In this week’s Parsha, Parshat Vayera, we read the story of Avimelech, the king of Gerar. The Torah says, “Avraham said of Sarah his wife, ‘She is my sister,’ so Avimelech, king of Gerar, sent for and took Sarah. And Hashem came to Avimelech in a dream by night and said to him, ‘Behold you are to die because of the woman you have taken; she is a married woman.’ “Avimelech replies,” ‘Did not he [Avraham] himself not tell me: ‘She is my sister’? In the innocence of my heart and integrity of my hands have I done this.’” Hashem answers him saying, “‘I, too, knew that it was in the innocence of your heart that you did this, and I, too, prevented you from sinning against Me; that is why I did not permit you to touch her. But now, return the man’s wife for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live, but if you do not return her, be aware that you shall surely die…’” (Bereishit 20: 2-7).
From the text, it appears as though Hashem changes His mind First, Hashem announces that He is going to kill Avimelech, and then He offers Avimelech the chance to live. Does not this look like evidence of Divine modification? Yet, how could Hashem alter His intentions or change His mind? If Hashem is All-Knowing, then He knows everything beforehand and cannot really change His mind
To solve this problem, we need to look at the story of the Meraglim spies, in which Bnai Yisrael believe the negative report about Eretz Yisrael brought back by the Meraglim. Hashem is furious. He appears in the Ohel Moed and says to Moshe, “How long will this people provoke Me, and how long will they not have faith in Me, despite all the signs that I have performed in their midst? I will smite them with the plague and annihilate them, and I shall make you a greater and more powerful nation than they” (Bemidbar 14:11-12).
Moshe replies, begging Hashem to forgive Bnai Yisrael and reasoning that Egypt and all the nations that heard of Hashem’s power would say that “Because Hashem lacked the ability to bring this people to the Land that He had sworn to give them, He slaughtered them in the Wilderness” (Bemidbar14:16). The next two Pesukim answer our question. Moshe says, “And now, may the strength of my Lord be magnified as You have spoken, saying…” Next, Moshe lists some of the Midot Harachamim, Hashem’s Thirteen Attributes of Mercy that He taught Moshe after the incident of the Golden Calf (Shemot 34:6-7). What does Moshe mean when he says that Hashem should show His strength? Showing strength would normally suggest taking action. Physical action, however, is not what the Torah means. The word “Koach,” strength, is next to the Midot Harachamim, which signifies that being strong is really having mercy.
Now, let us return to the story with Avimelech. In it, Hashem does not change His mind. Rather, He shows Avimelech his strength. Hashem could have killed him, but He exercised His strength, His mercy. The lesson we learn from this is that instead of being angry, we should control ourselves and treat others with mercy. That is true strength.