Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Avimelekh, The King Who Plays the Blame Game

Parshat Vayera

by Rabbi Avi Billet

Avimelekh, king of Gerar, is a tragic figure. He’s a king, but he is very insecure. He thinks his position allows him to do things no civilian could get away with, but every time he gets called on his behavior, he lays the blame on others and never takes responsibility.

After having taken Sarah to his palace, against her will, God appears to Avimelekh and tells him, you’re a dead man because you stole a man’s wife. His response? “Didn't [her husband] tell me that she was his sister? She also claimed that he was her brother. If I did something, it was with an innocent heart and clean hands.'” (Chapter 20:5)

Was it really? Did you have to take her at all? Did she come to your home of her own accord? Did she consent? Isn’t taking a woman against her will a problematic behavior?

When he brings Sarah out to Avraham, instead of apologizing over the misunderstanding, he says “How could you do this to us? What terrible thing did I do to you that you brought such great guilt upon me and my people? The thing you did to me is simply not done!” (20:9)

Again, instead of taking responsibility for his presumptuous taking of Sarah, he blames Avraham for deceiving him, while likely knowing that had he known the truth, he would have had Avraham killed.

In Chapter 21, between the story of Yishmael and Hagar being sent out and the Akedah, Avimelekh makes another appearance. Along with his general Fichol, he makes an offer for a treaty with Avraham, on account of his noticing that God is with Avraham. And so he says to Avraham, “swear to me that you will not deal falsely with me, with my children, or with my grandchildren. Just like the kindness I did for you, that’s what you should do for me and for the land where you have lived.” (21:23) Avraham seemingly agrees (though see Alshikh’s comment which twists Avraham’s to have an entirely different meaning than we might assume).

Avraham takes Avimelekh to task over a well that Avimelekh’s servants had taken by force. His response? “Abimelekh said, 'I don't know who could have done such a thing. You never told me. I heard nothing about it until today.'”

Really? Blaming the victim, aren’t we, Avimelekh? It seems clear to me from what we are told in the text that people in Avimelekh’s land were governed by their ruler. What he said went, and his was the law of the land. There is no such thing as Avimeleh’s servants doing something like evicting someone from a well without the king knowing about it.

So what is the problem? Avimelekh, certainly in his own mind’s eye, can never see himself as being wrong. It’s always someone else’s fault! He is perfect! He never makes an error!

This is not to say that Avraham did not have appreciation for Avimelekh’s role in his own life. Avraham gives Avimelekh 7 sheep as an indicator that his wells are his own, and as a reminder that Avimelekh must inform his people not to steal Avraham’s wells. Chapter 21 concludes by telling us, “Abraham lived [there] in the land of the Philistines for many days” – either he stayed in Gerar, or Beer Sheva was on the border with the land of the Philistines (see Ramban 21:32) and they lived in peace. 

So why bring this up, if in the end, Avraham and Avimelekh did, in fact, share peace?

It might be true that “all’s well that ends well.” That idiom, however, does not take into account that while the ends might be nice, the process of getting there is sometimes far less than pleasant and even, in some cases, not worth undertaking at all.

But even moreso, I know people like Avimelekh. In moments of weakness, I sometimes act like Avimelekh. How often do we forget that not every person and not every person’s actions are in our control? How often do we forget that when living and dealing with other people, sometimes things don’t go our way? Sometimes things fall apart, and we found ourselves in a difficult moment, a difficult day, a difficult week, a difficult reality, and all we want to do is blame others for the troubles in our lives?

To be fair, sometimes the troubles are other people’s fault! Sometimes rules change, laws change, people who were previously generous now have to tighten belts, people undergoing private tragedy or challenging times need to adjust things in their lives which means they need to make cuts in their relationships and commitments elsewhere.

What do we do when we are faced with realities that are disagreeable to us? There is no rule that fits all, because every situation is different and needs to be analyzed for its own merits. If we need to fight to change unjust rules or laws, then that is one fight that must be had.

But when the fault does truly lie in our mismanagement or our own bad choices or decisions, do we punt the football and blame everyone else? Or do we own up and say “How can I make this better?” How can we work together with the good people around us in order to create the outcomes we’d much prefer to see and experience?

Collaboration with others – both like-minded and differently-minded seems to me to be a better solution for all. How many things did Avraham and Avimelekh agree upon? Not too many, I would surmise. And yet they made a lasting peace, and Avraham even lived in the same land for many years.

If the man who had his wife taken away can get along with the man who abducted that wife, then most hurdles can be overcome when people choose to work together and not blame everyone else for their shortcomings.

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