Monday, October 30, 2023

Living in the Balance (portion Lech L'chah 5784/2023)

In this dark and difficult time—as in so many dark and difficult times past—Torah offers guidance.  

In the midst of the conflict in Israel and Gaza, I find it extraordinary that this week’s portion, Lech L’chah—a story written three thousand years ago—speaks deeper truth and offers more profound insight into our current situation than the latest hour’s headlines from media sources both left and right.  Let us listen, together.

We begin with God’s call to Abraham and Sarah: “Go from your country and your kindred and your ancestral home to the land that I will show you.  I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”

And we end with an affirmation of the gift of the land as part of an everlasting covenant, where the Holy One promises: I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land where you are now a sojourner, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding, and I will be their God.

From start to finish, the parshah reiterates, again and again, the bond between the Jewish people, born of our father Abraham and mother Sarah, and our ancient and beloved homeland of Israel.  That land is a gift that is hard-earned.  God prophesies to Abraham that his offspring will be strangers in Egypt, oppressed and enslaved for four hundred years.  And so it goes.  But the promise is never forgotten.  Through bondage and wandering in the wilderness, it endures.  Finally, Joshua leads us over the threshold.  Judges wage war, David founds Jerusalem, Solomon builds the Temple, kings and queens rise and fall, empires come and go.  But we never forget Zion, and we never abandon it either.  Even when we lack political power, Jews have always made it their holy home.

The land was, is, and will continue to be, the covenantal blessing of Abraham through us, the Jewish people, his spiritual descendants.


This narrative puts to lie to the colonialist perspective through which too many critics on the far left view the current conflict.  Jewish Israelis are not imperialist outsiders; they are indigenous people rooted in the holy land from the beginning—though I hasten to add, and more on this in a few minutes—we must always remember that we are not the only indigenous residents.  But yes, Israel is the home of the Jewish people.  It is the place to which our tribe has always returned.

And I want to affirm that it is no sin to care first and foremost about one’s own tribe.  Universal concerns do not erase our particularist passions.  Any good parent puts their own children first—not because they are better than other people’s children but precisely because they are ours.  Family.  I unapologetically love Israel, the Jewish people, and place them at the center of my concern—not because we are chosen over others but because they are my people.  Torah reminds us that there is no sin in caring for our own, especially in hard times—and given the antisemitism that the current conflict has aroused all over the world, especially from some of my usual allies on the progressive left, I stand proudly with my people.

AND. . . and I choose to say “and” rather than “but” because both halves of this truth are equally important—our Torah portion demands that we extend our circle of care and concern and empathy and justice beyond the boundaries of our tribe.  It reminds us that while it is, as I have said, natural and permissible, to care first and foremost for one’s own children, it is not acceptable to harden our hearts and ignore the suffering of other people’s children—even (or especially) in the middle of a war.

We learn this in the middle of this week’s portion where, in between all of God’s promises of land and prosperity for the people of Israel, we encounter the story of Hagar and Ishmael.  Here’s what my teacher, Rabbi Shai Held, says about that narrative:

In Genesis 16, the chapter immediately following God's covenant ceremony with Abraham, the text tells us of Hagar, an Egyptian maidservant. Employing a word that cannot be coincidental, we learn that Sarah, Abraham's wife, "oppressed her" (va-te'anneha, from innui, or oppression, 16:6). The role reversal is stark: an Israelite mistress subjugates her Egyptian slave, and the term used to describe the slave's experience is a word almost always associated with what the Israelites suffer at the hands of Egypt. And by a simple shift in vowels, the Egyptian slave's name, Hagar, becomes "Ha-Ger," the stranger. Gerut (being a stranger), avdut (being a slave), and innui (being oppressed) are here the fate of an Egyptian, exposed to the cruelties of her Israelite master.

