Who doesn’t love gifts?
In this week’s parsha, there’s an interesting verse that makes us question whether according to halacha, one is allowed to accept presents.
When Avraham and Sara are about to enter Egypt, he says the following to his beautiful wife, “Say that you are my sister so that they will be good to me and my life will be saved.”
Rashi says an astonishing thing on the words, “they will be good to me”, that Avraham was saying, “they will give me presents”.
The Maharal of Prague points out the most glaring problem with this statement and attitude of Avraham. First, in Mishlei, King Solomon says, “He who hates gifts will live.” Second, later on in the parsha, when the King of Sodom says “give me the captives and I will reward you handsomely”, Avraham refuses him and says, “I won’t take a thread or a shoe-strap from you, so you can never say that you made Avraham rich.” So what’s Avraham up to at the borders of Egypt? Why does he suddenly want gifts?
Also, as I mentioned at the beginning, what does the halacha say about this advice from King Solomon? Are we really not allowed to accept presents? What can be so bad about getting a present or two?
Rashi explains that not taking gifts is a good trait to engender in our hearts and minds as it will distance us from theft and coveting the things that belong to others, which is the last of the Ten Commandments. This advice of King Solomon acts as a fence to these potential sins.
Rabbeinu Yona sees it a bit differently, saying that when you take gifts you become beholden to that person and you’ll compromise your standards, feeling bad about rebuking him when necessary or even worse, flattering him, which is the separate sin of chanifut – flattery.
Now returning to our original question about Avraham wanting gifts from Pharoah, the Tchebiner Rav (Rabbi Dov Berish Weidenfeld), quoted by Rabbi Yissocher Frand, explains what was going through Avraham’s head: King Solomon promises that one who refuses gifts will live. In the precarious moment that he and Sara were in, at the borders of Egypt, life was his main priority, no-one had offered him any gifts yet to refuse. Avraham thought, “Let me set it up in such a way that they will offer me gifts, so that I can refuse them, and in so doing, Hashem will cause Sara and me to live and survive”. Avraham was so great, he didn’t want or need gifts, he was merely setting up an elaborate ruse so that he could pass the test and save his and Sara’s lives.
In conclusion, as far as the halacha goes, the Rambam holds that perfect tzadikkim won’t accept gifts because their trust in Hashem is so complete, they know that Hashem will provide. But for us mere mortals, there’s no problem in receiving presents.