"And the people of Ay smote around thirty three men..." Our Sages reveal that this minimal amount of casualties was in the merit of our Patriarch Avrohom who intervened long ago on behalf of his children. In addition he actually built the altar near Ay exclusively for this purpose. It seems that this war at Ay had a direct relationship to Avrohom Avinu which therefore merited his focus four hundred years earlier.
In order to understand this, it is important to appreciate the setting of Avrohom's entry to Eretz Yisroel. The Torah, in the end of Parshas Noach, reveals that Avrohom Avinu was spared from the fiery furnace of Kasdim. Our Sages reveal that Avrohom was cast into this furnace because he refused to identify with idolatry. Due to the disturbance this caused the king, Avrohom was forced to leave his home town and Hashem directed him to Eretz Yisroel. In theory Avrohom should have felt gratified because he was deemed worthy of a miracle of major proportions. Yet, as we learned earlier Avrohom payed little attention to this experience and proceeded with extreme caution when travelling through the land of Israel.
In fact we find a clear reference to this in a moving conversation between Avrohom and Hashem. When Avrohom attempted to intervene on behalf of the wicked Sedom and Gemora, he made the following introduction. "I have just begun speaking to Hashem and I am but dirt and ash" (Breishis 18:27). Rashi there comments on this phrase and explains that Avrohom meant that he truly deserved to be dirt and ash. He was spared from the fiery furnace of Kasdim and not burned to ash and was spared from the mighty powers of the world and not crushed to dirt. With these words Avrohom reflected that he was undeserving of Hashem's favor and that his continuous existence was totally due to Hashem's mercy.
Avrohom's realistic perspective was inculcated in the fiber of the Jewishnation. From that point on the Jewish people were identified by this unassuming quality. The Torah states that Hashem chose the Jewish nation because they are so small (Devorim 7:7). Rashi (ad loc) quotes the Sages who explain this to refer to our being small in our own eyes. Hashem says, "I bestowed greatness upon Avrohom who responded by recognizing himself as dirt and ash." Although Avrohom was the beneficiary of major miracles, this didn't cloud his vision. He maintained with certainty that they were not the result of anything he ever did, merely another expression of Hashem's boundless mercy.
Avrohom entered Eretz Yisroel with this humble feeling of being undeserving of any of Hashem's kindness, how much more so the recent miracle of Ur Kasdim. As such, he certainly had no personal merit to rely upon and therefore travelled with great caution in this new land. However, once Hashem promised to protect Avrohom, he felt secure. He subsequently built an altar at Ay to publicize Hashem's presence in the land which was best reflected through Avrohom's safe existence in the hostile Canaanite environment.
A deeper insight to this is that at this auspicious moment Avrohom entered the area of Ay. He saw with prophetic vision that his children would lose sight of this truth and begin believing in themselves. Achan would attribute Yericho's victory, in part, to the Jewish people's accomplishments and treat himself to some of its spoils. The Jewish warriors would rely upon their apparent merits and be over confident in their capture of Ay. In response to this, Avrohom erected an altar declaring Hashem's presence and involvement in the land. It represented Avrohom's true awareness of his undeserving existence and reminded everyone never to believe in themselves or to rely upon their own merit.
Avrohom understood why the Jewish people would fall at Ay and prayed on their behalf. Avrohom pleaded that this error was not reflective of the true nature of the Jewish people. Although his children would eventually display this inappropriate attitude, their true composition remained the unassuming quality that Avrohom implanted in them. Miracles were not uncommon to Avrohom Avinu, yet this did not suggest in any way that he was deserving of them. The Jewish people were from good stock and were capable of easily returning to the proper path. Avrohom argued that if a lesson must be learned, let it be as painless as possible.
We now understand that Avrohom's initial steps into the land and Ay mirrored to some degree those of his children when they entered the land.
Conceivably, for this reason Avrohom was granted the opportunity of seeing his children's future. They were both beneficiaries of Hashem's miracles, yet their responses to this were somewhat different. Avrohom's pure attitude at his point of entry would undoubtedly be very helpful to them in the future. His unassuming response to Hashem's miracles had the potential of setting the tone for the future. It was imperative that his children have the proper unassuming attitude about Hashem's kindness and mercy when they enter the land. This would obviously set the tone for all their future experiences in the land. Therefore Avrohom built an altar to serve as an everlasting tribute to Hashem's mercy and committment to protection. It reminded all that Hashem's presence will be felt in the land, and that all experiences henceforth would be the result of Hashem's boundless mercy towards His people.
Unfortunately, this lesson was not learned well and some degree of casualty needed to occur. The Jewish people had to learn that they could not rely upon their own merits and be overconfident in their wars. They had to be reminded that Hashem fought their wars, and He determined their course and direction. From this point and on they would be prepared for whatever experience Hashem had in mind. for them. However, Avrohom's prayer was successful and their unfortunate lesson was given in its most painless form.
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