Parshas Lech Lecha
When Things Don't Go As Planned Thai-ing Together the Loose Ends
After receiving a message that his brother-in-law, Lot, was in trouble in
Sodom, Avraham (Avram) arms himself and sets out to rescue him. In
the end, he succeeds not only in rescuing Lot, but also in defeating the
four kings who had been terrorizing the region. The King of Sodom, in
appreciation of Avraham's aid, suggests that Avraham keep the spoils of
the war, returning only the people that had been captured. Avraham
agrees to return the captives, but refuses to take any spoils.
Avram said to the king of Sodom, "I lift up my hand to Hashem, G-d,
most High, Maker of heaven and earth, if I take so much as a shoelace -
or anything that is yours! That you may never say, 'I made Avram rich.'"
What prompted Avram to refuse the king of Sodom's offer? Why was he
concerned that the king might claim to have made him rich? And even
if he did, so what?
Rav Sholom Schechter, an elderly rabbi, was on a flight to Eretz Yisrael
with a stopover in Athens where he would board a connecting flight. It
was two days before Rosh Hashanah, and his past few days in New York
had been exhausting. Fund-raising, selling sefarim, packing, and preparing
for his trip home had all taken their toll on his seventy-year-old body.
Exhausted, he fell into a deep sleep as the plane traversed the Atlantic.
He had asked someone to wake him when the plane landed in Athens,
but evidently his request was forgotten. Seemingly, it didn't strike anyone
as unusual that the rabbi with the long beard remained asleep even as
the plane landed in Athens and people disembarked. He remained asleep
throughout the stopover and awoke only as the plane roared down the
runway, taking off to its next destination.
The captain greeted everyone and detailed the flight plan. Their next
stop was Lebanon!
Rabbi Schechter blinked his eyes a few times in disbelief. Lebanon? What
happened to Athens? He realized he had slept through Athens, and
unlike a bus, he couldn't just get off. His baggage was probably on its
way to Eretz Yisrael, but he most certainly was not.
This obviously Jewish man would be in danger in Lebanon. He discussed
his predicament with the flight attendant, who discussed it with the
captain. They suggested that he stay aboard the plane in Lebanon, and
disembark at their next destination - India!
Rabbi Schechter knew that there were Jewish communities in Bombay
and Calcutta, but en-route the captain informed the passengers that due
to civil disturbances in India, only those people holding Indian passports
would be permitted to disembark.
Rosh Hashanah was only a day off. Checking plane flights and schedules,
Rabbi Schechter realized that he had no chance of getting back to Eretz
Yisrael on time for Yom Tov. He couldn't help but wonder where in the
world this incredible journey might take him. He would have to get off
at the next stop after India, wherever it may be. He soon found out -
By the time the plane taxied to a stop at Don Muang airport and Rabbi
Schechter was cleared through customs, it was only a few hours before
Rosh Hashanah. After some desperate inquiries, he was told that there
was indeed a synagogue in the centre of town. He made his way there,
hoping that someone would be kind enough to invite him home. The
people turned out to be more than kind.
He had no trouble conversing with the congregants, for most of the men
who attended the synagogue spoke English. He was invited by the
president of the synagogue, Mr. Atlas, to be a guest in his home, and it
was there that Rabbi Schechter stayed for the next few days.
At the Atlas' table, Rabbi Schechter ate only some cake, fruit, and
vegetables that his daughter had packed for his trip, and matzah, which
his host provided. He was introduced to Mr. Atlas' children, two of
whom were brilliant young scholars studying at Oxford University in
When he came to the synagogue the next morning, a surprise was
waiting for him: Not only was there no mechitzah (barrier) separating the
men from the women, but the congregants were all sitting together.
Rabbi Schechter decided to pray alone in a side room, where he could
still hear the prayers of the congregation. After shacharis, he asked the
rabbi if he could address the congregation.
