“Equal and Opposite Reaction” Parashat Lech Lecha 5780

Probably the most mundane episode in Parashat Lech Lecha is the War of the Four Kings against the Five Kings (WFK2[1]). In this war, an alliance of five kings who had been subservient to an alliance of four decides to revolt. The only reason that this war is even mentioned is because Abraham’s nephew, Lot, is captured and must be rescued by his uncle.

For an episode that adds little to our understanding of life, the universe, and everything, WFK2 is chock full of detail: The city of each of the kings is mentioned, the geopolitical causes of the war are dissected, and battles are described in gory detail. Our Sages in the Midrash are typically sensitive to this sort of thing and they often exegetically interpret many of the seemingly dry facts in order to teach us meaningful lessons. Unfortunately, sometimes the exegesis is just as dry as the original factoid, rendering it difficult to understand the point our Sages are trying to make. This is precisely the case in WFK2. For instance, the leader of the alliance of the four kings is “Kedorla’omer King of Elam”. Our Sages in the Midrash identify him as Elam the son of Shem, the grandson of Noah. It seems clear that they are basing their identification on the reflexivity between Elam-the-person and Elam-the-city. This just seems too obvious. What is the Midrash really trying to teach us?

This question takes on a different hue when we look at another identification that the Midrash makes near the end of the episode. After Abraham successfully defeats the four kings, he is approached by “Malkitzedek, King of Shalem”, who throws a big party with wine and  bread and congratulates Abraham on his victory. The great medieval commentator, Rashi, quoting from the Midrash, identifies Malkitzedek with Shem, the son of Noah. In other words, Malkitzedek was the father of the defeated King Kedorla’omer and yet here he is leading the festivities. The easiest way out this conundrum is by noting that Midrash is not monolithic, but, rather, an assortment of exegeses from various Rabbis that were collated over hundreds of years. Two conflicting midrashim may very well be the products of two different authors. Bet let’s just for the moment assume that the identification of Malkitzedek-as-Shem and Kedorla’omer-as-Shem’s-son were made by the same Rabbi[2]. What can we learn from this?

Let’s begin by noting an anomaly. The four kings are introduced in the following manner [Bereishit 14:1]: “It was in the days of Amraphel, King of Shinar, Aryoch, King of Elasar, Kedorla’omer, King of Elam, and Tidal, king of Goyyim”. A later verse makes it clear that Kedorla’omer was the leader of the alliance [Bereishit 14:4]: “For twelve years [the five kings] served Kedorla’omer and in the thirteenth year they rebelled”. If Kedorla’omer was the leader of the alliance, why is he not mentioned first? A way ahead can be found in the Talmud in Tractate Eiruvin [53a] that identifies King Amraphel with King Nimrod, the same Nimrod who allegedly threw Abraham into a furnace of fire when he discovered that Abraham was a monotheist. As Amraphel-Nimrod was the senior king, he is mentioned before Kedorla’omer, the ring leader. The problem is that Kedorla’omer is the third king mentioned. He is preceded not only by Amraphel-Nimrod, but by some unidentified king named Aryoch. Doesn’t the ring leader deserve a higher place on the totem pole?

Before we begin to tie things together, we need one more piece of the puzzle. Shem, the son of Noach, had five sons [Bereishit 10:22]: Elam, Ashur, Arpachshad, Lud, and Aram. Later, in the Torah’s delineation of the genealogy that led from Noah to Abraham, it describes Shem’s successor as Arpachshad[3], and not Elam. Why was Elam, Shem’s oldest son, not chosen as his successor? One might answer that Elam-Kedorla’omer was killed by Abraham and so he had no successors. But perhaps there is something more.

