Rabbi Chagai Raviv
Former Rosh Kollel in Cleveland (2009-2010)
Currently Rosh Beit Midrash in Yeshivat Shaarei Mevasseret Tzion
When Avraham Avinu returns from the war against the four kings, Malkitzedek, the king of Shalem, goes out to greet him:
“And Malkitzedek, the king of Shalem, brought out bread and wine; and he was a priest to God, the Most High.” (Breishit 14:18)
Many commentators discuss the significance of the bread and the wine. For instance, Rashi has two explanations. First, he teaches that this was the custom for those who returned from battle. In addition, he cites the Midrash to the effect that the bread and wine hint to the menachot (meal offerings) and the nesachim (libations) which Avraham’s descendants would offer at that very site (the Beit HaMikdash).
Yet, a comprehensive look at the parsha yields another approach.
R’ Shimshon Rafael Hirsch makes the surprising observation that five kings rule in the relatively small Kikar Hayarden region. This large number is underscored by the fact that the five kings’ foes – i.e. the four kings – include the kings of vast countries such as Shinar (Babylonia), Elam (Medea), and Goyim (literally, “Nations”).
According to R’ Hirsch, this asymmetry – namely, that while five kings rule over a tiny tract of land, far fewer kings rule over the rest of the ancient world – is the result of the Kikar Hayarden cities’ incredible wealth. Rich nations often find it easier to appoint a king rather than dealing with inconvenient matters of state and territory. As R’ Hirsch elucidates:
“Thus we can understand that each small city in the wealthy plain region had its own king. In this way, they spared themselves the burden of thinking and worrying about the public’s needs.”
In other words, one’s need and desire for an easy life frequently prevents one from getting involved and making an effort for the public good – even at the cost of one’s political freedom.
Avraham Avinu stands in stark contrast to this attitude. Immediately prior to this incident, HaKadosh Baruch Hu promises him:
“Arise, walk about the land, to its length and to its breadth; for to you will I give it.” (Breishit 13:17)
But nevertheless, Avraham does not remain aloof and is not concerned about his own personal serenity. Rather, he heads off to war in the very same land that he was promised. Moreover, he does not do so for his own sake; he goes to battle in order to save his nephew Lot. Also, during the famine, he is even forced to leave Eretz Yisrael and travel to Egypt, and later, he has to pay for land to bury his wife.
Avraham Avinu recognizes that even someone who receives a place as a gift is still responsible to struggle and toil with dedication and devotion to make the land his own. He understands that one must be willing to fight for Hashem’s gifts in order to earn the right to be a partner to the Creator and to transform Eretz Yisrael into one’s own inheritance.
Perhaps this is the message which Malkitzedek wishes to impart when he brings Avraham bread and wine upon his return from the war. My friend Rav Yoel Cohen of Yerushalayim notes that bread and wine both begin as gifts which come directly fromHaKadosh Baruch Hu – “the wheat and the vine”. But then man works and toils to add value to these gifts, and as a result, the final products each have their own special brachah (blessing). Thus, Malkitzedek’s message is that due to Avraham’s efforts, he is privileged to serve as HaKadosh Baruch Hu’s partner in acquiring and adding value to his inheritance. Furthermore, all the sacrifices these efforts entail will result in a great blessing to the land.
As the Midrash beautifully states:
“‘And he divided himself against them at night…’ (Breishit 14:15) HaKadosh Baruch Hu said, ‘Their father acted with me at midnight. So too I will act with his son at midnight.’ And when? In Egypt, as it says, ‘And it was at midnight, and Hashem smote every firstborn…’ (Shmot 12:29)” (Breishit Rabbah 43)