SALT - Sunday, 5 Cheshvan 5777 - November 6, 2016

  • Rav David Silverberg

            The Torah tells in Parashat Lekh-Lekha of Avraham's refusal to accept the offer made by the king of Sedom that Avraham keep the property of Sedom which he had rescued from the armies that had plundered the city.  Avraham swore to the king that he would not take even a "thread or shoelace" from the retrieved property (14:23).

            The Gemara in Masekhet Chulin (89a) finds it very significant that Avraham went so far as to refuse even these simple materials, stating that in reward for this declaration, Avraham's descendants received the mitzva of tzitzit – which involves a thread – and the mitzva of tefillin, which involves a strap (resembling a shoe strap).

            An especially novel approach to explaining the Gemara's comment is taken by Rav Yehuda Yehoshua Falk Israelite (who served as Chief Rabbi of Chelsea, Massachusetts), in his Te'udat Yisrael (pp. 43-44).  He suggests that the Gemara understood Avraham's proclamation as referring not to an ordinary thread and shoelace, but rather to special badges that were given to war heroes as signs of their success and heroism.  Avraham announced to the king of Sedom that he was not interested in any of Sedom's property or in any recognition or honor.  Even a simple badge or color to salute his extraordinary military achievement would not be accepted, in order to prevent the king of Sedom from later taking credit for Avraham's wealth and prestige.

            On this basis, Rav Yehuda Yehoshua explains, we can perhaps understand the connection between Avraham's declaration and the mitzvot of tzitzit and tefillin.  Both tzitzit and tefillin are worn on our bodies and serve as tangible signs of our loyalty and devotion to God.  Rather than wear signs of honor and prestige given to us by other people, we wear and display these signs of our humble submission to God.  Avraham was not interested in recognition; his goal and ambition was to live a noble and spiritual life devoted to the service of God.  And thus instead of medals and badges celebrating military success, his descendants wear tzitzit and tefillin, symbols of our subservience to the Almighty.

            If so, then this Talmudic passage reminds us to aspire not to fame and recognition, but to loyally serving God.  We should be pursuing not public signs of success of achievement, but rather the status signified by tzitzit and tefillin – the status of faithful and committed avdei Hashem.