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The Chutzpah of Abraham

Descent Toward Sodom by Marc Chagall

Descent Toward Sodom by Marc Chagall

הֲשֹׁפֵט כָּל־הָאָרֶץ לֹ֥א יַֽעֲשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּט: – Shall the Judge of all the Earth not deal justly?

Within our Torah portion this week is one of the most primal utterances of our entire tradition; one that has haunted us since it was first uttered. The implications are manifold.

Abraham finds himself in a confrontation with the Creator of the Universe. In its essence, it is a relatively simple exchange. God is enraged by the despicable behavior of the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah, and thus is determined to wipe them out in an act of horrifying destruction. But Abraham pleads with God to reconsider.

Will You indeed sweep away the innocent along with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty innocent in the city. . . Far be it from You to do such a thing, killing innocent and wicked alike, so that the innocent and the wicked suffer the same fate. Far be it from You! Shall the Judge of all the Earth not deal justly? (Genesis 18.23-25)

The verse gives voice to moments both of pain and of righteous indignation at the injustice in that exists in the world at large, and in our own personal lives – injustice that flies in the face of the notion of a God who rules the world with justice and compassion. Particularly remarkable is the chutzpah, if you will, of Abraham, to challenge the Almighty in this way. But he does it to uphold the very values that we have come to understand to be the bedrock of Jewish teaching. We simply cannot annihilate whole populations of people. It is unjust and immoral.

Perhaps within the context of the events that are unfolding in our country, we would do well to remember the chutzpah of Abraham. The expression “speaking truth to power” sometimes feels overused. But in the face of an agenda that threatens to turn the clock back upon decades of progress that we have made in this country, all of us might benefit from Abraham’s chutzpah. In the coming months and years, we will have to stand up to those who would threaten and curtail our civil and human rights. We will have to do this in our pursuit of justice, as our tradition teaches it to us. Far be it for me to compare our new president to the Judge of all the Earth. L’havdil! (Just the opposite.) It is Abraham in this case whose example is worthy of emulation.

Jerusalem Pride

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Giant poster of Shira Banki, z”l, at the very spot where she was murdered last year. The quote is from Spinoza: “It is better to teach good than to condemn evil.” A mini shrine of flowers and yahrzeit candles

In our Torah portion for this week, Bylam, a popular magic man known throughout the Ancient Near East, was summoned by the Moabite King Balak to throw a curse upon the Israelites, who were camped on the Steppes of Moab. Though the Israelites meant him no harm and were just passing through on their way to Eretz Yisrael, Balak feared them and wanted them gone. Bylam ascends to the heights of Moab with Balak, and casts his gaze upon the Children of Israel. But when he opens his mouth to curse them, out comes a blessing instead: Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mishkenotecha Yisrael – How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel.

With great pride indeed, earlier today Steve and I marched in the Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem. Though some 10,000 marchers were expected, twice the number of last year’s parade, the number of marchers actually numbered in the tens of thousands. Security was extremely tight, of course, particularly in light of the tragic and brutal murder at last year’s parade of 16-year-old Shira Banki, z”l. This year Shira’s parents came to the parade to honor the memory of their beautiful daughter, and to express solidarity with the LGBTQ community, and with all those who participated in the parade this year. One of the photos I have provided is of a huge poster at the very spot where Shira was killed last year, Washington Street and Keren Hayesod. The quote next to Shira’s picture is from Spinoza: “It is better to teach goodness than condemn evil.”

Marchers carry a Pride flag as we make our way into the center of town.

Marchers carry a Pride flag as we make our way into the center of town.

Last week Steve and I joined several of our colleagues from Hartman for a day of education to familiarize ourselves a bit better with the services provided for the LGBTQ community in Jerusalem. Everyone knows that Tel Aviv is one of the most gay-friendly cities in the world. Not so in Jerusalem. Because of the heavy religious presence here, not only in the Jewish community, but in all religious communities, the LGBTQ community has a much harder time of it regarding freedom of movement and expression, obtaining benefits and medical care, and the like, than the community in Tel Aviv. In fact at today’s parade, though some Members of Knesset were there, Isaac (Bougie) Herzog and Rachel Azaria among them, Mayor Nir Barkat was not, in order not to inflame the Orthodox community, as he explained it. While in a number of ways Mayor Barkat has been good for this city, I believe that this was a bad call. In an effort not to irritate a community that will never really be satisfied, he snubbed tens of thousands of the citizens of his city, and further rubbed salt into already festering wounds.

gay-pride-2016-jerusalem-group

Rabbinic, Cantorial, and Education students in the Year-In-Israel program of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

One of the places we visited last Monday was the main center of LGBTQ activism in Jerusalem, “Habayit Hapatuach,” “Open House for Pride and Tolerance.” Open House was the principal organizer of today’s event, but many other organizations cosponsored, the Reform Movement and the Israel Religious Action Center among them. Open House provides psychological support, education, free medical care, HIV/AIDS counseling and testing, and numerous other services. Particularly noteworthy is its outreach to LGBTQ youth in the Orthodox and Palestinian communities – young people who are particularly at risk, as we can imagine.

