Dvar Torah on Parshat Lech-Lecha

Parashat Hashavua Lech-Lecha 2016 / 5777 - What do we Mean When we Talk About Jewish Values?

11.11.2016 by

I was not sure that there was any need to write about the Trump disaster. It seems that everyone has already weighed in, I’ve seen some very good analyses and calls to action, and I’m not sure there is much more to add. There is certainly no point in reciting, once again, the all-too-long litany of what is wrong with him and his supporters; we all understand exactly what there is to be very afraid of.

There is, however, one aspect of this fiasco which I want to address. Most Jews voted for Clinton, although, obviously, not all. Many Jews supported and voted for Trump, especially Orthodox ones. Here in Israel, many – though I think they are a minority – Orthodox and otherwise, have expressed positive opinions about Trump, usually from an Israeli perspective. As do the American Jews who were for Trump, they tell us that “he will be good for Israel”, “he’s a real friend of Israel and the Jews”, “he gets along with Bibi” (talk about damning with faint praise). Again and again, they trot out the Jewish son-in-law, the daughter’s conversion, other Jewish relatives, friends, and associates.

I don’t for one minute think that any of this means much. I am afraid he is not going to be good for the Jews. Trump has lit the flames of racism and anti-Semitism in America, and he seems to have no interest in controlling them, nor do I think he could even if he wanted to do so. I am also not at all sure that his brand of friendship will be good for Israel, though that is a more complicated conversation. I can certainly imagine him turning on Israel if, for instance, his pal Bibi disagrees with him about something or other – like giving the Golan to Syria in order to placate his pal Putin and Putin’s genocidal allies. I also am quite sure that neither Israel nor American Jews will enjoy living in the miserable world that Trump is on track to bequeath to us.

But this is not really the issue. Let us assume, for argument’s sake, that Trump will be good for the Jews, and a real friend of Israel. So what?  It is clear that there are many, many people to whom he will not be a friend, but, rather, a real threat. If he at all lives up to the horrible threats and promises he has made, many Americans have much to fear from him. I want to argue that this is what we as Jews, and Israelis, must focus on.

In parshat Lech Lecha God asks Avraham to leave his family and home and go “to the land that I will show you“; a difficult demand to meet. God tells Avraham that it will be worth his while to follow his instructions as, once he arrives at his new home, God says, “I will make you a great nation, enhance your reputation, and you will be a blessing.” God concludes His promises to Avraham by saying “and all the families of the earth shall be blessed through you.”  

This specific blessing is repeated at the end of next week’s parsha, Vayera, just after the binding of Isaac: “And all the nations of the land will be blessed through your descendants.”

The simple explanation of this blessing is that Avraham’s loyalty to God will bring good not only to him and his descendants, but to the entire world, all the nations. The Torah Temima stresses that this will include even animals, and the most primitive “cave and rock dwellers”.

This means that God wants Avraham to understand that one of the goals and benefits of his covenant with God is that blessings will be brought to the entire world, Jews and non-Jews alike. This position, that Avraham’s mission is not for the good of him and his children alone, but for all of humanity, is crucial for an understanding of Judaism.

We have a dramatic example of this universalistic approach later in this week’s parsha. Avraham separates from his nephew Lot because, according to the Rabbis’ understanding of the Biblical text, Lot allowed his shepherds to steal grazing rights from the local Canaanites, an approach which Avraham found unacceptable (that sentence alone is well worth thinking about). A bit later, Lot is captured in a battle between warring local kings. In spite of the fact that Avraham has rejected Lot and his unethical behavior, and in spite of the fact that, in next week’s parsha, Va’yera, Lot will father two nations, Amon and Moav, who will not be friends of the Jewish people, Avraham does not hesitate, and goes to war to rescue Lot.  Avraham is not only concerned about those who are members of the covenant; his help is extended even to those outside of it.

Next week, in Parshat Va'yera, Avraham's long, nervy argument with God about the fate of the people of Sodom is another example of his commitment to help not only his own people, but even starngers, quite a problematic group of stangers at that!

Every single morning, 365 days of the year, we say the following words in the shacharit prayers, from Psalm 146: “Put not your faith in princes…Happy is he who has the God of Yaakov to help him… Who made the heavens and earth, and the sea and all that is in them…Who executes justice for the oppressed, who gives bread to the hungry. The Lord frees prisoners, the Lord opens the eyes of the blind…the Lord cares for strangers, the orphan and the widow he supports, and He makes crooked the way of the wicked.”  Every day we remind ourselves that our God cares for the stranger, the oppressed, the handicapped, which means that we must as well. 

Caring for all the families of the earth, and for God’s creation, the earth itself; helping the stranger and the oppressed, these are not foreign, liberal, modern, western values – they are Jewish values, they are our values. They are the last, ultimate thing that God says to Avraham when explaining to him what his mission is – to be a blessing to all the people of the earth. They are the very bedrock of whaty Judaism is, and is meant to do. If, in fact, Trump surprises me and is somehow a good friend of Israel, that will not be a reason to allow him and his “policies” (they are more like bad moods) of division, exclusion, and disenfranchisement to pass without protest. If the Trump presidency turns out to be good for Israel, which I doubt, but not good for all, including the oppressed and the stranger, then he, indeed, will not be a president any Jew can support.

I am willing to follow Obama’s and Hillary’s generous example and watch and see.

Shabbat Shalom,

Shimon Felix

These are not foreign, liberal, modern, western values – they are Jewish values, they are our values. Rabbi Shimon

Torah Portion Summary - Lech-Lecha


Parashat Lech-Lecha is the 3rd weekly Torah portion in the annual Jewish cycle of Torah reading.

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