Last week, we talked about Avraham’s backstory, the reason he was chosen. David Hirschhorn pointed out that there’s a pasuk in this week’s parasha that seems to give a different reason:
The problem is understanding the words ידעתיו and למען. יְדַעְתִּיו literally means “I knew him”, but not in the sense of “I knew about him”; that would be ֹיְדַעְתּו. And לְמַעַן literally means “so that”; ידעתיו so that יצוה את בניו. ידעתיו is the reason for יצוה את בניו. ”Because“ means the opposite; ידעתיו because יצוה את בניו means יצוה את בניו is the reason for ידעתיו. Onkelos ignores both problems:
And Rashi is bothered by Onkelos, so he gives the meaning that is adopted by Artscroll:
The reason for ה׳ loving Avraham and acknowledging him, the reason for his election, is the fact that he commands his children to do charity and justice. The Ramban quotes Rashi, then explains that למען means “so that”:
Avraham was elected to fulfill the task of יצוה את בניו. גדלתיו (similar to Rashi’s לשון חיבה) causes the יצוה את בניו. There must have been something in Avraham before this that warranted that election, as we discussed last week. The problem remains, what’s the connection to our parasha? Why not mention it back in לך לך? Rashi doesn’t really have an answer, but cites a midrash:
So other מפרשים translate ידעתיו not as “I knew (loved, acknowledged, exalted) him” but as “I made him know”. ה׳ is saying that I need to let Avraham know about Sodom and its fate because (למען) he needs to tell his descendants about it. It has nothing to do with the reasons for Avraham’s election.
ה׳ tells Avraham not in order to get him to pray for Sodom, but simply to inform him.
Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky argues that in fact, ה׳ tells Avraham about the sins and fate of Sodom so that he will pray, and that fact—that he prays for Sodom— is the essence of the lesson
למען אשר יצוה את בניו…לעשות צדקה ומשפט:
Doing good for evil people is not an easy decision, and in fact was a test, a נסיון for Avraham.
The point of a Divine “test” is not to let ה׳ know what a person will do (ה׳ already knows the answer); it’s to let the person learn something about themselves. That’s what ידעתיו means: I am going to tell Avraham about Sodom, so he can wrestle with the moral dilemmas involved and work on discovering the truth, and that is what he will pass on to his children. Letting us know what we are capable of is part of ה׳'s חיבה:
And that connects to the great נסיון at the end of the parasha:
This final test was to inform both Avraham and the world about what Avraham was capable of.
So why does Rashi insist on translating למען as לפי, ”because“, rather than בעבור, ”so that“? I would propose that it’s a more midrashic understanding of ה׳'s statement that goes back to the meaning of נסיון. G-d knows how we will respond to the test; that’s the nature of omniscience. ה׳ gives us the test because it will have the desired result. But we don’t know how it will turn out, how we will rise to the challenge. The test is “so that” we can accomplish things we didn’t think we were capable of, and that is the lesson that Avraham will pass on to his descendants: ידעתיו למען אשר יצוה את בניו ואת ביתו אחריו ושמרו דרך ה׳ לעשות צדקה ומשפט.