Did you hear the story about the Jewish man living in the south of Israel who was sucked into a brutal war that he did not start because he heard a close relative was abducted and successfully rescued him and others?
No, I am not referring to any incident taken from the headlines of Israel’s current war with Hamas – although it certainly does sound like it.
I’m talking about Avram (later known as Avraham), our Jewish forefather and his actions in the battle of the 4 kings vs the 5 (dubbed by some as ‘the first ever world war’) described in Chapter 14 of Bereshit (Genesis) as part of this week’s Torah portion, Lech-Lecha.
Avram really has nothing to do with the regional conflict, that is until he is informed that his nephew Lot has been taken hostage and then he rallies his troops, 318 men (or maybe just his servant Eliezer, according to the Midrash) and goes off to battle, successfully rescuing Lot and returning the abducted people of Sedom as well.
If only Israel could follow Avram’s formula and succeed as he did – God willing.
The issue of the more than 200 Israeli hostages who were abducted and have been held by Hamas for the last 3 weeks in the Gaza Strip is an extremely complex one – at least from what I understand from the Israeli TV news. Qatar, an Islamic state that has transferred more than $1.8 billion to Hamas since 2012, seems to be the go-between with Hamas when it comes to the hope of releasing the hostages.
In fact, according to a report on The Times of Israel, this week Israel’s National Security Adviser Tzahi Hanegbi praises Qatar for its “crucial” diplomatic efforts.
“I’m pleased to say that Qatar is becoming an essential party and stakeholder in the facilitation of humanitarian solutions. Qatar’s diplomatic efforts are crucial at this time,” TOI reported that Hanegbi posted on X (formerly Twitter).
So, how do we as Israelis (and Jews and all those who support Israel around the world) deal with our very “mixed” feelings about Qatar? They are certainly not ‘friends’ of Israel – and they support Hamas – , yet it seems we need them, at least when it comes to negotiating the return of our beloved Israelis being held hostage (even if negotiations are somewhat indirect with Qatar). Avram never had to deal with such moral dilemmas when he set out to rescue his nephew Lot – or did he?
As I was thinking about this, I found an essay by Rabbi David Silverberg on Hatanakh.com which I assume was written several years ago but has relevance to our current situation.
We read in the Torah portion of Lech-Lecha of Avram’s successful attack against the armies of the four eastern powers that had plundered the region of Sedom, taking the residents – including his nephew, Lot – captive. Avram defeated the forces of the four kings, rescuing the captives from Sedom and the surrounding cities, along with their property. After the battle, we are told, the king of Sedom met Avram for a victory celebration, in which he began “negotiations,” expecting Avram to demand at least a large share of the people and property that he had liberated. The king offered Avram the retrieved property and asked that he be allowed to keep the people as his subjects. Avram, however, declared on oath that he would not take anything from the property of Sedom, “so that you don’t say, ‘I made Avram wealthy’” (Gen 14:23).
We might wonder why Avram was concerned about such a claim being made by the king of Sedom. Why did it matter to him if the king took credit for his wealth?
Rashi, citing from the Midrash Tanchuma, explains, “For the Almighty promised me that He would make me wealthy.” Meaning, if the king of Sedom took credit for Avram’s fortune, people would deny that it was God who provided Avram with his wealth. Chizkuni similarly writes, “When I left my homeland, the Almighty promised to make me wealthy. It is preferable for me not to take anything of yours, so that when I become wealthy I will attribute the wealth to He who grants wealth and stature.”
One might, however, question why Avram’s acceptance of spoils from Sedom would undermine the recognition of God as the source of his wealth. After all, Avram was exceedingly wealthy well before he embarked on this military campaign. And besides, Avram had defeated the armies of four large nations with a group of 318 men. This was clearly a miraculous victory, and it would thus be evident that the property Avram received as a result of this battle was given to him through the Almighty’s supernatural intervention.
We might therefore suggest that Avram declined the king’s offer for a different reason – to avoid appearing as his partner or ally. Lot’s capture at the hands of the four eastern powers placed Avram in a difficult predicament. He felt obligated to do what he could to rescue his captured nephew, but this required him to fight on the side of Sedom and the surrounding kingdoms, which were renowned for their corruption and immorality. In order to save Lot, Avram had to save the city that represented the antithesis of everything he taught and stood for. We can easily imagine Avram’s cynical detractors ridiculing his involvement in this war, saying, “So, Avram is really on Sedom’s side. So much for his preaching about loving kindness!” Avram had to put his reputation and hopes of disseminating ethical monotheism on the line for the sake of Lot. Indeed, Rav Yehuda Amital once suggested that Malkitzedek, the king of Shalem (Jerusalem) at the time, came to celebrate with Avram in order to express support and approval. Avram’s decision to join the war was a controversial one, and Malkitzedek, the “priest to the Supreme God” (Gen 14:18), came to congratulate Avram and give his official endorsement to his unpopular move.
For this reason, perhaps, Avram needed to avoid giving the appearance that he received wealth from the king of Sedom. The problem lay not in the wealth itself, but rather in the implication that he and Sedom collaborated in the war effort as allies. Avram had to keep a formal distance from the king of Sedom even as he fought on his side. Therefore, even though he endured the rigors and trauma of warfare together with the king, he refused to share in the benefits ultimately reaped by this campaign, in order to make it clear that he had not entered into any kind of formal partnership with the wicked kingdom of Sedom.
I (Yonatan) believe that Rabbi Silverberg makes a strong point that applies today. It is very clear that Israel is at war with the vile terrorist organization Hamas, but apparently when it comes to the Israeli hostages, this war makes ‘strange bedfellows’ between Israel and Qatar – who has clearly and monetarily – supported Hamas.
Our forefather Avram was forced to walk a very fine line when it came to the king of Sedom, and now the State of Israel is doing the same thing when it comes to Qatar.
Strange bedfellows indeed.