Amongst all the upheaval and many challenges Avram faces in this week’s parsha, we find him involved in a world war. Five kings rise up to battle a reigning alliance of four kings, the four kings defeat the five and Lot is captured. When Avram hears of this, he attacks the four kings and is successful, freeing Lot and the other captives (Bereishit, 14:1-24). Returning from war, Avram is greeted by the priest and king Malki Tzedek, and Avram promptly gives him a tenth of all that was his (Bereishit, 14:20). Rashi explains Avram did this because Malki Tzedek was a priest. The Torah Temimah points to the command in Devarim 14:22 of setting aside a tenth of the produce of the land – to be given to the kohanim, who didn’t have their own portion of land to farm.
And so it appears Avram knew halacha. (Of course it is not as simple as this. Some opinions disagree with the notion the avot kept the mitzvot – at least in the same sense that we keep mitzvot today, post-Matan Torah, see Ramban, Bereishit 26:5; Beit HaBechira, Peticha Le’Mesechet Avot; Shem MiShmuel, Parshat Shemini, 5678. Other opinions say the avot did keep the mitzvot, see Rashi, Bereishit 26:5; Yoma 28b, Bereishit Rabbah 92).
But if Avram knew halacha, this raises a question. The Shulchan Aruch rules that one is allowed to keep the spoils from war against other nations (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat, 266:1). Yet when the king of Sodom offers Avram the spoils of war, he refuses them. Most emphatically. “Not from a thread to a shoelace will I take from all that is yours… except only what my servants [soldiers] ate and a portion for the men who came with me – Anar, Eshkol and Mamre, let them take their share” (Bereishit, 14:23-24). The pesukim tell us Avram refused so the king wouldn’t be able to claim it was him – not G-d – who made Avram rich (Bereishit, 14:23). But perhaps this was the way through which G-d was planning on giving Avram the wealth he had been promised. So why does Avram refuse?
Whilst, halachically speaking, Avram could have kept the spoils, there was a benefit to returning them: to make a Kiddush Hashem (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat, 266:1). In order to sanctify the name of Hashem, Avram chose to be machmir and return the spoils. However, Avram did not impose his chumra on others. Anar, Eshkol and Mamre receive their portion.
There is definitely debate about the concept of chumra, accepting extra stringencies above the technical details of a halacha. They can distance one from sin (Mishna Avot, 1:1). They can preserve a value the Torah is trying to teach (Ramban, Vayikra 19:2, Vayikra 23:24, Devarim 6:18). They can be the sign of a deep and committed relationship with Hashem, an expression of a desire to connect even more closely to G-d. When a chumra is adopted for these reasons, it is a beautiful thing. We learn this from Avram.
However, chumra also come with a danger: when they are imposed on others, and when the boundaries between halacha and chumra become blurred. Chalav akum is not McDonalds. Not wearing tights is not arayot. These boundaries not being clear leads to confusion and resentment. And when a chumra infringes on the way we treat others, causing us to transgress the halachot of interpersonal relationships, it becomes destructive. We learn from Avram not to impose our stringencies on others. If being machmir is a way to more fully realise the will of G-d, then fulfilling G-d’s will should motivate our actions. And G-d commanded us not to judge others. We have no right to criticise or condemn others for their decision not to accept a certain chumra. Everyone is on their own journey and has their own unique relationship with Hashem.