I’ve always had a reverence for parshas Lech Lecha. We have Avram prominently featured and with him, the real the start to the Jewish people. We have the famous commandment of bris milah and genesis of countless mohel jokes. And lastly, it was my bar mitzvah parsha (which I’ve come to realize I actually read very little of on that momentous day). But as I return to Lech Lecha each year I try to take a closer look.
Between Avram leaving his homeland to come to Israel and his famous covenant with Hashem, Avram fights in a massive world war. The five big kingdoms decide to rebel against the four even bigger kingdoms in a melee that kicks off what will become humanity’s favorite past time. Now, going to war isn’t something Avram is super into. He’s much happier tending to his flock, worshiping God, and providing hospitality to guests. But when his nephew, Lot, gets captured in the war, that’s when it’s on Avram to suit up and roll out.
Why Go To War?
As I mentioned above, Avram isn’t really known for his military prowess. When he marches into battle, he goes with 318 servants. Not soldiers, not mercenaries, but the guys who serve him his food and help him teach the word of Hashem. And with only 318 of them! It’s like that movie 300 and the Battle of Thermopylae. But they were Spartan warriors and they had that bottle neck strategy. Avram wasn’t so advantaged.
But why go at all? Avram and Lot aren’t on the best of terms, their split happened because of a dispute. And Lot chose to reside in not the safest area, the region surrounding S’dom. Avram is well within his rights to let Lot suffer his fate. Granted Avram’s not a jerk and Lot is family, but c’mon. If, God forbid, your nephew or uncle got abducted by Russia or North Korea, what can you be expected to do? Sure get the government involved, raise money… but buy your own jet plane and bomb them yourself? It’s crazy.
However, when Avram and Lot part, Avram leaves him with these words,
“Please, let there not be strife between me and you… for we are kinsmen. Is not all the land before you? Please separate from me, if you go to the left, I will go to the right, and if you go to the right, I will go to the left.” (Bereishis 13:8-9)
What’s with all this, “if you go left, I go right,” talk? On the surface it sounds like they really want to avoid each other. But according to Rashi, Avram is reassuring his nephew. Rashi goes as far as to elucidate the words to mean, “Wherever you may settle I will not go far from you and I will stand by you as a shield and as a help.” At this point Avram has made a pledge to Lot to always have his back. The reason Avram goes to war isn’t about revenge or family, it’s about keeping his word.
The concept of going to war over a promise seems absurd this day in age. But for centuries war happened because of treaties. As early as the Trojan War, the face that launched 1,000 ships was because the 1,000 ships entered into a treaty. And the assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand launched World War I because of an overburden of complex treaties. It seems meaningless now, but at a time that’s how much weight one’s word meant. And for Avram, a man of Hashem, it meant everything. Even against the most terrifying of odds.
When the Chips are Down
When Avram gets to the front lines he fights and he fights hard. With the help from God they are able to do some serious damage to the enemy. But when you’re outnumbered 1,000 to 1, no matter how good you are, you’re going to run out of ammunition and supplies. His swords and his shields wore down to nothing or broke and he ran out of arrows to shoot. When they run out of what to fight with what do they do? According to the Midrash, Avram picks up dirt to throw and God turns the dirt into arrows. Then he picks up straw and it turned into swords and spears. So Avram and his men were able to continue fighting until they eventually rescued Lot.
That’s a nice story. But it reminds me of WWJD bracelets. What would JC do? I don’t know, turn water into wine? How does that help me? Well the Midrash isn’t telling you to depend on a miracle because no matter how much dirt you throw, you’re not going to get arrows. I didn’t write the Midrash, but what I’m willing to bet is that Avram didn’t know the dirt was going to turn into arrows when he threw it. Avram wasn’t doing sorcery, he was refusing to give up.
Most of us don’t fight wars often, thank God. But we are engaged in a war with something in our everyday life. The constant urge to quit. And if not quit out right, it’s to phone it in. How much longer do I have to do X until I can get home and watch Hulu? To stay engaged and try is our most exhausting battle. And sometimes we have no idea how we’re going to pull it off. But what the Midrash is teaching us is that if we stick it out and try every possibility, exhaust every option, Hashem may just give us a break. Are your obstacles going to give you a reason to quit or are they going to give you an opportunity to overcome and grow?
The Spirit of a Jew
There is a question of why Avram is considered the first Jew while Noah was only considered a “righteous man.” Noah walked with God and had prophesy. But he never tried to change the world. He was content to be the lone survivor. Why? Maybe he just didn’t like the rest of the world. Hardly seems like the attitude of a righteous man though. My guess is that he didn’t believe he could change the world so he didn’t bother to try. But what Noah didn’t realize is that he had Hashem in his corner. And when you do things L’shem Shemayim (for the sake for Heaven), Hashem helps you out. While Noah didn’t know that, Avram certainly did. It’s for that level of emmunah that Hashem chose Avram to be the first Jew.