Rashi, commenting on the first verse of Parashat Toledot, cites the Midrash’s comment that after Yitzchak’s birth, the “leitzanei ha-dor” – “cynics of the time” – claimed that Yitzchak was the result of Sara’s abduction by Avimelekh, the Philistine leader. Sara conceived shortly after being released by Avimelekh the morning after her abduction, and the “leitzanei ha-dor” thus attributed her pregnancy to Avimelekh. After all, they argued, she lived for Avraham for decades without bearing a child, and now, suddenly, after spending a night with Avimelekh, she conceived. To discredit the cynics, God had Yitzhak look remarkably similar to his father, proving beyond a doubt that he was Avraham’s son.
The connection between Sara’s abduction by Avimelekh and her subsequent conception is noted by Chazal elsewhere, as well – in a famous Mishna in Masekhet Bava Kama (92a). The Mishna comments, “Whoever prays on behalf of his fellow, and he needs that same thing – he is answered first.” As the Torah (20:18) tells, God punished Avraham for abducting Sara by making his wives and maidservants infertile, but Avraham prayed on Avimelekh’s behalf, whereupon God restored the reproductive capabilities of the women in Avimelekh’s palace. The Misha noted that in reward for praying for Avimelekh to have children, Avraham was shortly thereafter blessed with a child from Sara. By praying for somebody else’s fertility, Avraham was blessed with a child.
The Mishna and the account of the “cynics” present us with two opposite models of responses to Sara’s conception. The “leitzanei ha-dor” contended that her pregnancy resulted from a violent and selfish abuse of power against an innocent woman, whereas the Mishna attributes Sara’s conception to the ultimate act of selflessness – Avraham’s prayers that God remove the punishment he brought for Avimelekh’s crimes against Sara. Symbolically, then, the claims of the “leitzanei ha-dor” may reflect something deeper than a mere refusal to accept the miracle of Yitzchak’s birth. At stake was the question of what “bears fruit,” which approach is the proper one to follow to produce and succeed – the approach of Avimelekh, or the approach of Avimelekh. The people of Avraham’s time, it seems, followed the view that one is entitled, and expected, to use his power to the greatest extent possible to satisfy his desires and attain everything he wants. The “leitzanei ha-dor,” the surrounding culture of that time, believed in the unbridled right of power and force in the pursuit of personal gratification. Avraham, of course, advocated kindness, compassion, self-sacrifice, forgiveness and love of all people. And thus at one extreme, the cynics viewed Sara’s conception as the result of ruthless power, whereas the truth lay at the other extreme, as Sara conceived as a result of Avraham’s extraordinary act of mercy and benevolence, praying for Avimelekh the day after he abducted his wife.
Chazal thus remind us that although it may outwardly appear that power and coercion is how we succeed and attain what we want, the truth is just the opposite. We achieve and produce by following the model of Avraham Avinu – the model of humility, benevolence and compassion, and of extending goodwill even to those who have harmed us and now seek forgiveness.