November 26, 2020 |

The Avimelekh Syndrome

(Rosh Hashanah 5767)
Here we go again! Every year we celebrate Rosh Hashanah and we accept resolutions upon ourselves. But how many of us really change? How many of us allow ourselves to change? How many of us stop our bad habits for good?

This year will be different. This year we will change.

Today we are going to learn some words of Torah which will hopefully give us the secret to change. Do you know who will teach us this secret?

When people think about Rosh Hashanah, they think about the Shofar, or the beautiful Mussaf, perhaps they think about the Akeidah story, or the prayer of Channah, or even God’s promise to Sarah that Isaac will be born. But there is another major character of Rosh Hashanah who we often forget about.

That character is Avimelekh. We read about Avimelekh in the Torah reading of the first day of Rosh Hashanah. Why Avimelekh? Of all people, he is the one who will teach us the secret of Teshuvah, repentance or change.

Let’s review the story of the Torah reading. God promises Sarah and Abraham that they will have a child named Isaac. Sarah initially laughs and questions God, but then Isaac is born. Following that Hagar and Yishmael are sent away by Avraham. Hagar despairs that she and Yishmael will die, but then God promises that he will make Yishmael into a great nation. They are saved and Yishmael is raised in the desert.

The Torah reading could have very easily ended there. Bu it doesn’t. A powerful man, a Philistine, named Avimelekh, reappears on the scene. Earlier the Torah had introduced us to Avimelekh, King of Gerar.

Flashback to this earlier scene in the Torah: Avraham comes to visit Avimelekhs’s land. Avraham was concerned that Avimlekh would kill him and marry his wife Sarah. So Avraham passes off Sarah as his sister. Immediately Avimelekh sends his men and kidnaps Sarah. When God threatens to destroy Avimelekh, Avimelek responds with what sounds like two good excuses. He says, “Hu amar li, achoti hi.” It is Abraham’s fault. He told me that she was my sister. And it is also Sarah’s fault. “Ve-hi gam hi amrah, achi hu,” and she also told me that, “He is my brother.” He claims: “It is not my fault. I am innocent.”

Fast forward to today’s reading.

This time Avimelekh approaches Avraham and says, “I noticed that God has been with you. Let’s make a treaty.

Why is this story here? On Rosh Hashanah?

This story is here because it carries with it three central messages of Rosh Hashanah. Two of the messages teach us the key to changing our behavior and the third message teaches us about God’s behavior.

The first message of his story was taught to me by my teacher, Rabbi Saul Berman. The story of Avimelekh is read on Rosh Hashanah because it teaches us how NOT to act.

Immediately after Avraham and Avimelekh make a treaty the very next verse tells us, “Ve-hochiakh Avraham et Avimelekh al odot be-er ha-mayim she-gazlu avdei avimelekh, and Abraham rebuked Avimelekh on account of the wells which Avimelekh’s servants had stolen.”

In other words, they made a treaty and right away Avraham’s wells were stolen. As you can imagine, Avraham was pretty angry with Avimelekh. Here is how Avimelekh responds: Va-yomer Avimelekh lo yadati. I didn’t know. Mi asah ha-davar hazeh, WHO could have done this? Ve-gam atah lo hegadetah li, YOU never told me. Ve-gam anokhi lo shamati bilti ha-yom, I NEVER heard about it before today.

Four different times Avimelekh denies responsibility. He passes the buck and says it is not his fault. But now we know that Avimlekh is already the master of excuses. Now we see through his excuses. They are lame and weak.

A fundamental lesson of Rosh Hashanah is for us to stop making excuses. We should not act like Avimelekh.

The essence of the Days of Awe (Yamim Noraim) is that we must acknowledge all of the errors that we made in the previous year. We cannot come closer to God unless we admit that we erred—we have sinned, we were at fault.

We live in a country and in a society that loves to make excuses. It wasn’t my fault. There were mitigating circumstances. This is the Avimelekh syndrome. (When we judge others we must be sensitive to any possible excuse and not judge harshly.) But when we judge ourselves, we must look a little more closely. We must not fall prone to the Avimelekh syndrome.

If we want to come close to God, if we want to make real change in our lives then we must not make excuses for our behavior. We should acknowledge our errors and work on fixing them. This is the first step of Teshuvah: Acknowledging our errors.

Let’s all take a moment now and think. I would like everyone to think of some of the errors we have made over the last year…some big, some small. Take a minute.

Avimelekh also teaches us a second lesson about Teshuvah. Again it is a lesson in how NOT to act.

Avimelekh approached Avraham and requested a treaty not only for himself but also for future generations, “le-nini u-lenechdi, for my children and grandchildren.” Avraham agrees and Avimelekh recognizes that Avraham dug the wells at Beer-sheva. And there the matter was settled; they had a treaty after all. The treaty should have lasted for a few generations.

Again fast forward a few years. Lo and behold Isaac again gets into a dispute with Avimelekh. The Torah tells us, “Vayisatmum plishtim acharei mot avraham.” Immediately after Avraham died the first thing Avimelekh’s henchmen did was close up Avraham’s wells. So much for his promises to Avraham!

Thank you, Avimelekh, for teaching us how NOT to act. Avimelekh doesn’t keep his word. It means nothing, he makes promises and treaties and they are just words.

Again we can not catch the Avimelekh syndrome. We must begin Rosh Hashanah by making a promise and we must keep this promise. We must work on ourselves this year to keep that promise.

Let’s take a moment. Everyone should pick one thing and commit to it. Promise yourself. You might want to verbalize it softly, just like you verbalize your amidah. Let’s all take a minute.

And now we come to the third lesson of the Avimelekh story. This lesson teaches us about God’s behavior.

What is the connection between the Avimelekh story and the first half of the Torah reading?

The first half of the Torah reading is Hashem pakad et sarah, God remembered Sarah. Sarah had given up hope; she had given up on life. When the angels came to tell her she was having a baby, she thought God was laughing at her (tzchok asah li elokim). Can you imagine anything sadder then someone who thinks God is laughing at them? She thought God forgot about her, but in the end she learned that God remembered her. He never forgot her.

Man forgets. Man breaks their promise. God never does. God has a covenant with us.

That is the third lesson of the Avimelekh story. We must do our part. We must acknowledge our errors and keep our resolutions, but the end result is that God will remember us. The Avimelekh’s of the world won’t remember us, but Hashem always will.

Even when we think God is laughing at us, maybe he is really remembering us.

As we begin a new year, Avimelekh teaches us not to end up like him. Don’t make excuse for ourselves and don’t break our promises. If we do that, then in the end God will remember us. God will guard us and protect us.


Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld

Joined: August 8, 2007

Shmuel is Rabbi of Ohev Sholom -- The National Synagogue, the oldest Orthodox synagogue in Washington, DC. His communal responsibilities include teaching classes, coordinating adult education, creating programs for the elderly,the youth, and the sick, and ministering to the pastoral needs of the...

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