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Lech Lecha 5775

L’Fi Dati: As I See It

A message from Rabbi Weintraub

I write during the week of Parshat Lech L’cha, when we study, and read on Shabbat Chapters 12-17 of Genesis. The focus of the text shifts in these chapters. We leave behind the descriptions of the origins of the natural and human worlds, and we begin to read about the story of a particular people, the Hebrews, founded by Abraham and Sarah.

The beginnings of this story are hopeful, innocent, and visionary. G-d chooses Abraham and promises “I will make you a great nation. I will bless you. I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing… and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves through you”. (Genesis 12:2-3)

Indeed, Abraham is unique in that three major word religions regard him as father. Judaism sees him as the iconoclastic pioneer of monotheism. Islam reveres him as the model of pious submission. Christianity believes that Abraham founded a universal spiritual community.

Throughout history, however, this early blessing given to Avraham led as much to disputation as to dialogue. Rival claims did not take long to develop. In fact, they begin in the first family dramas set in Abraham and Sarah’s household, a home torn by rivalry.

There, for example, we read that Sarah had long been barren. So, she decides to follow a common ancient Near Eastern practice and offer her maid, Hagar to Abraham, reckoning “perhaps (my lineage) can be built through her” (16:2). However, the plan backfires. Hagar conceives and then patronizes Sarah, who in turn, is not as forbearing as she had earlier hoped. She cannot abide her servant’s disrespect and, with Abraham’s approval, expels Hagar to the desert. After a divine angel intervenes and assures Hagar that she will also mother a great nation, Hagar returns and submits to Sarah’s cruelty. Her son, Ishmael, becomes father of the Arab people.

Not only are Sarah and rivals, but their interpreters throughout history are also sharply partisan. Nachmanides, in 13th Century Spain, imagines that Sarah gave Hagar to Abram unselfishly, so that Hagar might enjoy a higher status. This, Nachmanides concludes, “underlines Sarah’s righteous character”. Karen Armstrong, author of the modern best-seller, A History of God, sides with the Egyptian maidservant: “Poor Hagar is caught up in some divine drama and then jettisoned, when she’s played her part.” (Talking about Genesis: A Resource Guide, page 98).

So we have our commentaries. Hagar is spiteful. No, Hagar is noble. Sarah is cruel. No, Sarah is generous. Abraham founds a Hebrew nation in Israel. No, Abraham prefigures an evangelical worldwide community of Christian faith. No, Abraham is the first Muslim who submits his body and will to Allah and with Ishmael, his favored son, builds the Kaba, the first House of G-d on earth.

How do we handle such divergent claims? How can a text, an old story, bear so much conflict? Is it possible for us to understand the beliefs of others without diluting our own reverence for the text?

If we look closely, we will find more than enmity and exclusivism in these texts. Indeed, we see that apparently rival parties actually share similarities. Let’s return to Hagar and Sarah.

Hagar is an Egyptian slave. Sarah, although Hagar’s oppressor in this Parsha, was just before held herself as a captive in the house of Pharaoh. Later on, all Jews will be slaves in Egypt.

There are other similarities. In Chapter 16, in the desert, the angel tells Hagar to return and submit to degradation. In the chapter before, in a night vision, G-d tells Abraham that his descendants must return to Egypt and endure 400 years of servitude. After liberation, Hagar and her son Ishmael wander in the desert, suffer from thirst and find water miraculously delivered by G-d. After our liberation from Egypt, so do we.

 

The similarities between Hagar and Sarah, the sympathy we are made to feel for both women, teach us about the Torah and its subtle methods and messages. If we search deeply, we see that the Torah manages to include competing truths, to respect rival claims and to honor and at times mediate historical rivalries.

Again, for example, Hagar eventually founds the Egyptian nation. According to the Torah (Deuteronomy 23:8), we are not allowed to hate Egyptians even though they afflicted us. This was not a gesture of Jewish liberalism or guilt. It showed, according to the Midrash, historical insight. Before Avdut Mitzrayim, the slavery in Egypt, Egypt rescued Jacob and the Hebrew clan from starvation. Two hundred years after the Exodus, during the reign of King Solomon, Egyptian goods poured into Israeli ports, peace treaties were signed with Egypt and Egyptian tourists became so numerous in Jerusalem that Solomon, when dedicating the first Temple, asked G-d to listen in particular to the prayers of Gentile guests.

Our Torah, unlike the sacred texts of other major world religions, is written as an historical book. In history, life and truth are not fixed. They evolve. Enemies in one era become partners in the next, allies become rivals, oppressors and oppressed can change roles.

As Jews, we have long known, in our bones, that for humanity to survive we have to protect sacred texts from exclusivism and triumphalism.

This is a truth which we painfully remember this week. Next Tuesday, November 4, marks both the civil and religious Yarzheits of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin, of blessed memory, who was assassinated on 12 Cheshvan, 5756, November 4, 1995 by Yigal Amir, a young Jew who saw himself acting out of faith and adherence to Torah.

After this murder, the Rishon L”tzion, Rabbi Bashki Doron, then the Chief Rabbi of Israel, warned of the terrible danger of turning a political controversy into a religious conflict. That, he said, will prevent the possibility of compromise and increase the likelihood of violent kinah, or zealotry. We must understand, Rabbi Doron continued, that people who are prepared to kill in the name of their religious belief are not religious people. They are idol worshippers who contaminate true faith.

Zachor, “Remember!” is a mitzvah given regarding six separate instances in the Torah, and three of these are situations in which people sought to assassinate others, physically and/or morally.

As we observe 12 Cheshvan, November 4 as a sad but sacred day of remembrance, let us internalize a vital and positive truth. We must understand the motivations and aspirations even of our enemies, and bring the wisdom of Torah to heal and unite.

Shalom Uv’racha,

Rabbi Weintraub

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