In this week's portion a new character takes center-stage. His name is Avram. He is told to leave his home, to leave his family, and to go to the land God will show him. For readers who are familiar with the rest of the "story" this is undoubtedly one of the most significant sections of the Torah, for it marks a new beginning: here is the beginning of the Jewish People. Adam, and even Noah, represent a prelude to the main story. Now our story begins.
We are told very little about Avram other than his lineage. His father is Terach, he is a descendant of Shem, and apparently he hails from Ur Kasdim (though he sets out on his journey from Charan; see Ramban 11:28).We also know that when he takes leave he does so with an entourage of dedicated followers. Rabbinic tradition fills in some gaps and tells us of his trials and tribulations, his search for God and his revelation. This week's parsha begins with God's word. God continues to speak throughout the parsha, which covers Avram's life from his seventy-fifth year until his ninety-ninth year, and includes Avram's change of name to Avraham.
In the middle of the parsha there is a section that deals with a regional conflict, which seems to have no direct effect on Avraham. A war breaks out between two coalitions: five kings against a group of four kings. The battle rages for years,1 with at first one side gaining the upper hand and then later the other side achieving victory. The victors then march away with their spoils of war, including one particular captive: Lot the nephew of Avram. Consequently, Avram enters the fray and ostensibly this is the reason the episode is recorded.
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LESSONS OF THE BATTLE
Though this is undoubtedly an important episode in Avram's life we are nonetheless unclear as to the lessons to be derived from this story. Over the years there were unquestionably countless experiences, many of them far more interesting and enlightening, which made up Avram's life and times; why was this section recorded, and not those others? Perhaps it is because Avram represents the trait of chesed (kindness) in Jewish tradition, and might be seen as a pacifist. We may otherwise have thought that kindness and war are mutually exclusive. Yet when his nephew is captured Avram gets involved:Chesed for the victim requires the use of force against the perpetrators. Nonetheless, the great detail in which this episode is recounted seems to indicate a more central message.
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When we consider the battle itself we realize that until this point Avram had no reason to get involved. An analysis of the combatants will reveal why: On the one side were the kings Amraphel of Shinar, Arioch of Ellasar, Kedarlaomer of Elam, and Tidal of Goyim; on the other side were Bera of Sodom, Birsha of Gomorrah, Shinab of Admah, and Shemeber of Zeboim, and the king of Belah, which is Zoar. While these names may not be immediately significant to the reader, some of the people and places are connected with more familiar traditions regarding Avraham's life and times. The first combatant mentioned is Amraphel. Rashi reveals his better-known name – Nimrod, explaining that the etymology of Amraphel is two Hebrew words: amar (he said) pol (fall). When Avraham rebelled against conventional wisdom and declared that the world has a Creator and there is only one God, Nimrod was the man who attempted to force Avraham to worship idols. When Avraham refused, Nimrod cast him into a fiery furnace. Nimrod stood against everything Avraham stood for. He tried to kill the only monotheist on earth, probably believing that with Avraham's demise God would disappear as well, hoping to kill the belief system by killing its sole adherent. Clearly, it would not have been in Avram's interest to defend Nimrod and his legion in their war against a competing federation.
In case we think the other side was more impressive and the adage "my enemy's enemy is my friend" should be the governing rationale in this conflict, the names of these other kings reveal their character: Bera – "in evil", Birasha – "with wickedness". Certainly, we are already privy to pertinent information regarding Sodom and Gemorah from the previous chapter:
But the men of Sodom were exceedingly wicked and sinners before the Lord. (Genesis 13:13
Both sides are evil empires. Avraham should, by all rights, be pleased with the battle and hope it continues until both wicked coalitions are decimated. It would not be in his interest to help either side; rather, let them weaken one another until kingdom come. Yet Avraham is forced to get involved and take a stand. He must fight Nimrod even if it means aiding the side of Sodom in the process. Perhaps we view this eventuality as a quirk – a simple twist of fate. Perhaps this is the message, then: When battles are waged we should see the mighty hand of God, and try to discern the message sent to the Jews. To this day there are many who think they can stand on the sidelines, uninvolved – until they find themselves thrust into the fray.
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THE REAL OBJECTIVE
Rabbinic tradition culls other lessons from this episode. We are told that the battle raged for years, and the cause for cessation of hostilities is not immediately clear. The reason for the outbreak of fighting is never clearly stated either. We are told that at the end of the war someone was taken captive: Lot.
And they took all the goods of Sodom and Gomorrah, and all their provisions, and went their way. And they took Lot, Avram's brother's son, who lived in Sodom, and his goods, and departed.(Genesis 14:11,12)
Only when Lot was taken did the invaders retreat. The sages saw a very simple reason for this – the object all along was Avram. The evil forces on both sides were united in their disdain for the righteous Avram.2 There is even a suggestion put forward that Lot, being Avram's nephew, bore a striking resemblance to his famous uncle and the marauding army mistook Lot for Avram – indeed, they thought that they had captured Avram himself.
