Wisdom of the Verses

Moshe Ben-Chaim

Lately, I have been concentrating on articles that focus on how to learn the Torah’s verses. I have been compelled to do so, as more and more often I hear others repeating what they’ve learned, and it is disappointing. Disappointing because they have not been exposed to God’s brilliant method of revealing ideas through the very text. I hear notions that do not fit the text, and notions that are not true. Teachers themselves are not aware of how God hides and reveals Torah insights. This forfeits the transmission and the delight possibly imparted. The only way to correct this problem is through many examples. Once a Torah student is exposed to the precise and insightful methods God uses in constructing the verses, that student will become imbued with an appreciation for Torah over all else he or she encounters. This is what we call “Love of God”. We cannot know “Him” so as to love Him, but we can know some of His wisdom, on a human level. We love God through seeing His wisdom. And although it is minute wisdom, to us, it can be remarkable. For this reason, we must not be satisfied with mediocre explanations and mere possibilities; we must insist on understanding why each word is found in each verse. I intend to show such an example here.

In this week’s parsha God says the following:

“Shall I keep hidden from Abraham what I plan to do? And Abraham will surely become a great, mighty nation, and all nations of the land will be blessed due to him. For he is beloved on account that he will command his children and his household after him, and they will guard the path of God, performing charity and justice, so that God will bring upon Abraham what He has spoken.

And God said [to Abraham], ‘the cry of Sodom and Amora is great and their sin is greatly heavy. I will descend and see if in accordance with their cry that comes to Me I will annihilate them; and if not, I know’.” (Gen. 18:17-21)

We understand from the following verse (ibid 18:25) that Abraham had a clear understanding of God – God would never kill the righteous on account of the sins of others: 

“Far be it to do such a thing, to kill the righteous with the wicked, and the righteous and the wicked would be equal, far be it…the judge of the Earth would not do justice?!” 

Abraham was correct in this exclamation. This was Abraham’s knowledge of God all along: the wicked deserve punishment, and the righteous do not. This is justice. However, God said earlier, “Shall I keep hidden from Abraham what I plan to do?”

This is the first lesson: there are areas of knowledge which man cannot penetrate. And this is rightfully so, for man cannot possess all knowledge; only God does. Therefore, God expresses a sentiment to the Torah reader that if He does not disclose His wisdom on this topic of ‘justice’, Abraham – and mankind –  will remain in the dark; it will be “hidden” from Abraham.

God also expressed His reasoning for inviting Abraham to investigate this matter: 

“Abraham will surely become a great, mighty nation, and all nations of the land will be blessed due to him. For he is beloved on account that he will command his children and his household after him, and they will guard the path of God performing charity and justice…”  

That is, God wishes the world to increase in their knowledge of Him. And since Abraham teaches his household of God’s ways (and greatly benefits other nations by rebuking their idolatry, as Sforno states), God imparted to Abraham greater knowledge of morality. Examining the world or theorizing moralistic philosophy cannot uncover the secret we are about to discuss. That is the meaning behind the phrase “Shall I keep hidden”. God therefore revealed a new area of knowledge so Abraham should learn, and teach others.

The glaring question is this: If God decides ‘not’ to hide this secret, where in this account do we see God informing Abraham of it?

Somehow, Abraham knew to ask God whether He would spare the wicked, based on numbers of righteous people. This mercy was not what Abraham knew before…this was the new piece of information God disclosed and did not “hide”. He assured Abraham that if at least 10 righteous people were in Sodom, He would spare all of them, even the wicked.

So we now know the secret: previously, Abraham assumed the wicked must die ­– no exceptions. But now Abraham understood that God’s mercy can allow wicked people to remain, provided there exists the influence of at least 10 righteous people can turn them back towards repentance and God. We understand this. But again: from where did Abraham derive this new concept of mercifully sparing the wicked people on account of the righteous? God does not say this in the entire account! However, the hints must be in what He told Abraham. Read it again:

“And God said [to Abraham], ‘the cry of Sodom and Amora is great and their sin is greatly heavy. I will descend and see if in accordance with their cry that comes to Me, I will annihilate them; and if not, I know.”

This is from where Abraham derived the new concept that God will spare the wicked.

Do you see the hint?

Do you see any questions?

I have one: If their sin is “greatly heavy”, why should they not receive punishment? This is compounded by God’s very words, “if in accordance with their cry that comes to Me, I will annihilate them”. God is saying that in accordance with their corruption, they deserve annihilation. Yet, God says there exists the possibility of Him ‘not’ annihilating them! Now, if their current state of sin requires God’s punishment, for what reason would God abstain? There is only one possibility where the merit to save them exists: the righteous inhabitants.