Kedorla’omer is a name that appears nowhere else in the Torah. Nevertheless, a person with a similar name features prominently in a story told in the Talmud in Tractate Yoma [83b]: “Rabbi Meir would analyse names and discern one’s nature from his name, while Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Yose would not. Once they came to an inn and they asked the innkeeper: What is your name? He said: My name is Kidor. Rabbi Meir said to himself: Perhaps one can learn from this that he is a wicked person, as it is stated [Devarim 32:20]: “Because they are a generation [ki dor] of upheavals”. Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Yose entrusted their purses to [Kidor]. Rabbi Meir did not” Eventually, Kidor, true to his name, denied having ever received money from Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Yose. Let’s take a closer look at the verse that triggers Rabbi Meir’s suspicion. Moses is giving his last will and testament to the Jewish People, vividly describing what will happen if they stray from G-d and His Torah. G-d says [Devarim 32:20] “I will hide My face from them and see what happens to them, because they are a generation [ki dor] of upheavals, sons with no loyalty”. Notice that the Torah says “ki dor” – “because they are a generation…” and not simply “dor” – “they are a generation…” I suggest that Moses is teaching us something critical.  Moses describes a pendulum of cause and effect: G-d gives the Jewish People wealth and success (cause) and yet they attribute it to false gods (effect). G-d will hide His face (cause) and we’ll see what happens (effect). Because they are a generation of upheavals (cause). They are a generation of upheavals because of the word “because”. The critical fault of the Jewish People, is that they do not take the initiative. They merely react to causes, blowing with the wind, from upheaval to upheaval. Their problem is not only in the way that they respond to stimuli, but that they “have no loyalty” to any dogma, belief, or G-d. They lack the creativity to actively seek out what is right. Kidor is not a terrible person, but when money falls into his lap, he keeps it.

Perhaps Kedorla’omer could have been called “Kidorla’omer” – he suffered from the same lack of proactivity. It was Amraphel – Nimrod who set the tone, but once things got moving, Kidorla’omer reacted and took the helm. Kedorla’omer-Elam was not the kind of person with whom Shem wanted entrust his family and so he chooses Elam’s younger brother, Arpachshad, as his successor.

Now compare Kedorla’omer-Elam with his father, Malkitzedek-Shem. Malkitzedek was an unaligned king who watched the war from a distance as his son – along with three other kings – was soundly defeated by the world’s only monotheist who fought in an army of three hundred and eighteen soldiers. Malkitzedek, clearly understanding that Abraham could not have been victorious without Divine assistance, actively seeks out Abraham [Bereishit 14:18]: “He took out bread and wine” from his royal treasure chest. Then he tells the world[4] [Bereishit 14:19] “Blessed be [Abraham] to G-d most high, Creator of heaven and earth”. The Torah contrasts the actions of the father with the actions of the son: Malkitzedek objectively and actively chose the right path while his son followed others down a path to ignominy.

Last Friday at 3:00 PM EDT, my phone began to buzz. I have installed an application called “Colour Red” that sends an alert any time a rocket is fired on Israel. This time it buzzed incessantly. Ten rockets were fired at Israel. Iron Dome intercepted a few, some fell in “open areas” and one fell on a house in Sederot. Within minutes, Israel had responded by bombing some buildings in Gaza. And then it was quiet. Until the next time Hamas or the Jihad decide that it is in their best interests to fire off another rocket at Israeli civilians. Israeli defence officials have decided that it is not in Israel’s interests to launch an offensive and remove Hamas from power and that living with the current situation is the lesser of two evils. I get that. What I don’t get is why Israel allows Hamas to set the tone. Why Israel is reactive and not proactive. Why we willingly choose being led down the path of upheaval followed by Shem’s son instead of leading down the path of loyalty blazed by his father.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5780

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza.

[1] I apologize for the cutesy acronym, but the name of the war is just too long to write more than once.

[2] My wife, Tova, checked this out. The two midrashim were indeed written by the same Rabbi [Midrash Lekach Tov].

[3] Who begat Shelah who begat Ever…

[4] The verse says “He blessed him and he said”. Malkitzedek did not “say to him”, he “said to everyone”.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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