Why does Genesis go out of its way, in the very first chapter after the terms of the covenant between God and Abraham are set, to tell us of an Egyptian slave being oppressed by an Israelite? In order to tell us something crucial, I think: the role of victim and victimizer are not set in stone. Israelites are not always victims, any more than Egyptians are always victimizers. Perhaps the Torah is nervous about crudely triumphalistic interpretations of the covenant, according to which being God's chosen people somehow implies moral blamelessness…

The Torah also warns against another form of triumphalism. Perhaps the Israelites will assume that being God's elect is equivalent to being the only people about whom God cares. So again, right after the blessings are first expressed to Abraham, the text tells us that God promised Hagar, as God promised Abraham, abundant offspring, too numerous to be counted (16:10). The text gives voice to God's concern with the Egyptian slave with great poignancy. Abraham and Sarah never refer to Hagar by name; to them, she is always just the slave-girl, a womb without her own identity as a person. So it is extremely striking that the very first word the angel of God utters when he finds her in the wilderness is "Hagar" (16:8). The Egyptian slave, nameless to her Israelite masters, has a name. Hagar, in turn, gives God a name, El-Ro'i, the "God of seeing", or perhaps, the "God who sees me". (If I am not mistaken, she is the only character in the Bible who gives God a name).

Tonight, I want to encourage us to see with open eyes, to see the suffering of our brothers and sisters in Israel, and of the Palestinian people, the descendants of Ishmael and Hagar.

Let us follow the path of the God of Lech L’chah and reject the binaries of us and them.  This is not a sport where we celebrate one team’s glorious domination of another.   We are better than that, capable of holding truths in tension with one another rather than reducing ourselves to moral simpletons.  In that kind of zero sum game, everyone loses.  This is not Isaac vs. Ishmael, Jews against Muslims or Israelis against Palestinians.  To stand for Israel is not to stand against Gaza.  The God of portion Lech L’chah wants us to seek peace for the people of Israel and for the civilians in Gaza, too—to pray for victory over Hamas and, at the same time, to grieve the mounting death toll of Palestinians caught in the crossfire.  

So let us go—lech l’chah, l’chhi lach—in community together. 

V’heyay brachah—and be a blessing.

Be a proud Jew.  And be a mensch.

Thursday, October 12, 2023

Love and Hate, War and Peace

Ecclesiastes teaches that there is a season for every experience under heaven:

Eit leh’ehov v’eit lisno, eit milchamah v’eit shalom
A time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace

But in this confusing, terrible time that we, the Jewish people, are living through right now, when it so often feels like we are experiencing all of these conflicting things at once, both God and the devil are in the details: love, hate, war, peace—which one, when, in what proportions, and how do we hold them, and ourselves, together? 

We arrive here united in grief, upset, and anger—and, I suspect, already divided in our thoughts around what happens next.  Being Jews, on that question, we must live with incongruities, both in our community and even, or especially, within our own hearts.  

Because in a world of no good options, we must seek solace and support in one another.  The Talmud teaches: 

"A person should be distressed together with the community. As we found with Moses our teacher that he was distressed together with the community, as it is stated during the war with Amalek: But Moses’ hands were heavy; and they took a stone, and put it under him, and he sat upon it (Exodus 17:12). But didn’t Moses have one pillow or one cushion to sit upon; why was he forced to sit on a rock? Rather, Moses said as follows: Since the Jewish people are immersed in suffering, I too will be with them in suffering, as much as I am able, although I am not participating in the fighting. The baraita adds: And anyone who is distressed together with the community will merit seeing the consolation of the community."

And so we gather, to offer our prayers and songs and meditations in a way that embraces, or at least holds together, all of the contradictions, the paradoxes, quarrels and questions that are part and parcel of this badly broken world.

We will pray for peace, for shalom—and for victory over Hamas, whose evil has been laid bare by their barbaric deeds

We will pray for the innocent civilians in harm’s way—and for our Israeli soldiers who must fight in the most perilous of places against a foe that uses those civilians as human shields

We will pray for those held hostage, for their quick and safe return, even as we acknowledge the cost and danger of negotiating with terrorists.

We pray for wisdom and strength, compassion and justice.

And we sing, because we can all sing.