“The Holy One, blessed be He, acquired five possessions in His world. They are: (a) the Torah, (b) heaven and earth, (c) Abraham, (d) Israel, and (e) the Temple. How do we know this regarding the Torah? It is written: ‘G-d acquired me [the Torah] the first of His ways, preceding His works of old’ (Proverbs 8:22). How do we know this regarding heaven and earth? It is written: ‘Thus says the L-rd: The heavens are My throne and the earth is My footstool. What house can you build Me, and what place can be My resting place?’ (Isaiah 66:1). It also says: ‘How great are Your works, G- d; You made all of them with wisdom; the earth is full of Your possessions’ (Psalms 104:24). How do we know this regarding Abraham? It is written: ‘And he (Malki’tsedek) blessed him [Abraham] and said, ‘Blessed is Abram to the most high G-d, the possessor of heaven and earth” (Genesis 14:19). How do we know this regarding Israel? It is written: ‘Until Your nation passes, G-d, until this nation You have acquired passes’ (Exodus 15:16). It also says: ‘They are the holy ones in the land, the mighty ones in whom is all I desire’ (Psalms 16:3). How do we know this regarding the Temple? It is written: ‘A place for Your dwelling You have made, G-d; the Temple, my L-rd, that Your hands established’ (Exodus 15:17). It also says: ‘And He brought them to His sacred boundary, [to] this mountain (Moriah) which His right hand acquired’ (Psalms 78:54).”
Last week we began to examine the theme of our mishna — that certain aspects of creation are considered G-d’s “possessions”. As we noted, this seems a peculiar concept, especially considering that in a way all creation “belongs” to G-d. We began by looking more closely at Abraham, perhaps the most curious example since he is the only human being listed.
We examined the context of the verse quoted regarding Abraham. Malki’tsedek, righteous priest and king of Shalem (later, Jerusalem) blesses Abraham “to the most high G-d, the possessor of heaven and earth.” (The understanding is that G-d relates to Abraham too in the manner He relates to heaven and earth.) Abraham is granted this blessing after successfully waging a battle against four mighty kings, who had conquered many of the nations of the Land of Israel, put down a rebellion of five nations, and taken Abraham’s nephew Lot captive (see Genesis 14).
We noted that apart from Abraham’s bravery, many of the details of the battles seem superfluous. The Torah went into great detail regarding the identities of the four kings and the five kings who rebelled against them, the number of years of the rebellion, and each nation the four kings conquered along the way. As we pointed out, the Torah rarely tells us much about the history of the age in which our forefathers lived. The Torah was interested in outlining the growth and development of the Jewish people, not of providing modern man with historical reference (although all the historical references which do appear are perfectly accurate — as unbiased archaeologists and historians will attest). If so, why the great detail?
My teacher R. Yochanan Zweig (www.talmudicu.edu & www.torah.org/learning/rabbizweig) explained that clearly these were no ordinary military ventures. Such would not merit such close Biblical attention. Much more was at stake here. Of the four kings enumerated, Kedarla’omer was the primary and most powerful, the one against whom the five kings initially rebelled (see Genesis 14:4-5). Yet when the four kings were first listed in Genesis 14, the first king mentioned was his ally, King Amrafel. Why was he recorded first?
The answer is, he was not the most powerful king, but he was the mastermind, the moving force behind the venture. Who was he? Our Sages identify him: Nimrod (10:8-10), mighty warrior against G-d, the same Nimrod who commanded that Abraham, with all his belief, wisdom and morality, be thrown into a fiery furnace — from which G-d miraculously rescued him.
Nimrod was now back, under a different guise but with the same wicked intent. Why does the Torah now give him a different name? Our Sages define “Amrafel” — he was the one who said (‘amar’) to Abraham to fall (‘pul’) into the fiery furnace. It was that same quality — the one which earlier sought to destroy Abraham — which was now back for a second round. Nimrod had failed to kill Abraham directly. But he had new tactics now, more roundabout but just as sinister. He was in the Land of Israel, destroying the nations which had come under Abraham’s influence. He likewise captured Lot, Abraham’s close relative. He did not take Abraham head on, but he was closing in, destroying Abraham’s sphere of influence and threatening his very family.
