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There was a famine in the Land (of Canaan). Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the Land (12:10).
Was this the right action on Abraham’s part? Abraham’s decision to leave the Promised Land to become a temporary resident of Egypt had two questionable aspects. Firstly, G-d specifically ordered him to go to what turned out to be the Land of Canaan, not Egypt. Secondly, as the text implies, his traveling to Egypt would be putting his wife Sarah into the danger of being abducted into Pharaoh’s harem.
The Ramban criticizes Abraham for his unilateral decision to leave the Promised Land, stating that he had sinned ‘by accident’ – he acted wrongly in leaving it in the first place. Indeed, G-d is not recorded to have communicated with Abraham until he came back to the Promised Land.
The Midrash (Tanhuma 5) however claims that Abraham did do the right thing, and understands the whole episode to his credit. The famine was a test of his faith in G-d. Would he accept that G-d had different plans for him that he could not understand at the time – even if they were highly inconvenient and dangerous? Or would he lose faith and bemoan his fate? The text thus relates that Abraham did take his family down to Egypt without any murmur or grumble. And he succeeded in this test, bringing himself closer to the Almighty in the process.
Over what point are the two schools of thought arguing?
One suggestion is the following. What were real motives of Abraham going down to Egypt? Did he see the famine as a test to make him spiritually greater, as implied by the Midrash? Or did he leave the country as a pragmatist – accepting that that was how things were?
Going deeper into this suggestion, look at the following issues discussed in the Talmud (Pesachim 8b).
The Talmud brings the principle of shiluchei mitzvah eynan nizakin – those who are involved in performing one of G-d’s commandments will come to no harm. However a person cannot rely on this maxim if the process involves a highly dangerous activity. The Talmud derives this exception from the narrative of Samuel’s anointing of David as king. When G-d told Samuel to go to Jesse of Bethlehem and anoint the one of the sons that He chose, Samuel protested: “How can I go? Saul will hear about it and kill me!” (Sam. I 16:2). G-d did not castigate Samuel for not showing faith, but instead He gave him a ruse so that his action would not be brought to Saul’s attention.
However, according to the Midrash, it may be argued that this exception did not apply in Abraham’s case. His motive was so utterly sincere that he saw the test as chance to bring himself nearer to G-d – to only perform His will as His servant, without any personal interest. That contrasts with Samuel. At the bottom of his mind there was a personal interest. He may well still have loved for Saul, his old protege, even though he accepted that G-d had twice rejected him in continuing to be king. So his anointing of David would have taken place with a slight, but significant feeling of disappointment. G-d’s will would not have been performed wholeheartedly, and thus He agreed that He had to tell Samuel to take every precaution that his making David king should not reach Saul’s ears.
It comes out from this distinction that one does not have to worry about danger even if it is likely when performing G-d’s will from completely selfless motives, and with the utterly sincere desire to serve Him. Thus according to the Midrash, Abraham did not put himself into danger because his motive was only to serve G-d even if he could not under the reason for his His ways. He interpreted the famine as a command from G-d and he observed it willingly, understanding that he could rely on the principle of shiluchei mitzvah eynan nizakin when he arrived in Egypt. And indeed, neither Sarah nor Abraham were actually harmed.
However, according to the Ramban, his motives would have been pragmatic – he had to leave the Promised Land because there was a famine. He did not see it, per se, as a test to bring him closer to G-d, but as a normal reaction to adverse circumstances. In such a frame of mind he could not rely on the maxim of shiluchei mitzvah eynan nizakin. Indeed, his very entry into Egypt put his wife into danger and only nisim giluyim – open miracles saved her from Pharaoh’s wiles. And his departure from the Holy Land was not a Mitzva to bring him closer to G-d, but an act – however reluctantly performed – of unilaterally leaving ‘the land the I shall show you’.
This principle of purity of motives is brought out in the Talmud – in the face of conduct that appears at odds with Jewish laws, values and customs.
R. Baroka of Hoza’a used to go to the Lefet market and Elijah (the Prophet) used to keep him company. He asked him, ‘Is there anyone in this market who is destined for the World to Come?’ He replied, ‘No!’
After a while he saw a man who wore black shoes and did not wear a blue thread (techeilet for tzitzit) on his clothes – in short he was not dressed in the Jewish manner. Elijah said, ‘This man is destined for the World to Come!’
R. Baroka ran after him and asked him and said, ‘What do you do?’ He said…I go amongst the heather and I don’t want them to know that I am a Jew, so that when they make a decree against the Jews I can inform the Rabbis, so that they might pray and avert the decree.’
Meanwhile two brothers came by. Elijah said to him, ‘They are also destined for the World to Come’.
He went to them and said to them, ‘What do you do?’ They said to him, We are clowns. We bring cheer to the downhearted. Or else, when we see two people quarrel, we go and make peace between them’…
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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