Saturday, November 07, 2009

Avraham teaches us humility and generosity

With all the interesting happenings and ideas in parshat Vayera, it is possible to neglect the ethical and moral teachings in the parsha. And so, an excerpt of a toelet or two of Ralbag. He gives a whole lot more, of course, but I'd like to focus on the first two.

Avraham Avinu is our forefather, and his exemplary conduct might serve as an inspiration to us.

Ralbag writes that the first purpose in relating this narrative in Chumash is in middot, and this is humility. And this is that it is fitting for a person to conduct himself with the trait of humility. After all, Avraham, despite his great stature, immediately ran towards these men coming to him, as soon as he saw them, bowed to them, called himself a servant and all of them masters to him, and went with them to send them off when they separated from him. And from this one can see that it related the humility of Avraham, who compared himself to dust and ashes, when he said "I am but dust and ashes."

This is indeed an inspiring aspect of the story. Though I do wonder how much is local ancient conduct, speech patterns, and flavor. While being the perfect host, one might well say this. Compare the conduct of the bnei cheis and Ephron HaChitti, where they kept calling him adoni, and where Avraham bowed down to them. Or when Yaakov greeted Esav on his return. Perhaps it is ancient etiquette, and one should not make to much of it.

On the other hand, if it can help inspire humility in us, it might still be a great point to draw out from the text.

Ralbag further writes that the second purpose is in middot {traits}, and this is in generosity. For do you not see how Avraham stirred up with great diligence to bring these men to his house, and arranged for them his words for a specific purpose for what was possible in honoring, so that they would listen to him, and made for them a full fixed meal.

Indeed, we certainly should learn generosity and hospitality from Avraham, especially when we contrast it with the conduct of the Sodomites.

While these are indeed two important middot that we can learn from Avraham, perhaps we can also learn from the limitations he placed upon these middot. Yes, he said that he was but dust and ashes, but this was a preface to arguing with Hashem! And he basically accused the Judge of the entire world of not acting with Justice! And he bargained with Hashem to try to spare Sodom. Throughout, he acknowledged how small and insignificant he was, but he still did this great thing, which takes tremendous chutzpa. Compare with Moshe, who was the most humble, who dared to say to Hashem "lama hareiota laam hazeh". In this upcoming parsha, Chayei Sarah, he shows tremendous respect to the Bnei Chais, saying that he is but a stranger and sojourner, and bowing down to them in respect. Yet at the same time he conducts negotiations and gets his way.

It is not always optimal to prioritize humility. Tossing out one example, in terms of limmud Torah, one might think that out of deep respect, one is not permitted to argue with Rishonim, and that anyone post-Rishonim who does this a heretic. But Rav Chaim Volozhin interpreted the instruction והוי מתאבק בעפר רגליהם as that one should "wrestle" with the Chachamim. And the Shaagas Aryeh, and the Gra, argued with Rishonim. Whether or not "we" can (a matter of contemporary dispute), these were engaged in milchamta shel Torah, and these were not "wrong" or lacking in humility for arguing. Rather, they recognized that humility has its place, and that one can argue with humility. But still that one has an obligation to argue.

And so to in terms of generosity and hospitality. He was a tremendous host to these people / angels. And yet, the midrash makes a point of the limitations of this. While the typical order might not have had washing feet first (where washing feet is admittedly very important for someone who has been trudging through the hot sand for days), he moved the order earlier. This was because he wanted to be hospitable, but at the same time he did not want to bring the negative influences of avodah zarah into his house, and so first had them wash off the dust, which he suspected them of having worshiped, from their feet. I can understand this consideration. It is important to show hospitality, even to people who might be considered strange, or who might even have beliefs antithetical to Jewish beliefs. This is important in terms of kiruv as well as being an open and loving individual. But at the same time, without giving specific examples, it might be important to weigh the spiritual impact on one's family. But both are important goals and should be balanced and met.


Yosef Greenberg said...

"Perhaps it is ancient etiquette, and one should not make to much of it."

Well, he was sick then wasn't he?

"if it can help inspire humility in us, it might still be a great point to draw out from the text."

Unless you're looking for the truth only, even in the lessons to learn.

"It is not always optimal to prioritize humility." Right, and I'm now expecting something about how, even if one has a great deal of humility, s/he should still stand up for his/her own rights.

Um, no. "Tossing out one example, in terms of limmud Torah" That was a toss? An all out assault. :)

This is good. I totally did not expect this here.

All kidding aside, I think this looking at the lessons we can learn from the Parsha is a great thing. (I was thinking of making it a series on my blog.)

As you write yourself, we sometimes get bogged down into the nitty gritty of a single word, while missing the entire point.

Who was it that said that "The Torah (Bereishis/Devarim) is a mussar sefer, not a science book."?

Yosef Greenberg said...

"But both are important goals and should be balanced and met."

And where the balance is, is a matter of great dispute, I presume.


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