Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Parashat Lecha Lecha: Rising to the Challenge

Abraham had lost all hope of ever having a child with his wife Sarah. He had seen his future in the stars; and there he saw that he would never have children.

But when Abraham was ninety-nine years old, God told Abraham to go outside his tent. “Please look at the sky and count the stars... That is how numerous your descendants will be!” (Gen. 15:5).

According to the rabbis, God was telling Abraham, “Forget your astrological speculations!  The star that indicates to you that you will have no children – from that very star, I will show you that you will have children!”

The Foolish Messenger

Solomon was a wealthy man living in a small village. He owned many fine pieces of gold and silver, as well as rare jewels. Since he could not properly protect his valuable treasures in his own home, Solomon deposited his prized possessions with a friend from a nearby town. His friend leased a safe deposit box in the local bank.

However, even best-laid plans can go awry. There was a robbery in the town. Masked bandits robbed the bank and took off with Solomon’s treasures. The friend immediately sent word to inform Solomon of the robbery.

As soon as he heard the news, Solomon went into action. He organized his men to patrol all the roads leading away from the town, in the hope that he might catch the thieves and recover his possessions.

When the messenger saw Solomon rushing to send off his men, he remarked, “If you ask me, you’re wasting your time. The money and jewels are gone. Why spend even more money trying to recover what is lost?”

Solomon stared at the messenger. “Tell me, why did you come to me now?”

“What do you mean, ‘why did I come’? Your friend sent me here, to inform you about the robbery!”

“Listen to your own words!” reasoned Solomon. “Why did my friend send you to tell me about the matter right away? He must have felt that it is still possible, with immediate action, to retrieve the money. So the very reason you were sent here contradicts your own ill-advised counsel!”

The Prophet and the King

We find a similar situation occurred in the time of King Hezekiah. God commanded Isaiah to speak with the king and warn him, “Give orders to your household [i.e., put your affairs in order], for you are going to die and you will not live” (II Kings 20:1).

The Sages taught (Berachot 10) that Hezekiah was judged for not fulfilling the mitzvah of p'ru u-r'vu (procreation).  Why had the righteous king avoided having children? Because it was foretold that his son would be wicked.

"If that is the case," Hezekiah responded to the prophet, "then let me marry your daughter. Perhaps our combined merits will suffice so that my children will be moral and upright."

But Isaiah refused. "No, the decree has already been set."

"Son of Amotz!" replied the angry king. “Stop prophesizing and leave! I have a tradition: Even if a sharp sword is pressed against one’s neck, do not despair of pleading for God's mercy.”

Acting on the Message

The Rabbis meant to teach us an important lesson. If God sends a prophet to tell us about some future event, it is so that we will find a way to avoid this situation. We should seek to uncover the underlying cause and correct it.

God sent the prophet Isaiah to Hezekiah to warn him that he would be punished for not fulfilling the mitzvah of procreation. When the prophet insisted that "the decree was already set," Hezekiah correctly responded: "Son of Amotz! Stop prophesizing and leave!" Why do you think God sent you to me, if the matter was already decided? Clearly God wants me to rectify this fault and have children!

This is also the lesson of Abraham and his astrological predictions. Without a prophet to inform Abraham, God used the stars to indicate to Abraham that he would have no children.  Abraham was supposed to learn from this that he needed to pray for children. As the Sages taught, “Why were the matriarchs barren? Because the Holy One desires the prayers of the righteous.”

Abraham, however, thought that the signs of the stars were a Divine decree that could not be rescinded. Therefore, God told him, “Forget your astrological speculations!” Like the messenger in the parable, Abraham misunderstood the point of the message. It was not so that he should give up, but on the contrary – so that he should take action and pray for a child!

“The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something.” (Randy Pausch)

(Adapted from
Mishlei Yaakov, pp. 29-31)