Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Avraham and realpolitik

I was recently reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Henry Kissinger, and Kissinger’s realpolitik came to mind when reviewing Lech Lecha. Avraham lived in the middle of a multi-kingdom war, yet if not for Lot capture it seems he would not have intervened, even though his military might had the power to turn the battle. Was Avraham motivated only by the practical expediency of saving Lot? Was there no moral reason to come to the aid of the kingdom of Sdom and the others who were vanquished? True, they were evil kingdoms, but G-d had not yet revealed that they would be destroyed - perhaps there were yet moral people worth saving. Or was there perhaps no clear moral reason to help one side of this fight over the other, if not for Lot’s capture?

19 comments:

  1. or maybe avraham only beat the four kings through a nes and really did not have the military strength therefore he did not get invoved because al pi derech hatevah he would have lost. once lot was at risk he got involved even though he did his hishtatdlus and hashem made a nes.
    even if u want to argue that avraham knew that hashem would perform a nes for him who said there is any moral or ethical imperitve to get involved and have hashem do a nes for him at the risk of losing his own zechusim- as the parsha and mefarshim explain that avraham was worried that he would not have kids because he used his zechusim and therefore right after the torah tells us about the war it tells of hashem making a havtacha to avraham that he will have kids

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  2. I would think it is the latter. This war seemed to be about control. Note that the entire population was taken alive -- no indication that there was slaughter of innocents here. In that case (and given the wickedness of the vanquished), it would seem that in a world where war for expansion for one's territory was recognized (how is this different than a milchemes reshus), that there was no moral imperative to save one or the other.

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  3. >>>who said there is any moral or ethical imperitve to get involved and have hashem do a nes for him at the risk of losing his own zechusim

    By that reasoning (and Anon1s), why get involved to rescue Lot, who was not in mortal danger and spritually had already proven his lack of devotion by taking up residence in Sdom? M'mah nafshach - either take a moral stance against an expansionist war driving people from their homes, or sit at home and count your own zechusim even if its costs your kin their property.

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  4. How would a mere 318 men turn the battle (while the battle is raging, perhaps, but Avraham's action was after the 5 kings had already fled)?

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  5. Unrelated question: Why did the rebellion of the 5 cities cause Kedarlaomer to destroy Ashteros Karnayim, Ham, Shaveih Kiryasayim, etc.?

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  6. I don't understand question #1 - how they did it I don't know, but they did manage to win the war.

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  7. anon13:57 PM

    I always understood Avraham's saving of Lot as consistent with the notion of me-besarcha al tisalem -- as the pasuk in our parsha says - vayishma Avram ki nishba ACHIV, that's what made him go. Chaim, how do you read it?

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  8. who said it was only an issue of loss of property
    if u assume that lot was at risk of death then i think it is understandable that avraham would risk his life and put himself in a situation where hashem did a nes because his nephew was at risk of death
    furthermore he may have felt responsible as lot came to eretz canan along with avraham and to some extent it is now avraham's fault that lot is in mortal danger
    and yes a nes was required but then again avaraham had to do what was right and therefore he had to save a relative that he brought with him and therefore was in mortal danger even if al pi derech hatevah avraham cant win and would require a nes

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  9. dd,
    >>>who said it was only an issue of loss of property

    Anon1 wrote earlier -
    This war seemed to be about control. Note that the entire population was taken alive -- no indication that there was slaughter of innocents here.

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  10. >>>I always understood Avraham's saving of Lot as consistent with the notion of me-besarcha al tisalem

    Do you mean Avraham applied a different moral calculus simply because his own family became involved?
    See the Seforno's comment on pasuk 13 when the "Palit" comes to report what happened:

    לא שֶׁיָּדַע הַפָּלִיט שֶׁיִּהְיֶה אַבְרָם קָרוב לְלוט, רַק יָדַע שֶׁהָיָה מַחְזִיק בְּדֵעות עֵבֶר כָּמוהוּ

    IOW, if I understand it correctly, the Seforno is saying that the Palit was unaware that Avraham was Lot's relative but came to him anyway because he knew Avraham would not just go with the flow, but would take action against oppression. Based on the Seforno it seems Avraham did take an interventionist stance based on moral concerns. That he did not do so sooner was perhaps because he was unaware of the situation.

