Because We Are Family – Lekh Lekha 5781

I did not originally intend to post this D’var Torah, as I wrote it specifically with the intention of it being heard in real time. After a number of requests, I have decided to post it. This has been an incredibly emotional time for most of us. For this sermon in particular, I felt it was important that we see each other’s faces – at least over Zoom. After services, I invited those who wished to continue to discuss the issues raised. I found the ensuing discussion to be honest and respectful. Please keep these factors in mind as you read this.

One of the main themes of the Book of Genesis is family. When the very first human is created, God quickly declares that it is not good to be alone. The human is split, revealing Adam and Eve, the first family. The rest of the Book is a struggle to figure out how to get along.

As Lekh Lekha begins, God tells Abram to leave his family behind and go somewhere new. He arrives in Canaan, encounters a famine, and flees with his household to Egypt. When the famine ends, Abram and Sarai return to Canaan, camping out in the Negev, near Beit El. By this point, Abram has acquired lots of wealth, consisting of animals, silver, and gold. But no land.

Lot, his nephew, also travels with him. He too has become wealthy, although the Torah only specifies that his wealth consistsa of flocks and tents. Lot is beginning to separate from his uncle and establish his own household.

Because flocks require pastureland, shepherds are by nature nomadic. When the animals have eaten all the food that the land can provide, it is time to move to greener pastures. One can imagine that there is a certain degree of competition among shepherds for the best pastureland. That is exactly what happens between Abram and Lot’s shepherds.

Parenthetically, the Torah informs us that the Canaanites and Perizzites were then dwelling in the land.

Abram, seeking to prevent the conflict from escalating, approaches his nephew with a plan. “Let there be no strife between you and me, between my herdsmen and yours, for we are kinsmen. Is not the whole land before you? Let us separate: if you go north, I will go south; and if you go south, I will go north.”

Abram, the older, wiser one, gives Lot the first choice, which is actually the opposite of what we might expect. Abram, the head of the family, older and wealthier, should be the one to get first choice. But instead he offers it to Lot.

Lot looks around in all directions, sees how green the land is in the Jordan river valley, and heads East. Abram goes the opposite direction and settles in Hebron.

What were the shepherd fighting about? Rashi, drawing upon a midrash, labels Lot’s shepherds as wicked. They would lead their flocks into fields that belonged to other people.

Abram’s shepherds would rebuke them.  “You guys shouldn’t be doing this. It’s theft!” 

Lot’s shephereds would respond: “The entire land has been given to Abram, and he has no heir. Our master Lot, as his nephew, will inherit from him. So it is not actually theft.” 

Ramban disagrees. In typical fashion, he cites Rashi’s comment in its entirety, and then explains why it is wrong. The clue to what is actually going on is the parenthetical comment that “the Canaanites and the Perizites were then dwelling in the land.”

Ramban explains that the words az, “then” as in “The Canaanites and Perizites were then dwelling in the land,” indicates that they are also nomadic shepherds who would set up their encampments in a certain place for a year or two and then move on to another location.

At this point, Ramban points out, Abram does not yet possess any land of his own, but he, (along with his nephew), have large flocks. This is an obvious recipe for conflict.

When Lot’s shepherds bring their animals into the pastures occupied by Abram’s animals, the resulting combined flocks are too large to go unnoticed. When the local population hears about it, predicts Ramban, one of two things will follow. Either, the Canaanites and Perizites will drive Abram and Lot out of the land, or they will attack them and take the herds for themselves.

Seeking to prevent such an outcome, Abram comes forward to Lot with a solution.  “To avoid conflict, we need to separate.” But he adds, ki anashim achim anachnu – for we are brother men. In other words, we are family.

This commitment is real. For even though they go different directions, Abram always recognizes his obligations to his nephew.  The following chapter describes a war in which Lot is taken captive. When word reaches Abram, he does not hesitate. He immediately assembles a fighting force from among his household and sets out to rescue his nephew. He travels as far as Hobah, which is north of Damascus.  This is quite a distance. They engage in battle, rescue Lot and the other captives, and take back all of the possessions that had been captured. 

Later on, after Abram has become Abraham, he argues for the sake of the innocent people living in Sodom when God declares an intent to wipe out the city because of its wickedness.

While not mentioned explicitly, it is not far-fetched to imagine that Abraham’s eagerness to save the city on account of the few righteous people is motivated by his desire to save his nephew.

