Rabbi Azariya Berzon
Rosh Kollel in Toronto


“And the man came to the house, and he unfastened the camels; and he gave straw and fodder to the camels and water to wash his feet and the feet of the men who were with him.” (Breishit 24:32)

“‘And he unfastened’ – He loosened their muzzles, for he would shut their mouths so that they would not graze along the way in fields belonging to others.” (Rashi – Breishit 24:32)

“‘And he unfastened the camels…’ – He unfastened their neck bridles, because the custom was to lead them harnessed… And Rashi wrote, ‘He loosened their muzzles, for he would shut their mouths so that they would not graze along the way in fields belonging to others.’ And in the words of Breishit Rabah (60:8), ‘He loosened their muzzles. R’ Huna and R’ Yirmiyah asked R’ Chiya the son of R’ Abba, “Were not Avraham Avinu’s camels comparable to R’ Pinchas ben Yair’s donkey…”’ And this question refutes that their muzzles were unfastened, because it is not possible that the chassidut (piety) in R’ Pinchas ben Yair’s home was greater than in Avraham Avinu’s home. And since R’ Pinchas ben Yair’s donkey did not need to be kept away from the things which are forbidden for his owner to feed him, all the more so Avraham Avinu’s camels. And there was no need to muzzle them, because ‘there shall not be caused to a righteous man any iniquity.’ (Mishlei 12:21)” (Ramban – Breishit 24:32)

The Ramban is referring to the Gemara:

“[If even] the animals of the righteous – HaKadosh Baruch Hu does not lead them to failure, [is it not certain that] the righteous themselves – all the more so? But perhaps he took ma’aser [for that produce] from a different source? [Yet, this cannot be, because] chaveirim (meticulous and conscientious people) are not suspected of giving terumahfrom [produce] which is not in the immediate vicinity. But perhaps he directed his eyes on this side but ate from another side? He said to him, ‘Look at which great person testified about him.’ What are ‘the animals of the righteous’? Of R’ Pinchas ben Yair…” (Chulin 7a)

The MidrashTana’im (Devarim 23:15) provides more information about R’ Pinchas ben Yair:

“R’ Pinchas ben Yair would say, ‘Swiftness leads to cleanliness. Cleanliness leads to purity. Purity leads to sanctity. Sanctity leads to humility. Humility leads to fear of sin. Fear of sin leads to chassidut (piety). Chassidut leads toru’ach hakodesh (the Divine Spirit). Ru’ach hakodesh leads to techiyat hameitim.”

Clearly, R’ Pinchas ben Yair had achieved and mastered each of these levels. Otherwise, he would not have been able to delineate the upward path which leads from one level to the next.

As noted above, the Ramban uses R’ Pinchas ben Yair to infer that there was no need for Avraham Avinu to muzzle his camels in order to prevent them from eating that which did not belong to their master. At first glace, this is a rather startling idea. After all, everyone knows that camels eat – and continue to eat – everything which is placed before them. Can camels be prevented from eating forbidden foods? In Avraham Avinu’s case, the answer was a resounding yes. His great chassidut was able to influence his camels as well!

This approach offers additional insight into an earlier Ramban in Parshat Lech Lecha:

“And know that Avraham Avinu transgressed a great sin b’shgagah (unintentionally) when he brought his righteous wife as a stumbling block to iniquity, due to his fear that they would kill him. And he should have trusted that Hashem would save him and his wife and everything that he had, because God has the power to help and to save. Likewise, his departure from Eretz Yisrael, which he was commanded about at the beginning, due to the famine, was a sin which he transgressed, because in famine, God would deliver him from death. [See Iyov 5:20.] And for this incident, his descendants were condemned to exile in the Land of Egypt, under Paroh. The evil and the sin are in the place of judgment.” (Ramban – Breishit 12:10)

The Beit HaLevi(Breishit 41:1) helps clarify the above Ramban:

“It is written in the Midrash Rabah (Parshat Mikeitz 89:3), ‘“Praiseworthy is the man who made Hashem his trust” (Tehilim 40:5) – This is Yosef. “And did not turn to the arrogant” (Ibid) – Because since he said to the Sar HaMashkim, “If you only you would remember me… and mention me,” (Breishit 40:14) he received two additional years.’ And many have studied this Midrash… but it has a simple explanation. The acceptable measure of hishtadlut(loosely, effort) is not the same for every person. Rather, each person according to his own worth. For one who can come to trust with a little effort, all his efforts above the amount required for this measure will be considered for him as a sin against the trait of bitachon (trust). Because he focused on the hishtadlut and did not trust. And one whose bitachon is less than his friend’s can put in more effort than his friend – until he too can silence his spirit and trust in Hashem. For the essence of bitachon is silencing one’s spirit and heart and casting one’s burden upon Hashem. And one who increases his hishtadlut over the necessary amount, his punishment will be that Heaven will increase his need to make an effort. And he will only earn a livelihood with much toil along his chosen path. And behold, Yosef’s hishtadlut – namely, that he said to the Sar HaMashkim, ‘mention me to Paroh’ – is a small and meager effort, as we can imagine. After all, it only involves one statement. But since we see that Yosef was punished even for that, it is thus proven that his bitachon was so great that even this extremely minor matter is counted against him. And from his punishment, we can recognize the greatness of hisbitachon, which we truly cannot fathom.”

And thus, we can understand the Ramban’s teaching that Avraham sinned when “he should have trusted that Hashem would save him and his wife.” In other words, due to the level of Avraham Avinu’s chassidut, extraordinary miracles replaced the laws of nature in his home, and he did not have to muzzle his camels. Hence, he should have trusted Hashem, rather than bringing “his righteous wife as a stumbling block to iniquity, due to his fear that they would kill him” and leaving Eretz Yisrael during the famine.