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Who is Worthy of Being Chosen?

  • Rav Yoel Bin-Nun
Dedicated in memory of Elyakim ben Michael z”l
whose yahrtzeit is 19 Cheshvan
By Family Rueff
The idea of selection, ever since Avraham, is connected to the idea of commandment (and the Torah) and keeping the way of God: "For I have known [= selected] him, to the end that he may command his children and his household after him, that they may keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice" (Bereishit 18:19). But the commander here is not God, but Avraham.[1] Thus, the first source of authority in Israel is autonomous, and not heteronomous. This stands in sharp contrast to the prophecy of Moshe, where the commander is God: "And the Lord spoke to Moshe, saying." No such expression is used in connection with the patriarchs. God selected the patriarchs, and they command.
Along with the idea of selection and the mission of "keeping the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice" in accordance with Avraham's commandments, we have here another great innovation:
And the Lord said: Shall I hide from Avraham that which I am doing, seeing that Avraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? For I have known him, to the end that he may command his children and his household after him, that they may keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice. (Bereishit 18:17-19)
Because Avraham was chosen for this purpose, it was therefore necessary that God's plans concerning the world be revealed to him in advance.
This amazing innovation turns the religious conclusions known to us from the book of Iyov upside down. The chosen party becomes a partner, a converser, a debater with supreme Providence! This partnership is explained as being based on the selection: It is impossible to keep Providence's plan from Avraham, seeing that he was chosen, and in particular because he was chosen to command future generations to keep "the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice." Therefore, it is impossible to administer justice in the world without him.
From here follows Avraham's argument:
Will You indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?… Shall not the judge of all the earth do justly? (Bereishit 18:23-25)
Here we must raise a two-part question:
1. Why didn't God answer Avraham, as he answered Iyov: "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare, if you have the understanding" (Iyov 38:4)? What happened to the "religious rhetoric" ("Can you find out the deep things of God"; Iyov 11:7) that was so expertly presented in various styles by all the characters in the book of Iyov, with the exception of Iyov himself, until he finally submitted to the (twofold) answer of God from the tempest: "I had heard of You by the hearing of the ear; but now my eye sees You; therefore I abhor my words, and repent, seeing I am dust and ashes" (Iyov 42:5-6)? Surely Avraham was well aware that he too was nothing but "dust and ashes" (Bereishit 18:27)! Why, then, did God ignore Iyov, but relate to Avraham's arguments as just claims and answer him matter-of-factly: "If I found in Sodom fifty righteous men within the city, then I will forgive all the place for their sake" (Bereishit 18:26)?
2. Why did God say to Iyov (in contrast to Avraham) that man has a limited mind and cannot understand the laws of creation or the ways of providence? Why did God respond to Avraham's arguments, but not to Iyov's cries? Why did God not reply to Iyov's words:
Oh that I knew where I might find Him, that I might come even to His seat! I would order my cause before Him, and fill my mouth with arguments. I would know the words which He would answer me, and understand what He would say to me… There the upright might reason with Him; so should I be delivered forever from my judge. Behold, I go forward, but He is not there, and backward, but I cannot perceive Him. (Iyov 23:3-8)
Precisely at this point, God says to Avraham: "For I have known him," and therefore He opens the gate before him, so that he might come "to his seat," to "order his cause before Him," to fill his mouth with "arguments," to know what He might answer him, where "the upright might reason with him." But Iyov is left outside, alone with his cry: "O that I might know where to find him!"
According to what is written in Scripture, the answer is simple: Avraham was chosen, and therefore he is God's partner. Iyov was not chosen, and therefore he remains outside. But why? Does this all stem from God's arbitrary will, which may not be questioned or challenged? This is impossible, for with regard to Avraham, a first-rate moral argument is presented: One who was selected to pass down to coming generations the flag of righteousness and justice" cannot be excluded from the administration of justice!
The Torah's answer to these questions follows clearly from the chapters dealing with Avraham in the book of Bereishit (as opposed to the book of Iyov), and it is stated explicitly in a prophecy of Yechezkel:
And the word of the Lord came to me, saying: Son of man, when a land sins against Me by trespassing grievously, and I stretch out My hand upon it, and break the staff of the bread thereof, and send famine upon it, and cut off from it man and beast; though these three men, Noach, Daniel, and Iyov, were in it, they should deliver but their own souls by their righteousness, says the Lord God. 
If I cause evil beasts to pass through the land, and they bereave it, and it be desolate, so that no man may pass through because of the beasts; though these three men were in it, as I live, says the Lord God, they shall deliver neither sons nor daughters; they only shall be delivered, but the land shall be desolate.
Or if I bring a sword upon that land, and say: Let the sword go through the land, so that I cut off from it man and beast; though these three men were in it, as I live, says the Lord God, they shall deliver neither sons nor daughters, but they only shall be delivered themselves.
