Ari Sacher

‘The Fermi Paradox’ Parashat Lech Lecha 5784

Enrico Fermi was a Nobel-prize winning physicist who is probably best known for his leading role in the “Manhattan Project” that designed and produced America’s first atomic bombs. Known as the “Father of the Nuclear Age”, Fermi is also the father of the “Fermi Paradox”, which goes as follows: The universe is a huge place, and it has been around for a very long time[1]. Fermi grasped that any civilization with basic rocket technology and the curiosity to boldly go where no man has gone before could eventually colonize the galaxy. Within a few tens of millions of years, every solar system in the galaxy could be brought under the wing of the empire. Tens of millions of years might sound like a long time, but in fact it is quite short compared to the age of the galaxy, which is roughly a thousand times more. The question Fermi asked is: Where is everybody? Why don’t we see any aliens?

The Portion of Lech Lecha contains a Fermi Paradox of its own. G-d appears to Abraham and tells him to leave Haran, in modern-day Kurdistan, and to move to the Land of Israel. Abraham does as he is told [Bereishit 12:5]: “[Abraham] took his wife [Sarah] and his brother’s son Lot, and all the wealth that they had amassed, and the persons they acquired in Haran; and they set out for the land of Canaan.” Who are these enigmatic “persons they acquired in Haran”? Rashi[2] offers two potential answers. His first answer suggests that these people were converts whom had been brought into the fold by Abraham and Sarah: “Abraham converted the men and Sarah converted the women”. Rashi offers a second answer, one that he asserts is the simple meaning of the text, that these persons were servants that Abraham and Sarah had acquired over the years.

Rashi’s first answer is by far the better known of the two. It meshes well with what we know of Abraham’s personality. The Rambam, writing in Hilchot Avoda Zara [1:3], teaches that, counterintuitively, Abraham was not the first monotheist. He was preceded by believers like Methuselah, Shem, and Ever, who, according to our Sages in the Midrash, even set up a sort of yeshiva. The difference between Abraham and these people – what made Abraham the first “Jew” – was that Abraham was passionate about his faith: “When he recognized and knew [G-d], he began to formulate replies to the inhabitants of Ur and debate with them, telling them that they were not following a proper path.” It was only natural that Abraham would have an entourage of “Hassidim”, people whom he had brought into the faith[3].

Now we have set the stage for our “Fermi Paradox”. Immediately after Abraham arrives in the Land of Canaan, a famine hits and he is forced to migrate to Egypt. After the famine is over, he and his family return to Canaan [Bereishit 13:1]: “From Egypt, Abram went up into the Negev, with his wife and all that he possessed, together with [his nephew] Lot.” What about all the converts? Where is everybody? Only if the “persons [Abraham and Sarah] acquired in Haran” were servants, can we say that they are alluded to in the phrase “all that he possessed”. Well, then, what happened to all of Abraham’s followers? Did they stay in Egypt to open a Chabad House? Moreover, we never hear anything about these people ever again. When Abraham sends his servant, Eliezer, to search for a wife for Isaac, why does Eliezer not take a wife from one of Abraham’s followers? Were they all childless?

The astute reader is now waving his finger, saying “I know exactly where they are!”. After a squabble between the shepherds of Abraham and Lot, the two men part ways and Lot goes to live in the then-coastal plain of Sodom. Lot finds himself enveloped in a local war in which an alliance of the King of Sodom and four other kings do battle with a more powerful Alliance of Four Kings. The Sodom Alliance is routed. The city of Sodom is ravaged and looted, and its inhabitants, including Lot, are taken captive. A fugitive brings news to Abraham that his nephew has been captured and Abraham springs into action [Bereishit 14:14-15]: “[Abraham] armed his trained men, those born in his house, three hundred and eighteen, and he pursued [them] until Dan. He divided himself against them at night, he and his servants, and smote them, and pursued them until Hovah”. These “trained men” could only have been the “persons they acquired in Haran”. Not only does the Torah reveal their whereabouts, we know how many there were: Exactly three hundred and eighteen. Furthermore, these verses fuse the two explanations of Rashi: Abraham converted to Judaism three hundred and eighteen people that were “born in his house”, all of whom were “his servants”, tidily tying up all our questions[4]. The only problem is that Rashi says something entirely different. Quoting from the Talmud in Tractate Nedarim [32a], he explains that Abraham did not lead a regiment of three hundred and eighteen soldiers. “Only Eliezer was there”. Abraham had only one soldier, his faithful servant, Eliezer. Rashi’s proof? The gematriya (numerical value) of the word “Eliezer” is equal to three hundred and eighteen.