Note that, when all those kings joined together to make war on Avram, they designed to make away with him. But so soon as they got possession of Lot, his brother's son, they went off (as it is written, and they took Lot, Avram's brother's son, and his goods and departed), the reason being that Lot closely resembled Avram, so that thinking they had Avram, they went off. The reason of their enmity to Avram was that Avram weaned men from idolatry and taught them to worship God. Also God incited them to make their invasion in order to aggrandize Avram and to attract him to his service. Esoterically speaking, when Avram started to pursue them, then God "did not keep silent" until the whole was linked up with Avram; then when the whole was linked up with Avram, then all those kings were crushed before him, as we have said. (Zohar, Bereishit, Page 86b)
The suggestion that Avram was the object of the war is echoed in the Midrash which sees Lot as an innocent bystander:
The wicked have drawn out the sword, and have bent the bow(Psalms 37:14)- this alludes to Amraphel and his companions; To cast down the poor and needy (ibid.) - to Lot; To slay such as are upright in the way (ibid.) - to Abraham. Their sword shall enter into their own heart (ibid. v. 15), as it is written, And he fought against them by night, he and his servants, and smote them, etc. (Genesis 14:15) (Midrash Rabbah – Bereishit 42:1)
According to this obscure Midrash Amraphel (Nimrod) is the wicked, Lot is the unfortunate (innocent victim) but the objective all along was to slay the "upright" – Avram. We understand how Avram's morality may have infuriated the heathen – to the point of wishing his demise. Yet according to the sages this is only the beginning.
We live in a world where bloodshed is common, war unexceptional and human life of no value. But war did not always exist. There must have been a first battle. What was the first war? While every school child knows that the first murder in the Torah is the murder perpetrated by Kain, even educated adults would need to pause before identifying this battle of the four and five kings as the very first war.
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The first time for anything is special, even the first war. According to tradition the first time an idea is mentioned in the Torah there is, entwined in the story, a definition of it as a concept. If we are to understand the essence, the meaning, the roots of war, we must look to its first mention in the Torah. Our present-day leaders may want to take another look at the religious and moral underpinnings of this first armed conflict; the midrash goes even further: This battle between the kings has both philosophical and practical implications for many battles that would yet be waged, including the epic struggles in which the Jewish People has become embroiled. The wars of the great empires of Babylon, Media, Greece and Edom, the four battles that spanned Jewish history, were all hinted at in the battle of the four kings.
R. Abin said: Just as he commenced with four kings, so will he conclude with four kings. [He commences with four kings, viz.]: With Kedarlaomer king of Elam, and Tidal king of Goyim, and Amraphel king of Shinar, and Arioch king of Ellasar (Gen. 14:9); so he ends with four kingdoms: the kingdom of Babylon, the kingdom of Media, the kingdom of Greece, and the empire of Edom [i.e. Rome]. (Midrash Rabbah – Bereishit 42:2)
The Midrash explains that this is why it was so significant that Avram be involved in the battle: to insure future victories Avram needs to get involved in this battle and be victorious.
R. Pinhas quoted in R. Abin's name: But they know not the thoughts of the Lord, neither understand they His counsel...(Micah 4, 12). Thus, why did all these come as allies (Genesis 14:3)? In order that they might come and fall by the hands of Avraham; hence it is written, And it came to pass in the days of Amraphel... (Midrash Rabbah – Bereishit 42:2)
The Midrash uses this approach to explain yet another intrigue. One of the locales mentioned in passing is the land of the Amalekites:
And they returned, and came to Ein-Mishpat, which is Kadesh, and struck all the country of the Amalekites, and also the Amorites, who lived in Hazezon-Tamar. (14:7)
This citation presents some difficulty: According to Jewish tradition the archenemy of the Jewish people is the tribe of Amalek, descendents of a man who had not been born at the time of Avraham's battle with the kings! The Midrash makes a point of this anomaly:
And they smote all the country of the Amalekites. Amalek had not yet arisen, yet you say, And they smote all the country of the Amalekites! But, He declares the end from the beginning' (Jeremiah 46:10)(Midrash Rabbah – Bereishit 42:7)
Rather than glossing over this geographical allusion, the Midrash opens our eyes to the purpose of Avraham's battle: Avraham's involvement in this war creates the spiritual power that will enable his descendents to be successful in the future. Avraham's victory in the first battle will assure victory in the final battle. The Midrash goes so far as to cast this first battle as an imprint for the end of days:
And it came to pass in the days of Amraphel king of Shinar: this alludes to Babylon; Arioch king of Ellasar: that alludes to Greece;Kedarlaomer king of Elam: that is Media; and Tidal the king of Goyim [lit. 'nations']: this alludes to the wicked Power [i.e. Rome] which levies troops from all the nations of the world. R. Eleazar b. R. Abina said: When you see the Powers fighting each other, look for the coming [lit. 'feet'] of the King Messiah. The proof is that in the days of Avraham, because these Powers fought against each other, greatness came to Avraham. [Midrash Rabbah Bereishit 42:4]
The end of days will have a similar confederation of powers come together and wage war, but the specific names may change. The Jews, the descendants of Avraham, have outlasted the Babylonians, the Greeks and the Romans. All these oppressors have become a part of history, while the Jews remain vibrant. All this because Avram went to battle. Even the eventual defeat of Amalek has its source in Avram's battle against tyranny and oppression. This is our lesson and our legacy, our history and our future. This is the spiritual power unleashed by Avram and imprinted in his descendents, the source of our duty and our strength.
Reading the life and deeds of Avram requires extreme attention and care. Every action has reverberations, and effects many generations. In Parshat Lech Lecha Avram went to war to save his relatives; even he may not have realized how many generations of relatives were beneficiaries of his act of kindness.
- The Likutei Torah sees the nine kings as united against Avraham, and understands that these nine represent the nine levels of impurity, a negative manifestation of theSefirot. (return to text)