Or if I send a pestilence into that land, and pour out My fury upon it in blood, to cut off from it man and beast; though Noach, Daniel, and Iyov, were in it, as I live, says the Lord God, they shall deliver neither son nor daughter; they shall but deliver their own souls by their righteousness. (Yechezkel 14:12-20) 
Noach, a righteous man, humbly accepted the decree concerning the destruction of the entire world and his own and his family's salvation. He built the ark, entered it together with his family and every species of animals, one family of each species, and waited until the floodwaters receded from the earth. Noach did as God had commanded him (Bereishit 6:9-7:5), provided that he be saved together with his family. The world could drown, for the righteous had their ark. As Yechezkel formulated this: "They only shall be delivered, but the land shall be desolate." It never occurred to Noach (and perhaps he did not know that it was possible) to pray for the rescue of his contemporaries, for the salvation of the world. This is the root of the difference between him and Avraham according to the understanding of Chazal.[2]
Iyov cried out from the enormity of his afflictions and humiliation. But as long as Iyov was a distinguished judge, whom all those around him, young and old, admired, feared, and rose up to honor (Iyov 29), it never occurred to him that there was injustice in the world.[3] Injustice entered his consciousness only when he himself became a victim, or as Yechezkel put it: "They should deliver but their own souls by their righteousness." This does not mean that Iyov's cries lacked merit; his righteousness is not in question. But his righteousness was limited, driven by self-concern ("It may be that my sons have sinned"; Iyov 1:5). Its horizons were closed by the immanent disregard of all those outside its self-concern. Its heaven was locked from a substantive answer to prayers, cries, arguments, and protests:
But wisdom, where shall it be found? And where is the place of understanding? Man knows not the price thereof; neither is it found in the land of the living… God understands the way thereof, and He knows the place thereof. For He looks to the ends of the earth and sees under the whole heaven… And to man He said: Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding. (Iyov 28:12-28)
This is the closed view of true religious righteousness. Its foundation lies in the fear of heaven and its head is surrounded by the fear of heaven, but the heavens will never open to or answer it! According to this concept of righteousness, there is no partnership between God and man; there is only a barrier! The truest religious righteousness is enclosed within its box/ark, like Noach and like Iyov, and there is no way out!
It may be a little surprising at first glance, but nowhere is Avraham called a righteous man. It was not said about Avraham that he was a righteous man – not more than Noach, nor at all! Moreover, there is no mention or description of Avraham's deeds before he was chosen.[4] Therefore, his selection is linked to purpose, rather than to cause. It is not stated here: "For I have known him, that Avraham is righteous and a whole-hearted man, who walks with God all his days," but rather: "that he may command" the coming generations. Purpose by its very nature is unlimited, whereas every cause is necessarily limited. Purpose alone can be endless:
For I have known him, to the end that he may command his children and his household after him, that they may keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice, to the end that the Lord may bring upon Avraham that which He has spoken of him. (Bereishit 18:19)
Avraham was a prophet, and by virtue of his prophecy, he prayed for other people, even if they wronged him and took his wife, exploiting the breach of "my sister," as in the case of Avimelekh, the king of Gerar:
Now therefore restore the man's wife; for he is a prophet, and he shall pray for you, and you shall live; and if you restore her not, know you that you shall surely die, you, and all that are yours. (Bereishit 20:7)
Indeed, there is a strong connection between Avimelekh and Avraham, on the one hand, and Avimelekh and Iyov, on the other, and it allows us to point out the main difference between the figures of Iyov and Avimelekh and that of Avraham. Iyov and Avimelekh cried out about themselves, whereas Avraham prayed for others. Avimelekh said: "Lord, will You slay even a righteous nation" (Bereishit 20:4), and Iyov cried out: "I am innocent – I regard not myself, I despise my life. It is all one; therefore, I say: He destroys the innocent and the wicked" (Iyov 9:21-22). Avraham, on the other hand, prays for Sodom, the subject of a decree of destruction: "Will You indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked" (Bereishit 18:23). Even though he knew that his nephew Lot lived in Sodom, and he had already rescued him in the war of the kings (Bereishit 14:14-16), Avraham did not pray only for his relatives, but for the entire city of sinners: "Will You indeed sweep away and not forgive the place for the fifty righteous that are therein?" (Bereishit 18:24). God acceded to his request in principle: "If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will forgive all the place for their sake" (Bereishit 18:26).
Avraham also accepted upon himself the prophecy of purpose and selection for posterity ("his children and his household after him"). Avraham is not described as one who offered sacrifices in order to atone for his sons, "It may be that my sons have sinned" (Iyov 1:5); he did just the opposite at the Akeida. Avraham called upon the name of God, in a way that certainly related not only to his seed, but also to "his trained men, born in his house" (Bereishit 14:14), and perhaps also to his friends and confederates (Bereishit 14:13), at least those whose covenants and oaths did not depend on something else.
