Friday November 3, 2023 – י״ט חֶשְׁוָן תשפ”ד
כִּ֣י יְדַעְתִּ֗יו לְמַ֩עַן֩ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְצַוֶּ֜ה אֶת־בָּנָ֤יו וְאֶת־בֵּיתוֹ֙ אַחֲרָ֔יו וְשָֽׁמְרוּ֙ דֶּ֣רֶךְ יְהֹוָ֔ה לַעֲשׂ֥וֹת צְדָקָ֖ה וּמִשְׁפָּ֑ט לְמַ֗עַן הָבִ֤יא יְהֹוָה֙ עַל־אַבְרָהָ֔ם אֵ֥ת אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֖ר עָלָֽיו׃ (בראשית יח:יט)
For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of יהוה by doing what is just and right, in order that יהוה may bring about for Abraham what has been promised him.” (Genesis 18:19)
There is no more important Jewish undertaking than teaching our children to do what is just and right. The lessons of our past are to be imparted to our children to instill in them a strong sense of identity and belonging, and to fashion a sense of moral and ethical behavior. We want our children to be charged with the task of uprooting evil, standing up for those who are powerless, and repairing the broken fragments of our world.
At this moment in time when our people are experiencing a crisis of biblical proportions, it is our texts and traditions that help us make sense of what we should teach our children. This week’s Parashah, Vayera, offers us some lessons for how we should act, speak, and lead as examples for ourselves and our children.
- Speak truth to power and judge fairly.
חָלִ֨לָה לְּךָ֜ מֵעֲשֹׂ֣ת ׀ כַּדָּבָ֣ר הַזֶּ֗ה לְהָמִ֤ית צַדִּיק֙ עִם־רָשָׁ֔ע וְהָיָ֥ה כַצַּדִּ֖יק כָּרָשָׁ֑ע חָלִ֣לָה לָּ֔ךְ הֲשֹׁפֵט֙ כׇּל־הָאָ֔רֶץ לֹ֥א יַעֲשֶׂ֖ה מִשְׁפָּֽט׃
“Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (Genesis. 18:25)
Sometimes there are moral quandaries that have no good outcome. Sometimes there is evil that is so intense and egregious that it must be removed at all costs. Avraham asks whether God will “sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?” God answers saying: “I will not destroy for the sake of ten righteous people.” At the moment our family was under attack and evil stood at the doorstep, we argued to preserve the lives of a handful of innocent people.
We teach our children to see the good in every person, even though there are times when whole societies behave in ways that need to be condemned. That’s what it means to keep the way of יהוה by doing what we believe is just and right.
- Powerlessness is not a Jewish virtue.
For centuries we experienced what it is like to be subjects to the rulers of others until we became a sovereign nation and to be powerful enough to defend ourselves. Only nine verses after Avraham became the first oleh hadash, the first immigrant to the Land of Israel, he went down to Egypt and was subject to the mercy and power of others. There are those who, to this day, are uncomfortable with Jews having power. We Jews should never apologize for having strength and for the ability to defend ourselves. Judaism does not subscribe to the idea that one should “turn the other cheek” when attacked. In fact, one important rule taught by the Talmud gives us the license to defend ourselves using ultimate means: הַבָּא לַהֲרָגְךָ הַשְׁכֵּם לְהָרְגוֹ (סנהדרין ע”ב ע”א) “if someone comes planning to kill you, you should rise to kill them first” (Sanhedrin 72a). We cannot defend ourselves if we are powerless. We learned that lesson on October 6, 1973, and all the more so on October 7, 2023: if we let down our guard then evil lurks at the door and will do us great harm. But just as we must defend ourselves, we are also taught not to rejoice when our enemy perishes. Our tradition rebukes us strongly for rejoicing as the Egyptian army drown in the Red Sea, and we cannot also turn a blind eye to the suffering of others, even if they rejoiced when our people were being brutally slaughtered.
- In the face of adversity, tradition calls upon us to stand proudly as Jews.
This brings us to Lot and the irredeemable evil of Sodom. What is the lesson we teach our children when we see Jews barricading themselves in a college library to avoid an angry mob wanting to do them harm, when Jewish students relocate to avoid physical harm, or when Jews are told to stay in their homes to avoid angry protests? These experiences are not new to the Jewish people, and they take us back to the biblical Lot who was besieged by the people of Sodom who were struck by a blinding light which rendered them powerless. We are reminded as well of the secret Torah study of Rabbi Akiva to avoid the Romans, of the period of the Middle Ages when Jews hid on Easter and Christmas to avoid becoming victims to pogroms and attacks, and of the secret synagogue in Terezin at the end of an alley that even the Nazis didn’t know was there, and to those who kept their Jewish identity alive while avoiding the threat of the Soviet KGB. Throughout our long history, for most of that time, we Jews lacked the power to defend ourselves and so we could not teach our children by example to fight evil when it confronted us. Rather, we cowered in fear when tradition taught us to keep the way of יהוה by doing what is just and right.
The Zionist movement emerged in history to enable the Jewish people to defend themselves against powerful enemies without fear while at the same time reaching out in peace to our neighbors as it is so plainly articulated in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.
What can we teach our children about what it means to be Jews living outside of Israel today? Admittedly, it is especially difficult at this moment in the history of our people. So many of us are physically safe but glued to the news and emotionally drained. Many of us don’t know how best to communicate with our non-Jewish friends, schoolmates, business associates and partners, and even our neighbors who do not understand our deep connections with the people and the State of Israel. We are often lost as well in knowing what to advise our kids when they encounter anti-Israel and antisemitic comments at school or at colleges and universities. We worry about their feelings of vulnerability in the face of such deeply disturbing images of October 7 and the suffering of innocent Palestinians in Gaza that are oozing from their devices, while explaining to them that even though we hope to avoid war at all costs, we cannot also with good conscious call for a ceasefire at the moment until the hostages are returned and Hamas is defeated.
What can we do for ourselves and our children in these times?
We can mobilize and work together on behalf of our people in Israel. Whether it’s donating necessary funds, wearing a blue ribbon, or contributing our time and energy to be there for each other and helping people cope with the magnitude of this tragedy. We can figure out the best way to talk to those with whom we disagree – even when it’s difficult and would be much easier to write them off. We can listen empathically to the pain and angst of others, family, friends, and fellow Jews. As we scrutinize every word we see in print, statements, social media posts, and the endless newsreels, we can work to avoid the already biting polarization.
Being a Jew today is complicated and challenging, and that is an understatement. We have to be able to embrace multiple truths and conflicting feelings all at once, and that is what it means to be Jewish. However, there is a certain comfort in knowing that we Jews are part of a great nation of which we can be justifiably proud.