Was the 200-year Punishment of Slavery Worth Avraham’s Crime?

This week’s SBM alumni d’var torah is by Rabbi Roy Feldman.

Nedarim 32a

:אמר רבי אבהו אמר רבי אלעזר

?מפני מה נענש אברהם אבינו ונשתעבדו בניו למצרים מאתים ועשר שנים

מפני שעשה אנגרייא בת”ח

;שנאמר (בראשית יד) וירק את חניכיו ילידי ביתו

:ושמואל אמר

מפני שהפריז על מדותיו של הקב”ה

;שנא’ (בראשית טו) במה אדע כי אירשנה

:ורבי יוחנן אמר

שהפריש בני אדם מלהכנס תחת כנפי השכינה

שנאמר (בראשית יד) תן לי הנפש והרכוש קח לך וירק את חניכיו ילידי ביתו

R. Abbahu said in R. Eleazar’s name:

Why was our Father Abraham punished and his children doomed to Egyptian servitude for two hundred and ten years? Because he pressed scholars into his service, as it is written: He armed his dedicated servants born in his own house.

Samuel said: Because he went too far in testing the attributes [i.e., the promises] of the Lord, as it is written: [And he said, Lord God,] whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it?

R. Johanan said: Because he prevented men from entering beneath the wings of the Shechinah, as it is written: [And the king of Sodom said it to Abraham,] Give me the persons, and take the goods to thyself.

Why were Avraham and his progeny punished with serving the Egyptians for over two hundred years?  The sages of the Talmud offered three answers to this question, all based in this week’s Torah reading.  Let’s analyze their responses.

Rabbi Abahu and Rabbi Yohanan (whose answer we’ll interpret later) both claim that Avraham’s punishment-worthy sin was related to his actions in the war with the kings.  As the Torah narrates in Chapter 14, many kings waged war against the southern region of Canaan.  They took captive the inhabitants of Sodom, including Avraham’s nephew Lot.  When Avraham heard the news, he immediately went to battle with the kings, defeated them, and released the captives.

Rabbi Abahu claims that Avraham acted improperly in waging a war for the purpose of saving his nephew Lot.  This was not a sufficient reason to disrupt his followers, who were otherwise busy with the important task of Torah study (let’s suspend our historical awareness in order to analyze this passage on its own terms).  Perhaps if the war were intended to gain more followers for Avraham and God, as we shall see Rabbi Yohanan suggests, disturbing the scholars from their study would have been justified.

Shmuel offers a completely different explanation.  Avraham and his progeny deserved Egyptian exile and servitude on account of Avraham’s doubting God’s promise.  In Chapter 15, when God promises Avraham that his progeny shall inherit the land of Canaan, Avraham asks, “Whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it?”  Rather than accepting God’s promise, as would have been proper, Avraham seemingly has a lapse of faith in God.  According to Shmuel, it is this moment of doubting God that merits two hundred years in Egypt.

Finally, Rabbi Yohanan offers a third possibility.  He claims that Avraham lost a tremendous opportunity at the end of this war.  Instead of simply releasing the captives, Avraham ought to have released them on condition.  He should have told the king of Sodom that he was willing to release all the captives and the spoils only if they all joined him and followed in God’s ways.  The king of Sodom had given Avraham ample opportunity: he said to Avraham, “Give me the persons, and take the goods to thyself.”  Avraham refuses even the spoils, not wanting any perceived debt to the king of Sodom, but the right thing would have been to negotiate further.  That way, the people of Sodom would have become the forerunners of B’nei Yisrael, God’s chosen people.  It was Avraham’s missing this unique chance, his failure to bring all those people under God’s wing, that was worthy of punishment.

Each of these approaches attempts to offer an explanation as to what Avraham did to doom his progeny to two hundred years of exile and servitude.  What’s striking about all three answers, however, is that they hardly seem like sins at all.  Rather, they seem like human nature.

Rabbi Abahu expected Avraham to place his new leadership position above his family.  Perhaps Avraham really initiated the war in order to save his brother, but surely he saw virtue in releasing the other captives as well.  Avraham understood, probably correctly, that releasing an entire nation of captives was well worth getting scholars up from their study in order to wage war.  Rabbi Abahu claims that Avraham’s sin stemmed from his motivation for the war, but in waging war Avraham focused on the results.  The results certainly justified his actions.

Turning to Shmuel’s response, asking God for a sign is also human nature.  Avraham understood that God’s promise, of increased offspring and conquered land, would not happen overnight.  He simply wanted to know what the future held, how the events of God’s promise would unfold.  According to this interpretation, God’s response is not so much a punishment but an answer to Avraham as to how his progeny will end up with the land.  Rather than a lapse of faith in God, this was just Avraham trying to understand his situation.

Finally, Rabbi Yohanan expected Avraham to suddenly take on the leadership of an entire people.  Avraham had until now been successful in gathering followers based on actual buy-in for his concept.  Why take on an entire people who might not be voluntary, willing followers?  Would that not make Avraham’s job so much more difficult?  No doubt, Avraham understood that such a dramatic increase in numbers could lead to the downfall of his people.  Rather than missing the opportunity to do a great mitzvah, Avraham chose to forego this mitzvah in order to do many more mitzvot in the future.

We should also note that each sin represents a different area of Jewish practice: for Rabbi Abahu, the sin was one of interpersonal relationships (with the scholars); for Shmuel, it was one of religious faith; and for Rabbi Yohanan, it was a sin of religious practice, namely, foregoing a great mitzvah.  In each of these instances, Avraham acted according to human nature and against how God wished he would act.  The sins were not incendiary ones, ones meant to anger God or others.  They were innocent mistakes.

Notwithstanding these mistakes, Avraham is our forefather and our tradition sees him as a role model.  Perhaps that’s the reason why the rabbis specifically found these three examples, one from each area of Judaism–interpersonal relationships, religious faith, and religious practice.  In each area, human nature is often opposed to what our religion calls for.  While we strive to fulfill the demands of our tradition, we sometimes fall short, for no reason other than human nature; such was the case with Avraham.  In fact, that is precisely what makes him an ideal role model.  His relationship with the Almighty did not flounder on account of his mistakes; perhaps, it even grew.  As we proceed on each of our spiritual journeys, we sometimes make innocent mistakes.  Rather than wallowing in guilt, may we all turn to Avraham as a source of inspiration.

Rabbi Roy Feldman currently serves as Rabbinic Assistant at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun and is a proud SBM alumnus.



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