Avraham, The Unintentional Leader

Rabbi Bernie Fox

Hashem said unto Avram: Go out of your country, and from your place of birth, and from your father's house, to the land that I will show you.  And I will make of you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and you will be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you, and one who curses you I will curse; and in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed.  (Sefer Beresheit 12:1-3)

1. Avraham’s coins

The Talmud comments that Avraham minted coins.  On one side of his coin was the image of an elderly couple and on the other side was the image of a young couple.  Rashi explains that the image of the elderly couple represented Avraham and Sarah. The image of the young couple represented Yitzchak and Rivkah.  This almost off-hand comment of the Talmud communicates a number of important messages about Avraham.  In order to identify these messages, we must understand the function of coins.

In the most ancient economies trade took place only through barter.  If a person wished to acquire a horse, he provided the horse owner with goods that the he wanted and needed – perhaps bushels of grain.  The parties agreed to an amount of grain that would be exchanged for the horse and the trade was executed.  If the erstwhile horse purchaser did not have grain, then he would need to trade someone else for it before he could exchange it with the horse owner. Barter economies are innately inefficient.  Trades can only take place when each party has goods for which the other is willing to trade.  

The innovation of money made it possible for a purchaser to acquire a horse even if the horse owner had no interest in his grain.  He could sell his grain for currency and use the currency to purchase a horse.  No longer did each party in an exchange need to have goods desired by the other party.  Money embodied value and any seller would accept money as payment and then buy with it whatever he pleased.

However, trade conducted with money requires a currency.  In the ancient world this currency was often minted coins.  These coins were made of precious metal.  The value of a coin was a function of its weight and purity.  Therefore, the best currency or coins required two characteristics.  First, their weight and purity were certain.  In other words, one who accepted the coins had no reason to suspect that they were minted from adulterated metal or that the weight of the coins was less than represented.  In order for a coin to have these characteristics, the minter must be completely trustworthy.  Also, not only must the entity performing the minting be trustworthy, but its reputation must be widespread.  For coins to be accepted beyond the village or town in which they are minted, people in other towns and throughout the land in which they will circulate, must be aware of the impeccable reputation of the body issuing the coins.  Because of these considerations, cities or states often minted coins and attested to the consistency of their weight and purity.  

In minting coins, Avraham took on this role, often assumed by government.  There are three conclusions suggested by his adoption of this role.  First, he was universally trusted.  His coins were accepted as meeting the standard of purity and being the weight represented.  When a person received a shekel coin minted by Avraham, he was sure that the metal from which the coin was minted had not been adulterated.  He did not have to weigh it.  He knew it really was a shekel in weight.

Second, the Talmud’s comment reveals that although Avraham’s household and followers were a small minority within the Land of Cana’an, he was known as a trustworthy individual throughout the region.  Because his reputation extended throughout the land, he could mint coins that would be widely accepted in commerce. 

Third, the Talmud is revealing that Avraham was not only a religious leader.  He was also deeply involved in the economic affairs of his community.  He cared about the prosperity and material welfare of the members of the community in which he lived.  He minted coins for that community so that its trade could grow and its people prosper.

In short, Avraham assumed a role that is more usually that of a state.  This reflects upon his reputation.  How did Avraham attain this reputation and how did his renown become so widespread? Parshat Lech Lecha tells this story.

2. Avraham arrives in the Land of Cana’an as an exile

The parasha opens with Hashem’s command to Avram (Hashem had not yet renamed him Avraham) to leave his homeland and the household of his father.  He is to travel to a land that Hashem will revel to him.  Avram follows Hashem’s instructions  He leaves his homeland.  He takes with him his wife Sari (who will be renamed Sarah), his nephew Lote, his possessions, and the members of his household.  According to Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Avram had already acquired flocks of cattle. These flocks were the property that he took with him on his journey to an unknown land.   

The message of the Torah is not that Avram was a wealthy merchant with enormous flocks when he left home.  Taken in its context, the message of the Torah is that Avram completely abandoned his homeland.  He left nothing behind.  He had no intention of returning.  With him he took his family, the other members of his household, and his entire estate.  However, Avram did become very wealthy.  How he acquired his wealth is remarkable.  

And there was a famine in the land; and Avram went down into Egypt to sojourn there; for the famine was great in the land.  (Sefer Beresheit 12:10)

3. Avram’s strange path to wealth

Avram arrived in the land to which Hashem directed him.  This was the Land of Cana’an.  Not long after he arrived, the land was struck by a famine.  In order to save the lives of his family and household and to preserve whatever wealth he had, he traveled to Egypt. 

