Lech Lecha 5778

Avoiding gifts[1]

ויאמר אברם אל-מלך סדם הרמתי ידי אל-יקוק קל עליון קנה שמים וארץ: אם-מחוט ועד שרוך-נעל ואם-אקח מכל-אשר-לך ולא תאמר אני העשרתי את-אברם
Avram said to the King of Sedom: “I raise up my hand to Hashem, the Divine G-d, owner of Heaven and Earth [and swear][2], [such and such should happen to me] if I [take even] a string or a shoe-strap or I take anything of yours, [so that] you will not say that I made Avram wealthy”[3]

Some time after settling in the Land of Israel, Avraham encountered an intense war between various Kings[4]. His nephew Lot was taken hostage, and Avraham felt responsible for his rescue. A side-effect of defeating the Kings and rescuing his nephew is that Avraham had saved the King of Sedom. The King wanted to give all the spoils from the war to his rescuer, but Avraham strongly refused. He went so far as to make an oath not to even take a shoe strap from the King of Sedom. Why didn’t Avraham want to take the gifts from the King of Sedom? What was the problem? One explanation is based on a concept known as שונא מתנות יחיה, someone who hates gifts will live[5]. The idea is that a person who wants to live a life only relying on Hashem, never taking from others, will only gain. It’s considered a lofty way to live[6], and Avraham followed it. As a result, he didn’t want to take gifts from the King of Sedom[7].

The commentators[8] however are bothered that Avraham seems to be acting inconsistently. The beginning of the parsha describes[9] that there was a famine in the land, and Avraham and his wife Sarah were forced to move to Egypt to find sustenance. Fearing he would be killed if they appeared in Egypt as a married couple, he asked his wife to pretend she was his sister. He added that as a result, the Egyptians would give him many gifts[10], in the hopes that he would give his “sister” in marriage to them. Pharaoh especially gave many gifts with these aspirations. A similar story occurred later with Avimelech[11], and Avraham became very wealthy as a result. Why was he willing to take gifts then, but not now?

Some explain[12] it’s because Avraham was given a beracha by Hashem[13], which was a promise that He would make him very wealthy[14]. Therefore, if Avraham rejected every gift he was given, the promise would never come to fruition. Normally he wouldn’t have taken gifts, but after the promise he realized the gifts from Pharaoh and Avimelech were coming directly from Hashem. However, the King of Sedom was a different situation. In that case, taking gifts was at the expense of another person. The King of Sedom needed Avraham to save him, and only because of that was he giving Avraham gifts. Beracha is not something that comes from the pain of another. Therefore, Avraham knew these gifts weren’t included in Hashem’s promise, and he acted according to his usual mode of conduct.

There’s another approach that can be suggested[15]. Some authorities say[16] that there’s no concept of שונא מתנות יחיה if you’re accepting the gifts for the benefit of another person. Let’s say you’re not interested in the gift, but the person will feel tremendous joy if you accept it. In that case, it’s proper to receive it[17]. In the case of the Egyptians, they gave gifts as attempts to marry Sarah. It was in their self-interest that Avraham accept it. By Avimelech, he wanted Avraham to pray for his wellbeing. He gave the gifts as an incentive. This wasn’t true by the King of Sedom. He gained nothing by Avraham taking the gifts. Therefore, Avraham refused to accept them.

However, some say[18] the whole premise of the question is wrong. This wasn’t a situation where the King of Sedom was giving Avraham gifts, and Avraham refused to accept them. In reality, these spoils from the war were ownerless. The King of Sedom, as he was losing the battle against the other Kings, lost all hope of ever retrieving his property. As a result, according to halacha, Jewish law, they became ownerless[19]. When Avraham won the war and found the spoils, they became his to keep. However, the halacha states that it is the proper thing to do to act beyond the letter of the law and return the items to their original owner[20]. Even though Avraham would have been justified in keeping the spoils, he wanted to go beyond the letter of the law and returned them[21].

According to this, what does it mean that Avraham was worried that the King would brag that he made Avraham wealthy? They were never the King’s in the first place! The answer is the King knew Avraham would go beyond the letter of the law and return the spoils. He was hoping to preempt him and give Avraham permission to keep them. After Avraham heard that this was the King’s intention[22], Avraham was worried that the King’s plan was to tell everyone that it was because of him that Avraham got so rich. Avraham wanted everyone to know that the beracha he was given by Hashem had been fulfilled by Hashem Himself, not by the King of Sedom. He didn’t want the King to take the credit[23]. Therefore, he felt he had no choice but to adamantly return it to the King, regardless of his consent[24].