Abraham listened to God’s words, “in accordance with their state, they deserve annihilation.” But God also said a possibility exists that they will be spared. In God’s very words was the clue. Abraham now realized a new concept: God does not work with strict justice, but He also performs charity, “tzedaka”. Abraham knew about tzedaka, but he did not know all of its applications. It was necessary that God teach him this specific case. We might even add that God’s concluding words “I know” are meant to indicate to Abraham that this knowledge is what “God” knows, and not man. It is concealed until God imparts it through this prophecy. God intended to teach that this idea is of a concealed nature. He taught this to us through the future-given Torah narrative “Shall I keep hidden”, and He taught this to Abraham through the words “I know”.

Thus, God taught Abraham a new idea in justice that man could not arrive at alone: the wicked could be spared. And He also taught him that there are ideas, which are concealed if God does not offer man clues.

We learn that God presented just enough clues in His words to allow Abraham to think into the matter. Once he realized this new concept, the next question was how many righteous people are required to save the wicked. But why did God inform Abraham is such a subtle manner?

God does so as this increases a person’s intelligence, his reasoning power. Just as a Talmudic scholar is not born with his skills, but gains them over decades of practice…Abraham too grew in his capacity to reason for himself through this experience. With thought, Abraham questioned his current beliefs and principles. Abraham moved beyond his previous boundaries, and excelled to greater wisdom.

Many times we prevent ourselves from alternative choices, simply because we are incapable of reasoning out all possibilities, or due to false assumptions. For example, a student may accept all ideas in books, simply due to his mind being crippled by the false notion that “all books must be true”. People are quite impressed by authors and feel each author knows about what he or she writes. But once the student sees an error in one book, this broadens his horizons and he will never again blindly accept any notion, just because it’s printed.

A wise Rabbi once cited Rav Moshe Feinstein’s critique of the Ramban. Ramban condemned Abraham for leaving Canaan and descending to Egypt due to the famine. Rav Moshe zt”l said that Ramban’s comment should be torn out of the Chumash. The lesson: even Ramban can be wrong. But we incorrectly tend to shy away from such statements. We fear reputations. But you must know that the greatest of our teachers – Maimonides – openly invited anyone at all to correct his errors. Maimonides did not feel infallible; he admitted that those below him in wisdom could correct him. No one is always correct.

People sometimes say, “Who am I to argue with Ramban?” This means they credit Ramban, or any Rabbi, as possessing tools to attain accurate understanding. But God did not give Ramban alone the Tzelem Elokim – intelligence. God gave it to every human. He did so in order that we engage it, and not make such statements. If we continually refrain from challenging our teachers, we reject God’s will that we employ this great gift of intelligence. Of course we are respectful of all Torah scholars and teachers. But as one Talmudic Rabbi said, he cherished questions on his words more than words of support.

Furthermore, any person who assesses the Rabbis as brilliant thereby admits he can accurately determine truth, i.e., that they are brilliant. And if he can determine truth, he then contradicts himself when saying he cannot argue with them. For if one can determine truth, and does so in a specific case, he must disagree with anyone who opposes that truth. Regardless of who it is. It is a false humility, or a corrupt mind that will at first passionately support his view, and then back down when he learns a Torah scholar holds the opposite. If he was firm on his understanding at first, he must be honest and say he disagrees, regardless of whom he opposes. Again, the Torah commentaries disagree with each other, and do not blindly accept even the words of those far greater than them. A Talmudic Rabbi once said, “Had Joshua bin-Nun said it, I would not hear it (Tal. Chullin, 124a).”

Although I carried an awe of the Rabbis from youth, once I heard Rav Moshe’s critique of Ramban’s words, I realized that no one is infallible. This was one of the greatest lessons that had the most dramatic affects on my studies. Furthermore, there is no Torah obligation to accept any idea outside of halacha. In matters of philosophy, there is no “psak” – ruling. Many times people say, “Maimonides is only a minority view, I need not follow him”. Their error is in applying halachik principle of “majority rule” to hashkafa – philosophy. The Torah teaches, “According to ‘law’ that they will teach you and the judgment that they will tell you, you should behave. You should not deviate from that which they tell you to the right or left (Deut. 17:11).”  This means the Rabbis have authority on ‘laws’ and nothing more. Not philosophy.

Additionally, a wise Rabbi once taught that no one – not even great Rabbis – can tell you what you think. Meaning, it is impossible that anyone be compelled to believe something, which they do not. Yes, in halacha I can be compelled to ‘act’. But philosophy is concerns beliefs alone. Thus, there cannot be a ruling on philosophy. This is something we can only come to on our own. Either we accept a belief, or we don’t. And if I do not believe something, no one can possibly force that belief.

The refusal to accept popular opinions was Abraham’s greatest trait. It was through questioning what he was taught, that he discovered the error of his father and that entire idolatrous generation. This trait led him to discover God after 40 years of independent reflection and analysis. There were yet areas that Abraham could not penetrate, but God assisted him. God also assists us in the form of His Torah. And if we continue to question the Torah, as is God’s will, we will then unlock numerous other ‘hidden’ treasures. 

The verses are truly astonishing.