Abraham knew what Nimrod and his cohorts were after. He knew this was no ordinary military venture. This was a battle against G-d. The Sages tell us that Nimrod, the “mighty hunter” (Genesis 10:9), was not simply a skillful bowman or aggressive warrior. He was, in the words of the Sages, one who “knew his Master and willfully rebelled against Him.” He belonged to a special class of sinners, who know the truth and actively attempt to destroy it. There are a few such people a generation; he was one of them. And in a generation with a man as great as Abraham, G-d provided an equally formidable — and dangerous — opposing force. Nimrod could not countenance the existence of an Abraham, who not only saw G-d’s goodness but actively disseminated His truth to others. And he was aiming for the ultimate showdown.
Abraham thus knew he had to act. He could not sit idly by while all he had endeavored to accomplish was being destroyed. G-d’s honor had to be defended at all costs. Abraham’s own honor, his very life, was utterly meaningless if G-d’s Name was being desecrated.
And so Abraham went to battle. The same Abraham who was earlier willing to part with his own wife in order to save his life (see 12:10-20), went out on the one of the most reckless military escapades of all times. He and a few hundred men (or a single servant according to one opinion) took on the most powerful, ruthless fighting force in the world — and wiped them out. Was it the normal reaction? Wasn’t Abraham fabulously wealthy? Shouldn’t he have at least tried to ransom his nephew first? Yet none of these options even entered his mind. When G-d’s honor is at stake we must not — we cannot — sit back.
We now have the slightest inkling of the true significance of the battle of the four kings, and why the Torah records it in such scrupulous detail. This was the cataclysmic battle of ascendancy of the great forces of the world. (The Sages tell us that three times in history were such formidable armies assembled (or will be assembled) — during Abraham’s battle, during Sennacherib’s siege of Jerusalem (see II Kings 18-19), and at the final battle of Gog and Magog against the Land of Israel at the End of Days.) The four kings came to oppose Abraham, to wipe out every last vestige of the imprint he had made on mankind. And that is exactly what Abraham came to defend. He was prepared to sacrifice himself, to give everything he had for G-d’s Name and honor. For in a world without recognition of G-d, Abraham had little reason to continue.
We can now begin to understand why Abraham, after the battle, became known as a possession of G-d. There is an important distinction here. Most of us, though we’d like to consider ourselves fairly committed Jews, feel a need to preserve some of our own “space”. We serve G-d within certain bounds. If we can do G-d’s will, great. If, however, a certain task or mission is beyond what we rationally feel we can accomplish, we will shy away. We decide — from our own standpoint and personal perspective — what we can and cannot do for G-d. And this is perhaps a commendable manner of serving G-d, one which — from a rational standpoint — makes perfect sense.
Abraham, however, introduced us to an entirely different level of Divine service — one which, to be sure, his greatest descendants and followers would emulate. He did not approach service of G-d from his own “space” at all. He did not see four mighty armies looming and then decide if it made sense for him to battle them: Was it rational or realistic to attempt to fight? But Abraham never even asked himself this question. He saw G-d’s name threatened, and he went. There was nothing more to it. There was no hesitation or deliberation of any kind. G-d’s honor was at stake; nothing else in existence mattered. Abraham existed for G-d alone. He was not his own person who occasionally (or even usually) served G-d. He had no reality other than how his being increased G-d’s honor. And so he was G-d’s possession. He was not separate; his very existence was an extension of G-d’s will and eternal reality.
Next week, G-d willing, we will expand this theme further — and relate it to G-d’s other possessions listed in our mishna.
Pirkei-Avos, Copyright (c) 2002 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Project Genesis, Inc.