Give Peace a Chance?

Rabbi Bernie Fox

And it came to pass at that time that Avimelech and Phichol the captain of his host spoke to Avraham,

saying: G-d is with you in all that you do. (Sefer Beresheit 21:22)

Avraham’s pursuit of peace

Parshat VaYera continues the Torah’s discussion of the life of our first Patriarch – Avraham. The parasha begins with Avraham and Sarah receiving the message that they would soon be blessed with a son who would carry-on the mission of his parents.  The parasha concludes with the Akeydah – the binding of Yitzchak.  Hashem commands Avraham to offer Yitzchak as a sacrifice.  Avraham binds his son, places him upon the altar and is prepared to slaughter him. Suddenly, Hashem intervenes and Yitzchak is spared.

The parasha includes other important accounts.  These include the destruction of Sedom and the actual birth of Yitzchak.  Another of these accounts concerns the covenant into which Avraham entered with Avimelech, the king of the Pelishtim.

After the destruction of Sedom, Avraham relocated.  At his new location he selected the area in the Land of Cana’an then occupied by the Pelishtim.  The Pelishtim and their king – Avimelech – developed a deep respect for Avraham.  Avimelech recognized that Hashem was with Avraham; that he was the beneficiary of a unique providential relationship with Hashem.  He approached Avraham and asked that they enter into a covenant.  Avimelech had provided Avraham with access to his kingdom. He allowed him to travel freely through his kingdom and to dwell where he chose.  He asked that Avraham repay this kindness by acting with kindness toward his children and grandchildren.  Presumably, the covenant was a commitment by Avraham that his descendants would not harass those of Avimelech or expel them from the land.

The commentaries differ in their understanding of the significance of this account.  Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno comments that Avimelech explained to Avraham that he wished to enter into a covenant with him because he had observed his remarkable providential relationship with Hashem.  In other words, he told Avraham that he was not seeking this covenant because he was impressed by Avraham’s wealth or his power and influence.  He respected and venerated him because of his close relationship with Hashem. 

These comments suggest an explanation for the inclusion of this section in the Torah.  Avimelech’s actions demonstrate that the providential relationship between Hashem and Avraham was intense, consistent, and manifest.  Avimelech’s respect for Avraham and his determination to enter into a covenant with him attest to the remarkable providential attention that Avraham received.  

Now, therefore, swear to me here by G-d that you will not deal falsely with me, nor with my son, nor with my 

son's son; but according to the kindness that I have done to you, you shall do to me, and to the land wherein 

you have sojourned.  And Avraham said: I will swear.  (Sefer Beresheit 21:23-24)

Peace at too high a price

Rashbam contends that this account is intended to reveal a shortcoming of Avraham.  Avraham acted improperly by entering into a covenant with Avimelech.  He explains that Hashem had repeatedly told Avraham that this land was given to him and to his descendants.  Avraham understood that Hashem intended for his descendants to be the sole inhabitants of the land.  Therefore, Avraham had no right to enter into an agreement that granted another nation the right to remain in the Land of Cana’an.

Chizkuni rejects Rashbam’s position and points out that Avraham was very careful to not act contrary to Hashem’s wishes.  Understanding Chizkuni’s critique of Rashbam requires a brief introduction.  

The fine print in Avraham’s agreement

The above passages describe the covenant entered into by Avraham and Avimelech.  Avimelech suggested to Avraham that they enter into an agreement that would bind Avraham and Avimelech, and extend to their children, and grandchildren.  Why did Avimelech request that the agreement remain in effect for only three generations?  Rashi suggests that Avimelech’s compassion for his descendants only extended to his grandchildren.  He wished to secure his own welfare and the welfare of his children and grandchildren.  He was content to allow his great-grandchildren to fend for themselves without the benefit of a covenant.  

And He said unto Avram: Know of a surety that your descendants shall be strangers in a land that is not theirs, 

and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them for four hundred years.  And also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge; and afterward they shall come out with great substance.  But you shall go to your fathers in peace.  You shall be buried at a good old age.  And in the fourth generation they shall come back here; for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet full.  (Sefer Beresheit 15:13-16)

Chizkuni contends that Avimelech was guided by a different consideration.  He suggests that Avraham had shared with Avimelech the prophecy he had received regarding the exile of his descendants.  In that prophecy, Hashem revealed to Avraham that his descendants would be exiles in a foreign land and that after three generations they would return to the Land of Cana’an and take possession of the land.  Avraham understood that his children and grandchildren would live in the Land of Cana’an as a small tribe within the large population of native peoples.  Possession of the land would take place after a passage of centuries.  He shared all of this with Avimelech.  Therefore, Avimelech felt that he could ask Avraham to enter into a covenant whose term would be limited to three generations.  Such a covenant would not be inconsistent with Hashem’s promise to Avraham that the Land of Cana’an would ultimately be possessed solely by his descendants.

It is difficult to determine with certainty how Rashbam would respond to this criticism.  However, his comments on another issue do provide an indication of his reasoning.  Before considering these comments a related issue must be noted.

