Lessons in Leadership: Parshas Vayeira

In Parshas Vayeira we see a most remarkable event transpire. While Avraham is recuperating from his circumcision and speaking to HKB”H, he sees three men approaching in the distance. The Torah goes so far as to tell us that this happened during the heat of the day and Rav Chama bar Chanina goes further and tells us it was the third day after surgery (Bava Metzia 86b). Avraham, despite his weakened state, is so excited at the opportunity to welcome guests and open his home to them that he abruptly ends his conversation with The Ribbono Shel Olam and runs to greet them. Avraham was elderly, not feeling well, otherwise indisposed, and wealthy. How easy it would have been to instruct his servants to look after the guests. That he ran to do this himself speaks to a person of great character, beyond what we would normally call “special”. It is for actions such as these that we refer to Avraham Avinu as “Ish Chessed”, THE man of kindness.

The story does not end there. Shortly after his guests leave, Avraham learns that HKB”H is planning to destroy the city of Sodom. Upon hearing this, Avraham actually begins to push back against this Divine decree and starts negotiating with Hashem to save the inhabitants of the city which to this day is considered the epitome of Evil. Chazal point to this negotiation as illustrative of the difference between Avraham and Noach. Whereas Noach accepted the news that the world would be destroyed as a fait accompli, Avraham could not sit idly by and allow others to be destroyed without doing his best to convince Hashem to rescind His decree.  Though Avraham is ultimately unsuccessful in “changing” HKB”H’s mind,  that he even engaged in this debate is yet another example of his greatness.

And yet, we are still left with a question: why are these episodes recounted in the Torah at all? As Chazal teach us, the Torah is not meant to be seen as a history book. But what does that mean? We believe that the episodes recounted in the Torah are historic actualities but that they are not in the Torah to teach us the history of the Jewish people. Rather they are there to convey something to us about the people or the episode itself. And, so, to reiterate and rephrase our question: what are we meant to learn from the episodes, from the life of Avraham and our forefathers, that are recounted in the Torah itself? There must be something to these specific episodes that we are meant to see and appreciate for our own lives. That is not to suggest that there is not more than one message. After all, there are multiple levels of understanding each and every point in the Torah. When we say that there are four ways to approach Torah (פשט, רמז, דרש, סוד), we are saying the message of G-d is really multilayered because there are multiple ways of seeing the situation presented in the wording of the תורה.

So, what is a message to be gleaned from the story of Avraham that we find at the beginning of the Parsha? The Ramban, in his commentary on Chumash, repeatedly reminds us of the concept of “Ma’aseh avos, siman l’banim” (the actions of the forefathers are a guide for their descendants). We are meant to internalize the core message of the actions of the Avos and use it to guide us in our own lives.

Therefore, if we examine the episode at hand, one thing we will see is that Avraham is giving us a lesson in leadership. As noted above, a man as wealthy as Avraham could have snapped his fingers, literally, and had any one of his servants or assistants run to take care of the guests. Surely a man of Avraham’s age, 99 years old, who was just recovering from a surgical procedure, could not be expected, during the heat of the day, to jump up and begin preparing a meal, amenities, and accommodations for seemingly random, anonymous nomadic visitors. Surely, it is not expected of this same man to argue with The Master of the World about something happening to a city of rishoim (sinners).

An even stronger argument against Avraham’s involvement in advocating for Sodom’s reprieve is pointed out by Rabbeinu u’Moreinu HaGaon HaRav Yosef Dov HaLevi Soloveitchik, zt”l, in an essay that is included as part the book Abraham’s Journey (eds. David Shatz, Joel Wolowelsky, and Reuven Ziegler [Ktav, 2008]).

Avraham’s life and energies were dedicated to teaching and bringing others closer to HKB”H. Sodom, the great city of wanton hedonism and narcissistic self-interest was the fundamental opposite of the message Avraham espoused. Whereas Avraham taught about caring for others, Sodom lived by the creed that caring for others was not only not necessary but abhorrent and grounds for punishment. Where Avraham helped others in developing their spiritual awareness of the Divine and bringing it into everyday life, Sodom promoted the complete rejection of the spiritual and focused only on physical pleasures for the individual.

Were Avraham a normal man he may have responded to the Divine decree on Sodom with joy, relishing  the fate awaiting his archrival for the hearts, minds, and souls of the masses. As The Rav, zt”l, tells us,  as long as Sodom prospered, Avraham’s teachings meant nothing.  Trying to teach about the benefits of goodness and kindness when the literal kingdom of evil is tempting people with pleasures, wealth and power over others, is going to be challenging, to say the least. Avraham preached equality, kindness, charity, and hospitality while Sodom laughed and scoffed at these ideas.

The Rav teaches us as follows:

And here the Torah tells us something important about Abraham.  If we had been in his place, we would simply have prostrated ourselves and thanked God for destroying the kingdom of evil so that our task would be simplified.  But Abraham pleaded for Sodom, knowing that its survival meant his own defeat.  He was ready to accept defeat in order to give Sodom an opportunity to reform and restore itself.  Abraham dropped his hatred for Sodom and his love for his mission.  He was ready to sacrifice his life and have his new Torah appear to be a total failure.  He was prepared to forgo his hopes and his vision for the future – just so that Sodom would not be destroyed.  This is Chesed in the full sense of the word.  (Abraham’s Journey, [Ktav, 2008], p. 170)

It is precisely this trait of Chesed that made Avraham a great leader. A true leader does not sit still, they do not have others fulfill their responsibilities because it would be easier to look after one’s own comfort. A true leader does what is best for his people even if it is not in his own personal interest to do so. A true leader is willing to give up all the accolades and admiration of his followers, all the riches, all the benefits of leadership for the most basic needs of his charges.

Yes, a true leader needs strength, both physical and of character. A true leader needs vision and a keen intellect, as well as the humility to ask others for advice, assistance and counsel when needed without concern that it will make them look weak. But at the deepest levels, at the core of their being, a true leader must be caring, compassionate, and kind. They must be an Ish Chesed. This is why the Torah recounts for us what happened when Avraham sat at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day on the third day after surgery. To show us the true meaning of Chesed.

About the Author
Rabbi Benjamin G. Kelsen, Esq. is a rabbi and practicing attorney. He is active in Jewish communal issues as well as local and national politics.
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