Parsha Pearls: Parshas Vayeira

There Were No Protests in Sodom
Faith Despite Our Many Questions
Obedience, Not Logic
Avraham's Test and Our Test

And Hashem said, “If I find in Sodom fifty righteous people in the midst of the city, then I will forgive the entire place for their sake.” (18:26)

Someone once asked Rabbi Avigdor Miller: “If Hashem was willing to save Sodom if ten good people could be found, or two in each town, then why didn’t He save those towns in Europe where at least two or ten righteous people lived?” Rabbi Miller said, “The answer is, you must understand what Hashem and Avraham were arguing about. It states that if there will be found ‘ten tzaddikim in the midst of the city’ – why doesn’t it just say ‘in the city’? The answer is, if you have righteous people who are hiding in their houses, they are righteous but nobody knows about them, that wouldn’t save them. No. They have to go out in the midst of the city. And they have to fight the city, they have to buck, they have to show opposition to the city, that’s ‘in the midst of the city.’ Like it says, ‘And to Jerusalem Your city may You return in mercy, and dwell in its midst as You spoke.’ What does it mean, ‘in its midst’? It doesn’t mean that the Shechina should be there invisible, it’s there invisible now, too. The Shechina should show itself. That’s what we want, that the Shechina should demonstrate itself. The Shechina should dwell openly in its midst. Now, Hashem said, ‘Yes, if you show Me ten people who went out in the street and protested when Sodom made a law against welcoming wayfarers, then I’ll save the city for their sake.’ Ten people who protest are very hard to find. In Europe you didn’t have so many people who would come out and fight openly. You had frum Jews, like we’re frum Jews, but we don’t fight back. We sit quietly in our shtiblach, in our shuls, we don’t fight back. Where’s our opposition that we show to the wicked?” (Tape #288)

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On 6 Elul 5717 (1957) the Satmar Rebbe organized a demonstration against religious persecution in Eretz Yisroel, in Union Square in Manhattan. Several days before the demonstration, members of the Agudas Harabbanim came to the Rebbe to convince him to change his mind and not make such a demonstration before the eyes of the gentile world. The Rebbe said, “Look at the Ibn Ezra in Parshas Vayeira. He notes that the Torah says Sodom would be saved for the sake of tzaddikim who are in the midst of the city, and he explains, ‘This means that they fear Hashem in public.’ So we see that the problem in Sodom was that the tzaddikim among them were afraid to publicize their opinions in the streets of the city.” After this the rabbanim had nothing to say, and they left. On the way out, one said to the others, “I can’t believe it! I have been learning the Ibn Ezra for many years, but I forgot about that comment.” (Toros Ve’uvdos Mibeis Raboseinu, p. 27.)

And Avraham rose early in the morning, to the place where he had stood before Hashem. (19:27)

The Gemora (Chullin 91b) learns from this verse that a Torah scholar must not go out alone at night, because of the evil spirits. This is why Avraham waited till the morning to go out and pray for the city of Sodom. Tosafos explains, “He went to pray concerning the destruction of Sodom, which took place in the morning, and he should have prayed earlier, at night. But he did not want to go out alone at night. He was going alone to pray for them, and he did not want any person to be present during the prayer.” Why was it so important that no one be present to watch Avraham pray for Sodom? The Satmar Rav explained, “Avraham was going to offer arguments in favor of the wicked people of Sodom. This prayer was directed only at Hashem, but no person was allowed to hear it, lest he think that Avraham’s arguments represented the real truth, and thus be led astray after the people of Sodom. We see from this a great principle – that in private with the Holy One, blessed is He, everyone is permitted to speak in favor of the wicked, saying that they are much better than the gentiles, and so on. But when speaking to people, Heaven forbid to try to find redeeming qualities in them! Rather, we must expose them and put the blame on them, so that Jews should know to keep far from them.” (Toros V’uvdos Mibeis Raboseinu, p. 25)

It should be noted that even in tefillah, there must be both elements: blaming the wicked, and arguing in their favor. We learn this from the Mechilta in Parshas Bo (brought by Yalkut Shimoni Yirmiyah 325), which contrasts the three prophets Eliyahu, Yonah and Yirmiyah. Eliyahu, when speaking to Hashem, had only bad things to say about the Jewish people (Melachim I 19:10). Therefore Hashem did not want him anymore as a prophet (ibid. verse 16). Yonah went to the other extreme: he was so concerned about the welfare of his people that he refused to obey Hashem’s command. So his career as a prophet was ended as well. “Hashem spoke to Yonah a second time” – but not a third time. But Yirmiyah combined both elements when he said (Eicha 3:42), “We were sinful and rebellious; You did not forgive.” He admitted the sins, but at the same time he argued that Hashem should forgive them.