And Hashem said unto Avram, after Lote was separated from him: Lift up now your eyes, and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward; for all the land which you see, to you will 

I give it, and to your descendants forever.  And I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth.  So that if a man can number the dust of the earth, then shall your descendants also be numbered.  Arise, walk through the

 land in the length of it and in the breadth of it; for unto you will I give it.  (Sefer Beresheit 13:14-17)

The land was given to Avraham not his descendants

In Parshat Lech Lecha Hashem repeatedly assures Avraham that his descendants will possess the Land of Cana’an.  The above passages describe one of those instances in which Hashem repeated His promise.  However, this instance is interesting in two respects.  First, Hashem tells Avraham that He is giving the land to him.  In other words, in this instance, Hashem does not tell Avraham merely that his future descendants will possess the land.  He tells Avraham that this possession will begin with him.  

Second, Hashem tells Avraham to travel though the land.  Nachmanides and others suggest that Hashem instructed Avraham to travel throughout the land as a means of taking possession of the land or as a demonstration of his possession of it.  According to these commentators, Avraham’s descendents did not return from exile to take possession of the Land of Cana’an.  They returned and established their control over the land already possessed by their forefather Avraham.  Possession of the Land of Cana’an was established by Avraham.  His descendants’ occupation of the land was interrupted by their exile.  However, they returned to reclaim that which was already theirs.

However, of the cities of these peoples, that Hashem your G-d gives you as an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breaths, but you shall utterly destroy them: the Hittite, and the Amorite, the Canaanite, and the Perizzite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite; as Hashem your G-d has commanded you.  (Sefer Devarim 20:16-17)

Sometimes we don’t share  

Now, Rashbam’s comments may be considered.  In the above passages, Moshe explains to Bnai Yisrael that they must take full possession of the land.  Any nation or individual who resists, must be destroyed.  Rashbam comments that it is prohibited to offer peace to the nations of the Land of Cana’an.  Instead, they must either leave the land or perish in war.  He adds that this restriction even prohibits offering the native nations the option of remaining in the land as subjugated nations.  

However, he notes that there is one exception to the imperative to totally dispossess and destroy these nations.  If a nation comes to Bnai Yisrael of its own accord and sues for peace, agreeing to subjugation, then it is permitted to accept their offer.  In other words, it is prohibited to initiate an agreement, but it is permitted to agree to a peace initiated by one of the native nations – as long as the agreement acknowledges the unqualified sovereignty of Bnai Yisrael over the land.  

Rashbam’s distinction requires explanation.  Why is it prohibited to initiate a peace arrangement but permitted to accept an agreement suggested by one of the native nations?  Apparently, it is prohibited to initiate a discussion with a native nation because this may suggest that the nation has a legitimate right and claim to remain in the land.  However, if the nation comes forth of its own accord and offers to abandon its sovereignty and accept subject status, then Bnai Yisrael are permitted to acquiesce to the arrangement.

Now, Rashbam’s criticism of Avraham can be understood. Hashem granted Avraham possession of the land in his own lifetime.  He “owned” the Land of Cana’an.  Of course, he was not able to actually occupy it. Centuries would pass before his descendants would occupy the land.  However, as the owner of the land, he was not permitted to act in a manner suggesting that another nation shared his right to the land.  His covenant with Avimelech was not improper because it practically postponed his descendants’ posession of the land.  It was improper because Avraham agreed to a treaty between equals.  His agreement to this treaty suggested that Avraham’s ownership of the land was less than total.

Compromising one’s values or compromising oneself

Does Rashbam’s position have any application to our everyday life?  Virtually every person encounters situations in which he feels compelled to compromise his values.  A person may feel forced to abandon wearing a kippah in order to improve his chances of securing a position he seeks.  Another person may feel that he cannot meet some of the Torah expectations.  He finds it difficult to pray three times daily, to recite blessings before and after eating, or to observe Shabbat properly.  When one finds oneself in such a dilemma and forced to compromise his values there are two responses.  The first is to acknowledge that the proper course of action would be to be true to one’s values.  Simultaneously, the person accepts that at this point he is personally not capable of embodying the value.  For example, if a person cannot bring himself to properly observe Shabbat, he would acknowledge his shortcoming but continue to embrace the truth of Shabbat and accept as valid and binding the perimeters of its observance.  This attitude creates a foundation for personal growth and development.  The person who adopts this attitude has a vision of a better self and throughout life will strive to become that person.  As life’s circumstances evolve and change, the opportunity may arise to become that better self.

The alternative that is too often adopted is to deny any personal shortcoming and to instead reject the truth of the value.  A person who adopts this attitude does not regard his struggle to observe Shabbat as a shortcoming.  Instead, he transforms his incapacity to observe the mitzvah into a form of enlightenment and rejects the truth of the mitzvah.  This person does not evolve into a better self.  The vision of a better self is replaced with surrender and self-delusion.  

According to Rashbam, we are required to affirm and remain true to our values even when we cannot translate them into a plan of action.  Avraham had no means of occupying the land.  Nonetheless, he was required and expected to remain true to the proposition that it is his legacy and no other nation should share that legacy.