Shabbat candles: 5:31 p.m.
Torah: Genesis 12:1-17:27
Haftarah: Isaiah 40:27-41:16
Havdalah: 6:31 p.m.
Writing about the release of Gilad Shalit, the religion column in The New York Times, in a well-thought-out analysis, noted the proximity of Shalit’s release with this week’s Torah portion of Lech Lecha, in which Abraham rescues Lot from captivity, but called the proximity “an absolute coincidence, an unplanned synchronicity between the religious calendar and breaking news,” yet “an essential explanation.” Moshe Halbertal, a philosophy professor at Hebrew University, was quoted as saying that the doctrine of pidyon shvuyim, rescuing a Jewish captive, is in “the DNA of the culture.”
A coincidence? Observant Jews believe otherwise.
Bereshit (Genesis) deals primarily with events in the lives of our patriarchs and matriarchs. Rashi wonders why the Torah didn’t begin with the first commandment, which isn’t found until well into the Book of Exodus. Ramban responds that the Torah begins with Bereshis to teach us the principle of “masah avos siman labonim,” whatever happened to our forefathers is an instructional guide for our future actions.
Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler utilizing the commentary of Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin takes it a step further. What happened to our forefathers is an actual harbinger, a sign for the children, because the attributes and spiritual greatness of the avos, our forefathers, are ingrained in the Jewish nation; in essence, what Halbertal calls our DNA.
In Lech Lecha, “The fugitive came and told Abraham the Ivri” that his nephew was taken captive during an ancient world war involving nine kings [Genesis 14:1-13]. The Midrash HaGadol writes that Lot’s captors put Lot in a cage and made a spectacle of him.
According to the Sforno, Lot was captured because it was known that he was the nephew of Abraham, a wealthy man who could pay a large ransom.
Who was “the fugitive” that informed Abraham? The Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer states it was the angel Michael (while the angel Samael, associated with Satan, grabbed Michael’s wing, trying to drag him down) who knew that Lot was destined to be the ancestor of King David and, ultimately, the Messiah.
Rashi quotes a Midrash that identifies the fugitive as Og, king of Bashan, who had survived either the war between the kings or the Great Flood. The Satmar Rebbe, Yoel Teitelbaum, notes that Og had ulterior motives: Og knew that Abraham, once informed, would surely attempt to rescue Lot and might likely die in the rescue attempt, whereupon Og could take Sarah as one of his wives.
This is the only time in the Torah that Abraham is called “Ivri.” The Sages say that he was called Ivri — literally, “on one side,” or “the other side” — because the whole world was on one side of a moral and spiritual divide while Abraham was on the opposite side, resisting the negative influence of the others.
Og assumed that Abraham, a 73-year-old man ( according to many commentators), would attempt to rescue his nephew, even in a world at war, precisely because Og knew Abraham was an Ivri, and thus unfazed by the odds. Even if the whole world was against him, he would risk everything to save his kinsman. From Abraham’s perspective, Lot was like a brother [Gen. 14:14]. Their past disputes were irrelevant. The Beer Yosef notes that Abraham promised Lot when they first went their separate ways that he would always come to Lot’s defense. When your brother is in danger nothing can stand in the way of saving him.
In this sense, Abraham was correcting the “Am I my brother’s keeper?” attitude that Cain espoused when God asked about Abel.
Because Abraham risked his life to save Lot, this trait became ingrained in the Jewish DNA, making it natural, instinctive, for us to follow in Abraham’s footsteps and engage in pidyon shevuyim, the redemption of Jewish captives, no matter the odds.
That Shalit was released in proximity to Lech Lecha was less a coincidence than a consequence.
Rabbi Zev Brenner, president of Talkline Communications Network, and host of its flagship program “Talkline with Zev Brenner,” is founder of the daily 9:15 minyan at Congregation Hechal Moshe (The Vorhand Shul) in Manhattan. This column is dedicated to the bat mitzvah of his daughter Aderet Nava, and to the memory and approaching yahrtzeit of his father, Harav Pesach Ben-Moshe Aryeh.