Parshat VaYera - Friday-Shabbat, November 7- 8 2014
Torah Reading: VaYera (Genesis  18:1 - 22:24)  
Haftorah: II Kings 4:1-37 
Shabbat Candle Lighting: 4:27 PM   
Shabbat Ends: 5:27 PM
Avimelech’s Repetitive Excuses
Abraham had to deal with all sorts of people who challenged his faith and loyalty to G‑d. At the end of this week’s parsha, the Torah recounts his dealings with the Philistine king Avimelech.  It recounts how Avimelech’s Philistines servants seized Abraham’s wells. Abraham rebuked Avimelech, who gave an ambiguous defense:
“I do not know who did this thing; furthermore you have not told me, and moreover I myself have heard nothing of it except for today.”
This repetitious response requires an explanation. Why couldn’t he just have said: “I don’t know who did this thing.” Isn’t it obvious that if he didn’t know of the theft of the wells, then he hadn’t heard it from Abraham or from anyone else? Besides, why waste so much space in the Torah telling us of Avimelech’s response? Every word of Torah carries within it a message for us.
Abraham and Avimelech: Parallel and Opposite Personalities
It is important for us to focus on the relationship between Abraham and Avimelech the Philistine leader to answer these questions.
In Chassidic literature the Philistines and Avimelech represent the same trait of Abraham; however, they do so in opposite directions.
Abraham was the epitome of kindness. He was suffused with love for G‑d and people. Abraham was an extrovert. He was an open person, wearing his emotions on his sleeve. People reciprocated that love of others and he was therefore successful in attracting thousands of them to monotheism and his kind and just ways.
The Philistines also possessed a zest for life; they were open and gregarious. Their lives were filled with joy and love too. Indeed, the very word in Hebrew for the Philistines “Plishtim” is cognate to the word mefulash, used in the Mishnah in the phrase mavoy mefulash which describes an alley which opens to public thoroughfares at both ends. In emotional terms this phrase connotes a person who has little or no emotional restraint. Everything is out in the open for everyone to see.
The salient difference between these two models is that Abraham’s openness and love were always directed toward the right ends. There were barriers and red lines that he would not cross. The Philistines, however, lacked boundaries. Their joy was baseless, meaningless, carefree and cynical. The Philistines are described in the Torah as mockers who ridiculed and scorned everyone and everything else. They stood for nothing. 
The analogy to an alley open to public thoroughfares on both sides suggests that the Plishtim model allowed every influence to enter their lives, regardless of the direction from which it hailed. Moreover, the root of the word Plishtim—palash—denotes an invasion or infiltration of alien forces into one’s land. And, indeed, historically, the Philistines of the Biblical period constantly made incursions into the Land of Israel.
In the spiritual parallel, a person afflicted with the Philistine mentality is open to influences coming from every direction, and is also comfortable to invade and trespass others’ territory. A person who has no personal borders and boundaries will not respect the borders and boundaries of others.
Selfless and Selfish
The underlying difference between the model of Abraham and the model of Avimelech is that Abraham’s love, joy and openness were selfless. Abraham was the epitome of humility. He stated, “I am but dust and ashes.” His entire life revolved around what he could do for G‑d and others around him. The Philistine model of openness, by contrast, is a product of selfish indulgence and an inflated ego. 
So while Abraham and Avimelech had something which appeared to be in common, in terms of their temperaments, they were worlds apart. Abraham reached out to people but did not invade them.  Contrast that with  Avimelech when he took Sarah for himself. Abraham was filled with the joie de vivre, he was neither mocker nor cynic.  Abraham respected the natural boundaries between people even as he influenced and entered into their lives.
The theft of Abraham’s well by Avimelech’s servants fits exactly into the Philistine model and mindset of lack of respect for borders.
When Abraham challenged Avimelech and asked why his servants had appropriated Abraham’s wells, Avimelech’s three part answer can be understood as based on three reasons for a person’s moral deficiency:the three sources of awareness of right and wrong.
Spiritual Dialysis
Avimelech first stated: “I do not know who did this thing.” One of the ways we know what is right and what is wrong is through knowledge. Knowledge does not mean book knowledge in this context, but an intuitive awareness of right and wrong. The Talmud tells us that if, G‑d forbid, the Torah had not been given we still would have learned morals from animals. There are certain behaviors which are natural and that a “normal” person could anticipate.
