Abraham’s Perfections

Moshe Ben-Chaim

In His Torah, God profiles Abraham’s many perfections. Clearly, God intends to educate all generations on Abraham’s ways that we are to emulate, explaining why God selected him and informed him of His ways of justice, including Sodom’s destruction. It is nothing less than remarkable that Abraham possessed and cultivated such a keen sensitivity towards charity and justice. And I don’t refer simply to monetary charity. I refer to a finely-honed understanding and insight into psychology, justice and politics, through which Abraham was charitable. God highlights many examples for our study.

When famine struck and he had no choice but to seek sustenance in Egypt, Abraham actually asked (not told) Sarah his wife to lie and say she was his sister. For if they were married, the Egyptians might murder Abraham so as to take Sarah. It is fair to suggest (based on Gen. 12:5) that Abraham traveled to Egypt with many people, perhaps even a minimum of 318 men (Gen. 14:14). Yet, Abraham, being charitable, preferred political strategies to military force, for He was a man of charity first, and then justice (Gen. 18:19). Thus, Abraham did not engage his men using military tactics at first, rather, he opted for a political course, as he asked Sarah to lie, “…so that they might do good to me for your sake and save my life on your account (Gen. 12:13).” This obviated military recourse. Of course life is more important, but Abraham mentioned it second, since here, his life depended on the first consideration as a friend explained: “Abraham assumed the Egyptians would treat him well financially (bribe him), if he posed as Sarah’s brother. (They would not use force unless they were married…he being viewed as a threat.) Once gifts were given to Abraham, they could not possibly harm him or retract afterwards.” Certainly, Abraham would quickly rise to save Sarah, who he must eventually disclose as his wife. Abraham would not have left Sarah for long. He would surely attempt a rescue her as he did regarding Lote, who also was kidnapped. Now, after having been treated so well by Egypt, it would not bode well with that society, had they attacked Abraham once he disclosed his true relationship to the officers and to Pharaoh. The people would rebel, had Egypt’s government benefited Abraham and suddenly reversed their kindness. This was Abraham’s plan, “that they might do good to me for your sake and save my life on your account.” The “doing good” at first, would politically save his life.

Although Abraham’s plan was wise, God still intervened plaguing Egypt to save Sarah, taken against her will to Pharaoh. This was possibly done if Pharaoh approached Sarah sooner than Abraham anticipated. It appears Abraham’s plan did not have time enough to succeed, explaining why God had to intervene. We learn how God protects his righteous followers…perhaps after they have exhausted their resources and strategies. 

Abraham was not fearful about waging battle against men of great stature; he battled four powerful kings who conquered the five opposing kings and their armies. He fought them victoriously to save Lote. Genesis 14:16 carefully tells us that Abraham first returned the possessions and then afterwards “also Lote”, and all the people. Lote was not returned first, perhaps as Abraham did not wish others to wrongly view him as fighting his own selfish battles, and caring nothing for others. Therefore, he was careful to return their property first. This displays another sensitivity possessed by Abraham.

When returning all the people and possessions, Abraham refused to take any reward from Sodom’s King, raising his hand to God (ibid 14:12) “the One who owns heaven and Earth.” He wished his success in life to be solely derived through God who owns all. He used this opportunity as a chance to educate others about God's world design that sustains all life. He also did not wish others to think he warred for money instead of justice; refusing the reward conveyed this truth too. Abraham’s fame would thereby sanctify God’s name, the One on whom Abraham relied…and Abraham would also be famous as one who cares for all people, not just his relative. Thirdly, Abraham was most probably acutely aware of Sodom's vile ways, and did not wish to tarnish his teachings through any association with Sodom, via receipt of his reward. 

After Abraham is shown as perfect with all mankind, being charitable and just with Pharaoh, not allowing fear of battle to dissuade his saving of Lote, and acting honorably with Sodom…Genesis 15:5 teaches that God promised to increase Abraham’s seed as the stars of heaven.  God then tells him his seed will inherit the land. 

Regarding his descendants' receipt of Israel and concerning Sodom’s fate, Abraham inquires of God's justice. In contrast, regarding the famine, and both Sarah’s and Lote’s kidnapping, we do not see Abraham inquiring from God. We can answer that matters of reward and punishment demand an explanation of God’s justice. But about famine and people’s free will (kidnapping) there is no question on God’s justice. For famine must occur based on the essential natural laws, and mankind’s injustice is not God’s fault. Thus, Abraham does not inquire about famine and kidnapping, but when God rewards (his seed) and punishes (Sodom) Abraham rightfully inquires. Nonetheless, God does intervene to save his righteous followers. God plagues Pharaoh, and perhaps helped Abraham conquer those mightier and more numerous than he, when saving Lote. Abraham also did not inquire regarding the obligation to circumcise himself and his household, or to sacrifice Isaac. These too are not areas of justice, but rather, perfection. 

“Once the destroyer is given permission, it does not distinguish between righteous and evil people. Not only this, but it commences [death] starting with the righteous people (Baba Kama 60a).”