Indeed, Lot and his family are the only ones whom the angels try to rescue before the cataclysm. Lot’s descendants become the Moabites and the Ammonites. Moab, of course, being the national origin of Ruth, the great great grandmother of King David.

This is a narrative about the struggles within a family over how best to utilize public resources. Our story focuses more on Abram’s perspective. In his wisdom, he recognizes that the only way for them to survive is to create some distance. To agree to disagree, if you will.

But that does not mean that the family ties are broken. As we saw, Abram sticks by Lot to the end.

You probably had a chance to read the email that I sent to the congregation last Sunday in which I asked that we refrain from making political comments in certain contexts. The email generated a lot of responses. In this real-time setting, I would like to elaborate on a few points.

First and foremost, I am not advocating that any of us should be complacent. It is our duty as Americans to be involved in our democracy, to make our voices heard through voting, and to do our part to build a more just society. There is so much at stake, and our voices need to be heard.

As Jews especially, we have to be involved. America is the first country in the history of the world in which Jews were considered to be full citizens. With all its problems, we have so much to be thankful for. We have a duty to be involved. 

And we should be smart about it. If you are not on social media, Yasher Koach. For those who are, I am sure you are aware of how difficult it is to have an open-minded disagreement there. For any given post, if I agree with it, my conviction is reinforced. If I disagree with it, my conviction is reinforced. 

I have been trying to think whether I have personally ever changed a strongly held political belief based on something that someone sent me or a comment I read online and I have not been able to come up with a single example. Usually, when I read something, I feel either angry or vindicated.

For a powerful illustration of the problem with Facebook and all of the other social media platforms, I urge you to watch the documentary The Social Dilemma on Netflix. If you have kids middle school aged and above, watch it with them. It shows how these technologies have contributed to much of the extreme divisiveness in society. These are incredibly powerful tools for connecting us to one another, but there is a dark side that was never the intention of these technologies’ founders.

What could be wrong with the “like” button? As it turns out, quite a lot.

In my email, I asked us to not make political comments on the Sinai Facebook page. That’s it. Why? Because what tends to happen is that a few people have a sometimes heated discussion back and forth. But they forget that there could be a hundred people or more watching silently from the sidelines. Without a three dimensional interaction, we have no way of reading how our words are being heard by those who are reading them. The result can be very divisive within our community.

Feel free to post on your own wall, but as a general piece of advice, I would urge us to be clear about what we are hoping to acheive with any given post or comment that we make. 

I also asked for us to refrain from political comments during and after Zoom services. People have different levels of comfort with their participation on Zoom – and that is fine. What I have noticed is that when those of us who are more comfortable interacting with one another do so, we tend to forget about the other people who are also logged in—often with microphone and video turned off.

Does this mean that we should not be sharing ideas with one another, or that we should never argue about politics within our community? Of course not. We just need to find a way to do so that is open-minded and respectful. Why should I expect you to listen to what I have to say if I am not willing to listen to what you have to say? Humble curiosity is a good thing.

There is something else to consider. Cole Buxbaum, who passed away earlier this year, may his memory be a blessing, once got up in front of the congregation and shared something that has stuck with me. He described how happy he was that with all of the chaos and conflict out in the world, shul on Shabbat was a place where we could gather together despite our differences, and be reminded that we are all part of the Jewish people. He said it with such emotion and sincerity – it really made an impression.

I think that is what draws a lot of people who come to services at Sinai.

A final note, and I have shared this many times with our community. There are pulpit Rabbis out there who are more politically outspoken than I am. I teach what I believe to be core values of Judaism, and I generally hold back from explicitly pushing particular policies. This is driven by my understanding that most people do not like to be told what to do or believe.

But if we can learn what Judaism might have to say on any given issue, we might be able to look at our own preconceived notions from a different perspective. I want us all to be challenged. To all be open to learning something new and considering ideas from a different angle.

And then, to do everything we can to go out into the world and right the wrongs around us.

Although election day is this Tuesday, and there is a good chance that we will not have an announcement for some time. 

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs issued a statement this week on Elections and Democratic principles that was signed on to by more than 90 Jewish organizations, including the Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox movements.

The bedrock of American liberty is a strong, thriving democracy and an engaged citizenry. The COVID-19 pandemic has altered almost every aspect of the way we live, including how we vote in elections. It’s a longstanding tradition that nonpartisan groups across the spectrum do their part by encouraging their members and the larger community to vote. This year, these non-partisan efforts are even more essential to ensuring that every vote is counted and everyone can participate in our democracy.

