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Refinement Without Fear

Vayeira (Genesis 18-22 )

by Rabbi Yissocher Frand

The trouble began when Avraham introduced his wife Sarah to the people of Gerar as his sister. One thing led to another, and she was taken to the palace of Avimelech, king of Gerar, as a prospective new wife. Avimelech came very close to sinning with Sarah, but Hashem revealed her true identity to him.

Avimelech was upset. "You almost got me into terrible trouble," he said to Avraham. "You told me she was your sister when she was really your wife. Why didn't you tell me the truth? Why did you do this to me?"

"For I thought," said Avraham, "only there is no fear of the Lord in this place (Gen. 20:11)."

The word "only" in this verse seems to be out of place. What is it supposed to imply?

Rav Elchanan Wasserman raised this question when he addressed a group of rabbis in Germany during the 1930's. Then he shocked them with the Malbim's explanation.

"Your city is wonderful," Avraham was telling the people of Gerar, according to the Malbim's interpretation. "It is a place of culture and refinement, of exemplary citizens. There is only one thing wrong with it. The Lord is not feared in your city. And if the Lord is not feared, then all your other refinements and accomplishments are meaningless. If you are not governed by fear of the Lord but by your own human standards, there is no hope for you. You cannot be trusted not to kill a man with a desirable wife. Your civilized ways mean nothing. They will not be allowed to get in the way of your passions and ambitions, because you do not fear the Lord."

The implications of what Rav Elchanan was saying were clear. Germany was a civilized country, but there was no fear of the Lord. Therefore, it was a dangerous place. Anything could happen there.

"Not so," some of the German rabbis objected. "Germany is a land of laws, culture, civilization, high moral standing, science, technology. We are not some backward backwater from the Middle Ages. Jews are not at risk here. We are protected by the law."

Germany was indeed a country of laws, but what were those laws? Rabbi Reuven Bulka of Ottawa, Canada, recalls attending cheder in Germany during Kristallnacht. One of the children ran into the classroom and informed the rebbi that his house was on fire. The rebbi immediately telephoned the fire department and reported the fire, but his pleas for assistance fell on deaf ears. He got through to the fire chief, but to no avail.

"We are sorry," said the fire chief, "but we cannot put out the fire. It is against the law."

It was now against the law to put out fires in Jewish homes. Germany was still a land of laws. That had not changed. Only the laws had changed. All the culture and the civilization meant nothing. When there is no fear of God in a place, the laws mean nothing.

When Rav Yitzchak Hutner was learning in Slobodka, Rav Avraham Elya Kaplan came back to the yeshivah after spending some time in Germany. The Alter of Slobodka invited Rav Avraham Elya to convey to the yeshivah his impressions of the German people. What were they like?

"It seems to me that the Germans are a kind and refined people," he replied. "When you ask directions from someone, he will give you very precise instructions for getting there, and then he will say to you, 'Nicht wahr? Isn't that so?' Now, he knows that you have absolutely no idea about how to get there. In fact, that's why you're asking directions. He also knows perfectly well that he doesn't need nor can he expect any confirmation from you. And still he says in such a deferential tone, 'Nicht wahr?' I see this as a sign of refinement. The Germans are a refined people."

At this point, an argument broke out among the students of the Slobodka Yeshivah. Some argued, Rav Hutner among them, that we should seek to learn good traits only from the holy Torah, the repository of all desirable ethics and values, and not from the Germans or any other gentile communities. Besides, if they were not rooted in the Torah, it was quite possible that refined manners were no more than a superficial cloak for a dark interior.

"I disagree," declared one student. "A wise person learns from everyone. If we see something admirable among the gentiles, we should give credit where credit is due and adopt it for ourselves as well. I think the practice of saying nicht wahr is a sign of politeness, refinement and a very becoming modesty. We should learn from the virtues of the Germans."

Nearly 50 years later, Rav Hutner was saying a shiur (Torah class) in Yeshivah Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin when an old man walked in. He sat in the back and waited until the shiur was over. Then he approached Rav Hutner.

"You don't remember me, do you?" he said. "I am the student in Slobodka who argued with you about admiring the refined manners of the Germans."

"Ah, of course I remember you," said Rav Hutner. "Ah, it is good to see you again after all these years.

He reached out to take the old man's hand, but there was only a hook where the hand should have been. Rav Hutner's hand remained suspended in midair.

"I lost it in the concentration camps," the old man explained. "When the Nazi was sawing off my right hand, he kept saying, 'This is hurting you, nicht wahr? The pain is intense, nicht wahr? And even as I was screaming as if my lungs would burst, he was smiling all the time. Such a gentle, refined smile. Reb Yitzchak, you were right, and I was wrong."

When "there is no fear of the Lord in this place," when people live by their own rules, all the culture and refined manners mean nothing. It was true in Gerar. It was true in Germany. It is true everywhere.

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