Indeed, the Midrash tells us that Abraham knew and practiced the entire Torah even though it had not been presented formally to the world.  The Midrash states that he knew the Torah from “his kidneys.” This means that he derived his information, intuitively, from within himself. He possessed an internal filter to separate truth from falsehood, goodness from evil, etc.
Avimelech’s first response told Abraham that did not have the same kind of internal compass. His kidneys malfunctioned and[BJF1]  he was in need of spiritual dialysis.
Avimelech then presents his second rejoinder to Abraham for his lack of sensitivity to the theft of Abraham’s well:
“Furthermore you have not told me.” Now that we have received  the Torah we no longer have to intuit what G‑d wants of us. We no longer have to rely on our conscience to determine what behavior is moral. G‑d, in his infinite kindness, gave us the Torah. It will guide us in every step of the way. And this Torah is highly accessible, as the Torah itself states: “It is not in heaven... or overseas.” The Torah was entrusted to each and every Jew, and we have an unbroken chain of Torah transmitters who made the words of the Torah accessible and meaningful to us.
Avimelech, however, lamented that he did not have a teacher of Torah. Avimelech’s arrogance and ego did not let him ask to be mentored by Abraham. Avimelech had no Rebbe.
There is however a third source of ethical awareness. Even when we have no spiritual intuition and we have not been given a good moral education we can pick up moral values by osmosis. Jews have always lived in communities, where they absorbed morality just by breathing the air. Alas, Avimelech did not have that luxury. He lived in a depraved environment, leading to his third line of defense:
“And moreover I myself have heard nothing of it except for today.” By “hearing” he meant picking things up by having his ears open to their vibes.
Philistine Threat at the Exodus and Today
In the aftermath of the Exodus of the Jewish nation from Egypt, G‑d deliberately had them circle around Philistine territory. He was concerned that His fledgling nation would be harmed by the cynical approach of the Philistines.  He wished to shelter  them during their attempt to develop an independent identity. A sneering comment can derail a neophyte’s attempt to shed his previously constrained life. For His slave nation to develop an internally liberated mentality, they could do without the invasive, damaging, influence of the Philistines.
Now that we are at the crossroads of the Final Redemption, which the prophet stated is analogous to the Redemption from Egypt, we too must be mindful of the threat of the Philistine mindset. We are living in the “Facebook Age,” an age of excessive openness; there are no secrets and no boundaries. We face the unprecedented danger of the invasive influences of the mockers and cynics among others.
The Difference
There is one significant difference, though, between the nascent Jewish nation at the time of the Exodus and our threshold-of-Redemption generation.
At the time of the Exodus, they could not summon their inner moral strength due to the impact slavery had on them. According to our tradition, they had degenerated to the nadir of depravity. Gaining access to their core of holiness and internal moral compass would have been like having to drill through miles of hard impenetrable rock.
In addition, they had not yet arrived at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. They could not rely on that revelation for guidance. And, finally, learning and absorbing by osmosis was also not a viable alternative for them.  After all, they were all in the same boat—recently freed slaves with a slave mentality, who grew up in Egypt, the world’s most depraved society.
Our generation, in stark contrast, is different on all three counts: We have access to our inner core of holiness. The Rebbe informed us that the miracles we have witnessed during the Six Day War and beyond served as the Great Shofar, awakening the Jewish nation and precipitating a spiritual revolution that has inspired hundreds of thousands of Jews to return to their roots.
We also have the luxury of having the greatest teachers and leaders. Our Rebbe has given us hundreds of volumes of profound, inspirational and relevant Torah teachings, thousands of hours of talks, tens of thousands of pastoral letters, etc., and who has dispatched thousands of emissaries to educate the Jewish world, reaching every nook and cranny of the world.
Furthermore, we are fortunate that we have communities Jews numbering in hundreds of thousands, all committed to Judaism. We also have unprecedented access to so much Torah knowledge thanks to modern media. For all the nonsense and harmful influences in our society today, there are abundant positive and holy influences for us to absorb by osmosis.
Our generation can thus repeat Avimelech’s refrain in a “slightly” modified version:
“I do not know who did this thing; furthermore you have not told me, and moreover I myself have heard nothing ofit except for today.”
We are indeed ready and eager for the Messianic Age, when those three avenues of knowledge will be expanded to their maximum capacity.