Avram was suspicious of the moral character of the Egyptians.  He feared that if the Egyptians knew that the beautiful Sari was his wife, then some ambitious and unscrupulous suitor would kill him in order to take Sari for himself.  Avram persuaded Sari to identify Avram as her brother.  He explained that Egyptian men interested in Sari would wish to win the support of her brother.  As brother of the stunning Sari, he would be treated well.  Instead of being killed as her husband, he would be courted as her brother.    

Avram’s predictions were more accurate than he may have imagined.  Paroh, himself, was enamored by Sari.  He lavished gifts and riches upon Avram and took Sari as a wife.  

Hashem brought a plague upon Paroh and his court.  He understood that this was Hashem’s response to his taking Sari from her true husband.  He confronted Avram for his subterfuge and banished him from Egypt.  Avram left Egypt with the enormous wealth that he had acquired there.  The Torah gives us an indication of the enormity of Avram’s wealth.  It does not enumerate his possessions, but it communicates its message with a revealing story.  

And Avram was very rich in cattle, in silver, and in gold.  (Sefer Bereshit 13:2)

4. The enormity of Avraham’s wealth

Among those who accompanied Avram to Egypt was his nephew Lote.  Like his uncle, Lote arrived in Egypt with – at best – a moderate estate.  He too acquired enormous wealth during this period of exile.  Upon their return to the Land of Cana’an conflict developed.  The flocks of Avram and Lote were so large that the grazing land could not sustain their flocks.  The shepherds of Lote and Avram began to compete for and wrangle over the available pasture.  Avram recognized that this was a destructive relationship and he and Lote decided to separate from one another.  They would occupy different parts of the land.  Each would graze his flocks in his respective territory.  The conflict between their shepherds would be resolved.  

In describing this conflict the Torah indicates to us that each had acquired massive flocks.  Their flocks were so enormous they could not be sustained in a single territory!

Through this remarkable narrative, the Torah reveals to us that Avram acquired enormous wealth and also that this was accomplished in the most astounding fashion.  Avram came to the Land of Cana’an as an exile.  His did not know the people and he had no connection to the communities in Cana’an.  It was unlikely that he would prosper in this foreign land.  His situation further deteriorated.  As soon as he began to settle in the land and establish his home, he was confronted with a famine and again forced into exile.  Any wealth he still possessed was certainly now in jeopardy.  Furthermore, Avram was again in a foreign country where he had no friends, family, or connections.  His prospects were dismal.  Yet, despite all of these obstacles, Avram returned to the Land of Cana’an as a wealthy man.  The underlying message is that Avram’s wealth was not acquired through his business acumen but through a providential influence that turned disaster and misfortune into success and wealth.  

And it came to pass in the days of Amraphel king of Shinar, Aryoch king of Ellasar, Chedorlaomer king of Elam, and Tidal king of Goyim, that they made war with Bera king of Sedom, and with Birsha king of Amorrah, Shinav king of Admah, and Shemever king of Tzevoyim, and the king of Bela – the same is Tzoar.  (Sefer Beresheit 14:1-2)

5. Avraham goes to war

During this period, the Land of Cana’an was not united under a single ruler.  Instead, it was ruled by a number of local kings.  These kings were vassals of a more powerful alliance of eastern rulers.  The kings of Cana’an attempted to break free from their rulers and the four eastern kings violently suppressed their rebellion.  Lote had settled in the vicinity of Sedom.  The king of Sedom was among the leadership of the rebellion. His territories were invaded and pillaged.  Many of the people of Sedom were taken captive.  Among the captives was Lote.

Avram was informed of Lote’s fate by a survivor of the terrible battles.  Avram organized members of his household and launched a very carefully planned attack against the encamped armies of the four victorious kings.  The strategy was successful.  The armies of the eastern kings were routed.  The property of Sedom, its citizens, and Lote were rescued.

The king of Sedom came to Avram.  He offered Avram all of the property of Sedom that had been recovered in exchange for the freedom of the citizens of his city.  Avram agreed to free the citizens but refused to accept the property of Sedom.  He explained to the king of Sedom that he did not wish for him to claim that he is the source of Avram’s wealth.