We call upon all government leaders, candidates, and elected officials, Democrats and Republicans, at every level and branch of government to recommit to our nation’s core democratic principles and oppose violence emerging from the far right or the far left. In the case of contested or close elections we ask for patience and trust in the system, as we allow for every valid vote to be counted. We ask civic and faith leaders to set a standard of discourse, oppose violence and encourage peaceful engagement in the political process. We must sustain and carry out these ideals and principles in both our words and our actions at this critical moment in our history.

https://www.jewishpublicaffairs.org/a-jewish-statement-on-elections-and-democratic-principles/

When Abram knew he and Lot needed more space between them, he gave Lot the first choice of where to settle, and he kept on loving him. Why? Because they were family.

God Is On Everyone’s Side, And No One’s – Rosh Hashanah 5778 (first day)

Many of the ideas in this D’var Torah were taken from a presentation by Yehudah Kurtzer of the Hartman Institute.

Upon election to his second term, Abraham Lincoln delivered as his inaugural address one of the greatest speeches in American history.  It was four years into the Civil War.  The war would end and the President would be assassinated just a few weeks later.  Lincoln articulated one of the most profound statements of religious humility ever spoken.

He was meditating on the use by pro-slavery Confederates and abolitionist Unionists of religion to support the morality of their respective claims.  How is it possible for diametrically opposed sides to claim God’s blessing with equal passion and conviction?

Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes.

This is not to say that Lincoln wavered one iota in his belief in the evil of slavery and the moral imperative of eradicating it.  The best that President Lincoln can hope to do is, through his own wisdom and faith, choose a course and pray that it aligns with the will of the Almighty.

In the Torah portion for the first day of Rosh Hashanah, God is on everyone’s side, and no one’s.

As the reading opens, God takes note of Sarah, as promised, and she becomes pregnant with Isaac.  At her son’s birth, Sarah declares, “God has brought me laughter.”  (Genesis 21:6)

Some time later, Sarah demands that Abraham send away her maidservant Hagar along with Hagar and Abraham’s son, Ishmael.  Abraham is upset, but God reassures him, instructing, “whatever Sarah tells you, do as she says…”  And regarding Ishmael, God “will make a nation of him, too, for he is your seed.”

When the provisions run out, Hagar places Ishmael beneath a bush and walks a distance away so that she can weep without having to watch her son die.  It is then that God sends an angel who declares that “God has heeded the cry of the boy where he is.”  The angel reveals a hidden well and reassures Hagar that Ishmael will father a great nation.

In the same story, God is on Sarah’s side, Abraham’s side, Isaac’s side, Hagar’s side, and Ishmael’s side – even while these individuals oppose each other.

What does God stand for in this story?  Life.  The flourishing of human potential.  Each of these characters, Isaac and Ishmael, Sarah and Hagar, and Abraham have a path before them that they cannot discern.  They cannot see the world as God sees it.  Each of them chooses what he or she thinks is the best course of action.  Those choices bring them into irreconcilable conflict with one another.

And yet God’s role is not to negate one or another person’s choices, but rather to direct them towards the paths that will lead to blessing.  God enters the story at three critical points.  The first is to bless Sarah with fertility.  The next is to reassure Abraham that Sarah’s seemingly cruel demand will in fact turn out okay, something that Abraham is incapable of realizing on his own.  God appears for the third time when Hagar has given up hope.  Once again, God directs Hagar to the well that will save Ishmael’s life and lead to his thriving.

These characters are blessed to have God step in at just the right moment to redirect them and let God’s will be known.  We are not so blessed.

We suffer from a terrible case of moral hubris.  It is a pervasive disease across the entire political spectrum: right to left, liberal to conservative, Democrat to Republican.

As we celebrate the world’s birthday, it is hard not to consider the extreme rancor that exists in society.  There is so much partisan hatred.  People are feeling more politics-derived anxiety in their personal lives than ever before.  It is tearing the social fabric apart.

Some of us right now are thinking, “It’s not me.  It’s the people on the other side who are unable to see things as they really are.  They are the ones who are full of hate, who are naive, who are blind to the truth.”

Consider the following:

A 2015 study published in the American Journal of Political Science found that “the level of partisan animus in the American public exceeds racial hostility.”  In other words, Americans hate people from the opposing political party more than they hate people of different races.  Further, partisan differences are driving people apart with regard to behaviors and identities that have absolutely nothing to do with politics.

