The Torah in Parashat Lekh-Lekha tells of the battle Avraham successfully led against the four kingdoms that had invaded the region of Sedom and seized all the cities’ property and taking their residents captive. Avraham rescued Sedom and its neighboring cities, and after the battle, the city’s king made Avraham an offer: “Give me the people, and take for yourself the property” (14:21). In other words, the king of Sedom offered Avraham all the city’s wealth, as long as the people were returned. Avraham then made a solemn oath proclaiming that he would not take anything from Sedom: “From a thread to a shoe-strap – I will not take anything that belongs to you” (14:23).
Numerous commentators raised the question of how to explain the expression, “mi-chut ve-ad serokh na’al” – “from a thread to a shoestring.” Generally, this construction (“from…to…”) is used in reference to a broad range, to a spectrum that runs from one extreme to the distant opposite extreme. Here, however, Avraham mentions two items which are quite similar – small, inexpensive possessions. The question thus becomes how to explain this proclamation that Avraham made avowing his refusal to taking anything “from a thread to a shoe-strap.”
Chizkuni, clearly sensitive to this question, offers two possibilities. First, he suggests that the word “chut” (“thread”) refers specifically to something which was worn on the head, such that the phrase “mi-chut ve-ad serokh na’al” speaks of garments and jewelry worn anywhere on the body, from head to toe. Chizkuni’s second suggestion (which is offered also by Ibn Ezra) is that Avraham mentioned the word “chut” to refer to the threading of an entire garment, which is, indeed, something very substantial. Thus, the expression, “mi-chut ve-ad serokh na’al” in fact speaks of a wide range – from the threading of a complete garment to the small strap used for a shoe.
Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, commenting to this verse, advances a creative theory which undermines the entire basis of the question. He writes:
In the Jewish way of looking at things, if one wishes to designate something as all-embracing, one does not take something great and small, or something near and far, and say: from this smallest to the greatest, from this nearest point to that farthest one, but one looks at the word as a circle, takes two objects close to each other and says: from this one right round the world to this other next to it.
Meaning, from the Torah’s perspective, things are arranged not linearly, but circularly, and thus one refers to the full range by mentioning two adjacent items, in between which lies the entire spectrum. Rav Hirsch draws proof to his theory from Moshe’s proclamation to Benei Yisrael towards the end of his life that they were all standing at that moment before God, “from your woodcutter to your water-drawer” (Devarim 29:10). There, too, Moshe appears to speak of the nation’s socioeconomic spectrum by mentioning two groups of people which were, presumably, very close to one another on that spectrum.
A different approach emerges from Malbim’s commentary to this verse, where he explains that Avraham refused to take any of the possessions retrieved from the conquering kingdoms because he recognized that it was God who defeated them. It was customary in ancient times for the leader of the triumphant army to seize the spoils, which is why Sedom’s king naturally assumed that Avraham should receive the property that he rescued. However, Avraham’s victory was supernatural, clearly wrought by the Almighty, and thus he felt he had no claim to any of the spoils. Avraham emphasized that he would not take for himself even the smallest items – such as a thread or shoelace – because he humbly saw himself as having played no role whatsoever in the victory. The point he was making is that he did not even do enough to deserve a minuscule share, such as a thread or shoestring, of the spoils. According to this interpretation, Avraham does not speak here of a spectrum, of a range of possessions from largest to smallest, but rather emphasizes that he did not deserve even the smallest possessions.