6. Avraham as a teacher and as an object-lesson

Avram’s position requires some consideration.  Avram had accepted elaborate and enormous gifts from Paroh.  He did not seem concerned with Paroh claiming that he was the source of Avram’s wealth.  Why did Avram accept Paroh’s gifts but not agree to accept the wealth that the king of Sedom wished to grant him?

Rashi and others explain that Avram had been promised by Hashem that He would bless him.  Avram understood that this blessing included a promise of wealth.  Avram wanted his wealth to be an obvious outcome of Hashem’s blessing and not to be bestowed upon him by the king of Sedom.  

Rashi’s comment needs further explanation.  Hashem promised Avram that he would be blessed.  Avram understood this blessing to include a promise of wealth.  However, perhaps, the king of Sedom was Hashem’s instrument in contributing to the wealth of Avram.  Paroh had served as Hashem’s instrument.  Why could Avram not regard the king of Sedom as another one of Hashem’s instruments?

It is apparent from Rashi’s comment that Avram understood Hashem’s blessing to have two aspects.  First, he understood it as a promise of reward.  He would be rewarded for following the command of Hashem.  But he also came to realize that the blessings were also intended to be a demonstration of Hashem’s providence.  Avram was humanity’s teacher.  He taught humanity though his words and actions.  But he recognized that Hashem was also using him to demonstrate to humanity His providence over the affairs of humankind.  Avram understood that his return from Egypt as a wealthy man was a shock to the people of Cana’an.  It was evidence of the message that Avram was teaching.  There is a creator and He guides the affairs of humanity.  

Avram suspected that the king of Sedom would try to undermine this message.  He would claim that Avram’s wealth was his gift to him.  The wonder of Avram’s return from Egypt with great wealth would be forgotten. In its place would be the story of how the king of Sedom had generously made Avram a wealthy man.

There is an important dynamic underlying the interaction between Avram and the king of Sedom. Avram was becoming a recognized persona.  He had amassed enormous wealth . He had entered into the realm of international affairs. He had defeated the mighty eastern kings and rescued the local kingdoms of Cana’an from their status as vassal states.  Avram’s reputation and acclaim were on the rise.  Avram interpreted the king of Sedom’s generosity as an attempt to temper or moderate the public’s estimation of Avram.  He wanted to create the impression that Avram’s wealth and his greatness were the gifts of the King of Sedom and not of Hashem.  Because he recognized this intention in the king’s offer, Avram understood it to be contrary to Hashem’s design.   Avram declined the king’s offer.

After these events the word of Hashem came unto Avram in a vision, saying: Fear not, Avram, I am your shield, your reward shall be exceedingly great. (Sefer Beresheit 15:1)

7. Avram’s reluctance to become a leader

Shortly after these events, Hashem spoke with Avram and told him to not be fearful.  The Torah does not explain the nature or source of Avram’s fear.  The commentators discuss this issue.  Rabbaynu David Kimchi and others suggest that Avram was afraid that the kings he had defeated or their successors would return to take vengeance upon him.  

Apparently, Avram had some uncertainty regarding his actions.  He was afraid that Hashem might abandon him or not protect him from harm.  What caused this sudden concern?  

Avram understood that he had entered into a new realm. Until this war, Avram had been a teacher of the people of Cana’an.  He built altars.  He called upon the people to worship Hashem.  He shared with the people his teachings.  This war and its aftermath had propelled him onto the international stage.  He was no longer just a teacher.  He was an eminence who battled with kings and parleyed with rulers.  It seems that he was uncertain whether this was the role Hashem intended for him.  

Hashem tells Avram to not be fearful; his merit is great.  Hashem assures Avram that He will continue to protect him.  This response implies that Avram had acted properly and that his ascent to the role of political leader was proper and consistent with Hashem’s will.  

8. The development of Avraham’s role

In summary, Avram came to the Land of Cana’an as a foreigner.  The parasha describes the process by which this unknown stranger became a teacher and a respected political leader in the land.  First, Hashem bestowed upon him enormous wealth.  Then, events unfolded that propelled him into the role of a political leader.  The coins that he struck, minted, and put into circulation are demonstrative of the extent of his fame, and the degree of his integrity among the people of Cana’an.    

Avraham is a role model for the Jewish people.  What does this account teach us about Avraham, the role model?  He was a very wealthy person.  He was a great political leader.  But this was not achieved through his pursuit of these characteristics. His life’s pursuit was the service of Hashem and his personal mission was to teach humanity.  His wealth and his political influence came to him through Hashem.