We all know about the divisions between red states and blue states.  But increasingly, people of the same political parties are segregating themselves by neighborhood.  Parents are often upset when a child intermarries into a family of the opposite political persuasion.  A 2009 survey found that only 9% of marriages were between a Republican and a Democrat.

Dating websites have reported that party affiliation is a more important criteria in a potential mate than physical appearance or personality.  And it is not that people of similar values end up falling in love.  This political discrimination comes into play at the initial mate choice.

The animosity that we feel towards those from the opposing party is stronger than the favoritism we feel towards those from our own party.  Partisanship pushes us apart more than it pulls us together.

It has gotten so bad that party affiliation even compels us to change our preferences for things that have absolutely nothing to do with morality or politics.  The author of a recent study summarized the issue like this:

Imagine that you walked into an ice cream shop on Election Day.  You discover that the shop is filled with supporters of the presidential candidate you oppose, and you find supporters of that candidate morally abhorrent.  When you get to the front of the line, the worker tells you all of the other customers just ordered red velvet – normally your favorite flavor.

[The] studies demonstrated that when asked to order, you are likely to feel an urge to stray from your favorite flavor toward one you like less, politically polarizing an otherwise innocuous decision.

We are willing to abandon our favorite ice cream flavor because we perceive it to be popular with our partisan opponents!

This trend affects the Jewish world as well.  Increasingly, communities are become segregated by party affiliation.  Synagogues have split in half over politics.  It is tragic, because our Jewish values, shared history, and beliefs should be bringing us together.  Instead, partisanship is driving us apart.

But God does not have a party.  God is not from a “Red State” or a “Blue State.”

As a Rabbi, I struggle with how and when to engage with what happens out in the political realm.  As the Rabbi of a diverse congregation, what is my role?  What should Sinai’s role be?

Should it offer an apolitical respite?  Is it a sanctuary in space in the way that Shabbat is a sanctuary in time?

Or perhaps the synagogue is the place where we come to affirm our moral grounding.  Maybe we need a place to engage constructively and thoughtfully on what happens “out there.”

Some congregants urge me to get more political.  Others come to shul looking for a break from all of the noise and contentiousness “out there.”  Let synagogue be a place in which politics is not mentioned.  Let it be a place where we can focus on our inner lives, on the spiritual.

I would kind of like it to be both.  A place where we come together as brothers and sisters in unity.  Celebrating what we share in common, which is a lot.  And learning from each other’s differences with love and respect.

The truth is, regardless of our politics, most of us share the same essential moral beliefs.

Morality is a system of values and principles of conduct having to do with good and bad, right and wrong.  They are developed throughout childhood, strongly influenced by the people who raise and teach us.  They are molded by the standards of the communities in which we live.  Of course, religion plays a huge role.

Our core moral beliefs should direct our political viewpoints.  Let’s say that my moral code tells me I have an obligation to feed the hungry.  There are people in every society who do not have enough to eat, and cannot satisfy their basic needs.  The Torah tells me that I cannot remain indifferent.  I must do something about it.

That should lead me to take a political position.  What do I think is the best way to feed the hungry?  Should the government redistribute wealth from those who have it to those who do not?  Or, should it be left to individuals and private groups to take the lead, with the government either encouraging such efforts from the sidelines or simply staying out of the way?

While the Torah and the Rabbis legislate specific ways to give, the rules around tzedakah focus mainly on individual responsibilities, or those of a tight-knit community, not on society’s obligation.  They do not provide any specific guidance for determining how or even whether a government should provide welfare, food stamps, or social security.

This means that people with similar moral beliefs could end up embracing completely opposite policy solutions – even though we are pursuing the same goal.  This is a good thing, as none of us knows how to end poverty.  The best way to find solutions is through open political systems.

This is how it should work:  our moral convictions should lead to our political positions.

Unfortunately, things are working exactly backwards.  Partisanship has co-opted politics and corrupted morality.

The research shows that my primary allegiance is to my party, not to my morals.  When the opposing party embraces a particular idea, my knee-jerk inclination is to oppose it – not because my morals tell me to, but simply because my opponents favor it.  And the idea itself, along with those who support it, become morally tainted.

It is a serious problem when vast swaths of Americans label each other evil, racist, fascist, and communist because they hold different political views.  After all, it is possible for intelligent people to reach different conclusions.

