When Avraham and Sarah travel to Gerar they hide their relationship as husband and wife. They fear that Avraham will be killed by the natives and Sarah taken by force. In fact, Avimelech, the King, seizes Sarah and only returns her unharmed through Divine intervention. Avimelech asks Avraham, "What did you see, that you did this thing?" Avraham responds:
כִּ֣י אָמַ֗רְתִּי רַ֚ק אֵין־יִרְאַ֣ת אֱלֹהִ֔ים בַּמָּק֖וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה וַהֲרָג֖וּנִי עַל־דְּבַ֥ר אִשְׁתִּֽי
"For I said, only that there is no fear of God in this place,
and they will kill me because of my wife
Malbim focuses on the word "only." He explains that Avimelech protests that Gerar was a civilized society with laws and mores of behavior. Why should Avraham fear that someone would cause him harm?
Avraham responds that Avimelech is correct that Gerar is civilized with laws and a code of ethics. Avraham has only one concern. Their ethical code and morals are not grounded in fear of God. Avraham fears that when tempted, one can easily become swayed and then rationalize their inappropriate behavior.
Only a sense of right and wrong informed by the Divine wisdom of Torah, firmly grounded in fear of Hashem is ultimately sustainable.
Pirke Avot begins, "Moshe received the Torah at Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the elders, and the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly."
Why does this chain of transmission appear in the middle of the Mishna? It would seem more appropriate for it to appear before the very first tractate, Berachot. Rabbi Obadiah of Bertinoro suggests that the previous tractates which discuss ritual law such as prayer, Shabbat and the festivals are more readily accepted as emanating from God. Avot, which features our Jewish ethics may be viewed as constructed by ethicists, not unlike every civilized society which has a code of ethics and mores. This preamble teaches us that our ethics are based on what was Divinely revealed at Sinai and transmitted through the generations, the eternal, immutable word of God.
We know all too well that religion alone is no guarantee of appropriate behavior, and at times, is the very rationale and catalyst for horrible behavior. We experienced this once again this week in the murderous act of terror perpetrated against innocent civilians in New York.
Our Sages teach us, "Love disrupts the natural order and hate disrupts the natural order." (Breishith Rabbah Vayera 55:8). Love, hate, anger, jealousy, temptation can all skew our thinking. We can be driven to do terrible things and convince ourselves of the righteousness of our actions.
The Book of Breishith is also known as Sefer Hayashar, the Book of the Upright. The Netziv explains that this Book of the Torah describes the lives of the Avot, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. They were paradigms of being yashar, upright. They related to all people with sensitivity, kindness, empathy, honesty and love. We see an example in this Parsha in Avraham's passionate pleas on behalf of the residents of Sodom, although he certainly would not condone their way of life.
There is no foolproof formula to guarantee that we will do the right thing in all circumstances. We are human beings. First, we must always look honestly into ourselves to discern when our subjectivity distorts our perception. If we do this and allow ourselves to be guided by the wisdom of Torah and inspired by the righteousness of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs, we can strive to lead lives worthy of being heirs to their faith.
Good Shabbos and Shabbat Shalom,