July 24, 2024
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What Are You Worrying About?

It’s war time! Avraham Avinu heads out to war to try to recapture and regain his nephew, Lot, who was taken captive under the jurisdiction of four kings. Avraham wasn’t just outnumbered, he was barely even a number. In fact, Avraham only had one other teammate join him in the upcoming battle, his loyal servant Eliezer (see Rashi, 14:14). Nevertheless, despite being the underdogs, to say the least, Avraham emerged victorious. Interestingly enough, however, the pasuk (15:1) tells us that in the aftermath of the victory, Avraham was in a state of fear, while Hashem responds to Avraham’s fearful state by saying, “Don’t fear, your reward [in olam haba] is great.” Why is Avraham afraid, and what does Hashem telling him about his great reward in the next world help to overcome his fear?

Rashi explains that since Hashem did a miracle for him by being able to kill the kings, Avraham was therefore worried that perhaps he used up all his merits by being granted this miracle. Perhaps Hashem had to use Avrahams treasured reward in olam haba im order to grant him such a miracle, and thus Avraham was very worried that he was at an all-time low in terms of having reward in olam haba. Therefore Hashem “calmed him down” and reassured him that his reward in olam haba is vast.

Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash, Bereishit, p. 107 & 108) asks: Avraham venturing forth to fight the enemy was a “dvar mitzvah,” it was a noble and righteous act in order to save his nephew Lot. And from the fact that he didn’t even take any of the spoils from the enemy shows that he clearly had the purest intentions, unadulterated by any other motivations or biases! If so, why was Avraham worried that perhaps he used up his merits in olam haba just because a miracle occurred on his behalf!?

There’s generally two perspectives in relation to a person’s spiritual growth. One way of thinking is that one tells him or herself, “I did enough good deeds, I’m righteous”; “I did my time,” as they say. The other way of thinking is based on a real concern: “Perhaps I didn’t do enough”; “maybe I did things that I should not have, which caused me to use up my merits in this world and cause a lack of them in the next world.” Rav Wolbe explains that the latter is the way the Torah wants us to think. In fact, the Rosh in Orchot Chaim (92) writes that a person should worry that he not receive his reward in olam haba in this world. Hence, Avraham, after being miraculously saved from the war, was deeply worried that perhaps this “gift” was coming off his account in olam haba. This idea is echoed by the Orchot Tzadikim who writes that if things are going good for a person and he has tranquility, he should worry that perhaps they are coming off his account in olam haba.

The Orchot Tzaddikim, labels “worry” as a middah, a character trait, meaning that one has the ability to reach a level to focus on what or what not to worry about. When it’s in the realm of spiritual matters, this is considered praiseworthy, as Mishlei (28:14) writes, “Praiseworthy is the one who always fears,” as this concern can motivate one to constantly strive for more.

On the one hand, we may learn from Avraham that one who worries that perhaps he is falling short of good deeds is essentially a person who does not consider himself to be righteous. On the opposite spectrum, Pirkei Avot (Chp. 2) teaches that one should not consider himself wicked. So how does one view his personal situation? The Gemara (Kiddushin, 40) makes a compromise: “A person should always see himself as if he is 50% guilty, and 50% meritorious; if he does one mitzvah, he is praiseworthy for he tipped the scales to the side of merit, whereas if he does a misdeed, woe to him for he has tipped the scales to the side of liability.” [Rebbi Shimon Ben Elazar takes it even further and describes one to view not only himself, but also the entire world, in a 50-50 situation, and thus if this one person does just one good deed, he not only tips his scales to the side of merit, but also by default then causes the entire world to be on the side of merit].

One can ask on this Gemara, OK, so I’ll do one mitzvah and then I get off scot-free—“I did my share.” Rav Ovadia Yosef gives the following demonstration to highlight what the Gemara really means. He says, imagine someone comes to his rabbi and says, “What am I—a tzaddik or a rasha?” The rabbi responds, “You’re neither—you’re a beinoni (average person)—50-50, and like the Gemara says, you need to do just one mitzvah to be on the side of merit.” So the person says fine, and he goes to the beit midrash and learns Torah seriously for an hour without interruptions. He comes back to the rabbi and says, “So now what am I—tzaddik or rasha?” The rabbi says, “Neither—you’re 50-50.” So he goes, and for an entire hour engages in the mitzvah of kibud av v’em, honoring one’s parents. He then comes back to the rabbi and asks, “So what about now, am I a tzaddik?” The rabbi says, “No, you are 50-50.” Determined to do whatever it takes, he ventures forth to do many other mitzvot and afterward again comes back to the rabbi, but before he can ask again, the rabbi says, “My dear friend, the Gemara says, ‘always’—a person should always view himself as 50-50.”

Hence, the Gemara is teaching us to live life in a sort of dichotomy: to view ourselves as 50-50 in order to motivate ourselves to do more, but when we do, to then fall back in the 50-50 state to again not think we are righteous. Here too, this perspective can give one the drive to continuously strive for more. We all want to feel righteous, but it’s essentially the upward journey toward there that the Gemara wants us to be on.


Binyamin Benji is a graduate of Yeshivat Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan and Wurzweiler School of Social Work. He can be reached at [email protected].

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