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Parshat Lech Lecha – Satan; Devil or Servant

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Dear Rabbi: “If the Nachash – the snake – was the embodiment of Satan (or the vehicle upon which Satan rode) was allowed into the Garden of Eden with all his trickery and temptations, wasn’t man meant to fail and how can Adam be blamed? If the Satan was allowed to provide the fertilizer for Noah’s vineyard which led to Noah’s downfall after he became drunk, was any other outcome possible? If Satan represents evil, why does Hashem give him free reign?”

I believe there are a number of ways of looking at Satan. We must be very careful not to take on a Western or Christian view of Satan as some fallen angel independently acting against G-d representing the forces of evil. This view of a sovereign opposing power working against G-d is to say the least heretical.  Many Rabbis look at Satan as a servant of Hashem and potentially a servant of man who is there to test man in man’s self-control. If man is successful in governing his desires, he comes to govern Satan as well, returning Satan to his role of servant.

We can see this throughout the Torah and Talmud, but as we are reading the portion of Lecha Lecha, let us begin here with a few questions, the answer to which will shed light on our question.

Hashem commands Abraham to leave his land. The verses tell us that Abraham takes all the property or money which he earned with him. Why is it so important for the verse to tell us this?

When Abraham arrives is Canaan we are told he pitches a tent for his wife and then one for him. Are we being taught etiquette? Does the Torah want us to know ladies first?

Although G-d has promised Abraham children, wealth and fame, we are told that there is a famine in the land of Canaan and Abraham quickly goes through all his assets and wealth and becomes destitute. With no way to survive in Canaan, he has no choice but to go to Egypt. Why was it necessary for Abraham to become destitute before going to Egypt?

As they pass into Egypt, Abraham turns to his wife and says to her, “Now I see that you are a beautiful woman”. Rashi writes, until now, he did not recognize her beauty because of the modesty of both of them, but now he recognized her beauty through an incident where he saw her reflection in the water. Considering that the Talmud states that compared to Sarah all other woman are monkeys. we must ask, he is 75 and she is 65, has he not seen her face and recognized her beauty in all these years? What are we meant to learn?

Realizing the Egyptians will take her because of beauty, Abraham asks Sara, “please state that you are my sister, in order that it should be good for me because of you and so that I may live for your sake”. We can understand a request to lie to save his life, but how do we understand that “it should be good for me”? Rashi explains, “that they will give me gifts”. Here one needs to ask. Is Abraham actually asking his wife to act with duplicity in order to attain wealth? And even if, though impossible to believe, this is Abraham’s intention, shouldn’t saving his life come first and wealth second?

Enamored with the beauty of Sarah, Pharaoh wants to marry her. But it would be beneath him to marry a poor traveler. So Pharaoh showers upon Abraham and Lot an abundance of wealth including sheep, cattle, donkeys and camels, servants, silver and gold, so much so that when they return to Canaan, they have so much that the land cannot support them in the same place and they must separate. One must be confused. When Pharaoh discovers that Abraham and Sarah have acted with deceit and sends them away, why does Abraham take this illegitimately earned wealth? Isn’t he embarrassed? Isn’t this pilfered money? Is he not worried about a chillul Hashem?

This question becomes grander in light of Abraham’s actions following his victory during the war of the four kings against the five kings. When the King and inhabitants of Sedom are captured and taken prisoner, among them Lot, Abraham goes to battle with his private army, conquers their enemy and frees them. The King of Sedom begs Abraham that although it is Abraham’s right of conquest to take both the people as slaves and the property as spoils, that Abraham limits himself to the spoils. The verses state that Abraham refuses to take even a string or shoelace so that one should never state that Sedom made Abraham wealthy. And the Talmud tells us that this act was a great Kiddush Hashem, sanctification of G-d’s name. Huh? Abraham won’t take that which he legitimately deserves through conquest, but will take that which he possibly earned illegitimately through deceit? Something is very confusing here!

We send our children to school and we hope they learn something and grow intellectually and in their integrity, honesty, ethics and confidence. To accomplish this requires tests, both as part of the classroom education and life education. Passing a test gives us the confidence that we can and the motivation to reach for more. Knowing there are tests forces us to prepare, focus, study and do. We don’t allow a driver on the road without practice and being tested. We don’t allow a doctor to operate without being tested again and again. We don’t allow a lawyer in the courtroom without passing the bar. We don’t allow a pilot to fly a plane with assurance that he has met all requirements. We don’t allow a teacher into a classroom without a license and we don’t accept a Rabbi as an authority without being rigorously tested for Semicha. In the same vein Satan is there to test us, not so that we fail and not so that we prove anything to Hashem. Satan tests us so that we grow and prove to ourselves. Rather than imagine Satan depressed when we succeed, we must imagine him thrilled that we passed and we have grown and he sets about designing a greater test. “The greater the person, the greater his inclination”, states the Talmud. And the truly free person is the one who masters his inclination completely.

Adam wants a chance to prove himself and grow yet fails. Chava lusts for the fruit on the tree and gives to him to eat. But as we have said many times, the Zohar says that in fact it was Adam who also lusted for his beautiful wife and instead of looking at her as Chava, the mother of all, he looks at her as Isha, his possession. Instead of waiting for Shabbat when all would have been permitted, he jumps the gun and takes her before the wedding and before Shabbat. His lack of control is displayed in Kayin who in his jealousy may have killed Hevel over a wife. We see lack of control in Lemach (the blind, who kills Kayin and his grandson) who must marry two wives, a pretty wife who he makes barren to maintain her beauty and a second wife to mother his children and care for his home. We see it again in the final story of Bereshit in fallen angels who after challenging man’s right to exist come to earth and fail in the same way taking earthly women.

Noah is a sadik. He has the self-control and therefore he is chosen to survive and rebuild the world. But Noah too fails in this quality of restraint. He comes out of the ark and he goes from Ish Sadik to Ish Adamah, like Adam. He plants Adam’s vine, takes the fruit, drinks the wine, becomes drunk and rolls naked in his tent unaware of his nakedness. He engages in a homosexual act with Cham and finally is castrated by his own son. Then man of restraint becomes the man of indulgence and fails.

When Adam failed he was cursed. You will live by the sweat of your brow, he is told and life will be limited and end with death.

We wait ten generations after Noah for Abraham. Abraham who was willing to walk into the fire at Ur Kasdim, Abraham who left all behind, Abraham who never looked at his wife with lust as the Egyptians would.

Abraham leaves Haran with all he earned, but that which he earned, was through the sweat of his brow and a result of the curse. Abraham is above this and all that is taken from him. He sets a tent for his wife, because unlike Adam who didn’t respect his wife, calling her at first Isha, his possession, and blaming her, Abraham respects his wife. He does not look at her as an object as the Egyptians would.

Abraham is Adam. Sarah is Chava. Together they will go to Egypt and face the test of the Satan, the snake, this time embodied in Pharaoh whose crown is in the image of the snake. If we succeed, Abraham tells Sarah that we will reverse the curse of man. We will no longer live by the sweat of the brow and we will not die. Pharaoh is punished with leprosy as a snake. Yet when Adam or in this case Abraham passes the test, it is the snake who will serve him and provide him with wealth and life. Thus Abraham can take that which he lawfully earned from the snake by passing his test.

The snake is Hashem’s servant, meant to serve man as well. When man fails, man faces difficulties and death, but when man succeeds it is even the snake, the Satan who serves him. We pray not to be tested, but every day in reality is a test. May we succeed and be blessed.

By: Rabbi David Bibi

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