In the beginning of the Torah portion of Lech Lecha, G-d commands our Patriarch Avraham to leave his country and move to the land which G-d will show him. In return, G-d promises that, “ I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing” (Gen 12:2).
The Midrash (Rabbah 39:11) and Talmud (Bava Kamma 97b) say that Avraham’s name became “great” when a coin was minted in his honor. The image on one side of the coin was that of an old couple while the image on the other side was that of a young couple. The old couple represented Avraham and Sarah in their old age while the young couple represented Yitzchak and Rivkah, or, according to some commentaries (Rabbeinu Peretz), Avraham and Sara after G-d restored their youthfulness in anticipation of the birth of Isaac.
This latter interpretation is following the version of the Midrash that says that there was a young man and woman on one side (בחור ובחורה). The wording of our version of the Talmud and Midrash, however, says that there was a young man and a virgin on one side (בחור ובתולה). This would clearly be referring to Rivkah because Sarah did not become a virgin in her old age. It is also possible that it refers to Sarah as a “virgin” insofar as her returning to the youthfulness of a virgin (Emunat Shumel in the notes on the Metivta Shas, Bava Kamma, ibid).
According to the above mentioned Midrash there were four Jewish individuals in whose honor coins were minted.
- Avraham and Sarah as explained above
- Yehoshua as it says, “G-d was with Yehoshua, and his reputation spread throughout the land” (Joshuah 6:27). One side of the coin had an ox while the other had a Re’em (auroch or wild buffalo). This represents the blessings that Moshe gave to the tribe of Efrayim from whom Yehoshua descended (see Deut. 33:16).
- King David as it says, “David’s name spread throughout the lands” (Chronicles I 14:17). One side of the coin had a shepherd’s stick and bag while the other had a tower. These represented King David’s humble beginnings as a shepherd boy and his subsequent ascent to the throne and protector of the Jewish people.
- Mordechai as it says, “Mordechai was great in the house of the king, and his reputation spread throughout the countries” (Esther 9:4). One side of the coin had an image of ashes and sackcloth while the other had a golden crown. These represented the trouble that the Jewish people suffered under Haman’s decree and the salvation from that decree at which time Mordechai replaced Haman as Prime Minister.
Tosfot (on Bava Kamma ibid, D.H. Matbe’a) writes that the coins of Avraham and Sarah did not have any human images as it is forbidden to make graven images of a man or woman even when not for idolatrous purposes (see Avodah Zarah 43a). Rather, on one side of the coin it said the words “Zaken Uzkeinah” (old man and woman), and on the other side it said “Bachur Ubetulah” (a young man and a virgin).
Rashi, however, seems to be of the opinion that the coins had the actual images of an old and young couple. The commentaries (some are quoted in the Yalkut Biurim on the Metivta Shas) offer several explanations as to why this was permissible:
- The coins were minted by gentile kings of that era who were not observant of this law (Yad David).
- The prohibition against making a graven image of a human being for non idolatrous purposes began with the giving of the Torah and did not apply to Noahides (Yashresh Ya’akov). (This answer needs further examination since Avraham kept the entire Torah, as is well known).
- The image had heads without bodies which is not forbidden according to the opinion of the Rosh [Avoda Zara 3:5] (She’ilat Ya’avetz).
- The image was sunken into the coin rather than sticking out which is permissible. Although usually such a coin is made by using a stamp whose image protrudes (and it would be forbidden to make such a stamp), these coins were engraved individually rather than with a stamp (Devar HaMelech on the Torah by Rabbi Chayim Amram of 18th-century Tzfat, Syria, and Egypt).
- Some say that one may make a graven image of a human if it will not be used in a manner that is not honorable. In this case is clear that one does not intend to worship it. (An example of this would be images placed in a bathroom.) It is possible that the coins of Avraham and Sarah were cheap copper coins that are not considered “honorable” and thus there was no prohibition in producing them (Chatam Sofer on Bava Kamma ibid).
Instantaneous Change is From G-d
It is not unusual for people’s fortunes to change during their lifetime. But when change happens very rapidly it is a sign of Divine intervention. These rapid changes were seen in the lives of the above mentioned tzaddikim. This is symbolized by the two stages in their lives being placed on either side of the same coin. This indicates that the changes happened as swiftly as a coin can be flipped.
