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Beit Midrash Torah Portion and Tanach Lech Lecha

Parashat Lech Lacha

A Just War…Just for Avram

In the eyes of Chazal, Avram’s activities in this battle receive mixed reviews; Avram’s concern for his relatively righteous and innocent relative was legitimate and even laudable; Before the student soldiers were recruited, they are called chanichav (his disciples). During the battle they are called “avadav” (his slaves).
3088
Dedicated to the memory of
Amram son of Sultana
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We have no choice but to be impressed by the bravery of Avram, who took on and defeated the forces of the four most powerful kings of his time. He merited miraculous Divine Assistance and was blessed by Malkitzedek. But in the eyes of Chazal, Avram’s activities in this battle receive mixed reviews.
The gemara (Nadarim 32a) says that because of Avram’s behavior in this war, he was punished with the decree that his descendants would be enslaved in Egypt. What did he do wrong? He involved talmidei chachamim (Torah scholars) in the battle (ibid.). Some see this gemara as a powerful source against the use of yeshiva students in the army. But further study shows that this is likely not the gemara’s intention at all.

The implication of the sources is that Avram’s personal involvement in the fighting was proper. Was he a lesser Torah scholar than his disciples were? Additionally, what right did he have to kill people in defense of the five kings, including the unsavory kings of S’dom and Amora? As the pasuk implies (and the Abarbanel stresses), Avram’s impetus to fight was to save his nephew. As neither the four kings nor the five had much merit, Avram’s concern for his relatively righteous and innocent relative was legitimate and even laudable. As Yeshaya (58: 7) says: "from your flesh (relative) do not turn a blind eye."
So what was Avram’s mistake? First of all, Lot was his nephew, not that of his disciples. Secondly, they did not seem to share his enthusiasm and were, on some level, forced to participate (probably by means of Avram’s personality and their debt of gratitude to him). This is evident from two things. The gemara (ibid.) says that Avram did "angaria" with talmidei chachamim. What is angaria? Throughout Shas, angaria consistently refers to the practice of non-Jewish kings or autocrats to recruit forced workers for their desires. The idea is implied by the p’sukim, as well. Before the student soldiers were recruited, they are called chanichav (his disciples). During the battle they are called "avadav" (his slaves) (Bereishit 14:15).

Avram must have felt so close to his talmidim that he felt that his battle must certainly be their battle, as well. Thus, it would be appropriate to bend the parameters of what would be misusing his charges. Indeed, there are halachic ramifications of the concept of looking out for one’s relative, even when it has some negative consequences on others. However, the gemara (Ketubot 52b) says that an important person has to be more careful about bending rules to help a relative. Therefore, on his level, he should not have pressured his disciples.

Indeed Torah scholars should not be mercenaries. But when they are fighting for their own families and nation, they are not mercenaries. It is then very appropriate to find a proper balance between the natural and spiritual contributions they can make.
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