Lech Lecha: The Wealth of a Kingdom

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Lech Lecha
“Then the king of Sodom said to Abram, ‘Give me the persons, and take the possessions for yourself.’  But Abram said to the king of Sodom, ‘I swear to the Lord, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth:, I will not take so much as a thread or a sandal strap of what is yours; you shall not say, ‘It is I who made Abram rich.’ ”  (Bereshit/ Genesis 14::21-22)
Good Morning! 

This week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, is mostly about the adventures of Avraham, who came from the east to the land of Canaan, only to descend to Egypt and come back. In an incident sometimes known as the “war of the five kings,” five kings of the land of Canaan fought against four other allied kingdoms, and in the middle of the battles, Avraham’s nephew Lot was taken captive. Avraham rouses his own small army of 318 men, pursues Lot’s captors, and rescues his nephew along with other inhabitants of the city of S’dom

Upon returning the captives of S’dom to their city, the king offers to let Avraham keep all the spoils of the war, and Avraham’s reply, quoted above, seems to convey almost contempt for the idea. Avraham seems to be refuting the idea that he would need or want a reward for rescuing his nephew,* but he does allow the king to pay him for his servant’s provisions. 

It strikes me that both Avraham and even the king of S’dom are drawing a distinction between what’s really valuable- the people- and what is of secondary importance: the property. Avraham was motivated to go to war to rescue his family member, and doesn’t want that motivation ever to be called into question, and even the king of S’dom seems to be mostly happy that his captured subjects have returned. One could argue that the king showed his true values in assuming that Avraham would be pleased by an offer of material reward, but for today, let’s assume that he, too, was happier for the safety of people than by the restoration of mere property, however valuable. 

This reading of Avraham’s refusal of reward makes sense to me after the great Halloween blizzard last week. For those who haven’t heard, the northeastern states got up to 18 inches of snow last weekend, which is often part of life around here, but not usually this early in the fall, when the leaves are still on the trees. The weight of the snow on the leafy trees brought branches down in great number, knocking out power, internet, telephone lines and even cell phone towers. We lost power by late Shabbat afternoon, and didn’t get it back for several days, but fortunately kind congregants with heat took us in and we were just fine. This past week I’ve heard the same thing over and over: it was a royal inconvenience that the power and internet was lost, but thank God, my family is OK. 

It shouldn’t take a freak snowstorm or a war of five kings to remind us of the obvious: at moments of danger or life transition, the things we think of as most valuable are not the material things we own but the spiritual relationships we treasure. For his nephew, Avraham would go to war, but if not for his family, the wealth of a kingdom is not worth a sandal strap. 

Shabbat Shalom, 

RNJL 

*For more on Avraham and the war of the five kings, do come to Shabbat services this week, when our bat mitzvah will expound upon these events and their application. Thanks for getting me to think about this story, Elianna! 
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