Rabbi Bernard Fox
“After these events, the word of Hashem came to Avram in a vision saying, “Avram, do not fear. I will protect you. You have great merit.” (Beresheit 15:2)
The above passage troubles the commentaries. Hashem tells Avraham that he should not be afraid. Because of his great merit, Hashem will protect him. There is an obvious problem that the commentaries address. The pasuk implies that Avraham has some fear. Hashem’s reassurance is a response to this fear. However, the Torah does not clearly indicate the source of Avraham’s fear. What is this fear and what is the danger that Hashem is addressing?
In general, the commentaries agree that this prophecy and Hashem’s reassurance should be understood in the context of the previous incident. Lote – Avraham’s nephew – was captured in a war. He was held captive by the armies of four powerful kings. Avraham decided that he must rescue his nephew. He devised an intricate battle plan, executed it flawlessly and succeeded in rescuing his nephew.
Nachmanides suggests that Avraham knew that through attacking these kings and rescuing Lote, he had placed himself in opposition to the most powerful rulers of the era. He was concerned with their reaction to their defeat. His brilliant strategy had succeeded in this instance. But Avraham feared an extended conflict with these rulers. According to Nachmanides, Hashem responded that Avraham’s righteousness was adequate to earn Hashem’s protection. He need not fear retribution from these kings.
Sforno agrees with Nachmanides’ interpretation of Avraham’s fear. However, he offers a different explanation of Hashem’s response. According to Sforno, Hashem told Avraham, that he had acted properly in rescuing Lote. His conduct was a further expression of his righteousness. Therefore, he should not be fearful. Hashem would reward him for his chesed – his kindness – towards Lote. Hashem would protect him from any negative consequences that might naturally result from his act of chesed. Hashem would not allow these kings to retaliate against Avraham.
There is a significant difference between these two interpretations. According to Nachmanides, Hashem told Avraham that He would protect him from retribution because of his overall righteousness. Essentially, this entire episode communicates a single important message. Avraham had a strong providential relationship with Hashem. This was demonstrated by his successful rescue of Lote. Lote was the fortunate beneficiary of Avraham’s righteousness and this providential relationship with Hashem. Avraham was aided by Hashem in his efforts to save Lote and protected from any negative consequences. In short, the incident demonstrates the reality and extent of Hashem’s providence over His tzadikkim – His righteous followers.
According to Sforno, Avraham’s rescue of Lote was in itself a significant act of chesed. This act was rewarded by Hashem. Hashem promised to protect Avraham from the consequences of antagonizing the kings as a reward for his chesed towards Lote.
It seems that Sforno and Nachmanides differ on the significance that they attribute to Avraham’s rescue of his nephew. Nachmanides does not attribute special significance to the act. Avraham was a tzadik. This action was consistent with his general conduct. In contrast, Sforno views the rescue of Lote as a great act of chesed that earned Avraham Hashem’s protection. What is the basis of this dispute? In order to answer this question, we must consider another incident.
“And there was a dispute between the shepherds of the flocks of Avram and the shepherds of the flocks of Lote. And the Cannanite and Perizzite were then dwelling in the land.” (Beresheit 13:7)
The Torah relates that Avraham and Lote both lived in the same area within the land of Canaan. Both had great flocks. A conflict developed between the shepherds of Lote and those of Avraham. As a result of this conflict, Avraham insisted that he and Lote part from one another. Avraham allowed Lote to choose any portion of the land for the grazing of his flocks. Avraham would choose an alternate location for grazing his flocks. The Torah does not explain the exact nature of the conflict between the shepherds. Neither does the Torah provide a precise description of Avraham’s motives for parting from Lote.
Nachmanides suggests that the conflict was created by a practical issue and Avraham proposed a practical solution. Both Avraham and Lote had large flocks. They were both attempting to graze their flocks in the same area. There was not enough pasture for all of the flocks. The shepherds were trying to share a limited resource. Eventually, they began to compete for the resource and this competition engendered conflict. Avraham recognized that this conflict would – at some point – attract the attention of the inhabitants of the land. These inhabitants would take notice of the tremendous wealth that had been accumulated by Avraham and Lote. They would covet this wealth and kill Avraham and Lote in order to seize their wealth. Avraham suggested a simple and obvious solution. He and Lote must separate. They must graze their flocks in different locations. This will eliminate the competition and conflict between the shepherds. They would attract less attention and be safer. In short, Avraham concluded that he and his nephew must choose between remaining together at the risk of their lives and separating in order to save themselves.
Sforno shares Nachmanides’ basic understanding of the conflict. However, he offers and alternative explanation of Avraham’s concern and solution. He suggests that Avraham was concerned that their conflict communicated the wrong message to the people of the land. Avraham and Lote were uncle and nephew. Yet, they were embroiled in conflict. The people of the land would conclude that if Avraham and Lote were not able to live in harmony with each other, they certainly would be incapable of living peacefully with their neighbors. Avraham felt that this negative impression was intolerable. As a result, he suggested that he and Lote end their public conflict by separating from one another.
