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Tuesday
Nov042014

SEALING OFF THE TWO OPEN SIDES OF THE ALLEY

Abraham was the epitome of kindness. Abraham was suffused with love for G-d and other people. Abraham was extroverted. He was an open person, who wore his emotions on his sleeve.  The Philistines were also people who possessed a zest for life, open and gregarious. Their lives too were filled with joy and love.  The salient difference between these two models is that while Abraham was an open person filled with love for life and for others, his openness and love was always directed towards the right ends…

AVIMELECH’S REPETITIVE EXCUSES

Abraham had to deal with all sorts of people who challenged his faith and loyalty to G-d. In the end of this week’s parsha, the Torah recounts his dealings with the Philistine king Avimelech. The Torah recounts how Avimelech’s Philistine servants had seized Abraham’s wells. Abraham rebuked Avimelech and Avimelech gives an ambiguous defense:

“I do not know who did this thing; furthermore you have not told me, and moreover I myself have heard nothing of it except for today.”

This rather repetitious response given by Avimelech requires an explanation. Why couldn’t he just have said: “I don’t know who did this thing”? Isn’t it obvious that if he didn’t know of the theft of the wells, he hadn’t heard it from Abraham or from anyone else? And besides, why waste so much space in the Torah telling us of Avimelech’s response? Every word of Torah must carry within it a message for us.

ABRAHAM AND AVIMELECH: PARALLEL AND OPPOSITE PERSONALITIES

To answer these questions it is important for us to focus on the relationship between Abraham and Avimelech the Philistine leader.

In Chassidic literature the Philistines and their king Avimelech represent the same trait of Abraham; however in opposite directions.

Abraham was the epitome of kindness. Abraham was suffused with love for G-d and other people. Abraham was extroverted. He was an open person, who wore his emotions on his sleeve. People reciprocated that love, and he was therefore successful in attracting thousands of people to monotheism and his kind and just ways.

The Philistines were also people who possessed a zest for life, open and gregarious. Their lives too were filled with joy and love. Indeed, the very word in Hebrew for the Philistines “Plishtim” is cognate to the word mefulash used in the Mishna in the phrase mavoy mefulash, an alley which opens up on both sides to a public thoroughfare. In emotional terms this connotes a person who has no or little emotional restraints. Everything is out in the open for everyone to see.

The salient difference between these two models is that while Abraham was an open person filled with love for life and for others, his openness and love was always directed towards the right ends. There were barriers and red lines that he did not cross. The Philistines, however, had no boundaries. Their joy was baseless, meaningless, carefree and cynical. The Philistines are described as mockers who ridiculed and scorned everyone and everything else. They stood for nothing.

The analogy to an alley that is open to the public thoroughfare on both sides suggests that the Plishtim model allows every influence to enter regardless of the direction from which it hails. Moreover, the root of the word Plishtim—palash—denotes an invasion or infiltration of alien forces into one’s land. And, indeed, historically, the Philistines of the Biblical period were constantly making incursions into the Land of Israel.

In the spiritual parallel, the person afflicted with the Philistine mentality is open to influences coming from every direction, and is also comfortable to invade and trespass others’ territory. A person who has no borders and boundaries will not respect the borders and boundaries of others either.

SELFLESS AND SELFISH

The underlying difference between the model of Abraham and the model of Avimelech is that Abraham’s love, joy and openness was a selfless one. Abraham was the epitome of humility as he stated, “I am but dust and ashes.” His entire life revolved around what he could do for G-d and others. The Philistine model of openness, by contrast, is a product of selfish indulgence which derives from an inflated ego.

So while Abraham and Avimelech had something in common, in terms of their temperament, they were in fact worlds apart. Abraham reached out to people but did not invade them as did Avimelech when he took Sarah. Abraham was filled with the joie de vivre, yet he was not a mocker or cynic. Abraham respected the boundaries between people even as he knew how to influence and enter into their lives.

We can now understand that the theft of Abraham’s well by Avimelech’s servants fits in to the Philistine model and mindset of lack of respect for borders.

When Avimelech was challenged by Abraham as to why his servants appropriated Abraham’s wells, Avimelech three part answer can be understood as three reasons a person can be morally deficient. These three points are based on the three sources of awareness of right and wrong.

SPIRITUAL DIALYSIS

The first thing Avimelech stated was: “I do not know who did this thing.” One of the ways we know what is right and what is wrong is through knowledge. Knowledge in this context is not book knowledge, but an intuitive awareness of right and wrong. The Talmud tells us that if, G-d forbid, the Torah had not been given we would have learned morals from animals. There are certain behaviors which are natural and that a “normal” person could anticipate.

