“There is But No Fear of G-d in this Place”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeira, Abraham relives the trauma of his wife’s abduction in Egypt when he travels to Gerar.

In parashat Lech Lecha, Genesis 12:10-20, we learn of Sarai’s first abduction. Because of the famine in the land of Canaan, Abram, Sarai and Lot (Abram and Sarai’s names had not yet been changed to Abraham and Sarah) descend to Egypt. When the Egyptians see Sarai’s beauty, they praise her to Pharaoh, who abducts her. When Pharaoh and his household members are stricken with severe plagues, Pharaoh releases Sarai, and proceeds to expel Abram and his family from the land of Egypt.

In this week’s parasha, Vayeira, we learn of Sarah’s second abduction. After the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham journeys from that destroyed region, and settles between Kaddesh and Shur, eventually sojourning in Gerar. Once again, in order to protect his wife, he tells Sarah to say that she is his sister rather than his wife (Toledot 5763-2002). Avimelech, the king of Gerar, sends for Sarah and takes her, with the apparent intent to marry her and crown her as his queen.

G-d, however, comes to Avimelech in a dream and warns him that Sarah is a married woman, ordering him to return Sarah to her husband, who is a prophet. Avimelech and his household, who were also stricken with plagues, are assured by G-d that Abraham will pray for their full recovery. However, if he does not release Sarah, he and his household will all die.

Avimelech angrily summons Abraham and demands of him (Genesis 20:9), מֶה עָשִׂיתָ לָּנוּ וּמֶה חָטָאתִי לָךְ כִּי הֵבֵאתָ עָלַי וְעַל מַמְלַכְתִּי חֲטָאָה גְדֹלָה, “What have you done to us? How have I sinned against you that you brought upon me and my kingdom such great sin?”

Seeking to know what prompted Abraham to say that Sarah was his sister rather than his wife, Avimelech again demands, Genesis 20:10, מָה רָאִיתָ כִּי עָשִׂיתָ אֶת הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה, “What did you see that you did such a thing?”

Abraham responds, Genesis 20:11, כִּי אָמַרְתִּי רַק אֵין יִרְאַת אֱ־לֹקִים בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה, וַהֲרָגוּנִי עַל דְּבַר אִשְׁתִּי, “Because I said, ‘There is but no fear of G-d in this place, and they will slay me because of my wife.’”

Rashi basing his observation on the Talmud in Makot 9b, explains that as soon as he entered Gerar, Abraham realized that the Philistines did not fear G-d. Customarily, townsmen would ask a newcomer whether they need food and drink. Since the people of Gerar were concerned only with Sarah’s marital status, Abraham immediately concluded that there was no fear of G-d in Gerar, and that with no moral restraint, he must fear for his family’s lives.

The Malbim understands Abraham’s reply to Avimelech as containing a powerful warning concerning communal morality. Even the most sophisticated and educated people, who generally behave decently and honorably, are only able to restrain their actions as long as their lusts and temptations are not aroused. However, if they are tested by the powerful desire for wealth, of if they lust for physical gratification, they will quickly disregard behavioral norms, and begin to act improperly. Without a powerful fear of G-d, based on knowledge that G-d is aware of even their minutest actions, they lose control, and give in to their basest and most immoral desires.

Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman points out that there appears to be a superfluous word in Abraham’s statement. Abraham says, רַק אֵין יִרְאַת אֱ־לֹקִים בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה, וַהֲרָגוּנִי עַל דְּבַר אִשְׁתִּי, “Only, there is no fear of G-d in this place and they will slay me because of my wife.”

Rabbi Wasserman suggests that the Hebrew word, רַק, only or but, comes to teach that even in a society that is advanced and seemingly gentle, like Avimelech’s community in Gerar, one needs to fear for one’s life, if the fear of G-d is missing.

Tragically, Rabbi Wasserman was to learn the truth of that insight only too well. Although he was out of the country when World War II started, he chose to return to Europe to be with his students, and was murdered in the Holocaust. Despite the fact that Germany was regarded as one of the most advanced nations of the world, and its citizens were acclaimed as leaders in philosophy, science and culture, they were without fear of G-d. Bereft of fear of Heaven, the Germans proved to be most proficient in committing the most heinous acts in the history of humankind.

In the Book of Psalms (Psalms 111:10), King David writes רֵאשִׁית חָכְמָה, יִרְאַת השׁם, The beginning of wisdom is the fear of G-d. Without the fear of G-d–without a basic and fundamental moral conscience based on a Divinely transmitted set of morality and ethics, one cannot truly be properly informed or be considered wise. All knowledge, even the presumed wisdom contained in science, literature and philosophy, must be used in a moral manner and dedicated to the service and benefit of furthering humankind. If not, it will soon become a source of great immorality and many destructive deeds.

May you be blessed.