Parashat Lech-Lecha: A Jew Never Despairs
We read in Parashat Lech-Lecha of Abraham Abinu’s miraculous military victory against four large empires. These empires had waged war against the city of Sedom and the surrounding cities, capturing all their citizens, including Abraham’s nephew, Lot. When Abraham heard about his nephew’s capture, he immediately mobilized his servants into an army of 318 men, and pursued the four kings. In miraculous fashion, Abraham defeated them and freed all the captives.
The Midrash, as several commentators cite, tells that Abraham did not, in fact, launch his attack with 318 soldiers. Rather, he was accompanied by just one person – his faithful servant, Eliezer. The name "Eliezer" has the numerical value of 318, and thus when the Torah speaks of Abraham mobilizing 318 men, it really means that he took Eliezer. The two of them fought alone and miraculously triumphed.
Rabbenu Bahya (1255-1340), one of the great Spanish commentators, adds more details to the Midrash’s account. He explains that Abraham initially did have 318 men, but they all left him before battle. Torah law requires that before the army sets out for battle, the Kohen must speak to the troops and announce certain exemptions, including for those who are frightened and may thus discourage their comrades. Abraham followed this procedure, and all 318 men promptly left, as they were frightened by the prospect of waging combat against four powerful armies. In the end, Abraham fought this war accompanied only by Eliezer.
Rav Tzadok Ha’kohen of Lublin (1823-1900) viewed this episode as establishing a vitally important precedent and infusing within the Jewish Nation one of its most remarkable qualities. Namely, we do not despair. The Jews arose from the gas chambers of the Holocaust to create a sovereign state and rebuild our nation. We have always believed and lived with a keen sense that "Yeshuat Hashem Ke’heref Ayin" – G-d can resolve even the most seemingly intractable crisis in an instant. This quality originates from the story of Abraham and Eliezer. After the 318 men left, Abraham found himself alone and, seemingly, helpless. How could he possibly wage a war against four powerful armies by himself? Yet, he didn’t despair. He took his trusted servant, and they prevailed.
Rav Tzadok noted that the numerical value of the word "Yeush" ("despair") is 317. Eliezer – whose name has the numerical value of 318 – represents the need to transcend despair and believe that G-d can always help. This is the lesson of this story, and it is a lesson which we need to apply every day throughout our lives as we confront challenges and hardships. A Jew never despairs, because a Jew knows that G-d is all-powerful and can bring the solution in an instant. No matter how desperate one’s situation is, he must never lose hope, and remember that G-d is capable of helping.