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  11. anon15:03 PM

    -- Do you mean Avraham applied a different moral calculus simply because his own family became involved?

    I did mean that -- but justifiable, again based on the notion from Yeshaya that even within the mitzvos of tzedaka and chesed there is a greater chiyuv to one's family. Perhaps as one of the other commenters suggest, there is some aspect of either responsibility or hakaras ha-tov -- but in any event, yes I was suggesting that Avraham would feel a greater sense of obligation for his relative, but no, I would not view that as a moral shortcoming.

    I agree with you that the Seforno presents a very different picture -- I dont have a chumash with a Seforno here but I'm curious how he learns the implication of the pasuk that what moved Avraham was the capture of his relative. Thanks for drawing attention to it!

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  12. Derech agav: here is online chumash, rashi, ramban, rashbam, seforno. A must bookmark resource (otherwise I would have missed the seforno also!)
    http://www.daat.ac.il/daat/olam_hatanah/perekT.asp?sefer=1&perek=14

    I agree with you in general that there are different degrees of obligation with regard to certain mitzvos, but I would have thought taking action to prevent potential loss of life (and I hear your claim that it may not have been an issue here) or loss of people's basic necessities would be transcend those considerations. Mefarnisim aniyei aku"m along with aniyei yisrael. Where there is a competition for resources, then m'bsarcha al tisalem dictates priorities, but I'm not sure it applies here.
    I also hear dd's concern that by taking action it perhaps unnecessarily opened Avraham al pi teva to the dangers of war - to what degree must one endanger himself for the sake of a moral crusade on others behalf?
    Tough questions...

    One last point - don't we usually darshen achiv to mean achiv b'mitzvos? How does that relate to Lot?

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  13. what about my other point that to some degree avraham felt responsible for lot's getting caught up in the war
    firstly he brought him here from another country and further more he told him to leave (yes there were good reasons for that) but at the end of the day if not for either of these two things lot would not have been caught up in the war
    either bec he would be back in charan or would be with avraham in eretz canan but would not have been with sidom to get caught in the middle of the war

    and yes it was lots choice to leave avraham and as the meforshim say he wanted to get away from hashem
    but at the end of the way to some degree avraham contributed to lot's being caught up in the war

    this will not answer the kasha from the seforno however if u argue that og didnt know that lot was related to avraham and assumed that avraham would just get involved because of all the people involved then you can ask what was og thinking didnt he realize that avraham hadnt gone out yet even though the whole war was going on. el mai u must say that og thought avraham didnt know
    that there was a war going on.
    so maybe that is true that avraham didnt know about the war
    and like i said if u will say that isnt mistaver that avraham wouldnt know of a world war then what was og thinking

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  14. OTOH, if Lot had not chosen to leave Avraham and live alone in Sdom, would he have been captured? It was Lot's choice - Avraham did not send him away. Should Avraham really have any guilt over this? I don't know if I buy this approach.

    On a different note, isn't it ironic that for all of Avraham's kiruv he could not bring around totally Lot?

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  15. i agree that it was lots choice to leave avraham but if we take a mussar approach then it is possible to say that avraham had some responsibility

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  16. the gemara in nedarim 32a is very telling with regard to chazal's attitude to this; they say that avraham was punished for pulling guys out of the beit midrash to fight the war.

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  17. also, see rashi, ramban, and midrashim on 15:6 - avraham was afraid that the killing he did was unjustified.

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  18. IIRC Nedarim 32 IIRC is a machlokes, but anyway, the critique is for using talmidei chachamim to fight, not for entering the war per se.

    The second point is a seperate issue - I imagine that even when there is moral justification to act with force, those who pull the trigger suffer feelings of guilt and discomfort afterwards. I seem to recall reading about similar reactions of police officers forced to kill criminals in the line of duty.

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  19. What I mean is, why would Avraham expect that 318 men - presumably with no military training - could turn the tide of the war. True, they did, but I don't see that the mission, based on the numbers, could be conceivably viewed as an easy optional mission, as opposed to an imperative one. Which, I suppose, transforms back into your question of why.

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