In R. David Silverberg’s Tuesday 2017 Devar Tora for Parashat Lech Lecha , he discusses the manner in which Malki Tzedek describes Avraham, following his battle with the kings in order to rescue the individuals that they had taken captive, as well as their “spoils of war”:
18 And Malki Tzedek, king of Shalem (Yerushayim?) brought forth bread and wine; and he was priest of God, the Most High. 19 And he blessed him, and said: Blessed be Avram of God Most High, Maker of heaven and earth; 20 And Blessed be God, the Most High, Who hath Delivered thine enemies into thy hand. And he gave him a tenth of all.
In order to explain Malki Tzedek’s terminology, i.e., “Maker of heaven and earth,” R. Silverberg cites R. Moshe Walner’s 1975 book, entitled Derushim LeCheftzeihem. R. Silverberg summarizes R. Walner’s explanation:
…Rav Moshe Walner, in Derushim Le-cheftzeihem, suggests that this description speaks of the ideal of combining “heaven” and “earth,” of merging the physical and spiritual realms. Just as God Resides in the heavens but is directly Involved in all worldly affairs, down to the minutest details, similarly, we are to strive to combine the “heavens” – the realm of spirituality – with “earth” – our mundane, worldly affairs. The Tora here describes Malki Tzedek as “Kohein Le-Keil Elyon” (“a priest to the Supreme God,”) a term which perhaps suggests a spiritual quality that keeps a person withdrawn and apart from ordinary, worldly matters. When Avraham returned from a successful military campaign, Malki Tzedek marveled at Avraham’s ability to combine the spiritual and worldly realms, to live a life of lofty ideals which are practically applied to mundane pursuits. This ability was highlighted when Avraham waged a successful war. Despite being a renowned spiritual leader, Avraham took up arms and went out to battle when this was necessary to rescue innocent captives. He understood that spirituality demands not disengagement from the world’s problems, but rather active involvement and efforts to help solve them. Malki Tzedek humbly acknowledged that whereas his own life of spirituality was withdrawn from worldly affairs (reminiscent of R. J.B. Soloveitchik’s “homo religiosus” in his classic Halachic Man,) Avraham succeeded in achieving spiritual excellence by applying his spiritual ideals to solving real-world problems. Avraham’s spirituality was not a life of seclusion in a protective environment of sanctity, but rather a life of intensive engagement in world affairs, working to bring holiness to those affairs, rather than to hide from them…
Rav Walner’s interpretation is very much in keeping with the Tora U’Madda model that has been associated with Yeshiva University. To see as an ideal the integration of engagement with the general world as a means by which one can apply and even deepen his spiritual ideas is something that is difficult to manage to do, but certainly represents an emulation of the model that God Presents to us. Even the creation of man himself appears to involve a conscious interaction between the upper and lower worlds. Whereas the “Neshama” that is inserted in every person at the time of his creation is believed to be a manifestation of the spiritual realm, the body is the product of God amassing “dust” and turning it into the form that every person assumes during his lifetime. An interesting Talmudic passage imagines how every fetus, in which by definition, due to the weakness and dependency of its physical being, the “Neshama” plays the primary role undergoes a “swearing-in” ceremony prior to birth:
…And a fetus does not leave the womb until the angels administer an oath to it, as it is stated: (Yeshayahu 45:23) “That to Me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear.” The verse is interpreted as follows: “That to Me every knee shall bow”– this is referring to the day of one’s death, as it is stated: (Tehillim 22:30) “All those who go down to the dust shall kneel before Him.” “Every tongue shall swear”– this is referring to the day of one’s birth, as it is stated in description of a righteous person: (Tehillim 24:4) “He who has clean hands, and a pure heart, who has not taken My Name in vain, and has not sworn deceitfully,” i.e., he has kept the oath that he took before he was born.
And what is the oath that the angels administer to the fetus? “Be righteous and do not be wicked. And even if the entire world says to you: You are righteous, consider yourself wicked. And know that the Holy One, Blessed Be He, Is Pure, and His Ministers Are Pure, and the soul that He Gave you is pure. If you preserve it in a state of purity, all is well, but if you do not keep it pure, I, the angel, shall take it from you.
The school of Rabbi Yishmael taught a parable: This matter is comparable to a priest who gave Teruma, the portion of the produce designated for the priest, to one who is unreliable with regard to ritual impurity (Am Ha’Aretz), and therefore it is suspected that he might not maintain the purity of the Teruma. And the priest said to him: If you keep it in a state of ritual purity, all is well, but if you do not keep it pure, I shall burn it before you.
R. Walner would therefore say that righteousness and avoiding evil, is not simply a matter of sequestering oneself so as to not be exposed to temptation, but rather to engage with that temptation, and overcome it by sanctifying that which is not yet holy, much as God instructed Kayin: (Beraishit 4:7) “If thou doest well, shall it (your countenance/face) not be lifted up? And if thou doest not well, sin coucheth at the door; and unto thee is its desire, but thou mayest rule over it.”
While another Rabbinic source implies that the “Neshama” had to be “sedeuced” into leaving the pure, wholly-spiritual “world of souls” to take up residence in the lower, potentially corrupt material world:
Midrash Tanchuma, Parashat Pekudei #3
…When the soul was brought in, it prostrated itself before the King of Kings, the Holy One, Blessed Be He. At that time, the Holy One, Blessed Be He, Says to the soul: Enter the semen that is in this one’s (the angel appointed to see to such things) hand.
The soul opens its mouth and cries out: Master of the Universe! I have always been satisfied with the place in which I dwelt from the day You Created me! Why do You Desire that I enter this putrid drop? Now I am holy and pure, but then I will be cut off from the place of Thy Glory.
Thereupon the Holy One, Blessed Be He, Replied: The place which you are to enter is better for you than where you have dwelt. From the moment I Created you, it was only for this drop of semen.
Then the Holy One, Blessed Be He, Forced him to enter there though against his will.
After that, the angel turned around and placed the soul in the womb of his mother, and two angels were assigned to guard it lest it go out and fall. He placed a lighted candle at his head, as it is said: (Iyov 29:2) “Oh, that I were as in the months of old, as in the days when God watched over me; when His light shined over my head.”
I have always wondered whether God had Been fully forthright with the “soul” when He Told him that the world was “a better place.” R. Walner would state without hesitation that, although the unredeemed world poses danger to one’s spiritual purity, if he meets the challenge properly, this was certainly the case. Religions humanity reflects a range of those who shun the general world, those who embrace it, and a dizzying array of “in-between” solutions.