Rabbi Gedaliah Nadel[5] rejects Rashi’s explanation out of hand. He interprets Scripture precisely as it is written – that Abraham went into battle with exactly three hundred and eighteen soldiers. He was fighting a highly trained army and he was badly outnumbered, yet he managed to emerge victorious. Rabbi Nadel asserts that this shows that highly motivated people can achieve great things. Add to the mix that Abraham was a “good general”, choosing fighting conditions that favored a small army: He fought at night. He divided his troops into small mobile fighting units. He held the element of surprise. But the main thing was that Abraham was passionate – he was fighting to free his nephew. This was a personal thing. Abraham knew that the conditions favored his tactics and that he had a good chance to successfully complete his mission. Rabbi Nadel concludes: “There is no need to assume that Abraham’s victory was miraculous. One need not search for a miracle every time we are victorious. G-d has enough on his plate already…”

Rabbi Nadel’s assault on Rashi’s assertion that a single pair of soldiers, Abraham and Eliezer, the Lone Ranger and Tonto, miraculously defeated the combined armies of five kings is somewhat brutal. How would Rashi counter Rabbi Nadel’s aspersions? Let us take a closer look at Rashi’s comment: “Only Eliezer was there”. Who is “Eliezer”? We all know that answer to this question: Eliezer was Abraham’s trusty servant. The only problem with this answer is that Abraham’s servant is never directly referred to even once by name. He is always called “the servant”. The only time Abraham explicitly uses the name “Eliezer” is in the next chapter [Bereishit 15:2]: “The one in charge of my household is Dammesek Eliezer”. What if Rashi is not talking about Abraham’s servant? When King David finds himself in times of trouble, he lifts his eyes skyward [Psalms 121:1-2]: “From where will my help come? My help (Ezri) is from G-d, the Maker of heaven and earth.” When Rashi tells us that Abraham took with him “Eliezer”, literally “G-d (E’li) is my helper (ezer)”, perhaps[6] he is telling us that Abraham knows full well that he faces great danger. As he goes into battle, vastly outnumbered and outgunned, Abraham turns to G-d as a source of inspiration, as a source of motivation, as his sword and as his shield.

Today, IDF soldiers stand ready to enter the Gaza Strip, to uproot and to destroy the cancerous Hamas terror organization. May G-d be their help. May He inspire them, may He guard them, and me He crown them with nothing less than complete and utter victory.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5784

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Sheindel Devorah bat Rina, Hila bat Miriam, Rina bat Hassida, Pinchas David ben Gittel and Esther Sharon bat Chana Raizel.

[1] Those readers who believe that the universe is exactly 5784 years old should stop reading here.

[2] Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known by his acronym “Rashi”, was the most eminent of the medieval commentators. He lived in northern France in the eleventh century.

[3] This could be why Rashi first brings a Midrashic answer and only then the simple answer.

[4] As servants, they could not marry Isaac as they were not in the right social class.

[5] Rabbi Nadel lived in Beni Brak in the previous century. one of the heads of Kollel Chazon Ish.

[6] I use the word “perhaps” because Rashi’s comment on the word “trained men (chanichav)” is much more difficult to explain away.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty 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 2000 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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