Open House is not a well-known entity. Nevertheless it is very much a locus of reality in the day-to-day life of Jerusalem, and LGBTQ life in particular. We are grateful to the Hartman Institute for arranging our visit there last week.

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The shirt was compliments of the Reform Movement. The purple wristband was a security clearance at the entrance to the park where the marchers assembled. Needless to say, security was extremely tight.

Unfortunately there are people in this world; in Jerusalem, in the United States, in Arab countries, virtually everywhere, who look upon the LGBTQ community and see it as a threat; a scourge that must be wiped off the earth; people whom God has cursed. But if they were to really look closely, and speak with people, and get to know this community, up close and personal, as it is said, they would see that in fact it is a community that God has blessed.

As Jews one of the first and most important precepts of our Torah is Genesis 2.27-28: And God created the man in God’s image; male and female God created them. And God blessed them. When Bylam looked down upon the Children of Israel, camped there upon the Steppes of Moab, he saw and understood that these were children of the Living God, and that he could not curse those whom God had blessed. We open every single one of our morning services with this phrase, to remind us to bless other people, and not curse them. “How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel.”

 

The Condemnation of Eve and the Politics of Planned Parenthood

Planned Parenthood homepage screenshot

Planned Parenthood homepage screenshot

This week we begin again our yearly cycle of Torah study. The Torah portions of this week and next week concentrate on primordial history: the creation of the world and human beings, and the nature of human beings and their potential to do both good and bad (the yetzer hatov – the good inclination, and the yetzer harah – the evil inclination). These parashiyot (Torah portions) also attempt to provide an etiology for why things are the way they are. For instance: Why do snakes crawl around on their bellies, and seem so repulsive and dangerous to most humans? According to our text, the snake originally stood upright. But it manipulated the first man and woman (Adam and Eve) to give into the temptation of eating the forbidden fruit, and thus its punishment was that it was condemned to crawl around on its belly throughout all time to come. Whatever the real evolutionary reason, this is a satisfying story nevertheless, and teaches us an important moral lesson.

Along with the punishment of the snake is the punishment of the humans for giving into temptation. The Torah appears to ask: Why is it that we have to work the earth for our nourishment in this life, and why is it that women experience pain in childbirth?

The Torah’s response:

Genesis, Chapter 4
16) And to the woman, [God] said, “I am doubling and redoubling your pains of pregnancy; with pain shall you bear children, yet your craving shall be for your man, and he shall govern you.” 17) Now to the man, [God] said, “Because you hearkened to your wife and ate of the tree about which I commanded you, saying, ‘Do not eat of it,’ the soil is now cursed on your account: Only through pain shall you eat of it, as long as you live. . . 19) By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread, till you return to the earth – the earth you were taken from. . .’ (and then one of the most well-known statements of the Torah) ‘for dust you are, and to dust you shall return.'”

I am always fascinated by this section of our text, because it could be construed, and has indeed been throughout much of history, as a justification for the subordination and condemnation of women, particularly with regard to their reproductive lives. But it is particularly painful to read now at this time, in light of the recently ramped-up battle against Planned Parenthood. During the Congressional hearing last week, featuring the intense grilling of PP President Cecile Richards, the baggage of centuries upon centuries of misogyny was fired at Richards during the entire day, by mostly male members of Congress. The age-old specter growing out of this Biblical tale as it has found its way into the human psyche, which portrays the woman as the “evil temptress,” who must bear the burden of her ability to reproduce, reared its ugly head during this hearing in a way that I can only characterize as openly hostile and outrageous. Richards said in an interview after the hearing: “In this coming presidential election, Roe v Wade is on the ballot. The battle lines were drawn last week. This isn’t about Planned Parenthood or fetal tissue. . . . it’s about whether abortion is going to be legal any more in this country.”

While there is a great deal more to say on this subject, I offer this brief commentary as food for thought during this rather painful time in American politics.

