Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Parashat Vayeira: Abraham's Reward

Abraham at the Akeidah

The Torah does not record Abraham's emotions when he was commanded to offer his beloved son in the Akeidah. But the Midrash describes Abraham as overjoyed with the opportunity to offer to God that which was dearest to him. He led his son to the Akeidah, the Midrash states, like a father who joyfully leads his son to the wedding chupah.

This view of the Akeidah raises an interesting question. The philosophers (see Maimonides, Shemonah Perakim, chapter 6) debated the following issue: who is deserving of a greater reward: those who do good because they are naturally inclined to do so? Or those who must struggle against their native inclinations and succeed in overcoming them?

The Sages taught that reward is a function of one's effort - “lefum tza’ara agra” (Avot 5). This would imply that the one who must struggle is more highly rewarded. Does this mean that Abraham, who joyfully fulfilled the command of the Akeidah, was less deserving of reward because of his extraordinary dedication and love of God?

The Landowner's Job Search

There was once a wealthy landowner who needed a capable and energetic man to oversee his vast estate. He wanted an individual who was knowledgeable in all aspects of farming and animal husbandry - someone who would be able to manage his dairy farm, his crops, his vineyard, his orchards, and so on. But how to go about finding such an experienced and talented person?

The landowner decided that he would travel about the countryside in order to find the individual most capable of fulfilling the position.

At one small town he stopped at the local inn and requested a first-class feast as befits a wealthy and important visitor. The innkeeper agreed, and provided an excellent meal for the wealthy landowner and his entourage.

The following morning, the landowner asked to see the bill for his expenses. The innkeeper quickly presented the visitor with a bill detailing all of his charges. It was not difficult for him to calculate, he explained, since he had purchased all of the special foods and drinks at the local market and had carefully recorded everything he paid for.

The wealthy man then continued on his travels, and spent the following evening at another country inn. Again he requested a first-class feast befitting his station, and again the innkeeper provided a wonderful meal.

However, when it came time to provide a bill for the landowner, the second innkeeper was not sure how much to charge.

"What is the problem? Don't you keep exact records of your expenses?" asked the wealthy man.

"I'll tell you the truth. I really didn't have any extra expenses. I didn't buy anything from the market. The fowl and meat are from my own animals; the eggs, cheeses and butter I produce myself; the wine is from my own vines; and the fruits and vegetables come from my garden. So I am not sure how much to charge you for the feast that I prepared for you."

When the wealthy man heard this response, he rejoiced. Now I have found the perfect man to manage my farms and dairies! I have finally found someone will the necessary knowledge and experience. He immediately offered the innkeeper the position of managing his estate, which the innkeeper gladly accepted.

After they signed the details of the new arrangement, the landowner thought to himself: Still, I must compensate the innkeeper for the feast he prepared for me. But how much should I pay him? Just because he didn't spend money on the meal - does that mean he should lose out? After all, he made me happier than the first innkeeper!

Therefore the wealthy landowner decided that, since he couldn't calculate how much he should be paid, he would pay the second innkeeper the same amount he had paid the first one. Why, he reasoned, should he be paid any less?

The Reward of the Naturally Pious

Those who must subdue their evil tendencies and restrain themselves from immoral acts - they are rewarded according to their efforts. The naturally pious, who are inherently drawn to good deeds, whose souls aspire even to positive acts that are deeply challenging - while their efforts are not as great, their service is sweeter to God. Their acts are treasured and they are rewarded no less than those who must rule over their inclinations.

So, too, with Abraham. Although he rejoiced to perform God's will, his reward was no less than one who needs to subdue his nature. Therefore the second message came to Abraham: "Since you have done this thing" - since you performed my command willingly and happily - "I will surely bless you" - I will still reward you, even though your efforts were not like those of one who must combat his natural tendencies.

(Mishlei Yaakov, pp. 37-39)