How Much Are You Willing To Risk?

The Rambam (הלכות מתנות עניים, ח, י) writes that:

וְאֵין לְךָ מִצְוָה גְּדוֹלָה כְּפִדְיוֹן שְׁבוּיִים There is no mitzvah greater than redeeming captives.

Throughout our history, Pidyon Shevuyim was a costly and tragic staple of Jewish life. Jews were often captured and held without fair trial. In many cases, we were forced to choose between giving up our assets and our lives, or giving up our faith.

With Hashem's great kindness, we are no longer living in a world where Jews regularly require rescue from such physically precarious predicaments. But the mitzvah of redeeming captives extends beyond those who are physically incarcerated. Oftentimes we are called upon to rescue those in challenging places spiritually, mentally and emotionally.

In the words of Reb Leib Sorahs: The שבויי העצבות – those who are held captive by sadness and depression.

The importance of this mitzvah is highlighted this Shabbos, at the very beginning of our history, in the life of Avraham Avinu and his war with the four kings and the five kings.

It is amongst the stories of Avraham that we tend to focus on the least, yet this narrative takes up a full Perek (פרק י״ד) of Sefer Bereishis. The Torah explains how Avraham's nephew Lot, a new resident of Sodom, was captured in battle, and it was for his sake that Avraham went to war.

The centrality of this battle is noted by the Rambam in his list of the ten tests of Avraham (פירוש המש׳ אבות פרק ה׳ משנה ג׳). But why? What exactly was the test? Surely rescuing Lot is within our normative expectations of Avraham?

It is also important to note that there is no place in Chumash where Hashem tells Avraham “Go and fight this battle...” Hashem does not ask Avraham to rescue Lot, which deepens the question: How is this one of Avraham's tests at all? He could've simply chosen not to go to battle.

To explain, we should take a step back and understand that engaging in this military operation was a serious threat to Avraham's mission – he might well have gotten himself, and his entire household killed. Why enter the fray and risk everything? The answer seems simple on the surface: Lot was in danger.

But let's rewind for a moment to the last conversation that Avraham had with Lot, and recall that it was exceedingly unpleasant. Since settling in Canaan, the shepherds of Avraham and Lot were bickering with each other. In an attempt to resolve the issue, Avraham suggests that rather than live with machlokes, it would be better to separate permanently.

The severity of this suggestion should not be understated. Avraham is the paradigm of peace and kindness. This is the same Avraham who is unable to send Yishmael away until Sarah pressures him to do so. Avraham whose tent is open to every wayward and weary traveller. Avraham the great teacher of monotheism. There is no one in the world with whom Avraham cannot forge a relationship. And yet, Avraham cannot handle his nephew Lot.

The wording of the pasuk makes it painfully obvious:

הֲלֹא כל הָאָרֶץ לְפָנֶיךָ הִפָּרֶד נָא מֵעָלָי אִם הַשְּׂמֹאל וְאֵימִנָה וְאִם הַיָּמִין וְאַשְׂמְאִילָה Is not the whole land before you? Please separate yourself from me. If you go to the left, then I will go to the right. Or if you go to the right, then I will go to the left.”

Essentially, Avraham says: “Please leave. I want nothing to do with you.”

Lot, for his part, is all too eager to take him up on the offer (13:11):

וַיִּסַּע לוֹט מִקֶּדֶם וַיִּפָּרְדוּ אִישׁ מֵעַל אָחִיו Lot traveled east, and they separated themselves, each man from his brother.

Rashi remarks that Lot's choice to depart from Avraham was not merely an economic or emotional decision, but a religious one as well.

הסיע עצמו מקדמונו של עולם, אמר: אי איפשי לא באברהם ולא באלקותו

He wandered away from the Originator (מקדמונו) of the Universe, saying, “I want neither Avraham nor his God”.

With this in mind, we might understand that the forth test of Avraham is not about going to battle at all. It is far deeper. Hashem is challenging Avraham with the question of: How to respond to a Jew, a relative, who has abandoned God, Yiddishkeit and Torah, and now needs our help? What do we do when they have been cruel, frustrating and aggravating? What do we when Lot is in trouble?

The forth test of Avraham is asking how to relate to a person who is not like us, has made our lives difficult, who has chosen a different Derech, and now is in need.

Rabbeinu Bachya comments:

וישמע אברם כי נשבה אחיו – התלבש גבורה כששמע הענין, ומיד וירק את חניכיו ילידי ביתו.

The moment that Avraham heard that Lot was in trouble he prepared for battle.

There wasn't a single moment's hesitation.

Avraham was the first person to fulfill the mitzvah of Pidyon Shvuyim – redeeming captives. But he is also the first person in Chumash whose Chesed transcended their personal mission and agenda.

Despite the fact that Avraham and Lot never appear to speak again, Avraham saves Lot's life twice; this Shabbos during the war and next Shabbos when he petitions for Sedom.

Rebbi Nachman explains in Sefer HaMidos that:

עַל יְדֵי פִּדְיוֹן שְׁבוּיִים נִתְקַבֵּץ נִדָּחָיו שֶׁל הַפּוֹדֶה When a person redeem captives, that which is lost from the redeemer is gathered in again.

That is to say; when we dedicates our lives to rescuing others – despite their failings – we learn, ultimately, to rescue ourselves – despite our own failings.

The ability of self-redemption and self-rescue, are eventually gifted to Avraham at the end of the Parsha, when Hashem enters into a covenantal relationship with Avraham – the Bris Milah.

The Torah describes how Avraham perfumes this self-milah at the age of ninety-nine. The Midrashim (Rabba 48:2 and Tanchuma 17) tell us this Avraham's advanced age is an inspiration to Geirim – converts who wish to become Jewish.

But Reb Leibele Eiger (תורת אמת סוף פ׳ לך לך) explains that the secret of Bris Milah is that all Jews can “convert” to Judaism as well. Throughout Tanach, the pesukim refer to מילה as far more than a physical surgery – ומלתם את ערלת לבבכם – we have the ability to perform the Milah on our hearts and minds. He writes:

...The Torah is teaching us that when a Jew wishes to reengage with Hashem, there is nothing is the world that prevents their return. One cannot and should not claim “I have done so many terrible things for so many years, how can I change?”

To this end the Torah does not prescribe a day, a date of a time for the Bris Milah of Avraham. Rather the Torah relates that the Bris took place בעצם היום הזה – on that very day. Regardless of the day that one wishes to change, they can perform a self-milah, a self-rescue, a self-redemption.

To be part of the legacy of Avraham means to learn how to rescue each other, despite our differences. Ultimately, if we learn and yearn to save others, Hashem should help us, and grant us the ability to save ourselves as well.