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Abraham the Warrior

Abraham the warrior! Could there be a more unlikely picture? Hardly. Yet, embedded in this week's Torah portion is a strange and ancient story of our the founder of our faith as a mighty warrior -- a noble desert sheik -- leading his men out to battle to rescue his nephew Lot and free Canaan from foreign overlords. A Jew in armor! This is not the image we have a Jewish hero, particularly when this Jew is the founding figure of our faith.

Our tradition is not a militaristic one. We have no tradition of knighthood. We hold ways of peace to be more precious than feats of valor. Our sages exhort us to be disciple of Aaron, the one who pursued peace, and not followers of Joshua, the conqueror of the Promised Land. Yet, in the middle of Parashat Lech Lecha, the Torah portion that introduces us to Abraham and his story, we meet Abraham the warrior. As unusual and surprising as this encounter maybe, it is very important because it presents through Abraham's deeds and words the groundwork for our people's understanding of the role of warfare and the warrior.

The strange account of Abraham the Warrior reflects the political and military instability prevalent in Canaan during the time of our patriarchs. After many years of domination by a coalition of Mesopotamian monarchs, the kings of the Canaanite city-states rise in revolt. The Mesopotamian invaders overwhelm the Canaanite alliance in battle just south of the Dead Sea and capture the Canaanite leaders including Abraham's nephew Lot, who joined the Canaanite King of Sodom in the fight.

When word comes to Abraham that his nephew has been abducted, he gathers his household retainers and his trusted friends and allies and goes on a rescue mission. After a long pursuit, Abraham catches up with the invading army in the north of the Land of Israel. In a night battle, Abraham routs the invaders and liberates Lot, the other captives and all the plundered wealth of Canaan.

After the victory, Abraham and the Canaanite leaders gather in the city of Salem to celebrate. Melchizedek the Priest-King of Salem, blesses Abraham in the name of El Elyon (God Most High), and Abraham, in return, donates a tenth of the spoils to the shrine at Salem. The King of Sodom offers Abraham all the plunder. Abraham requests only enough to cover his expenses and asks the King of Sodom to allow Abraham's allies to take their portion of the spoils in return for their efforts.

Abraham is clearly the hero of this story. His military victory has brought him honor and respect. But the focus of the story is not on Abraham's martial prowess but on his skill as a diplomat and peacemaker. It is in Abraham's responses to the challenges of war and peace, that we see the framework for a Jewish understanding of war.

1. One should not seek our war. Until Lot is captured, Abraham avoids involvement in the conflict. He manages to dwell peacefully in his encampment by the oak grove of Mamre in the vicinity of Hebron. Despite his military power, he commands a force of over 300 men, not counting the support of his friends and allies, a sizable force by the standards of the day, he does not rush to participate in the great military adventure of his day. He does not pursue glory.

2. There are times when war cannot be avoided. Abraham enters the conflict only after Lot's capture to rescue his nephew. There are times when we need to go war to defend ourselves and protect our families. Even in the case of defensive warfare, within the Jewish tradition there is extensive discussion concerning all aspects of the conflict. We need to be able to defend ourselves and we need to know the limits of our strength.

3. One should not enrich oneself through warfare. The conventions of his day allowed Abraham to keep the riches he seized from the defeated invaders. Abraham, however, entered battle in defense of his family, wisely refused all riches. He did not take advantage of his neighbors' weakness to enrich himself and plant the seeds for future conflicts. Abraham demonstrated that one needs to be magnanimous in victory. Wisdom often dictates that one should not keep all that one has conquered.

4. Military achievements alone do not qualify one for honor or leadership in the broader areas of life. Abraham's remarkable ability to command troops and his skill as a tactician do not make him the hero of this tale. The story focuses on the spirit of generosity, humility, and piety he displayed at the victory celebration in Salem. Abraham's military prowess is coincidental to his spiritual strength. Abraham demonstrates his leadership potential in the manner in which he treated his allies, Melchizedek and the King of Sodom. The military challenges he faced in battle fade in comparison to the diplomatic and personal challenges he met after the conflict came to an end.

When he needed to, Abraham put on armor and became a warrior, but when the conflict was over, he put his uniform away. Our ancestors were clearly proud of Abraham's achievement and preserved it for us as part of our most sacred heritage. What moved them, and what still moves us, is not Abraham's military feats but his spiritual strengths and moral insights that guided him through the most dreadful of human affairs. His wisdom and insights have become a moral benchmark for Jewish teaching and Jewish life.

Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah

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