"My dear Jewish brothers and sisters," he began, "I am grateful to
Hashem Who has granted me the privilege of being with you this Rosh
Hashanah. Many of you probably know that my original intention was to
be in Eretz Yisrael with my family, but G-d in His wisdom decided that
I be here with you in Bangkok. I deeply appreciate your hospitality and
friendliness, and I feel I owe you an explanation of why I did not pray
together with you this morning.
"Every Jewish synagogue is a micro-model of the Beis Ha-mikdash, the
Holy Temple that stood in Jerusalem. Its sanctity is to some degree
comparable to the sanctity of that most holy site. In order to ensure that
there be no frivolity or diversion of attention from the sanctity of the
Temple, the Rabbis decreed that men and women should not mingle
there. Similarly, a synagogue in which men and women sit together loses
some of its sanctity. With all due respect, this is why I did not join
Rabbi Schechter's words were eloquent, and moving, yet respectful. He
did not talk down to them nor criticize them. Afterwards, he encouraged
them to create Torah-study groups so that they could become more
knowledgable about the traditions and customs of their forefathers.
When he finished speaking, an unbelievable thing happened: A Dr.
Frankel, one of the members, walked up to the front and began speaking
spontaneously. "I'm sure many of you feel, as I do, that it is an honour
to have such a distinguished guest in our presence. In deference to Rabbi
Schechter, may I suggest that we separate before we continue with the
Torah reading and shofar blowing, so that he can pray with us."
In an instant, two hundred people were on the move. The men
stationed themselves on the right side of the synagogue, and the women
went to the left. And so they remained for the entire holiday.
The next morning, Rabbi Schechter was asked to speak again. The Atlas
boys were present. The older of the two, Morris, possessed an
inquisitive mind, and was taken with Rabbi Schechter's speech. They had
subsequent discussions, and a strong bond between the two.
Morris had never been to a yeshivah, and had little idea what Judaism
was about. Yet here was an Orthodox man who touched his heart. By
the time Rosh Hashanah was over, Morris had made a decision. He was
going to interrupt his studies at Oxford and transfer to Ohr Somayach (a
yeshivah with a program for men with minimal Torah background) in
Jerusalem. After much negotiation, Mr. Atlas agreed that his son could
try it for one semester. The young scholar went off to Israel, and the
one semester ended up lasting for three fruitful years. During those years
he became a true ben-Torah, and was the catalyst for his younger
brother to come to study in Ohr Somayach as well.
Today, the Atlas brothers are Orthodox Jews living in London, strongly
committed to Torah and mitzvos, and deeply indebted to the rabbi who
slept through his stopover in Athens. Back in Bangkok, the classes which
Rabbi Schechter organized also bore fruit; some women are now
observing family purity laws for the first time in their lives. (The Maggid
Speaks, p. 233)
Avraham, although obviously of great physical strength and skill, was not
the type of man to wage wars. Yet here Hashem had guided to defeat
the four terrorist kings. Surely there must be some opportunity for
Kiddush Hashem (sanctifying Hashem's name), towards which Hashem had
set him up so perfectly. He decided not to accept the wealth offered
him, so that everyone who had witnessed his great victory would realize
that it is not the hands of man that bring success and failure, but
Hashem's assistance. "And let no one say that I have made Avram rich," for
it is Hashem who runs the world, not us.
This was truly a great Kiddush Hashem, and a wonderful idea of how to
take advantage of the unusual situation in which Avraham had been
placed. In fact, however, he erred. Chazal (Nedarim 32a) say that he
missed out on an even greater opportunity - he should have kept the
captives with him; by returning them, he prevented them from being
taught the way of G-d.
Life doesn't always go as planned. We often find ourselves in places and
with people that we never intended. Instead of focusing on how wrong
things have gone, we might better use our resources to try and figure
out why Hashem put us there, and what hidden opportunities for Kiddush
Hashem and kovod ha-Torah may lie in waiting.
Have a good Shabbos.
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Text Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Torah.org