Again, we see a significant divergence between Nachmanides and Sforno. According to Nachmanides, Avraham was not motivated by a desire to create a positive impression. His concern was that this conflict placed their lives in danger. Sforno maintains that the issue was not personal safety. Avraham was concerned with the manner in which he presented himself to his neighbors.
In short, we have identified two disputes between Nachmanides and Sforno. First, according to Nachmanides, Avraham’s rescue of Lote was consistent with Avraham’s general conduct but not of special significance. Sforno disagrees. He argues that this act of chesed was of special significance. Second, Nachmanides maintains that Avraham separated from Lote in order to save their lives. But according to Sforno, Avraham demanded that they separate because an ongoing, public squabble was unacceptable. It communicated the wrong message to Avraham’s neighbors. Is there a relationship between these to disputes between Nachmanides and Sforno?
We know that part of Avraham’s mission was to teach the truth of the Torah to humanity. But it seems that according to Sforno, a central element of that mission was to demonstrate to humanity the practical application of the values that Avraham espoused. Avraham was required to teach with words and through action. He was expected to deport himself in a manner that would communicate to humanity the practical implications of living a life devoted to Hashem. Therefore, he could not allow his mission to be compromised by a conflict with Lote. This would undermine his message. If this conflict were allowed to continue, it would foster the impression that the values advocated by Avraham do not foster peace and harmony. But instead, allow for conflict and aggression. We can now appreciate the special significance that Sforno attributes to Avraham’s rescue of Lote. This act of chesed communicated a profound message to humanity. It was moving demonstration of values that Avraham was teaching. It demonstrated the full implications of these values and the type of civilization they foster.
Undoubtedly, Nachmanides agrees that Avraham’s deportment was important. But apparently he sees Avraham’s overall mission somewhat differently from Sforno. The basis of this dispute will become clearer if we consider one other disagreement between these commentaries.
“And I will make you into a great nation and I will exalt your name and you will be a blessing.” (Beresheit 12:2)
The opening verses of the parasha contain a rather perplexing statement. In the above pasuk, Hashem tells Avraham that he will make Avraham’s descendants into a great nation; He will make Avraham’s name great and that Avraham will be a blessing. The first two elements of this promise are readily understood. But the meaning final element – that Avraham will be a blessing – is not clear. How does a person become a blessing?
Of course, the commentaries are bothered by the meaning of this phrase. They offer a number of possibilities. Nachmanides offers the simplest explanation. He explains that those who learn of Avraham will be so impressed by his success that they will refer to him when blessing others. A person wishing to bless his child will say, “May you be like Avraham.” So, the meaning of the phrase “you will be a blessing” is that your example will be used by those who wish to bless others. According to Nachmanides, this last phrase – you will be a blessing – is a continuation of the first two promises in the pasuk. Hashem tells Avraham that he will achieve great success; he will achieve fame. His success and fame will be so great and noteworthy that others will refer to him as a model in blessing others. In other words, according to Nachmanides, Avraham will demonstrate the influence of providence. Through Avraham, Hashem will demonstrate His interaction with humanity and His involvement in the events of this world.
Sforno offers a completely different explanation of the phrase “you will be a blessing.” He interprets the phrase in a very literal sense. According to Sforno, the phrase means that Avraham will be a blessing for Hashem. Sforno explains that a person who acts properly is a blessing to Hashem. He adds that when a person acquires spiritual perfection and teaches others, he causes Hashem to be blessed. Apparently, Sforno means that the manner in which we conduct ourselves individually and as a community either glorifies or desecrates Hashem’s name. According to Sforno, Hashem told Avraham that He was confident that the manner in which he would conduct his life would bless or glorify Hashem. It is clear that according to Sforno, Avraham was required to conduct himself in a manner that would support and demonstrate his teachings. He must glorify Hashem through teaching the truth of the Torah to humanity and through his conduct. Avraham’s actions and behaviors would be central to his mission. He must teach through words and action.
In summary, both Nachmanides and Sforno agree that Avraham was assigned the responsibility of teaching humanity. However, they differ on the precise elements of this mission. According to Nachmanides, Avraham was required to teach and live a life of righteousness. The providence that he would experience would demonstrate to humanity that Hashem is indeed involved in our affairs. According to Sforno, Avraham was not merely required to teach and live an ethical life. He was expected to supplement his teachings through active demonstrations of the significance of the values he was teaching. In every instance, at each juncture of his life, he was required to consider the manner in which his behaviors would be perceived and to act in a manner that would provide an eloquent demonstration of the values and teachings he was espousing.
 Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 15:2.
 Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 15:2.
 Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 13:7.
 Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 13:7.
 Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 12:2.
 Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 12:2.