Shoftim 5777

The seeds of potential[1]

כפר לעמך ישראל אשר-פדית יקוק ואל-תתן דם נקי בקרב עמך ישראל ונכפר להם הדם
Hashem, grant atonement for your nation Israel which you have redeemed, and don’t let guilt for innocent blood remain among your nation, Israel; and they shall be absolved of punishment[2]

The beginning of parshas Vayeira involves the story of three Angels who came to visit Avraham. Acting as a generous host, Avraham is described as serving their every need. The verses testify[3] that he offered them water, he prepared dishes of cream and milk in addition to a small calf, and he waited on them hand and foot. The gemarra teaches us[4] that for these three acts of chesed, his descendants merited to three acts of chesed from Hashem. While the Jews wandered in the wilderness for forty years, they were given munn, the manna that fell from heaven, the Clouds of Glory which guided the way and protected them from the elements, and the travelling well of water. However, this teaching doesn’t appear to be consistent with another teaching in the gemarra[5], that the Jews received these three gifts due to the merits of Moshe, Aharon, and Miriam[6]. How can these two teachings be reconciled?

A possible explanation can be drawn from an idea we find in nature. Even massive trees come from the tiniest of seeds. However, those seeds by themselves can’t cause the tree to sprout forth. There also needs to be earth, water, sunshine, etc. This is exactly the principle at work here which resolves this apparent contradiction. The seed, the root of the three gifts from Hashem, was from the acts of chesed of Avraham. However, this seed of potential still needed something to give it the power to sprout forth into reality. This power was provided by the merits of Moshe, Aharon and Miriam.

We find that this principle occurs in many places[7]. In addition to finding it on the side of good, it also exists on the side of bad. A small act of bad could create a “seed” which lies dormant until another act gives it the power to sprout forth[8]. Even though the consequences aren’t seen until later, the root could be much earlier. For example, Avraham is praised[9] for not mingling with the Pelishtim, who, as seen during the times of the Judges[10], were major scoffers. This praise is ostensibly anachronistic, as the period of the Judges was many generations after Avraham’s. Who says that the Pelishtim in the generation of Avraham also had this negative trait?

However, this can be explained using the same principle. The reality of the bad character of the Pelishtim, while only presenting itself in later generations, had its roots much earlier. Avraham sensed they had this seed of scoffing already entrenched within them even in his generation. As a result, he distanced himself from them as much as he could[11]. Therefore, he is praised for avoiding their negative influence.

With this introduction, we can now understand a puzzling idea found at the end of this week’s parsha. There[12], the Torah describes the ritual known as eglah arufah. If, G-d forbid, an abandoned body which was murdered is discovered and no one knows who is the culprit, the town that is closest to the body is held accountable. The elders of the town must perform the eglah arufah ritual to absolve the town from any potential guilt. This is so no one should think that they didn’t give the deceased a proper escort out of the town to safety[13]. Chazal explain that the request for atonement from Hashem is not only for those in the town who are still living, but even for their ancestors who are already deceased[14]. This teaches us that even the dead need atonement. Why should this be? They can’t possibly be held accountable for this murder.

However, once again the same principle is at work. If it turns out that one of the dead’s descendants is accountable for a murder, perforce the root of this act must be found in their ancestors. This seed was hidden for generations until it sprouted forth into murder. Therefore, the elders need to request atonement even for the deceased[15].

From here we see how much we should try our best to avoid any deviations from proper behavior. Even the slightest acts, which by themselves might not be so bad, could have major consequences down the line. Conversely, we know that Hashem’s attribute of good is greater than his attribute of punishment[16]. Therefore, even the slightest act of good must bear the greatest of fruits in the future. May we always merit to benefit from them.

Good Shabbos.


[1] Based on a shmuess given by Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz, found in Sichos Mussar § 9

[2] Deuteronomy 21:8; translation based on Rashi and Onkelos

[3] Genesis 18:4,8

[4] Bava Metzia 86b

[5] Taanis 9a

[6] Maharsha to Bava Metzia loc. cit. He also asks on the gemarra in Bava Metzia itself, which calls the well: “the well of Miriam”. This sounds like it was in her merit and not Avraham’s

[7] For example, Rashi to Genesis 9:23 says that due to Shem’s act of chesed with his father Noach when he gave him clothing, his descendants merited to the mitzvah of tzitzis. Mizrachi ad. loc. asks on this from the gemarra in Chullin 89a that says that it was because Avraham refused to accept even a shoestring from the king of Sedom (Genesis 14:23, see for more on this episode). According to this principle, Shem’s act was the seed and Avraham’s act was the power to cause it to sprout. See Sichos Mussar loc. cit. for more examples

[8] This analogy is explicit in Ramban to Deuteronomy 29:17

[9] Avodah Zara 19a using a verse in Psalms 1:1

[10] Judges 16:25

[11] Another example can be seen as explanation for why the tannah Elisha ben Avuyah dropped observance. The roots for this is that his rise in scholarship was prompted solely by the improper intentions of his father. See Sichos Mussar loc. cit. for a detailed explanation

[12] Deuteronomy 21:1-9

[13] Rashi to Deuteronomy 21:7 citing Sotah 45b

[14] “Redeem your nation” – these are the living, “that you have redeemed” – these are the dead (Sifrei Devarim § 21)

[15] See Sichos Mussar loc. cit. for an interesting yet related chiddush regarding Yom Kippur potentially atoning for and even fixing propensities to bad behavior, including their roots

[16] Sotah 11a. See also Tosefta Sotah 4:1