Avraham's Fear and Our Complacency

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Student Summaries of Sichot of the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion





Avraham's Fear and Our Complacency


Adapted by Shaul Barth

Translated by Kaeren Fish



"After these things, God's word came to Avram, saying, 'Do not fear, Avram: I am your shield; your reward is very great'" (Bereishit 15:1).  Our Sages teach that in every instance where God reassures someone and tells him not to be afraid, the person concerned is indeed afraid. We find an example of this in the case of Yaakov: after the text tells us, "Yaakov was very afraid and it troubled him" (Bereishit 32:8), an angel comes to reassure him.


It is not clear, in our case, what Avraham fears; therefore, the midrashim attempt to fill in the picture.  R. Levi (Bereishit Rabba 44:4) offers two possibilities as to why Avraham would be fearful.  The first suggests that Avraham fears that he has committed a sin by killing innocent people in war; the second proposes that he fears that all of the surrounding nations will wage a war of vengeance against him. R. Levi describes the former fear with the words, "Lest among all of those people whom I killed there was a single righteous or God-fearing person."


We might have expected God's response to assure Avraham that even if he had taken an innocent life, he would have done so by mistake and would not be held guilty. Such things happen in wartime.  But the Midrash puts a different message in God's mouth: it compares Avraham to a man who sees a pile of thorns in the king's garden, and goes about removing them. Then he sees that the king has been watching him – and he tries to run away. The king tells him not to run, for had he not removed the thorns, the king would have had to hire someone else to do it; therefore, that man himself should come and receive his reward.


This parable is quite astounding: God is telling Avraham that among all the people he killed, there were no righteous ones. However, this implies that if there had been any "righteous or God-fearing" victims, Avraham's actions indeed would have been morally problematic, and he was right to fear this possibility.


R. Levi thus presents Avraham's first concern as being for the morality of his actions, and his second concern as being for his own physical safety and that of his household.


To our sorrow, we currently find ourselves in the midst of an armed struggle with our neighbors. It is possible that during the course of this struggle, we may come to forget the message that Avraham symbolizes. From time to time, we hear of mistakes made during the course of I.D.F. operations against terrorists, in which Palestinian civilians are killed. We certainly make no accusation against the soldiers for their dedicated defense of Israeli lives.  However, we must ask ourselves whether we devote sufficient thought and concern to the possibility that we have accidentally taken the lives of innocent people, or whether we have convinced ourselves that all those who have died are indeed "thorns."  I direct my words not mainly at the commanders of the I.D.F., who generally tend to be cautious about civilian casualties, but rather at our own religious community.


An absurd situation has been created whereby anti-religious secularists present themselves, and are seen by others, as the country's moral compass and conscience, while Rabbis and Torah scholars fail to take a stand on the country's burning moral issues. There are numerous reasons for this: the religious community tends to be more nationalist than other sectors of Israeli society; the religious community understands that the battle is not only about land, but stems from something deeper; the religious community feels more closely bound to the land and is less accepting of any questioning of our control of it. But none of these facts can explain the phenomenon of ignoring the moral questions and issues that arise from the situation in which we find ourselves.


It is clear that our battle is just and that terrorists must be fought with all our might. We reject out of hand the approach of the foreign governments that want to portray us as colonialist conquerors and our presence as immoral. We are certain of the morality of the war that we are in the midst of, but at the same time we must ask ourselves why the concerns that so disturb Avraham do not disturb us.



[This sicha was delivered at seuda shelishit, Shabbat parashat Lekh Lekha 5763 (2002).]