In contrast, his covenant with Avimelekh (Bereishit 21:22-32) was a covenant of interests, of ending the wronging of Sara and the stealing of the field, on the one hand, and of preventing a lie that would harm the kingdom in the future, on the other. Indeed, calling upon the name of God is mentioned there only after Avimelekh and Fikhol leave (Bereishit 21:33). Therefore, the principle of responsibility for all and the absence of personal interest was somewhat undermined in the wake of Avraham's covenant with and oath to Avimelekh, as if Avraham descended to the rank of "the leaders of the generation." This led to the test of the Akeida, which revealed the devotion of Avraham and Yitzchak, who asked nothing for themselves, and at the end of which the selection of Avraham and his descendants was renewed.
Therefore, Avraham merited to bring into the world the prophecy of prayer, which means partnership with God, and the right to discuss and even argue with Him about the ways of Divine governance, as God said to Avimelekh in a dream: "Now therefore restore the man's wife; for he is a prophet, and he shall pray for you, and you shall live" (Bereishit 20:7).
I use the term "prayer" (tefilla), derived from the root p-l-l, in the sense of legal discussion by virtue of legal standing, and not in the usual religious sense of supplication and pleading.[5] On the contrary, Avraham's pleadings, "I am but dust and ashes" (Bereishit 18:27), appear only after the judgment is over! Avraham received a response and understood from it that Sodom lacked "fifty righteous men," that is to say, an influential group that he had reason to believe that Lot had established in the city. Then Avraham began to bargain about the number in supplicatory terms, revealing the bitter truth with each additional answer, when his pleas were easily accepted. 
The supplications followed the prayer/tefilla (as is Jewish practice until this very day), but they are not the same. Tefilla is a legal discussion: "Man is judged every day" (Rosh Hashana 16a); "Execute justice in the morning" (Yirmeyahu 21:12). Tefillin, the term also being derived from the root p-l-l, are a sign (according to the Torah) and testimony about our faith and righteousness in this judgment. The prophecy of prayer of the patriarchs provides legal standing and defense also to their descendants, a right for which the patriarchs were selected and worked, the right to discuss and argue, "there the upright might reason with Him" (Iyov 23:7). Everything that Iyov had asked for but did not merit receiving, Avraham received for himself and for his seed after him (see Iyov 9:19-10:17, and also chapter 13).[6]
(Translated by David Strauss)

[1] See the Ramban's comment on the verse: "Because Avraham hearkened to My voice, and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws" (Bereishit 26:5): "As one who acts without being commanded."
[2] See Tanchuma Noach 5-6; Rashi, Bereishit 6:9; Sanhedrin 108a.
[3] This is the way R. Joseph Soloveitchik explained Iyov's suffering and its resolution, with his wonderful insight that Iyov's salvation could only come after he left his closed world and prayed on behalf of his friends who had wronged him: "And the Lord changed the fortune of Iyov, when he prayed for his friends" (Iyov 42:10). Only then did he come close to Avraham's standing (R. Soloveitchik, Kol Dodi Dofek, in Ish Ha-Emuna [Jerusalem, 1971], pp. 71-74).
[4] In contrast to the midrashim about Avraham's recognition of his Creator and the clashes with his environment before "Lekh-lekha." See Bereishit Rabba 38:2 (ed. Theodor-Albeck), pp. 361-364; ibid. 39:1, p. 365; Tanchuma Lekh-Lekha 4; Rashi and Ramban, Bereishit 11:28; Rambam, Hilkhot Avoda Zara, chapter 1. None of this is mentioned in Scripture, and not by chance; any mention of a reason of righteousness would impair Avraham's selection.
[5] In special cases we find the sense of legal discussion also in the words of Chazal. For example: "'Then stood up Pinchas, va-yefalel' (Tehillim 106:30)… - this teaches that he argued with his Maker" (Sanhedrin 44a). So too we find in a midrash on the verse: "And she prayed [va-titpalel] to the Lord, and wept sore" (I Shemuel 1:10): "R. Elazar said in the name of R. Yose ben Zimra: She said to the Holy One, blessed is He: Master of the universe, is there anything that You created in vain? You created eyes to see, ears to hear, a mouth to speak, a nose to smell, hands to do work. These breasts that You created over my heart, are they not to nurse? Give me a child to nurse from them. R. Elazar said: She reproached God, as it is stated: 'Vatitpalel to the Lord'" (Yalkut Shimoni Shemuel 78).
[6] One of the few people who correctly understood prophetic prayer was Yochanan Muffs. See Y. Muffs, Bein Din Le-Rachamim: Tefilatan shel Nevi'im, in A. Shapira (ed.), Torah Nidreshet (Tel-Aviv, 1984), pp. 39-87. My thanks to Chanan Eshel for the reference.