Read about אברהם’s miraculous victory, how with a handful of men – 318 men – he overcame the armies of four kings, and saved לוט and his countrymen.
חז"ל go even further – it wasn’t 318 men – it was אליעזר whose name is גימטריא is 318 – just לוט and אברהם fought the battle – reminded of line in Henry V – would you and I alone could fight this battle royal.
Read how אברהם returns with the freed captives and property and is met by מלך סדום who says – תן לי הנפש והרכוש קח לך. To which he responds – אם מחוט ועד סרוך נעל ואם אקח מכל אשר לך ולא תאמר אנכי העשרתי את אברהם.
Rashi brings חז"ל – in merit of חוט merited ציצית, in merit of סרוך נעל merited תפילין – and all the מפרשים wonder what is the connection – why is this appropriate reward?
Actually אברהם’s behavior is puzzling. Why shouldn’t he take a reward from מלך סדום? After all wasn’t it coming to him? He had put his life in jeopardy, gone to such great lengths, saved his kingdom – why this fastidiousness?
Especially puzzling – because earlier, when אברהם went to מצרים, he said to שרה: If I say you’re my wife they’ll kill me, and take you; I’ll say you’re my sister, I can play them off against each other – and that way – למען ייטב לי בעבורך – יתנו לי מתנות. So אברהם didn’t seem to be so adamant against taking מתנות from פרעה – why does he set himself so against taking from מלך סדום?
Let’s focus on another episode. אברהם returns to battle field, after defeating the מלכים. ועמק השידים בארות בארות חמר, full of slime pits. Says Rashi:
שהיה הטיט מוגבל שם, ונעשה נס למלך סדום שיצא משם, לפי שהיו באומות מקצתן שלא היו מאמינים שניצול אברהם מאור כשדים מכבשן האש, וכיון שיצא זה מן החמר האמינו באברהם למפרע.
Obvious question: How does miracle happening to מלך סדום – idol worshipper – strengthen people’s faith in אברהם and what he represents? It’s like saying – a miracle should happen to the Pope so people will believe in Yiddishkeit. Wouldn’t it have the opposite effect?
Answers רמב"ן – the נס happened when אברהם returned, as he passed by. So it was clear to an unbiased observer that it was בזכות אברהם, it was because מלך סדום was associated with אברהם, with אברהם’s family, because he is in אברהם’s orbit – that is why נס happened.
But – as often happens – people choose their own perspective. People see events through the prism of their own biases.
No doubt מלך סדום was saved because of אברהם, but he chose to see it differently –
ויצא מלך סדום לקראתו, אמר ר' אבא בר כהנא התחיל לקשקש לו בזנבו, א"ל מה אתה ירדת לכבשן האש וניצלת אף אני ירדתי לחמר וניצלתי.
The tail began to wag the dog. I’m just as great as you – my god as your G-d.
And so when מלך סדום offered אברהם money אברהם understood that what was at stake was people’s perception of the miraculous events that had just occurred.
If אברהם were to take the money, he would be seen as a client of מלך סדום, someone on מלך סדום’s payroll. And that would affect the world’s perspective of the events that had occurred – מלך סדום’s rescue from the בארות חמר – and the victory in general. If אברהם were to be seen as a dependent of מלך סדום – then everything that had happened would be seen as due to מלך סדום and to the power of his ע"ז. Only by proudly refusing – could אברהם make it clear that he was no satellite of מלך סדום, that he was a force of his own, that he was in so sense a client of מלך סדום but, on the contrary, it was מלך סדום who was saved because he was lucky enough to be, for the moment, in the sphere of אברהם אבינו.
אברהם understood that what was at stake was חילול השם and קידוש השם. To take מלך סדום’s money would nullify the tremendous קידוש השם that had occurred, and transform it into a חילול השם. And so he refused – אם מחוט ועד סרוך נעל, not a red cent.
And so אברהם merited that his children should be given the מצות of ציצית and תפילין. What is the connection?
ציצית and תפילין the badges of a Jew. In the olden days there were no yarmulkes – knitted or black – nobody wore a black hat – they all wore the same kafiya, probably – but a Jew was instantly recognizable because of the ציצית on the corners of his clothes, and the תפילין on his head.
And that is a tremendous responsibility. Because being recognized as a Jew means that people judge אידישקייט by our behavior. We all know that. Dickens put it very well, in Our Mutual Friend: “For it is not… with the Jews as with other peoples. Men say, 'This is a bad Greek, but there are good Greeks. This is a bad Turk, but there are good Turks.' Not so with the Jews. Men find the bad among us easily enough – among what peoples are the bad not easily found? – but they take the worst of us as samples of the best; they take the lowest of us as presentations of the highest; and they say "All Jews are alike."
And so being given these מצות, which so readily identify us for who we are, imposes on us a tremendous responsibility, but they make each one of us a representative of the entire Jewish people, and of the רבש"ע Himself. And so before we could be given such מצוות the question had to be asked – could we live up to them? Did we deserve to be given such מצות that would immediately identify us as the רבש"ע’s chosen people, instantly recognizable – to carry the responsibility of קידוש השם, even when it might require sacrifice, even when we might be tempted otherwise.
But the assurance that we could came from אברהם. Because he had demonstrated that capacity to forgo fantastic wealth – the booty of five kingdoms – so as not to cause a חילול השם, he inculcated that capacity in his children as well.
And therefore – בשכר שאמר מחוט ועד שרוך נעל – his children could be entrusted with the responsibility of חוט של ציצית ורצועה של תפילין.
We no longer wear תפילין the whole day long, nor do all of us wear our ציצית dangling outside of our pants. But we are still instantly recognizable as Jews. Even if we take off our yarmulkes – there’s not a gentile who doesn’t know instantly what we are.
Each of us represents אידישקייט to the outside world. That imposes tremendous responsibility. It’s very natural, sometimes, to want to shirk that responsibility. It’s a burden. And, unfortunately, we so often read in the newspapers about Jew who forgot that responsibility, and we cringe at the חילול השם that results.
It’s important to remember the standard that אברהם אבינו set for us. However much we might be tempted, the temptation will never be as great as that offered אברהם – who was offered a king’s ransom and who didn’t have to do anything in return except smile for the camera together with מלך סדום. By refusing he set a standard for all time, and for all time bequeathed us the right and the privilege to wear our identity with pride, with dignity – and in such a way that וראו על עמי הארץ כי שם ה' נקרא עליך ויראו ממך.