Religion bears some responsibility for the extreme polarization that we now experience.  In the last century, Judaism and Christianity in America embraced the biblical prophets as models of righteousness.  This may sound surprising, but this embrace of the prophetic ideal has created some rather severe moral traps.  The left has been particularly drawn in.

The first trap is an oversimplification of the moral imperative.  Think about the central message of just about every single prophet in the Bible.  Let’s take, for example, Isaiah’s rebuke in the Haftarah that we will read next week on Yom Kippur.  It is beautiful and inspiring:

This is the fast I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie cords of the yoke to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke.  It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe them, and do not ignore your own flesh.”  (Isaiah 58:6-7)

Isaiah seems to think that, if we only dedicated ourselves to it, we could end human suffering, inequality, and poverty.  The prophetic era lasted for hundred of years.  Most of the prophets offered some version of Isaiah’s message.  At no time did a prophet ever say:  “You guys are doing a great job.”  At no point in human history has a society ever managed to achieve Isaiah’s vision.

Why? Because the problems of human suffering are really complicated.  There is a reason why none of the biblical prophets succeeded.  They were overly simplistic and quite inflexible.

Think of Jeremiah.  He runs around speaking truth to power.  He lambasts the people for their greed and corruption.  He ends up getting himself thrown into a pit for his moral high-mindedness.  There is no doubt that Jeremiah was right.  He was living in a society that had lost its way.  He could see the righteous path forward.  But his message, like so many of the other prophets, failed to take into account the complexity of human beings.  He did not consider how they might feel if he insulted them.

The prophets label behavior as either good or bad, moral or immoral.  If you are not with us, you are against us.

This kind of righteousness is lonely, and if taken too far, can turn violent.

When Moses comes down from the mountain after the sin of the Golden Calf, he declares, Mi L’Hashem Elai!  “Whoever is for God, to me!”  There is no in-between.  The Levites heed the call.  At Moses’ instruction, they take their swords and march back and forth through the camp, killing “brother, neighbor, and kin.”  Three thousand die that day.

The Rabbis, in transforming Judaism, understood the risks inherent in the prophetic tradition.  Rabbi Yohanan declares, “Since the Temple was destroyed, prophecy has been taken from prophets and given to fools and children.”  (BT Bava Batra 12-12b)

Where the Bible speaks in absolutes, the rabbinic tradition is steeped in uncertainty.  The Talmud is filled with mostly unresolved arguments.  There is deep suspicion of anyone who would claim to know the will of God.

Another righteousness trap that we have made is in elevating the idea of tikkun olam as the religious goal.  Tikkun olam means, literally, “fixing the world.”  The term has been applied differently over the millenia.  At first, Tikkun Olam referred to a rabbinic decree that fixed a specific problem created biblical law.  Later, it took on mystical aspects.  The idea that tikkun olam is about social action and the pursuit of social justice is a uniquely 20th and 21st century innovation.  In many segments of American Jewry, however, tikkun olam has become the central religious message.

And this is a problem.

To speak of a fixed world implies, first of all, that I know what a fixed world looks like.  What does that say about someone who does not share my vision?  And finally, is it not a little audacious to imagine that the Jewish people, comprising less than two tenths of one percent of the world’s population, are going to be the ones to fix it?

Should we really be pursuing a perfect world?

A story in the Talmud relates a conversation between philosophers in Rome and Jewish elders.  “If your God has no desire for idolatry, why does He not just abolish it?”  “If it was something of which the world had no need,” they replied, “God would abolish it.  But what do people worship?  The sun, moons, stars, and planets.  Should God destroy the universe on account of fools?  Rather, olam k’minhago noheg.  The world pursues its natural course…”  (BT Avodah Zarah 54b)

We live in an imperfect world.  It is never going to become perfect.  There is no “fixing” the world.  The better model is that taught by Rabbi Tarfon in Pirkei Avot.  Lo alekha hamlakha ligmor, v’lo ata ben chorin l’hibatel mimenah.  “It is not for you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.”  (Avot 2:16)  The world remains a work in progress.

The Rabbinic model, as opposed to the prophetic, is one of moral humility.  It is one of engagement with others, including especially those who disagree with us.  It is making sure, always, that the solutions we pursue emerge from the core moral principles of the Torah.  But we recognize that no human being can know the mind of God.

It is through struggle, together, that we get closer to it.

Lincoln concludes his second Inaugural Address with an appeal for compassion for the common humanity of all and a prayer for peace, knowing full well that the fight to end slavery had to continue until its conclusion.  We would do well to embrace his words.

… With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan–to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.