Don Isaac Abarbanel was one of the most prominent Jews who ever lived. Born in 1437, he was an accomplished Torah scholar from a young age. He knew Latin, Greek, philosophy, astronomy, and mathematics. He was extremely adept at finance, and in 1471 he became the royal treasurer of Portugal in the court of Alphonso V. He would later hold the same position in the Spanish court of Ferdinand and Isabella, where he tried, unsuccessfully, to prevent the expulsion of Jews from Spain. In exile, he was later drafted to serve in the court of the King of Naples.
Abarbanel was also a regular teacher in synagogue, and a book of his commentaries to the Bible is based on his public lectures. One of his personal causes was securing the release of Jews who had been taken captive and held for ransom. I would like to read a letter that he wrote in 1472 to a friend of his, Yehiel of Pisa, a wealthy Italian Jew known for his philanthropy.
In his letter, Abarbanel was referring to Jews in Morocco who had been taken captive by Portuguese slave traders. Sadly, this was not a rare occurence for Jews.
Dear Yechiel of Pisa,
I would like to tell you about events that have taken place among the Jews of our region.
The King, long may he live, gathered some ships and sailors to travel to Africa, where he conquered territories and fought in the city of Arzila. Thank God, no Jews died, but two hundred and fifty were captured – men, women and children – and they are hungry, thirsty, naked and much in need.
When we saw the children of Zion sold as slaves and servants, we, the leaders of the Jewish community of Portugal, decided to call for their freedom and pay the ransom for their release.
Like the twelve tribes of Israel, we sent twelve emissaries, myself included, from city to city and country to country to take the children of Israel out of “ Egypt” and collect money to pay for their ransom.
Thus far, we have ransomed two hundred and twenty of the captives for a large sum of money – ten thousand gold coins. As all their property has been stolen and they lack clothing and food, we must provide for all their needs.
We have thirty prisoners yet to ransom, who have fallen into the hands of very harsh masters.
This is a brief account of the events that we have been struggling with day and night.
On hearing this, all Jews will be outraged and profoundly moved.
Yitzhak Ben Yehuda Abarbanel
Coming to the rescue of Jews in need, wherever in the world they happen to be living, has always been considered a central religious obligation. Maimonides wrote that “there is no commandment greater than the ransom of prisoners.”
I do not know for certain whether Yehiel of Pisa responded to Abarbanel’s appeal for assistance, but I suspect he came through. Yehiel died in 1492, and his fortune was spent aiding Jews who had been expelled from Spain that same year.
As a people, we know about being forced to leave our homes and journey to often unknown lands. Most of the people in this room have stories in your family history, if you yourself did not personally experience such upheaval. Such stories go back our foundations as a people.
The Book of Exodus concludes with this morning’s Torah portion, Pekudei, as the Israelites complete the building of the Tabernacle. Everything is set up properly, the structure itself along with the Holy of Holies. All of the furniture is brought in and put in place.
Finally, when all is completed, “the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle.” We learn that whenever the cloud lifts, the Israelites know “to set out, on their various journeys.” But when it remains in place, it is an indication that they are to remain in place.
The final verse of the parashah, and the entire Book, summarizes this GPS – God Positioning System.
כִּי֩ עֲנַ֨ן יְהֹוָ֤ה עַֽל־הַמִּשְׁכָּן֙ יוֹמָ֔ם וְאֵ֕שׁ תִּהְיֶ֥ה לַ֖יְלָה בּ֑וֹ לְעֵינֵ֥י כׇל־בֵּֽית־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל בְּכׇל־מַסְעֵיהֶֽם׃
For over the Tabernacle a cloud of the Lord rested by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the house of Israel throughout their journeys.Exodus 40:37
Towards the end of the Book of Numbers, when the Israelites have nearly reached their final destination, Moses records all of the Israelites’ journeys over the previous forty years – specifying every stop along the way.
וַיִּכְתֹ֨ב מֹשֶׁ֜ה אֶת־מוֹצָאֵיהֶ֛ם לְמַסְעֵיהֶ֖ם עַל־פִּ֣י יְהוָֹ֑ה וְאֵ֥לֶּה מַסְעֵיהֶ֖ם לְמוֹצָאֵיהֶם:
Moses recorded their departures for their journeys as directed by the Lord. And these are their journeys, according to their departures.Numbers 33:2
Notice that the word order of “departures” – motza’eihem – and “journeys” – mas’eihem – switches.
The sixteenth century Italian Rabbi, Seforno, comments on these journeys. He explains that “sometimes the starting points were good places and the points for which they set out were bad ones, sometimes the opposite; in either case, the Israelites had no advance knowledge of when and where they were to travel—yet they never refused to go.” Seforno then explains that setting forth on a new journey and arriving at a new place are each difficult actions in and of themselves, something that he may have had personal knowledge about, as he spent part of his own life poor and on the road.
How true that is. It is hard to begin a new journey, to leave the place that you have known. It is all the more difficult when the destination is unknown. And arrival at someplace new does not mean the end of difficulties. Anyone who has had to immigrate to a new land knows this from personal experience.
Seforno’s insight is that the Israelites, despite such difficulties, were always willing to follow where God’s Presence directed them. And we know how difficult it was for them. Perhaps he is glossing over some of those challenging moments in the Torah when the Israelites longed to return to slavery in Egypt rather than face a dangerous and uncertain fate in the wilderness.
They had difficulty adjusting to new lands, new cultures and people with different practices and beliefs.
We are right now witnessing a human tragedy unfold in Ukraine. As we pray here this morning, more than one million civilians, mostly women and children, have already become refugees in less than two weeks. The UN is expecting that number to continue to rise many times over. So far, other European countries are accepting them, but there are long lines at the borders as people fleeing for their lives wait for their requests for asylum to be processed.
Meanwhile, countries and organizations have mobilized to ship humanitarian aid, food, clothing, temporary shelters, and medical supplies for the millions of people who are unable to leave or who have chosen to stay.
Of course, as we know, there are many Jews living in Ukraine, who are among those faced with the choice of staying or leaving. Just yesterday, 120 Jewish orphans in Odessa were able to be evacuated to after a harrowing bus journey through Moldova, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic on their way to Berlin.
Israel has already received over 1,500 refugees, around ten percent of whom are eligible for Israeli citizenship under the law of return. Ayelet Shaked, the Interior Minister, said that Israel is preparing to accept 100,000 refugees. And it has sent supplies and mobile hospital units.
If there is one mitzvah that the State of Israel embraces wholedheartedly, which brings together Jews of all political stripes and religious perspectives, it is the redemption of captive Jews. Indeed, this was one of the primary motivations that has and continues to drive Zionism.
We are far away, and it would be easy to not let this refugee crisis affect us. But I urge us not to ignore it. Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh LaZeh – All of Israel are interdependent on one another.
The easiest way to help is exactly the same as what Abarbanel asked of Yechiel of Pisa. It is our religious duty to help fund the relief and rescue efforts. There are many ways to do so. The APJCC is collecting new items. There is a list, so please check it first. You can donate money to many organizations that are supporting or are actively working on the ground. Some include United Hatzalah, Israaid, The Schechter Institute, and others.
We continue now with a prayer for peace.