The joy was palpable. Avraham and Sarah were told they would be blessed with a son, and for the first time in many years, the future looked bright and optimistic. Yet, in the very moment Avraham’s family was to expand, the Divine plan for the destruction of Sodom was taking shape.
“And the Lord said, “Shall I conceal from Abraham what I am doing? And Abraham will become a great and powerful nation, and all the nations of the world will be blessed in him.” (Bereishis 18:17-18)
God felt compelled to share his plan for the destruction of Sodom and its surrounding cities with Avraham. And as he hears of the imminent destruction, Avraham begins to bargain with God. If there are fifty righteous men, will you save the city? Avraham asks God. God agrees. When it became clear that there were not fifty righteous men to be found, Avraham kept asking, lowering the number of righteous souls through which to save the cities. But alas, Avraham was unsuccessful. There were not even ten righteous men whose merit could save the cities. Avraham lost the battle. The angels journeyed towards Sodom and destruction ensued.
The Torah states, “And the Lord departed when He finished speaking to Abraham, and Abraham returned to his place (18:33).” Why must the Torah tell us that “Avraham returned to his place?” What is the deeper meaning of this seemingly extraneous verse? Rashi comments: “… and Abraham returned to his place: The Judge left, the defender left, and the prosecutor is accusing. Therefore: “And the two angels came to Sodom,” to destroy (Gen. Rabbah 49:14).” Avraham has no more arguments to advance. No additional methods to advocate on behalf of the people of Sodom. The case is closed; the defender and prosecutor pack up, and the enforcers leave to carry out the sentence.
Rav Yechezkel Shraga Halberstam (Shiniver Rov, 1813-1898) explains, “even though Avraham was unable to save the people of Sodom through his prayer, and God destroyed them with fire and sulphur, Avraham’s service of God was not diminished. He understood that all God does is just…. ‘He returned to his place’ – he returned to serving God with joy, commitment, and love; just as he had done before.”
Avraham suffered a significant setback. Just a few verses earlier, God had crowned him the father of a multitude of nations. He was to inspire and shape not just the future Jewish people but humanity as a whole. He was to educate the masses as a father does for his children. He was to love the nations as a parent loves his own flesh and blood. When Avraham supplicated and bargained on behalf of the people of Sodom – he was a father begging for mercy on his children. Every parent has one basic, core instinct – protect my child at all costs. But he failed. He could not convince God to spare the people. He couldn’t protect his children. Avraham and God part company without uttering a word to one another. Sadness fills the air. Avraham, broken that he couldn’t save his children, God, saddened that He would have to punish his creations.
What does Avraham do after experiencing this set-back? “V’Avraham Shav Limkomo, Avraham returned to his place”. He retuned back to the state he was in before. He would not lose himself in pain or self-pity. He would not lose himself in the pit of despair. He needed to move on. He needed to figure out what had to be done to prevent another catastrophic event like this from occurring. How can I uplift humanity? How can I better the world? He dusted himself off, dried his tears, and resumed his relationship with God and the building of his spiritual self.
We all encounter defeat. There are moments when we feel we have failed and in doing so have let ourselves and others down. Some of these failures are real, and some are perceived. But the pain is often palpable. We learn from our first Patriarch, to dust ourselves off and find the courage and strength to pick up where we left off. When we suffer defeat, we must be shav limkomeynu, return to our place, resume our holy work, and continue down the path of life accomplishment.
And the Lord said to Abram, “Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.” (Bereishis 13:1)
Avraham was commanded to leave the life he had known, venture forth into the great unknown and embrace his personal destiny. Upon arriving in the land of Canaan, he is faced with the stark reality of regional famine that forces him to relocate (together with his family) to Egypt. It is in Egypt that Avraham faces a society hostile to his spiritual and moral views. Yet, Avraham and Sarah persevere and make their way back to the Canaan. It is during this return journey to Canaan that the Torah shares an interesting piece of information.
And he went on his journeys, from the south and until Beth El, until the place where his tent had been previously, between Beth El and between Ai. (Bereishis 13:3)
And he went on his journeys: When he returned from Egypt to the land of Canaan, he went and lodged in the inns where he had lodged on his way to Egypt. This teaches you etiquette, that a person should not change his lodgings (Arachin 16b).
The Maharal of Prague (Rabbi Yehuda Lowe, 1525-1609) explains that if Avraham had changed his lodgings people would have assumed that he was unhappy with the accommodations or with the character of the proprietor. This could have led others to speak negatively about the inn-keeper and adversely impact his livelihood.
