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Beit Midrash Torah Portion and Tanach Vayera

Parashat Vayera

For Lack of the Fear of G-d

Rabbi Yossef Carmel15 Cheshvan 5765
3001
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For a second time, Sarah is taken by a local king, in this case, Avimelech, King of G’rar, after Avraham and she referred to their relationship as siblings, not spouses. And for a second time, the leader returned her after some Divine intervention, and complained to Avraham for deceiving him. In our parasha, Avraham explains his rationale as follows: "For I said, only, there is no yirat Elokim (fear of G-d) in this place, and they will kill me on the matter of my wife" (Bereishit 20:11). One can question Avraham’s claim. Firstly, it is a severe accusation for a king who made a claim, that was not fully contradicted, that he and his people were righteous. (See the Ramban and others, who posit that Avimelech’s G’rar was much more moral than Paroh’s Egypt). Secondly, why did Avraham refer to the lack of fear of G-d as "only"? Is it such a small thing to have no fear of G-d?

Many commentaries (including the Netziv) explain that Avraham was saying that he did not rely on the morality of the people of G’rar, because it was not based on proper values. When social justice is based on humanistic conviction to do the right thing, but is not rooted in fear of Heaven, it is easily overcome by the Yetzer Hara (Evil Inclination). While accepting this premise, one cannot help but notice that there are religious people who succumb to their inclinations and sin and there are irreligious people who overcome theirs, at least in regard to matters in which they believe. Would Avimelech have accepted a claim that because he did not share Avraham’s belief in Elokim can be explained in a related but slightly different way than one might think. In several places in Sefer Vayikra, the Torah concludes a commandment with the phrase, "v’yareita mei’Elokecha," you shall fear your G-d." Rashi explains several times (see 19:14) that this is a warning to one who might violate a mitzva with some sort of excuse. "I gave bad advice, but I thought it was the best thing for him." "I didn’t stand up for the sage, because I didn’t see him." The Torah tells us that one should fear Hashem, who knows what his true intentions are.

After understanding this phrase, the following explanation of Avraham’s claim becomes plausible. Avimelech asked Avraham: "What did you see that you did this thing?" (Bereishit 20:10). Did you ever see my people kill someone to steal his property or take his wife? Apparently, Avraham had to admit that he did not see it. But, said Avraham, although I did not see senseless murder, maybe Hashem did. Maybe there were executions of criminals who really were killed on trumped up charges for malicious reasons. And maybe Sarah’s husband would be the next on line. Therefore, although outwardly, G’rar was a just society, Avraham had reason to fear that it was just missing yirat Elokim, and murders and sins were committed secretly and/or with a variety of "justifications."

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