by Yehuda HaKohen


As the Torah introduces the greatness of Avraham, we find the Hebrew patriarch striving to discover Divine truth in a hostile and idolatrous world. He leaves everything he had ever known in order to come close to HaShem in an unknown land and although he is tested time and again, he continues to be strengthened by each new challenge. It fills us with a sense of overwhelming pride to learn the epic birth of the Israeli Nation.


When we sees how Avraham lived and breathed kindness and holiness in every field of endeavor – how he challenged the prevalent worldview of his era and devoted his entire life to shining G-D's light to the entire human race, we cannot help but stand in awe of Avraham as not only the father of our people but also as history's original revolutionary.


As individuals, none come close to the magnitude of Avraham. It is only as the Nation of Israel that we can continue his legacy of bringing Creation to perfection through the knowledge of G-D's Kingship. But in order to fully appreciate what the Nation of Israel is as a collective, we must first come to identify with who Avraham was as an individual.


More than any other person in history, Avraham epitomized the trait of human kindness. And this kindness manifested itself through several, sometimes seemingly contradictory, channels. The same Avraham who was the yardstick of compassion for humanity led a small group of followers into a furious battle against the four most powerful kings of his time. When the four allied kingdoms smashed five small armies and abducted his nephew Lot, Avraham led his students out to war.


"And when Avram heard that his kinsman was taken captive, he armed his disciples who had been born in his house – three hundred and eighteen – and he pursued them as far as Dan." (BEREISHIT 14:14)


Avraham and his small militia succeeded in defeating the four mighty kingdoms. This miraculous victory occurred despite the doubts of even some of his fighters. The Midrash teaches that:


"He led forth his trained men, etc. R' Yehuda said: It was they who turned a wrathful countenance upon Avraham, saying, `Five kings could not defeat them, yet we are to defeat them?!' R' Nehemiah interpreted it: He turned a defiant face (horiku panim) to them and exclaimed, `I will go forth and fall in sanctifying the Name of the Holy One, Blessed be He.'" (Bereishit Rabbah 43:2)


Avraham went out to war with no guarantees of victory. There was no prophetic certainty that he would survive the campaign. But what was important to Avraham was not mere success but rather the principle at stake. Avraham went out to battle because it was the right thing to do regardless of the outcome. His nephew Lot was deliberately taken prisoner as a direct provocation to Avraham and challenge to his G-D (Orach Chaim 306:14 teaches that one must wage war to save a kidnapped Jew, even on Shabbat). Therefore Avraham had an obligation to rescue his relative and sanctify G-D's Name.


Avraham understood that even if he fell in battle, he would die with the Mesirut Nefesh (self-sacrifice) of Kiddush HaShem. His life would be given for a great sanctification of G-D's holy Name and this to Avraham was a much sweeter alternative to standing idly by as G-D's Name was profaned through Lot's abduction.


Avraham's family and students were the whole of "Israel" at that time and, according to Torah Law, Avraham constituted their king. He recognized that any nation rising up against Israel is automatically waging war against Israel's G-D. The situation was therefore a milchemet mitzvah (war obligated by the Torah) and required in Avraham a willingness to sacrifice his life. But once Avraham had emerged victorious, he saw the blood on his hands and feared he had sinned.


"After these events, the word of HaShem came to Avram in a vision, saying, `Fear not, Avram, I am a shield for you; your reward is very great'." (BEREISHIT 15:1)


"Avraham was afraid and said, `Perhaps the population that I killed possessed a righteous, G-D fearing man.' Yet it is like the person who passed the king's orchard, and, seeing a bundle of thorns, went in and removed it. The king looked and saw him, and he began to hide. The king asked him, `Why are you hiding? How many workers would I have needed to gather those thorns? Now that you have done it, come and take your reward.' Just so, G-D said to Avraham, `The population which have you killed were like cut thorns.'" (Bereishit Rabbah 44:4)


Avraham was concerned that during his war to save Lot, he might have killed innocent people. HaShem reassured him that there was no reason for concern. The Torah here teaches two fundamental principles. The first is that Israel should never fear to shed the blood of the wicked. It is a mitzvah that "rids the garden of thorns" (this is illuminated more explicitly in the second chapter of Pesikta Rabat where the true reason why King David could not build HaShem's Temple is explained).


The second principle learned here is that although there may be some righteous people within a nation of evildoers, Israel cannot be concerned over them when going out to war. In truth, it is their responsibility to remove themselves from the larger society. Rather than remaining among the wicked, they should either rebuke the community or separate themselves from it. A clear example of this can be seen when King Shaul was preparing to wage war against Amalek.


"Shaul said to the Kenite, `Go, withdraw, descend from among the Amalekite, lest I destroy you with them; for you acted kindly with the Children of Israel when they went up from Egypt.' So the Kenite withdrew from among Amalek." (SHMUEL I 15:6)


The Kenites were descendents of Moshe's father-in-law Yitro – a saintly man whose righteous offspring were allied to the Hebrew Nation. Still, King Shaul did not worry about waging war against Amalek in fear of killing innocent Kenites. He instead made it clear that the Kenites should either flee or risk being annihilated with their neighbors. Shaul understood that by safeguarding potential innocent casualties in enemy territory, he would be putting Israeli lives in danger, something strictly forbidden by Torah Law.


If a Hebrew soldier is killed as a result of concern for gentile civilians, his commanding officer has transgressed the Torah prohibition against murder.


The same holds true in relation to Avraham. He was assured by G-D that by going out to war against the four mighty kings, he had performed an act of kindness to the whole of mankind. Those who rise up against Israel are in truth rising up against G-D. Such people represent a great evil in Creation. Like a doctor removing cancer cells from the body of a patient, true kindness involves extracting evil from this world.


It is in fact Avraham's ferocious behavior in battle that proves the authenticity of his kindness to HaShem's creatures, representing the epitome of true compassion for eternity.

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