Parshat Lech-Lecha records the beginning of the Jewish people, for in it we meet Avram and his wife Sarai, later to be called Abraham and Sarah. For reasons we are never told, God chooses Avram and tells him, “Go forth from your native land and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing.”
Then we read several episodes in which both Avram’s virtues and his flaws are revealed. We learn:
1. Because of a famine, Avram and Sarai travel to Egypt, where he lies, saying that his wife is his sister, so that Sarai is taken into Pharaoh’s harem.
2. When they return to Canaan, Avram allows his nephew Lot to choose the best grazing land for his own herds.
3. Sarai, who has not been able to conceive, gives her servant Hagar to Avram, and Hagar becomes the mother of Avram’s son Ishmael.
4. God establishes mila, circumcision, as the sign of His covenant with Avram and his descendants, and Avram, now Avraham, circumcises himself at the age of 99.
And in the middle of the parsha, we read about a war that occurs when vassal kings rebel against their overlords. When he learns that Lot has been captured, Avram raises a militia and leads his forces into battle. After his victory, Avram then rescues his nephew along with other citizens of Sodom who had been taken prisoner.
The king of Sodom greets the victorious Avram and offers him a reward, which Avram refuses. He says, “I will not take so much as a thread or a sandal strap of what is yours; you shall not say, ‘It is I who made Avram rich.’ For me, nothing but what my servants have used up; as for the share of the men who went with me — Aner, Eshkol, and Mamre — let them take their share.”
Although Avram was entitled to keep the property he had recovered when he won his victory, he wanted no personal gain for his efforts. Perhaps he didn’t want people to think that he had gone out to fight only to acquire wealth, or perhaps he believed that the property, which had come originally from Sodom, was somehow tainted by that city’s wickedness. In any case, he accepted nothing for himself.
The Hafetz Hayim (Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaKohen, who lived in Poland in the late 19th and early 20th centuries) noted: “Abraham was only willing to adopt a stringent policy for himself of not accepting any reward, but he was not willing to use the same standards for those who had accompanied him. They were entitled to be rewarded. This teaches us that every person has the right to be stringent about what he does, but not about what others are to do.”
In a world in which it is common for people to be hyper-critical of others’ behavior while offering excuses for their own, this is something worth thinking about.