Helping Others Helps Oneself
Vayeira (Genesis 18-22 )
Bereishis, 18:17-19: “And God said, ‘Shall I hide from Avraham what I am doing? And Avraham will be a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the world will be blessed through him. Because I have loved him (yedativ), because he will command his children and his household after him and they will guard the way of God to perform kindness and justice, so that God will bring upon Avraham that which He spoke about him.”
Rashi, Bereishis, 18:19: Dh: Ki Yedativ: “A language of affection.”
Before the destruction of Sodom and Gemarrah, the Torah outlines that God, so-to-speak, thought to himself if he should consult with Avraham about His plans. God decides that He should speak to Avraham because Avraham teaches his family and household to go in the way of God.
A number of questions arise with regard to this brief episode. Firstly, the Chatam Sofer points out, that we never see God thinking whether he should speak to a Prophet before He actually does communicate with them. Rather, the Prophet begins with an account of God speaking to him. Why here was God having to make a decision as to whether He should speak to Avraham. Secondly, the reason that the Torah gives that convinces God to indeed speak to Avraham is the fact that he teaches his family and household to go in the way of God - why is that factor in particular of such significance in God’s decision-making process of whether to speak to Avraham at all?
The Chatam Sofer addresses these questions with a novel approach in the Pituchei Chotam1. He explains that in order to reach the level of a prophet, one has to reach extremely exalted levels of holiness. This generally requires a great deal of self-development. Avraham made the decision that instead of focusing on his own personal growth, God’s will was that he should devote his time to teaching the people of the world about God, even at the expense of his own growth. As a result, he was not on the level of a prophet. In the Chatam Sofer’s words, after describing great people who lived before Avraham, such as Chanoch who reached the level of an Angel, he writes about Avraham:
“He contemplated with his wisdom that it is not this that Hashem desires, that a man perfect his soul alone, and the men of his generation will remain after him as groups of sinners and those who anger Hashem, as happened with the generation of Chanoch and the generation of the flood. This experience taught him (Avraham) that it is better for a person to limit the perfection of his soul, in order to increase the Honor of Hashem in and to reduce the number of rebels (against Hashem) and to bring about people who will serve Him and know Him. Because what does a man give and add if he adds another Angel along with the many thousands of Angels in the Upper Realms…because if a man would act thusly in every generation, then there will be one out of thousands who are holy to Hashem and most of the world is depraved.”
Avraham correctly devoted his life to focusing on teaching about God in the world, at the expense of his own growth. Consequently, he was not able to reach the level of a prophet. This is what brought God to contemplate whether He should communicate the prophecy about Sodom with Avraham. He concludes that even though Avraham is not actually on the level to receive this prophecy, nonetheless, he deserves to receive it, because the reason that he failed to reach this level was in line with the will of God – God wanted him to act in this way and so he should not be penalized by not receiving this Prophecy.2 This is what God means when he refers to the fact that Avraham teaches his children and household about the way of God. It was because of Avraham’s focus on teaching that convinced God to communicate to him with the prophecy about Sodom despite the fact that he was not on that level.
The Chatam Sofer then exhorts everyone to emulate Avraham and teach people even if they are on a low level of understanding. He addresses an argument against this approach. “If the servant of God would say, ‘my soul craves closeness to God and I want to get close to him. How can I do this and reduce my own learning and self-perfection in order to perfect my fellow’s soul?!’ The answer to this is found in the [words of] the Sages; ‘… I learnt the most from my students’. Is it beyond Hashem to make up to you the growth that you forsook for the sake of His Honor?! You should do what Hashem commanded you - to teach the people - and He will fulfil His role…. He will make it possible for you to attain perfection in a small time and you will be able to attain lofty heights beyond your own intellectual capacity.” One who teaches people that are on a low level of learning will receive a great deal of Heavenly help which will enable him to attain greater heights than humanly possible.
One powerful example of a great person who sacrificed his own personal development for the sake of God was the Ponevezher Rav. By all accounts, he was a tremendous Torah scholar who had the potential to be on the level of a great Torah leader in his learning. However, he decided that God’s will was that he open the Ponevezh Yeshiva which meant that he had to spend most of his time travelling in order to raise funds for the Yeshiva, at the expense of his own learning. As one Rabbi put it, he gave up being the Ponevezher Gaon3 for the sake of establishing and maintaining the Ponevezher Yeshiva.
The Chatam Sofer’s lesson applies to each person in his own level.4 It certainly doesn’t mean that a person shouldn’t focus on his own self-growth and Torah learning, but there will surely be times in a person’s life when he is faced with the opportunity to help others – the Chatam Sofer teaches that an understandable fear that doing this will be to a person’s detriment is incorrect, and on the contrary, it will ultimately him reach is potential.
- Pituchei Chosam, Introduction to Shu’t Chatam Sofer, Yoreh Deah. Rabbi Yitzchak Berkovits, Rosh Yeshiva of Aish HaTorah, says that it is essential for any ben Torah to read this piece. It is also instructive to note that the Netsiv in Shu’t Meishiv Davar, Simun 44 highly praises the contents of this Chasam Sofer.
- The question arises that Avraham did receive earlier Prophecies so why here in particular was there a monologue about whether to speak to him necessary? Based on a careful reading of the Chatam Sofer, it seems that Avraham was on a certain level of Prophecy which merited the previous Prophecies, but this particular Prophecy required a higher level as it pertained to the judgment of an entire nation.
- The name used for outstanding Sages, such as the Vilna Gaon.
- Needless to say, the specific way to apply these ideas varies greatly based on a number of factors – guidance from a Torah Scholar who is well-versed in these ideas is essential in helping each person take the path that is correct for him.