Did you notice the contradiction? If the destroyer does not distinguish, how can it commence with the righteous?! That's distinguishing! Additionally, why start with the righteous people?

This quote above was said in connection with Moses' warning on the night of the Firstborn Deaths in Egypt, “No man shall exit from the opening of his house.”  Now, although God did not command this upon the Jews, Moses added it of his own. Perhaps Moses meant to emphasize the attitude of the Jews, that although their salvation was promised by slaughtering Egypt's god and painting their doorposts with its blood, they should not take lightly the death of the firstborns by exiting their homes. They should also remain indoors, contemplating the blood on their doorposts, accepting the animal god of Egypt as a mere animal and fully rejecting idolatry. “No man shall exit from the opening of his house” clearly focusses on the doorpost, “the opening of his house”. Moses could have said “Don't go outside.”  But he wished to emphasize that it is the blood on the doorpost that requires our attention. Denial of idolatry and accepting God's command is the only means to avoid God's plague of Firstborns.

But let us be clear: God is not limited, “Harbeh shluchim l'Makom; God has many messengers.”  It is man's flawed projections onto God that cause man to err, assuming it is impossible that God can control all variables for a precise and perfectly just outcome. However, we must heed God's very words, as God openly says He will pass over the Jewish homes bearing lamb's blood. King David too teaches, “Many evils befall the righteous, and from all of them he is saved (Psalms 34:20).”  God need not kill everyone – righteous and evil – in one fell swoop. When God drowned the world, He save Noach and his family. When God destroyed Sodom, He saved Lote and his family. When the Twin Towers fell, God had no shortage of ways to ensure all those who would arrive late, those who were already out of town, left early, etc. and escaped harm. How does He orchestrate such fine details? He can. Period. God can save one, and He can save millions. It boggles our mind how many details must be controlled, but it does not boggle His mind. Abraham said: “Forbid it from You to act so, to kill the righteous with the wicked, and the fate of the righteous will equal that of the wicked. Forbid it to you. The judge of the entire Earth won't perform justice (Gen. 18:25)?!”  This was not a question. Abraham was certain that He who is the judge, will be completely just. It is wrong to suggest God kills the righteous together with wicked; meaning that they meet the same fate. The Egyptians drowned in the Reed Sea through various means. The extremely wicked ones sunk like straw; those a bit better sunk like stone (faster), and the least corrupt sunk like lead (immediately). In proportion to their sinful natures, God delayed their deaths, thereby applying complete justice for each person. 

We must be careful not to guess at situations where children die, where innocent people die, or where the many die as a whole, saying that God is unjust. Nothing stands in His way to be perfectly righteous. The Rabbis have written on this, and God knows how to deal justly. It may be painful for us that a family members dies young, perhaps they were so perfect God says they need not live further. Perhaps their deaths help them avoid calamities. During the first Temple, the righteous were killed first so they were saved from witnessing the nations' death, and the pain it could have caused them. God also removed Chanoch before his time (Gen. 5:24) as Rashi teaches, he might have left his righteous life, had he lived longer.

So how do we explain “Once the destroyer is given permission, it does not distinguish between righteous and evil people”?  Ibn Ezra (Koheles 3:19, 9:4, 9:7) says that King Solomon used a particular method of teaching. He made statements that sounded heretical: “How can the wise man die with the fool (ibid 2:16)?”, “Both animal and man die (ibid 3:19)” and other similar verses. It seems on the surface that the King himself posed these disturbing questions. However, Ibn Ezra reveals many times that the King was merely quoting the words of the people. He used this method – in my opinion – to allow the people to say , “Yes, I feel that way too.”  Only once a person admits a problem, can a solution cure his wrong notions. So the King spoke as if he was lamenting, only to evoke a feeling in others that it's safe to feel this way, since the King said it. Then, once a person admitted they felt this way, King Solomon could correct them. It is a wise tactic.

The same may be said of “Once the destroyer is given permission, it does not distinguish between righteous and evil people”. This is not the Rabbis' position, but the opinion of untrained minds viewing the dead righteous and wicked people; they feel the wicked and the righteous suffered the same fate, since they were all dead. But they did not know the principle we discussed earlier, that God will remove the righteous before his time, so he need not suffer at the death of his people. The ignorant people also do not consider this crucial truth: death is not the end, but the beginning. Fools discount the reality of the soul's existence after death. Saadia Gaon states that justice is meted out after life is over. Therefore, we must not assess God's justice based only on what we witness on Earth. Herein is the seed of the error.

“Once the destroyer is given permission, it does not distinguish between righteous and evil people” is a false, indiscriminate assessment. As we see the statement ends with “it commences [death] starting with the righteous people”, the destroyer (God's force of death) can select to kill the righteous first to save them from pain. The destroyer [God] can distinguish! I repeat: God openly says He will pass over the Jewish homes painted with lamb's blood, and, “Many evils befall the righteous, and from all of them he is saved.” 

Due to Abraham's many perfections, God desired that Abraham possess correct ideas concerning God's justice so he will transmit it to others (Gen. 18:19). This explains why He engaged Abraham in conversation before overturning Sodom where God made available greater knowledge of His justice.