Avraham and Sarah changed radically when they were blessed with a son at an old age.
Yehoshua was like an ox (that is, a domestic animal) when he studied under Moshe and accepted his teachings. As soon as Moshe passed away, however, he became a powerful leader who conquered his enemies (like a wild re’em).
King David changed in a few moments from being a shepherd to being anointed as the king of the Jewish people.
The Jewish people at the time of Mordechai and Esther went from being under a decree of near extinction to joyous salvation within a matter of minutes.
All this is a clear sign of G-d’s providence at work. ( Ginzei Yosef on the Torah, Parshat Miketz by Rabbi Dovid Bloch of 18th Century Alesk and Sataniv, Ukraine.)
The commentaries glean many lessons from these coins. Here are some of them:
Energy vs. Experience
The Be’er Rechovot (by Rabbi Elazar Pashkus of 18th-century Galanta, Slovakia, quoted in the Ein Yaakov on Bava Kamma) gives the following explanation:
The Midrash (and Talmud) is not referring to physical coins but rather to the reputation of these unique tzadikim that reached the outside world. Ordinarily, people who are more passionate by nature are prone to sins of passion. In the same vein, when they serve G-d they do so with passion, energy and zeal. Those who are more reserved by nature are less prone to sins of passion but are also less energetic in their performance of mitzvot.
The same can be said of the different ages in people’s lives. Young people are more tempted to sin, but they also are more easily inspired to serve G-d with zeal. Older people have less tendency to sin but are also slower to fulfill their obligations of Torah and Mitzvot. The perfect person is one who is “old” i.e, measured and calculated when it comes to sin, but “young,” i.e, energetic and inspired when it comes to mitzvot.
Avraham and Sarah lived their lives in this manner. When they were young they acted in an “old” and cold manner towards sinful temptations. And as they aged, they retained their youthful exuberance in their Divine worship. The verse alludes to this when it says, “Avraham was old, coming in days” (Gen. 24:1). This can be interpreted to mean that from the time he came into his days (i.e., he became an adult), he was already “old” in the area of sin. The verse uses similar expressions concerning the Prophet Shmuel and King David (Kings I 1:1) as they also had this quality.
Similarly, regarding Sarah it says in the Midrash that when she was 100 years old, she was like a 20-year-old regarding sin and like a 7-year-old in regards to beauty. This means that when she was 100, she still had youthful energy as a 20-year-old who is normally prone to sin. But at the same time her beauty did not lead her to sin, just as the beauty of a seven-year-old does not bring her to lust after sin.
Kindness vs. Strength
The Be’er Mayim Chayim (by Reb Chayim Tyrer of 18th Century, Tzernowitz, Ukraine) explains that the outstanding trait of Avraham (and Sarah) was kindness. As such, our patriarchs would pray on behalf of the entire world and try to influence people to come closer to Hashem. As a result, G-d treated the world with kindness and blessed it beyond what mankind deserved at that time. On the other hand, Avraham himself was so righteous that he earned and received G-d’s blessing even when judged strictly. These are represented by the two sides of the coin. The old couple represents the kindness which the world received due to Avraham’s efforts while the young couple represented the fact that the blessings which Avraham received were firmly earned (youth represents strength and firmness).
Humility in Righteousness
Even when Avraham and Sarah were righteous and accomplished in their service of G-d (symbolized by the old couple), they were so humble that they felt as if they had just begun their journey (symbolized by the young couple). (Shema Yehuda parshat VaYeshev, by Rabbi Yehudah Neger of Radna, Romania quoting the Yitev Lev of Satmar.)
The Lust for Money
It is proper to work hard in order to earn money if one’s intent is to be able to support one’s family and perform mitzvot with the funds he earns. On the other hand, laboring to become rich is a negative trait that can consume one’s life. Avraham made this coin in order to teach us about money. Sometimes one should be slow and measured (like an old couple) when trying to earn money. This is when one does not have a specific reason for which he needs the money. While at other times – if one needs the money for a good purpose – one should work energetically like a young man in order to earn it. (Ashiv Avraham by Rabbi Avraham Panet of 19th and 20th Century, Karlsburg, Romania)
May we merit to be inspired to serve G-d energetically, throughout our lives!
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom UMevorach