Our forefather Avraham was not only a person of tremendous belief and a person of exceptional action, but also someone who amassed immense wealth. Considering the fact that Avraham was the recipient of Hashem’s blessings for success and the beneficiary of His guidance and protection, this should come as no surprise to us. However, when tracking Avraham’s climb to great prosperity, it is of value to note that he did not accept every opportunity to add to his fortune.
In this week’s parasha, Avraham receives “flock and cattle and servants and maidservants”, in addition to “one thousand silver pieces” from Avimelech (Bereishit 20:14–16). Prior to receiving these gifts, he was far from impoverished. In last week’s parasha, he received “flock and cattle and donkeys and servants and maidservants and she-donkeys and camels” from Pharaoh (Bereishit 12:16), and was described as departing Egypt, “very heavy, with cattle, with silver and with gold” (Bereishit 13:2).
Avraham seems entirely comfortable allowing his personal fortune to grow from the gifts of Pharaoh and Avimelech. Yet, when it came to the negotiations following the war between the four kings and the five kings in last week’s parasha, Avram appears to adopt a very different approach to accepting wealth from others. Notwithstanding the King of Sedom’s significant offer to give Avram all the spoils of war, Avram raised his hand to Hashem and vowed not to take anything at all, “from a thread to a shoe-lace,” lest the king of Sedom be able to claim that it was he that made Avram wealthy (Bereishit 14:23–24).
Rashi (Bereishit 14:23) explains that the source of Avram’s concern was that he had been blessed by Hashem, so that Hashem would make him prosperous, which is why he rejected the opportunity to take riches from the king of Sedom, which could potentially send the wrong message as to the true source of his wealth.
Whilst Avram’s actions in this episode were most noble and praiseworthy, they raise a question about the other occasions when he did not express similar concerns. Why was he so determined not to receive wealth from Sedom, yet perfectly comfortable receiving wealth from Pharaoh and from Avimelech?
Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky zt”l explained this seeming inconsistency with a powerful message. Based on the proverb, “The blessing of Hashem will make wealthy, and it will not add sadness with it” (Mishlei 10:22), Rav Kamenetsky explained that Avraham knew that the wealth offered by Sedom could not possibly be from the intended blessing of Hashem, for it was a fortune that came as a result of the misfortune of others. In the episodes of Pharaoh and Avimelech, their financial gifts to Avraham did not come at anyone else’s expense. In such situations, Avraham could confidently and comfortably receive Hashem’s blessings through these messengers and circumstances. However, when Avraham sensed that the wealth he was being offered would cause pain and suffering to others, he raised his hand and refused to accept the slightest gift, “from a thread to a shoe-lace.”
When recently reciting the prayer for rain, we asked Hashem that the rainfall should be “for blessing and not for curse, for life and not for death, for plenty and not for scarcity.” Though they may seem tautologous, these prayers reflect the reality that Avraham was keen to avoid, for one person’s blessing could at the very same time be another person’s curse. What enhances the lives of some could be simultaneously detrimental to the lives of others.
May we be showered with blessings from Hashem, and may our good fortune never be the source of misfortune for others.
Rabbi Danny Mirvis is deputy CEO of World Mizrachi, and rabbi of Ohel Moshe Synagogue in Herzliya Pituach.