Vayera: Abraham in Harvard? No

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Does God ever apologize?

Since God is what is right and just, it follows that He should never need to apologize for anything. And yet, that is what happens—where we least expect it. After telling Abraham and Sarah they will have a child in their old age, God decides the time has come to destroy the sinful city of Sedom. Yet before doing so, God apologizes.

“And the Lord said, “Shall I conceal from Abraham what I am doing? And Abraham will become a great and powerful nation, and all the nations of the world will be blessed in him. For I have known him because he commands his sons and his household after him, that they should keep the way of the Lord to perform righteousness and justice, in order that the Lord bring upon Abraham that which He spoke concerning him.” (Bresheet, 18)

Did this just happen?

Has God just apologized for sharing something with Abraham? Why does God need to apologize before telling Abraham about the destruction of Sedom? Addressing the imperative to share the news about Sedom’s imminent destruction with Abraham in the first place, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, Rashi, explains:

“It would be improper for Me to do this thing without his knowledge. I gave him this land, and these five cities are his…I called him Abraham, the father of a multitude of nations. Now, can I destroy the sons without informing the father, who loves Me?- [from Gen. Rabbah 49:2, Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer ch. 25]

This duality does explain why it is that God shared the upcoming destruction of Sedom with Abraham. It does not explain why God would apologize for the need to do so, using a term as strong as “Shall I conceal from Abraham what I am doing?”

Rabbi Moses Sofer (1762–1839), also known for his famous book Chatam Sofer, was considered the most prominent rabbi in the Austro-Hungarian empire and a renowned writer. Rabbi Sofer, in his commentary to this verse, makes an argument that would lead to the ex-communication of any layperson who would have said the same thing. It is indeed a revolutionary idea: was Abraham a prophet or not?

While Abraham was a prophet in the sense that God has spoken to him several times, Rabbi Sofer contends that Abraham did not meet some of the requirements of being a prophet. What are the requirements for being a prophet?

Moses Maimonides (1138-1204), the great physician and philosopher who was the king of Egypt’s personal physician, outlines the requirements for being a prophet in his code of Jewish law (Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah, chapter 7) stating that a prophet needs to be:

“…a wise man, eminent in wisdom, of sterling character, never subdued by worldly passion, but conquering it by an ever-present will-power, broadminded and settled to the highest degree… separated from the general public…training his soul to heed no thought in idle affairs nor in the vanities and phantasies of the time, but his mind be constantly ready and directed Upward, connected to the Throne Beneath, to understand the Holy and Pure Intelligences and to penetrate the scope of Wisdom of the Holy One, blessed is He!”

So did Abraham meet these criteria? Rabbi Sofer argues he did not. Abraham’s constant engagement with so many people, tending to the masses and bringing them closer to faith in God, prevented him from living in the ivory tower of intellectual pursuit. Abraham did not have the time and solitude to dedicate himself enough to meditation and separation from this world. Instead of meditation, introspection, and mindfulness, Abraham was busy setting up meals, hosting strangers, talking to everyday people, and sharing the message of monotheism with as many people as possible. Being so engaged with the world, while dedicating one’s self to the highest forms of meditation and spirituality is simply not possible. And so, Abraham was in no position for prophecy. Abraham did not have the meditative achievements to be able to become a prophet.

But then comes a twist, God decided to make an exception. What is the reason for the exception? “Abraham will become a great and powerful nation, and all the nations of the world will be blessed in him. For I have known him because he commands his sons and his household after him, that they should keep the way of the Lord to perform righteousness and justice”. When God explains why He is speaking to Abraham, He is not apologizing; He is glorifying Abraham.

Abraham’s commitment to others comes as compensation for spiritual perfectionism. When we tend to the spirituality of others, even if it means we will have less time for our own spirituality, God recognizes that. It is possible that our meditation will be less perfect, our learning not as comprehensive, and prayer not as elevating. Yet dedicating ourselves to others makes it worth it. God sees our commitment to the spiritual needs of others and cares about the long term impact of what we are doing.

The great Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, also known as the Chafetz Chaim(1838 –1933), was the most revered Jewish leader at his time and is still regarded by many as one of the greatest Jewish leaders of the past two centuries. He was also very well known in his commitment to caring for the spiritual needs of others. One day, he met with one of the great Torah scholars of his time and urged him to open a Yeshiva, where young students can pursue their Jewish education. The scholar refused, arguing that it will get in the way of his high-level learning if he busied himself with the study of younger—less knowledgeable—students. The great Chafetz Chaim responded: “if you learn yourself, you may come up with great ideas, and you may not. You may end up remembering what you learned, and you may not. If you teach two hundred Jewish children, that is something that no one will be able to take away from you!”

No one in the history of the Jewish people came to symbolize pure wisdom, like king Solomon. At the end of the book of Kohelet, written by King Solomon, we get the ultimate praise and lesson:

“And more [than this], Koheleth was wise, he also taught knowledge to the people; he listened and sought out, he established many proverbs.” (Kohelet 12:9)

What mattered more than any high-level intellectualism, was Solomon’s ability to convey his wisdom to the masses. Effectuating change on a large level—like Abraham—was recognized as superior to personal intellectual pursuits.

As we become engrossed in spiritual and intellectual pursuits, there always exists the danger of intellectual narcissism—the obsession with our own growth at the expense of others. The lesson of Abraham is that making sure we help others and engage them both spiritually and intellectually, is not a compromise—it is an ideal. Abraham may not have lived up to his potential for prophecy and spirituality. Yet, God recognized that his contribution to so many others is superior to anything he could have done on his own. As we consider the division of our own time dedicated to learning and spirituality, it is vital that we put first our commitment to others. In doing so, we will live up to our raison d ‘être: “For I have known him because he commands his sons and his household after him, that they should keep the way of the Lord to perform righteousness and justice.”

Shabbat Shalom!

About the Author
The writer is a rabbi, writer, teacher, and blogger (www.rabbipoupko.com). He is the president of EITAN-The American Israeli Jewish Network and lives with his wife in New York City.
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