Indeed, the Midrash tells us that Abraham knew and practiced the entire Torah, even though it had not been formally presented to the world. The Midrash states that he knew the Torah from “his kidneys.” Simply this means that he derived his information, intuitively, from within himself. He possessed the internal filter to know how to glean truth from falsehood, goodness form evil etc.

Avimelech, however, lamented to Abraham that, notwithstanding his emotional similarity to Abraham, he did not have the same internal compass. His kidneys malfunctioned and he was in need of spiritual dialysis.

REBBE

Avimelech then presents his second rejoinder to Abraham for his lack of sensitivity to the theft of Abraham’s well:

“Furthermore you have not told me.” Now that the Torah was given we no longer have to intuit what G-d wants of us. We no longer have to rely on our conscience to determine moral behavior. G-d, in His infinite kindness, gave us the Torah which guides us in every step of the way. And this Torah is highly accessible, as the Torah itself states “It is not in heaven… or overseas.” The Torah was entrusted to each and every Jew, and we have an unbroken chain of Torah transmitters who made the words of the Torah accessible and meaningful to us.

Avimelech, however, lamented that he did not have a teacher of Torah. Avimelech’s arrogance and ego did not let him be mentored by Abraham. Avimelech had no Rebbe.

COMMUNITY

There is however a third source of ethical awareness. Even when we have no spiritual intuition and we have not been given a good education we can pick up moral values by osmosis. Jews have always lived in communities, where one absorbed morality just by breathing the air. Alas, Avimelech did not have that luxury. He lived in a deprave environment and he therefore offers his third line of defense:

“And moreover I myself have heard nothing of it except for today.” By “hearing” he meant picking things up by just having his ears open to pick up any of the vibes.

PHILISTINE THREAT AT THE EXODUS AND TODAY

In the aftermath of the Exodus of the Jewish nation from Egypt, G-d deliberately avoided having them travel through Philistine territory. He was concerned that the fledgling nation would be harmed by the cynical approach of the Philistines that would stifle them in their attempt to develop an independent identity. All it takes is a sneering comment to derail a neophyte’s attempt at shedding his previous constrained life. For a slave nation to be internally liberated they could do without the invasive, damaging influence of the Philistines.

Now that we are at the crossroads of the Final Redemption, which the prophet stated is analogous to the first Redemption from Egypt, we too have to be mindful of the threat of the Philistine mindset. We too are living in the “Facebook age” of openness; there are no secrets and no boundaries. We too experience the unprecedented danger of the invasive influences of the mockers and cynics among others.

THE DIFFERENCE

There is one significant difference, though, between the nascent Jewish nation at the time of the Exodus and our threshold-of-Redemption generation.

At the time of the Exodus, they could not summon their inner moral strength due to the impact slavery had on them. According to our tradition, they had degenerated to the nadir of depravity. Accessing their core of holiness and internal moral compass would be like drilling through miles of hard impenetrable rock.

In addition, they had yet to stand by Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. They could not rely on revelation for guidance. And, finally, learning and absorbing by osmosis was also not a viable alternative for them because they were all in the same boat—recently freed slaves with a slave mentality, who grew up in Egypt, the world’s most depraved society.

Our generation, in stark contrast, is different on all three counts: We are capable of accessing our inner core of holiness. The Rebbe informed us that the miracles we have witnessed during the Six Day War and beyond served as the Great Shofar and awakened the Jewish nation precipitating a spiritual revolution inspiring hundreds of thousands of Jews to return to their roots.

We also have the luxury of having the greatest teachers and leaders, particularly our Rebbe who has given us hundreds of volumes of profound, inspirational and relevant Torah teachings, thousands of hours of talks, tens of thousands of pastoral letters etc., and who has delegated thousands of emissaries to educate the Jewish world, reaching every nook and cranny of the world.

Furthermore, we are fortunate that we have enclaves of hundreds of thousands of Jews committed to Judaism. We also have unprecedented access to so much Torah knowledge through modern media. For all the nonsense and harmful influences in our society today there is as much positive and holy influences we can absorb by osmosis.

Our generation can thus repeat Avimelech’s refrain in a “slightly” modified version:

“I do know who did this thing; furthermore you have told me, and moreover I myself have heard it today.”

We are indeed ready for the Messianic Age when all those three avenues of knowledge will be expanded to their maximum.

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