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Vayeira 5768-2007

“Seeking Mitzvah Opportunities”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeira, we are told in Genesis 20:1, that after 25 years of living in Hebron, Abraham moves south to dwell in Gerar.

The commentators are perplexed by Abraham’s move, and many motives are suggested. Rashi, citing the Midrash Rabbah 52:4, asserts that Abraham wanted to distance himself from his nephew, Lot, after news spread of Lot’s incestuous relationship with his daughters and the births of Amon and Moab. Other Midrashim suggest that Lot looked very much like Abraham, and in order to prevent the desecration of G-d’s name, Abraham moved so that people would not think that it was Abraham who was behaving improperly.

Still other commentators suggest that it was not only Lot’s sinful behavior that led to Abraham’s distancing himself from his nephew. It was Lot’s failure to show basic human gratitude. Rather than bless G-d for sending the angel Raphael to save him from the destruction of Sodom, Lot repays the Al-mighty with his horrendous sinfulness.

It must have been difficult for Abraham to change his dwelling after so many years, but he had no choice. The Sforno notes that Abraham’s new residence, located between the cities of Kadesh and Shur, was a heavily populated area in the Philistine part of Canaan. Abraham would now have many more opportunities to spread his monotheistic belief in G-d. The Radak sees a political motive behind Abraham’s move. By settling in Philistia, Abraham reinforced the future claim of his offspring to ownership of a major part of Eretz Yisrael.

Rashi, however, records a second view cited in the Midrash Rabbah 42:3, suggesting that Abraham’s move, after the monumental destruction of all the cities of the greater Sodom area, was because he realized that there would now be few travelers and wayfarers around to whom he might extend hospitality.

The May’am Lo’ez sees in this explanation a profound lesson, one that has been incorporated into the very fabric of Judaism.

While it is certainly noble to welcome guests into a person’s home and around a person’s table (Hach’nasat Orchim), it is hardly a violation if one has no guests to invite. Abraham’s decision to move teaches that it is not enough to perform mitzvot only when they happen to come one’s way. Rather, it is necessary to make certain that mitzvah opportunities are readily available. In fact, those who are in a position to fulfill a mitzvah and have the resources to do so, but choose not to, are considered sinful.

This fundamental principle of seeking out mitzvah opportunities is demonstrated clearly in the performance of the mitzvah of tzitzit, the fringes that are placed at the end of the garments known as a tallit or tallit katan, a prayer shawl or a miniature prayer shawl.

The mitzvah of tallit is only applicable when one wears a four-cornered garment. Although it is not customary in our times for people to wear four-cornered garments as it was in ancient times, observant Jews, nevertheless, choose to voluntarily wear four-cornered garments so that they may have the opportunity to fulfill the mitzvah of tzitzit. Similarly, there is no mitzvah for a child under the age of “mitzvot” (13 years old) to wear tzitzit. Nevertheless, a child who reaches the age of education, usually around three or four years old, is often given a miniature tallit to wear as training for the future fulfillment of the mitzvah.

Abraham left the Sodom area, because after the destruction there were no travelers and wayfarers. Even though it is no sin to eat without guests, Abraham nevertheless left his place of dwelling after many years when he realized that his house was full of food but there would be no one with whom to share the blessing. The rabbis even read into the language found in the text of Genesis 20:1: “Vah’yee’sah mee’sham Avraham artzah ha’negev,” Abraham journeyed from there to the region of the Negev, emphasizing that Abraham went to “Negev,” to a place that was dry and barren of mitzvot, a place where chessed, acts of loving-kindness, were not practiced between friends or neighbors. He specifically sought out such a place in order to teach the local inhabitants the virtues of chessed.

The implications for contemporary times are profound. Many of us are very much preoccupied with our professions and frequently do not have many opportunities to do acts of kindness. Unfortunately, our community’s need for “chassadim,” acts of charity and kindness, are always very great, even if we fail to see them. There are numerous unmarried singles who need shidduchim (marriage partners), and many poor or lonely people who need food and could very much benefit from warm hospitality. There are shut-ins and senior citizens who could benefit much from companionship and visits from friends, or simply a kind Erev Shabbat phone call and a Shabbat greeting.

Abraham’s move to the Negev teaches us that it’s not enough to wait for the mitzvah opportunity to come our way. If we really wish to make a difference in this world, it is necessary to be proactive and create those opportunities.

Paraphrasing the famous statement found in Ethics of Our Fathers 2:4, concerning Torah learning: Let us not say that when the opportunity comes our way we will act. Perhaps the opportunity will not come! It is incumbent upon us to create opportunities. Only then will we hasten the redemption of the world and of humankind.

May you be blessed.