we take precautions either to avoid situations where we might come to sin or, if already in a situation, to take extraordinary steps and precautions not to stumble into the sins, especially “social” sins like loshon horo.

As already noted, Hashem rewarded us, Avraham’s descendents, with the mitzvoth of tzitzit and tefillin. How were these appropriate rewards for Avraham’s resolve? Rabbi Fryman discusses this question in Shaarei Derech. He notes that both of these mitzvoth represent fear of God and help us act appropriately when we see them. Avraham Avinu created a verbal checkpoint of a similar nature by his vow. Rabbi Fryman cites a Gemarrah that discusses who inherits olam habo While living in Eretz Yisroel and raising children who learn Torah seem self explanatory, a third condition that merits olam habo is difficult to understand. Why would someone who makes havdalah over wine at the conclusion of Shabbat merit olam habo? Rabbi Fryman notes that this condition refers to a man who wants to drink this wine over the course of Shabbat but refrains from doing so to save it for the mitzvah of making havdalah over it.

Rabbi Fryman then moves on to a situation where a High priest and a nazarite walking together and pass a meis mitzvoth, a corpse with no one to tend to it and provide it with the dignity of a proper burial. Each of these men is prohibited from ritual defilement through contact with the dead, except in the case of a meis mitzvah. Which of the two should defile himself? It is a similar idea that prompts Rabbi Fryman to explain Rabbi Eliezer’s dictum that in this case of a meis mitzvah, the high priest should defile himself rather than the nazir. The nazir has taken upon himself a vow that for thirty days he will refrain from wine, grape products, and various situations including contact with the dead. For thirty days he is tempted 24/7, and for thirty days he exerts constant self control because of his vow, and for this self control, he is rewarded the crown of God (nezer Elokhim/nazir), and therefore Rabbii Eliezer rules that he is not to defile himself during the time of his nezirut. That’s how strongly Hashem values self restraint,  and that provides the link between Avraham’s oath and the reward of tzitzit and tefillin.

Hashem greatly values self discipline. When someone is faced with an inner struggle, as Avraham Avinu was about taking of the spoils, one should run interference before one succumbs. That was the purpose of Avraham’s oath, notes Rabbi Zaichik in Ohr Codosh, to help him retain control over his desire for the wealth.

Since self control is so difficult, Hashem even values temporary self control. When Yaakov sent Esau gifts to forestall his brother’s possible attack, Esau initially refused to accept the gifts, saying, “Yesh li rav/I have much.” Even though Esau later took the gifts, Hashem rewarded him for the temporary self control of his desire. When Bnei Yisroel were about to enter Eretz Yisroel after forty years in the desert, Hashem did not permit them to go through the land of Edom. When Edom refused them permission to go through, Hashem commanded Bnei Yisroel to go around their land, for He had given that land of Seir/Edom to Esau and his descendents. This, writes Rabbi Zaichik citing Daas Zekainim, was Esau’s reward for his temporary self control and refusal to take the gifts.

Rabbi Frand offers an unusual perspective on Avaham’s conversation. Rav Frand suggests that when Avraham said he is raising his hand, he was bearing testimony to several things. Using several complementary sources, Rabbi Frand is first saying that the victory was not by my hand, but by God’s. Therefore I am not entitled to the spoils, for would I take it, it would all be hekdesh, sanctified to God. He raised his hand in emphasis to tell it that it was not the hand’s victory but God’s.

Rabbi Dessler in Strive for Truth continues this conversation. Avraham speaks of lifting his had to God, Maker of heaven and earth. What Rabbi Dessler says is that Avraham understood that all that he has is to be used in service to God, and he has no use for these spoils of war. In fact, they may be stumbling blocks to my growth. Everything one has, whether external materials or internal talents, are vessels to be used in God’s service, and when they are no longer needed or are misused, Hashem will either break them or remove them.

How can one leave the confused world of broken vessels? When one is in the darkness of despair, one must enter the darkness to seek Hashem, for He will be found there in the abyss, writes Rav Dessler citing Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. When he does teshuvah, he will recognize these obstacles and challenges also as vessels to bring him closer to Hashem, for the darkness itself contains the vessels. Looking at the final letters of each word, “vechoshech al pnei tehom/and there was darkness on the face of the deep, one will find the vessels, the k(ch)alim to lead one back to Hakodosh Boruch Hu. When we find ourselves in darkness, we must pray to Hashem to lead us to the light.

Even Avraham Avinu was human and was tempted to accept inappropriate gifts. He created a means of supporting his resolve to stay true to Hashem. How much more so must we be vigilant in our behavior and create guidelines for ourselves that will help us remain true to ourselves as servants of Hakodosh Boruch Hu.