While this is certainly a beautiful idea, I would have made the argument that Avraham should not be bound by these types of considerations. After all, he is on a mission from God. He needs to spread monotheism and reintroduce Hashem to humanity. He needs to get back to Canaan and get to work. Let him stay wherever he wants, wherever is most convenient – why the need to retrace his steps?
The Torah is teaching us an incredible lesson. In our quest for personal spirituality, we must be ever-vigilant of the feelings of those around us. Even if one is on a mission from God, even if one is engaged in the most holy and spiritually pure endeavors, one is never exempt from maintaining the highest levels of interpersonal conduct. Building one’s relationship with God is never a license to trample on my relationship with the other.
Rav Soloveitchik zt’l told a beautiful story involving his great-grandfather, the Beis HaLevi (Rav Yosef Baer Soloveitchik). The Beis HaLevi was in Warsaw and decided to visit Rabbi Yaakov Gesundheit (1815-1878), the Rav of the city. As the two great rabbis were seated in the living room, they heard the Jewish maid begin to sing. Rabbi Gesundheit got up and was going to ask her to please lower her voice. (There is a concept in Jewish law of Kol Isha. Under certain circumstance a man is not permitted to hear a woman sing.) Rav Yosef Baer took hold of his host’s arm and pulled him aside. The Rav of Warsaw asked the Beis HaLevi why he had stopped him. “I will explain my actions,” said Rav Yosef Baer. “Your maid works hard. The only enjoyment and pleasure she has is singing. It is true that we are enjoined from listening to her singing, but we can step outside or go into a different room. However, you want her to stop singing. That is not fair. It is her only enjoyment!” (The Rav Vol. II, page 178).
The Bais HaLevi understood that we must be unwavering and unyielding in the fulfillment of our halachik obligations. But we must honor our spiritual responsibilities with a concurrent sensitivity to the needs of the other.
This was the lesson of Avraham Avinu. We must strive to grow spiritually but never at the expense of the feelings of another. You can be the man of God, father of monotheism, patriarch of a nation – but you must still be vigilant with how you treat your fellow man.
“And he sent forth the raven, and it went out, back and forth until the waters dried up off the earth” (Genesis 8:7)
The floodwaters had receded, and Noach sent the raven to seek dry land. The raven circled the ark but came back. The story seems simple enough – no dry land to be found, no journey to embark upon, come back to the ark. Yet, Rashi shares a fascinating comment:
The simple explanation is its apparent meaning, but the Midrash Aggadah (Gen. Rabbah 33:5) [explains that] the raven was destined for another errand (shlichus) during the lack of rain in the time of Elijah, as it is said (I Kings 17:6): “and the ravens brought him bread and meat.”
This wasn’t the destined mission for the raven. The raven had another shlichus (agency/mission) to bring bread to Eliyahu HaNavi when he was hiding from King Achav (a story for another time). Rashi is teaching us an all-important lesson – everyone and everything has a mission and purpose in this world. Rashi’s words are reminiscent of the Mishna in Pirkei Avos, Ethics of Our Fathers:
He (Ben Azzai) used to say: do not despise any man, and do not discriminate against anything, for there is no man that has not his hour, and there is no thing that has not its place (4:3).
The raven had a different mission, and therefore, was unable to fulfill the one Noach assigned to it. What is true for the raven is even truer for us. We each have a mission. We each have a purpose. At times, the mission may align with my skill set and be easy to execute. However, at times, the mission I am called upon to fulfill is difficult and arduous. The Torah is filled with stories of great men and women who had to undergo challenges and adversity to fulfill their shlichus (mission). But unlike the raven who had but one mission, man can have multiple missions over the course of life. Different stages and seasons come with their own mission and mandate. Yet, as different as we are from the raven, often we behave in the same fashion. We too tend to circle the ark of existence. Too often, we are afraid to embrace our shlichus, we are frightened to venture into the unknown even though it promises so much success and fulfillment. Instead, we choose to remain close to the ark of the known. We prefer to play it safe and settle and hover in familiar territory. It is scary to venture out into the unknown. But my mission can never be found in the comfort of what is known. It requires me to take flight, it requires to at least step foot into the unknown, it requires me to take chances. Hovering around the ark works for the raven; it can’t work for us.
The new year is upon us. The coming months are filled with promise and potential. It is now that we each must try to figure out what our shlichus is. It could be identifying my mission for today or defining my mission for life. We must give significant thought as to why we have been placed on this earth and what Hashem wants from us. We must resist the temptation to be a raven and just hover in comfort. We must take flight and find the courage to embrace the mission.