And she said to Avraham, “Send away this maidservant and her child, for the child of this maidservant will not inherit together with my son, with Yitzchak.” (21:10)

The Chofetz Chaim said: There is no doubt that had Yishmael been brought up together with Yitzchak, he would not have become such a “wild one among men,” for a person’s environment has a great impact on him. But since Yishmael’s company could have been a bad influence on Yitzchak, Sarah decided that the danger to Yitzchak was more important. And who knew if before Yitzchak would have a chance to make Yishmael better, Yishmael would ruin Yitzchak? So she told Avraham to send Yishmael away, and Hashem told Avraham to follow her counsel. “The actions of the fathers are a sign for the children,” and so we learn from this to keep good children and bad children apart, lest the bad influence the good. “If you pour hot water and cold water together, the hot water gets cooler.” (Chofetz Chaim on the Torah)

In the late 30’s when some proposed that Agudath Israel join the Zionist Vaad Haleumi, Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman wrote a letter against it, in which he quoted his rebbe, the Chofetz Chaim: “As to the suggestion to join the Vaad Haleumi, the law is well known that one may not join such people even for the sake of a mitzvah (Yalkut Shimoni Yehoshua 3, Orchos Tzaddikim Shaar 5), and I have nothing to add to this. But you must tell those who agree to this proposition that they are causing the multitudes to sin and desecrating the Name of Hashem… And if they imagine that their opinions will be given equal weight, this is the counsel of the evil inclination, for we must remember the great difference between the religious and the irreligious: the irreligious are completely irreligious, but the religious are not completely religious, for within every one of us there is a certain amount of irreligiosity – this I heard from the holy author of Chofetz Chaim, of blessed memory – and therefore if the numbers are equal, the decision will always be made in favor of the irreligious.

“I also heard the following [from the Chofetz Chaim]: Chaggai the Prophet tested the kohanim and said, ‘If a man holds holy meat in the corner of his garment and touches bread, soup, wine, oil or any food, will it become holy?’ And they said, no. ‘And if one defiled by a dead body touches any of these, will it become defiled?’ And they said, yes. And Chaggai said, ‘So is this people and so is this nation before me, said Hashem.’ (Chaggai 2:12-14) The Gemora derives many halachos from these verses, but the simple meaning is also true: one who touches the holy does not become holy, but one who touches defilement becomes defiled.

“If the irreligious agree that we should join them, then we must know and understand that they are spreading a net to catch souls, and who is foolish enough to walk into their trap? Certainly if the tzaddik Reb Chaim Zonenfeld were alive now, they would never have made this suggestion, but since we are left orphans, everyone wants power.

“I remember five years ago the suggestion was made that the Agudah join the [Zionist] Agency, since the heads of the Joint who were supporting all the yeshivos wanted this, and it was hard to say no to them. At that time I heard from the holy [Chofetz Chaim], of blessed memory: ‘Better a third of Torah learning should stop, rather than join them.’” This means that even if most of the yeshivos will have to close down, Heaven forbid, this is not a good enough reason to join them.” (Kovetz Maamarim V’igros, p. 154)

And it came to pass after these things that G-d tested Avraham, and He said to him, "Avraham!" And he said, "Here I am." And He said, "Take now your son, your only one, whom you love, Yitzchak, and go to the land of Moriah, and bring him up there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains which I will tell you." (22:1-2)

Throughout this narrative, the Torah uses the name "Elokim" for G-d. But when Avraham takes the knife and prepares to slaughter Yitzchak, and an angel of G-d calls to him to stop, the name "Hashem" is used – the four-letter name which Jews are forbidden to pronounce as written.

The difference in meaning between the various names of G-d is explained by the Ramban on Shemos 6:2. The names Elokim and E-l Shaddai mean that G-d intervenes in human affairs – punishing the wicked and rewarding the righteous – but only within a structure He created called "teva" or nature. He hides Himself so that whatever happens appears to be merely a part of the natural world.

Similarly, the Shulchan Aruch in Orach Chaim 5 says when pronouncing the name "Elokim" one should have in mind that G-d is "strong, all-powerful, the Master of all powers." Calling G-d the Master of all powers implies that there are other powers, i.e. the forces of nature, and He is the master over them. In truth we know that there are no other powers and everything exists only because G-d wills it. But G-d causes the world to follow certain consistent patterns we call nature, in order to make it seem as if there are other powers. Although He acts to reward and punish, He conceals His action behind the mask of nature.

But the four-letter name "Hashem" - explains the Ramban - signifies the fact that G-d causes (mehaveh) everything to exist, there are no laws of nature, He acts openly and does whatever He wishes. This was the mode of conduct G-d promised to use during the Exodus.

