The Torah in Parashat Lekh-Lekha (chapter 14) tells of the military operation that Avraham waged with a small army against the four armies that had captured Sedom and Amora, and took their inhabitants captives. Avraham launched his attack upon hearing that his nephew, Lot, who had lived in Sedom, was among the captives, and he miraculously triumphed, defeating the four armies and freeing all the people of Sedom.
The Mishna in Pirkei Avot (5:3) states that Avraham underwent and withstood ten “trials,” without explaining what these trials were. Different lists are presented by the various commentators, but all seem to agree that Avraham’s war against the four empires who had captured Sedom ranks among these ten tests. With an army numbering just 318 men (14:14), Avraham risked his life by heading out to battle against a force consisting of four armies, and this was one of his ten “tests.”
Rav Yosef Salant, in his Be’er Yosef (Parashat Lekh-Lekha), raises the question of why this battle is regarded as one of Avraham’s “trials” when Avraham – so it seems – voluntarily took this challenge upon himself. The other trials listed by the commentators involve difficult commands which Avraham received, such as leaving his homeland, and sacrificing his son, or difficult circumstances into which he was thrust against his will, such as having his life threatened for rejecting idolatry, and facing a severe famine in Canaan. The war against the four empires, however, was a challenge which Avraham voluntarily undertook for the sake of rescuing his nephew. Can this really be considered a “trial” if Avraham chose to place himself in this life-threatening situation?
Rav Salant answered by noting Rashi’s comment that Avraham had made a commitment to Lot before he left and settled in Sedom. When an argument broke out between Avraham’s and Lot’s shepherds, Avraham proposed to Lot that they part ways, offering Lot the choice of where to settle (13:9). Rashi writes that Avraham pledged to Lot at this time, “Wherever you reside, I will not be distant from you, and I will be there for you for protection and assistance.” Avraham’s decision to wage war to rescue his nephew was not purely voluntary. It was the fulfillment of the promise he had made to Lot, that although they were parting ways, he would always be ready and prepared to offer Lot assistance when this was needed.
For this reason, Rav Salant explained, this battle is listed among Avraham’s trials. He was compelled to go to war because if he didn’t, he would be in violation of his commitment to his nephew. Rav Salant writes that refraining from attempting to rescue Lot would have created a chilul Hashem – a defamation of God, as he, who taught about God’s existence and His expectations of people, would be violating an explicit promise to his own kin. The test of this battle, then, was the test of integrity, of keeping his word even when this entailed great hardship and self-sacrifice.
Avraham’s going out to war to rescue his nephew shows us the importance of maintaining our integrity even when this is difficult and inconvenient. Just as Avraham undertook the drastic measure of waging war for the sake of fulfilling his pledge to Lot, we, too, must remain honest and keep the promises we make even under difficult circumstances and even when this entails great difficulty and sacrifice.