A New Year’s Prayer

“Jerusalem Windows: The Tribe of Joseph” by Marc Chagall

“Jerusalem Windows: The Tribe of Joseph” by Marc Chagall

As we prepare to close out the old year and ring in the new, this week also will conclude our reading of the Book of Genesis. It is a poignant coincidence that happens rather frequently in our year. Further poignancy is to be found in the conclusion to the Genesis narratives themselves, which have been marked by great struggle and conflict. The recurring patterns of generational conflict and fraternal and sororal jealousy and enmity have continued to plague the patriarchs and matriarchs of our people. Nevertheless, now the sons of Israel have effected a rapprochement with their brother Joseph in Egypt, and their father Jacob has joined them from Canaan as well. As we close the Genesis narratives this week, the family is finally together, living in peace and prosperity. The story ends happily. . . at least until next week, when “a new king (will rise up) over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. . . .”

When the ball drops on Wednesday night, most likely we all will shout “Happy New Year,” and drink a toast to a year of good health, prosperity, and peace. On this coming Shabbat morning, we will have a quieter, yet equally as joyous a moment. When we conclude the Book of Genesis we will rise, together with Jews the world over, and proclaim the words with which conclude every book of the Torah: חזק חזק ונתחזק – Hazak, Hazak, Venithazek. Some would translate this as: Be strong, be strong, and we will be strengthened! Others might render it: Be strong, be strong, and let us summon up our strength! We hear a variation of the phrase repeatedly at the end of Deuteronomy as Moses hands over the mantle of leadership to Joshua: Hazak Ve’ematz, Be strong and of good courage (Deuteronomy 32.7). Joshua in turn repeats it to the Israelites once he has assumed leadership (Joshua 1). The Biblical scholar Jeffrey Tigay cites and additional source, an abbreviated form, in the exhortation of King David’s general Joab to the Israelites as they march into battle: Hazak Venithazek, Be strong and let us summon up our strength for the sake of our people and the towns of our God (2 Samuel 10.12). Dr. Tigay points out, however, that the traditional recitation of Hazak, Hazak, Venithazek upon completion of a book of the Torah, probably reflects the Rabbinic transformation of this battle cry into the aspiration for spiritual strength and loyalty to the Torah.

We will have some hard work to do in the coming year, to confront the division and enmity that exists in our country, and to try to bind up our wounds and heal our society. It is in this spirit that I offer my own toast to the New Year, with the translation that I personally prefer upon the completion of a book of the Torah. I offer it both as an exhortation and as a prayer:  חזק חזק ונתחזק- Hazak, Hazak, Venithazek – Be strong, be very strong, and we shall strengthen each other.

Nelson Mandela’s Work

Nelson Mandela Photo: lasanta.com.ec Flickr

Last Thursday the world lost Nelson Mandela, former President of South Africa. Through his own unimaginable personal sacrifice and almost superhuman determination and political acumen, he brought about peace and reconciliation to a deeply troubled land. In so doing, he inspired us all with hope in the potential of human beings to overcome the racism that poisons us and the hatred that divides us.

The Psalmist teaches: “The days of our years are threescore and ten, or even by reason of strength, fourscore years.” Threescore and ten – 70 years. But the first 70 years of Mr. Mandela’s life were marked by violence and tyranny, resistance and imprisonment. In the traditional view, that would have been his entire life. But when he emerged from the darkness into the light, standing side by side with the very people who once had been his enemies, he began a new life, and went on to bless this world for almost FIVE score years. It was amazing to behold.

No, we can’t all be Mandelas. One is more than any epoch can probably expect. But we can all learn from him, and draw inspiration from his life and work. We can make an effort to use our intelligence and our strength, and our human sensitivity, to join with others in promoting human progress and a peaceful life on this earth. Each of us has to find some area in which we are most compelled to make our personal contribution. But the work is what counts – our work. We learn from the Mishnah: “You are not required to complete all the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” Each of us is obligated to make some personal contribution to repair the world. Each of us is personally responsible. That is really the most authentic way to honor the memory of Nelson Mandela, and all the other heroes and heroines who have worked and fought to make the world a better place.

This week we will complete our reading of the Book of Genesis. The rivalries and enmity that have marked the generations of our patriarchs and matriarchs have been put to rest. After 20 years of separation and estrangement, Jacob and his children are together as one family. At least for now, the spirit of peace and reconciliation has won the day. As we close the Book of Genesis, we proclaim in the words of our tradition, חזק חזק ונתחזק Chazak, chazak, venitchazek – Be strong, be very strong, and we shall strengthen each other.

As for Nelson Mandela we say, זכר צדיק לברכה – Zecher Tzaddik Livrachah – May the memory of the righteous be for a blessing – and may we keep alive the light he brought into the world.