Ethan Tucker

Redeeming Captives: Then and Now

This week’s parashah, Lekh Lekha, features not one, but two examples of people close to Avraham taken hostage. Avraham reacts very differently in these two scenarios, and we have something to learn from him in both.

The first is his wife, Sarah (chapter 12).  Upon descent to Egypt, she is immediately snatched by the royal guard and handed over to Pharaoh—seemingly forever.   Indeed, when Pharaoh “compensates” Avraham for taking her, it seems that Sarah is meant to remain for the rest of her life in the palace.

Later in the parashah (chapter 14), when four kings from the east form a raiding party to punish their vassals in the west, Avraham’s nephew Lot is swept up in the hostilities.  He is abducted along with many other residents of the city of S’dom up to the territory of Dan, many days’ journey away, up in the northern part of the country.

We see two responses in these moments, reminding us of the dual stance we can often have in moments of crises such as these. 

In the first episode, God takes the lead.  Avraham is silent, perhaps paralyzed, with no idea what to do.  He is fearful for his own life, lying that he is Sarah’s brother, for fear that the truth will bring no justice and only get him killed.  Sarah is only saved because God strikes out at Pharaoh with נגעים גדולים—horrible plagues—which bend the monarch to the divine will.  A midrash, however, shares that this divine attacks come על דבר שרי—a phrase that might mean “with regard to the matter of Sarai”, but which could also be rendered “based on the word of Sarai.”  Rashi, quoting the midrash in Bereishit Rabbah, imagines that Sarai–and pointedly not her husband—had an active role in her own release:

עַל פִּי דִּבּוּרָהּ; אוֹמֶרֶת לַמַּלְאָךְ הַךְ, וְהוּא מַכֶּה

By her speech—she would tell an angel to strike [Pharaoh] and the angel would strike.

Deliverance does not always come by human hands, nor is there always a clear path to action for a human savior from without that will result in liberation.  In this case, the angel and the captive herself turn the tide.  The paralyzed Avraham, undoubtedly hearing the whole tale later, would surely have been shocked.  Would he have felt grateful to God?  Self-loathing for his own impotence?  Furious at Pharaoh for being able to manipulate him?  Guilt at what he might have done to prevent all of this?  A sense of an arc of history that is bigger than any individual person that is simultaneously disorienting and grounding? I assume all of the above.

In the second episode, Avraham swings into action:

וַיִּקְח֨וּ אֶת־ל֧וֹט וְאֶת־רְכֻשׁ֛וֹ בֶּן־אֲחִ֥י אַבְרָ֖ם וַיֵּלֵ֑כוּ וְה֥וּא יֹשֵׁ֖ב בִּסְדֹֽם׃ וַיָּבֹא֙ הַפָּלִ֔יט וַיַּגֵּ֖ד לְאַבְרָ֣ם הָעִבְרִ֑י…וַיִּשְׁמַ֣ע אַבְרָ֔ם כִּ֥י נִשְׁבָּ֖ה אָחִ֑יו וַיָּ֨רֶק אֶת־חֲנִיכָ֜יו יְלִידֵ֣י בֵית֗וֹ שְׁמֹנָ֤ה עָשָׂר֙ וּשְׁלֹ֣שׁ מֵא֔וֹת וַיִּרְדֹּ֖ף עַד־דָּֽן׃ וַיֵּחָלֵ֨ק עֲלֵיהֶ֧ם ׀ לַ֛יְלָה ה֥וּא וַעֲבָדָ֖יו וַיַּכֵּ֑ם וַֽיִּרְדְּפֵם֙ עַד־חוֹבָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר מִשְּׂמֹ֖אל לְדַמָּֽשֶׂק׃ וַיָּ֕שֶׁב אֵ֖ת כָּל־הָרְכֻ֑שׁ וְגַם֩ אֶת־ל֨וֹט אָחִ֤יו וּרְכֻשׁוֹ֙ הֵשִׁ֔יב וְגַ֥ם אֶת־הַנָּשִׁ֖ים וְאֶת־הָעָֽם׃

They also took Lot, the son of Avram’s brother, and his possessions, and departed; for he had settled in S’dom.  A fugitive brought the news to Avram the Hebrew…  When Avram heard that his kinsman had been taken captive, he mustered his retainers, born into his household, numbering 318, and went in pursuit as far as Dan. At night, he and his servants deployed against them and defeated them; and he pursued them as far as Hovah, which is north of Damascus.  He brought back all the possessions; he also brought back his kinsman Lot and his possessions, and the women and the rest of the people.

This is the portrait of a determined and confident man, one who hears of a hostage and immediately rallies his troops and goes on the attack to get them home.  Bereishit Rabbah 43:2 imagines that this time, Avraham was not himself paralyzed, but he was surrounded by others who were.  The unusual verb וירק (rendered above as “mustered”) is understood to be a reference to the word ירוק—or green—which conveys a sense of an intense emotional state:

ר’ יהודה אומר: הן הוריקו פנים, כנגד אברהם. אמרו: ה’ מלכים לא יכלו לעמוד בהם, ואנו יכולים לעמוד בהם?! 

רבי נחמיה אמר: אברהם הוריק פנים כנגדן. אמר: אצא ואפול על קדוש שמו של מקום!

R. Yehudah says: [The members of Avraham’s household] went green [with fear] against Avraham, saying: “These five kings couldn’t overpower the attack [of these four kings from the east], and we are supposed to overpower them?”

R. Nehemiah says: Avraham went green [with anger] against them: “I suppose I will go alone and die sanctifying the divine Name!”

Here, Avraham, perhaps having learned from his earlier interactions with Pharaoh that God is on the side of returning captives, is resolute and unyielding in the face of fear.  No confusion or hesitation is allowed—having heard that his relative is captive, he stares down all dithering and opposition, prepared to go it alone in the task.  The model here is one of human action—God is nowhere to be found; the tactical glory belongs to Avraham alone.

Like Avraham, we are sometimes at a loss for what to do, feeling that there are no good options, that we have no levers of power, that we, as individuals, are not sitting in hostage negotiations.  We have prayer, and sometimes nothing more than silence.  In the fullness of time, we marvel at turns of events that seem wondrous, we feel all the complex feelings he must have felt, we hear astonishing stories of resistance and resilience that enabled those taken hostage to survive, as Sarah was forced to.  And we come to understand, or hope to understand, perhaps only at the end, that God was on our side.  Would that God’s presence was always palpably felt in such times of crisis.

But like Avraham, we must learn from our history and our past that we are also meant to act.  Avraham himself knows what it is like to feel helpless in these moments.  But when confronted with another hostage situation, he acts differently, now as an ambassador for conviction and a disperser of fear, doing God’s work of redemption with his own hands.  Now is another time when we, his descendants, need that strength.  

Does this help us know exactly how to proceed?  I can’t say with certainty that it does.  But it reminds us that we have been here before and helps locate us in the larger arc of our history and our ancestors, who have periodically needed the strength to bring their captured loved ones home for millennia, with and without God’s direct assistance.

About the Author
Rabbi Ethan Tucker is Rosh Yeshiva at Hadar. Rabbi Tucker was ordained by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and earned a PhD in Talmud and Rabbinics from the Jewish Theological Seminary and a B.A. from Harvard College. A Wexner Graduate Fellow, he was a co-founder of Kehilat Hadar and has served as a trustee of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation and The Ramaz School. He is the author, along with R. Micha'el Rosenberg, of Gender Equality and Prayer in Jewish Law.
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