When G-d told Avraham to bring Yitzchak as an offering, it was a time of Divine concealment. Avraham was filled with questions: how could G-d desire human sacrifice? How could G-d tell him to slaughter Yitzchak if G-d had already promised him that a great nation would come out of Yitzchak? But he had faith in G-d and obeyed. Because he passed this supreme trial, Avraham was privileged to see G-d switch to the attribute of Hashem, the attribute of revealing Himself and explaining everything. All his questions were answered.

This trial foreshadows our situation today. G-d told us long ago, "And I will hide My face on that day, because of all the evil that the Jewish people did" (Devarim 31:18). During the exile, G-d hides His face and does not deal with us with open miracles as He did in Scriptural times. And at this final stage of the exile, G-d has hidden Himself even more by allowing heretics to take control of the destiny of the Jewish people and build a state in the Holy Land, acting as if the exile were over. Amidst this deep darkness and confusion, we are filled with questions, but G-d wants us to stay strong and faithful until it is over. Then we will be privileged to witness G-d in His role as "Hashem", unbounded by nature, when He will reveal His presence and glory upon us.

And he said, “By Myself I have sworn, said Hashem, that since you did this thing, and did not withhold your only son, I shall surely bless you and make your descendents numerous as the stars of heaven and the sand on the shore of the sea, and your descendents will inherit the gate of their enemies.” (22:16-17)

What was the greatness of Avraham Avinu’s test? Rabbi Dovid Hollander once explained it as follows: Avraham’s mission in life was to teach the world to recognize the true G-d and to reject all idolworship. He realized that he was getting old, he would soon leave this world, and there would have to be someone to continue his mission. When G-d commanded him to offer up Yitzchok, Avraham’s logic told him not to obey. Of course he would have subdued his love to do the will of G-d, but his logic told him that G-d’s honor would best be served if he left Yitzchok alive to perpetuate his message and eventually give rise to a great nation that would proclaim the existence of the G-d.

But then Avraham realized: if I can see this benefit in keeping Yitzchok alive, surely G-d can see it too. Yet He commanded me to offer him up on the altar! I will do exactly as G-d commanded, and leave the future up to Him. For this obedience even in the face of his own logic, he and his descendents were rewarded for all time.

He who votes in the Zionist elections is taking a part in leading the state, since he is sending his agents into the state’s governing bodies. All anti-Zionists agree that this is a serious sin. Yet at the time the state was established, certain anti-Zionist rabbis argued that this sin should be permitted because the end justifies the means. They feared that without religious participation in the government, the Torah lifestyle could not continue under the Zionist government. Their slogan was “aveirah lishmah” – commit a sin for a noble purpose.

Nowadays, even they have admitted that observant Jews do not really need representation in government to exist. Those who are observant would stay observant even without the benefits they reap. Still, they continue to justify participation on the basis that they are helping the non-observant Jews stay closer to Judaism by keeping the state Jewish.

The Test of Avraham was an extreme case, but in any situation, one can always find a logical reason to disobey G-d’s command and commit a sin. The lesson of our Parsha is that one must ignore his own logic and obey G-d’s commands, trusting completely in His judgement and His providence.

In hindsight, we can understand the wisdom of G-d’s way. Among those groups that participate in the Zionist election and government, the very fact that the Zionist state is a sin has been all but forgotten. Originally, these groups could not dream that anyone would misconstrue participation as consent. They used the analogy of a man who is attacked by robbers and begins negotiating with them over what to steal. Nobody will think that this man advocates robbery. But today, we see that that is exactly what has happened. Many uneducated people are under the impression that the rabbis who permitted voting hold there is nothing wrong with the state, aside from the fact that it is not religious. Truly, it would have been better if they had not committed this sin, even for a noble purpose!

And Avraham woke up early in the morning, and he saddled up his donkey, and he took his two servants with him, and Yitzchok his son; and he chopped wood for the burnt offering, and he got up and went to the place that G-d had told him.

The Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 55:8) says, “In reward for the two chops that Avraham Avinu chopped, the sea split before the Children of Israel.” Rabbi Aharon Rokeach, the Belzer Rebbe (1877-1957) explained this based on the story brought in Midrash Tanchuma (Vayeira 22) and at the beginning of Midrash Vayosha. When Avraham set out to sacrifice Yitzchok, the Satan met them on the way and tried to stop him. Appearing to him as an old man, he said, “Where are you going?” Avraham answered, “To pray.” The Satan said, “And why does one who goes to pray need fire and a knife in his hand and wood on his shoulder?” Avraham said, “Perhaps we will stay for a day or two and we will need to slaughter and bake and eat.”

Then the Satan said, “You old man, didn’t the Satan tell you to sacrifice your son? A sage like you will go and kill a son given to him at hundred years old? You will be punished for this.” Avraham said, “It was not the Satan, but the Holy One, blessed is He Himself who commanded me to do this.”