We can learn many lessons from the stories of the forefathers and foremothers. They perfected their character traits to the point that they aligned their actions according to the desire of their Creator. We see from Avraham’s actions in this week’s parsha two examples of very pious behavior, even though he lived before the Torah was given. Despite not being obligated to behave this way, he felt it was the right thing to do. In fact, even if he lived after the Torah was given, he wouldn’t have been obligated to behave this way, as he went beyond the letter of the law. Chazal exhort[25] that a person should always ask themselves: “When will my actions reach the level of the actions of the forefathers?”. Their way of living is something to aspire for. We simply need to pay attention to what they’re teaching us.

Good Shabbos.

[1] Based on a shiur given by Rabbi Elimelech Reznick from the Mir in the year 5773

[2] Rashi to Genesis 14:22

[3] Ibid 14:22-23

[4] Ibid Chapter 14

[5] Proverbs 15:27; see next note

[6] It is brought as a middas chassidus, a pious virtue to live by, by the Tur Choshen Mishpat § 249. The Derisha ad. loc. asks why did the Tur bring the source from the verse in Proverbs, instead of the one from Avraham? He gives two answers, one of which is from Avraham we wouldn’t realize it’s a mode of living that is fitting for everyone. It might have just been a personal choice that Avraham made. However, see note 18

[7] Sifsei Chachamim and Gur Aryeh to Genesis 12:13; Penei Dovid by the Chida, Lech Lecha § 4; Derisha loc. cit.; Rabbeinu Bachaye to Genesis 23:15 says this is why Avraham didn’t want to receive Ma’aras Hamachpelah as a gift from Efron and instead insisted on buying it

[8] Sifsei Chachamim, Gur Aryeh, Penei Dovid, Derisha loc. cit.

[9] Genesis 12:10-20

[10] Rashi to verse 13

[11] Genesis Chapter 20

[12] Gur Aryeh to ibid 14:23

[13] Ibid 12:1

[14] Rashi ad. loc. s.v. ואברכך

[15] Rabbi Reznick said he thought of this approach, but I also found it in the Penei Dovid loc. cit.

[16] Sefer Me’iras Einayim 171:24. See also Rav Dessler’s Kuntres HaChessed Ch. 1, 10 – 12, found in Michtav MeEliyahu I pp. 33, 46 – 49

[17] This explains the custom of many chassidim to give gifts to their Rebbe. The Rebbe doesn’t have an interest in the money, but the chassidim gain tremendously by his acceptance of it

[18] Tur al HaTorah to Genesis 14:23; Ohr HaChaim 14:21; Pardes Yosef 14:23; Ta’amah D’Krah by Rav Chaim Kanievsky shlita ad. loc. This is the real reason why the Tur loc. cit. didn’t cite Avraham as the source for שונא מתנות יחיה, because he held the story had nothing to do with that concept

[19] Bava Metzia 22b; Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 259:7. This begs the question why the other commentators felt that the King of Sedom was giving Avraham gifts, and Avraham was refusing them because of שונא מתנות יחיה

[20] Bava Metzia 24b; Shulchan Aruch loc. cit. § 5

[21] Ta’mah D’Krah loc. cit. A question that is worth considering is regarding ma’aser kesafim, the custom to give a tenth of one’s earnings to tzedakah: does it apply in such a case? If a person finds an ownerless object and goes beyond the letter of the law and returns it to the original owner, do they have to give ma’aser? Seemingly no, since they didn’t actually end up earning anything. However, the Ta’amah D’Krah loc. cit. points out that the story with Avraham possibly could be a proof that yes, one should give. We see this from the fact that Avraham gave ma’aser from the spoils to Malkitzedek (Rashi to Genesis 14:20). He doesn’t cite it, but the Hafla’ah to Kesubos 50a s.v. תוס’ ד”ה אל says without qualification that this is the reason Avraham gave ma’aser, as if this was a known halacha that should be followed (although he ends up saying Avraham only gave ma’aser from his own property, since it also became ownerless during the battle, and he reacquired it) However, with all due respect it’s not such a proof. Avraham was acting beyond the letter of the law, as such perhaps his desire to give ma’aser was also beyond the letter of the law. The obligation then to give ma’aser would only be as much as the obligation to go beyond the letter of the law

[22] This is what the King meant in verse 21

[23] Ta’amah D’Krah loc. cit. doesn’t explain why Avraham didn’t want the King of Sedom to spread this fallacy. What would be the big deal? The only explanation would be that it would be insulting to Avraham’s honor, but the Gur Aryeh loc. cit. rejects this as a possibility, as Avraham didn’t care about his honor. He only cared about the honor of Hashem. Therefore, I used his approach to fill in this hole in the Ta’mah D’Krah

[24] Ta’amah D’Krah loc. cit. (see the previous note)

[25] Tanna D’Vei Eliyahu Rabbah § 25