Seeing that he was unsuccessful in talking to Avraham, the Satan took the form of a young man and argued with Yitzchok, saying, “How many times your mother fasted and prayed to have you! And now this old man has gone crazy and is going to slaughter you.” But Yitzchok said, “I will not go against the will of my Creator and the command of my father.”

The Midrash goes on to describe how the Satan took the form of a deep river, but that too did not stop Avraham. Finally he said to Avraham, “I heard from behind G-d’s partition that the burnt offering will be a sheep, not Yitzchok.” Avraham replied, “That is the liar’s punishment: even when he tells the truth, he is not believed. I will do as Hashem commanded me.”

When the Jewish people stood at the shores of the sea and the Egyptian army closed in on them, a similar exchange took place. Hashem said to Moshe, “Speak to the Children of Israel and let them march into the sea.” The Satan came and tried to dissuade them. “To jump into the sea is suicide!” he said. “Throwing away one’s life is a terrible sin. Better to fight with the Egyptians; then at least some will survive.” But they marched into the sea, paying no attention to the Satan’s arguments. Had Avraham Avinu not implanted into the Jewish people the trait of being able to obey Hashem’s command even when it contradicts common sense, they would not have been able to withstand this test. This, said the Belzer Rebbe, is the meaning of the Midrash: Because Avraham chopped the wood and went unquestioningly to the Akeidah, the Children of Israel went unquestioningly into the sea and it split for them (Kol Yaakov p. 79, in the name of Rabbi Chananya Cohen, who heard the above from the Belzer Rebbe when he was in Budapest in 1943).

Avraham’s words, that the liar is not believed even when he tells the truth, seem to be out of place. When a liar tells the truth, such as in the fable of the boy who cried wolf, people really should listen to him and save the sheep. The only problem is that they don’t believe him. But in this case Avraham was saying, “Even if you are telling the truth, I will not listen to you, because Hashem commanded me otherwise.” Similarly in the case of the sea, although logically speaking the Satan was correct that fighting the Egyptians would make more sense, they did as Hashem commanded them.

The answer is that sometimes it is hard to tell whether a given idea emanates from the Satan or not. Is the person offering the idea a messenger of the Satan or a messenger of Hashem? The only way to know is by looking at the messenger’s previous record, just as we disbelieve a liar based on his previous record. Avraham Avinu knew that this old man had been trying to convince him not to obey Hashem; thus he knew that it must be the Satan and whatever he was saying now, even if it were true, could not be the right thing to do.

After overcoming the Satan, Avraham “lifted up his eyes and saw the Place from afar.” The Place was Mount Moriah, the future site of the Beis Hamikdash. On the word “afar” Chazal (Bereishis Rabbah 56:2) comment that the Place would one day be distanced from its owners, during the exile when Jews would be far from the site of the Beis Hamikdash and Eretz Yisroel. Until when will that exile last? The Midrash finds the answer in the following verse: “And Avraham said to his young men: Sit here with the donkey…” Sit here in exile until the coming of moshiach, who will be riding on a donkey (Zechariah 9:9).

Rabbi Yitzchok Weiss, the Spinker Rebbe (1875-1944), quotes this Midrash and comments: “We must not force the end, arise on our own and seek power; nor may we take the Holy Land, emigrate to it and rule over it until the king moshiach comes, for this is included in the prohibition on forcing the end, as the Ahavas Yonasan says on the Haftorah of Parshas Vaeschanan – see his beautiful words there. This is what Avraham Avinu commanded us. When he saw that the Place would one day be distanced from its owners and the Jewish people would be in exile, he was afraid that they might want to arise on their own; therefore ‘Avraham said to his young men’ – a reference to the Jewish people, as it says, ‘For Israel is a young man and I love him’ (Hoshea 11:1) – ‘sit here’ – in exile, and do not go up except ‘with the donkey’ – with the king moshiach, who will come and gather in the Jewish people from exile.” (Chakal Yitzchok, Vayeira)

It is no coincidence that these two verses - about Avraham chopping the wood and implanting the trait of unquestioning obedience to Hashem into the Jewish people, and about the exile and the prohibition on arising from it – are written one after the other. Avraham Avinu foresaw that there would come a time when his descendents in exile would once again face the arguments of messengers of the Satan. First these messengers introduced the idea of leaving exile and ruling over the Holy Land, and most of the loyal Torah Jews of the world, under the leadership of their rabbis, rejected them. But now that things have progressed to the point where almost half of the world’s Jews live in the Holy Land under the leadership of these messengers, they come again to us and argue that it would be foolish to give up statehood and power at this point. Avraham Avinu taught us that the only way to overcome these arguments is to look at the previous record of these messengers and realize that this too is nothing but a ploy of the Satan. We must remain faithful to Hashem and keep His decree of exile unquestioningly until moshaich comes.