This special bulletin for Parshat Vayera contains an important message for these times of violence.
Yael Unterman is coordinator and core member of the DCA Think Tank.
The weekly Thought To Ponder will be sent on Thursday.
Blessings, Nathan Lopes Cardozo
This essay was first published, with slightly different form and content, in the Times of Israel.
If you were Abraham, would you have interceded for Sodom?
Well, let’s start with an easier question. Do you think that he was delighted at the existence of an entire city filled with evil as Sodom was? This man who the midrash describes as cursing the builders of the Tower of Babel for caring more for the loss of bricks than of human laborers? The answer is no, undoubtedly their behaviour nauseated him; yet still he tried to salvage it through the presence of ten righteous inhabitants.
Professor Nehama Leibowitz explains that this is not some numerical bargaining trick. Rather, ten truly righteous people would do the work to try to change their society. The authentic tzaddik is not a “tzaddik im peltz” who puts on a fur coat when he is cold; instead, he works to warm the entire house. Ten is a critical mass, enough to ensure that change would have a chance of taking root. Abraham could have asked to save just those ten righteous, leaving the rest of the city be damned. But instead he asked to find the righteous people “within the city”—that is to say, working to improve it—and thus to save them all.
Contrast this with Noah, who, some sages suggest, had he lived in Abraham’s generation would have been considered mediocre at best. His name literally means ‘rest’ or ‘comfort’, and his mediocrity lay not going beyond his comfort zone to see the people around him. It was probably extremely ‘comfortable’ for him to have his reprehensible peers, whom I’m sure he disliked intensely, wiped away in a flood. God gave him ample opportunity for enlightenment over 120 years of building the ark, but Noah… well, he remained in his “Noah” zone till the end, never trying to help his neighbours emerge from their wickedness and repent.
I now confess an appalling truth: that it’s becoming more and more ‘comfortable’ for me to wish that all terrorists be shot on sight. It’s infuriating that they go to prison, only to kill again upon their release, as in the case of the recent stabbings. Better, I think, that they be “eliminated”, to go off to their 72 virgins or whatever nonsense they think awaits them, as long as they no longer pose a threat to me and my people.
But Rashi explains “A man says to his son, May you be like Abraham.” This is who we must imitate, and this is who we bless our children to be… Abraham, not Noah.
So I cannot encourage that Noah reaction in me of delight when Muslims kill each other in Syria, or of wishing our Palestinian cousins far, far away. Instead I choose to ask some important and heavy questions: What can be done to prevent the minds of young Muslims being poisoned? To hold responsible the Machiavellian leaders who propagate ridiculous lies about danger to Al-Aksa in order to create ideological foment among the masses and send children out with knives…? Who twist the love of God, which should be such a high ideal and force for good, into a channel for murder…? Who highlight only those aspects of the Islamic religion that are a call to arms and not those that could serve as bridges to peace…?
Do we respect our Arab neighbours enough to expect them to be responsible, constructive adults and demand that they build together with us instead of destroying? Much needs improving, true, but we can, if they (and we) can put aside our victim narratives and seek solutions—rather than surrendering to reactionary inflammations of violence that won’t, history has taught many times, lead to anything good. There exist far more than ten good people in their society; we must seek them out and empower them.
And what is being done with prisoners sitting in Israeli jails, to expose them to other ways of thinking? Are Muslim religious leaders who see other, more peaceful sides of Islam—or journalists who see the consequences of the terrible choices extremists keep making, or Palestinians who have renounced violence—being brought in, either personally or on video, to present another way (such as the Arab mayor of Nazareth, who censured Joint List MK Ayman Odeh live on Israeli TV for utterly ruining his city’s economic base with the latest short-sighted round of violence, shouting “You burned the world!”)? Are cognitive-behavioural techniques or meditation being tried in prison, to empower healthier sides to prisoners’ personalities and decrease recidivism? What about lectures and activities relating to win-win philosophies and positive psychology? Or is prison simply yet another place to enhance brutality and enmity, sending perpetrators back out into the world even more embittered and motivated to harm? We’re not aiming at Clockwork Orange mind control here, but at counteracting brainwashing to violence with positive perspectives and at empowering choice. What prisoners do in the end will be up to them.
To be Abraham, we must choose to pray for the repentance of enemies, not for their deaths. The Jewish way, as the wise Bruriah taught us, is to wish for evil to be eliminated but not the evil-doers themselves. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, who absolutely did not believe in land for peace and valued protection of Jewish life above all else, wrote:
Yes, there are violent people and terrorists in the world. But there is nothing that says the only way to deal with this is through taking their lives. Even when we speak of ‘the enemy and the avenger,’ our actions must be ‘to stop the enemy and the avenger.’ Meaning, to stop and to annul this that he is an enemy and avenger.
Call me naïve, rant against my approach if you like—but do read Son of Hamas, the true story of the renouncing by one Hamas founder’s son of all violence, after his reading of the New Testament. Do discover the story of Ali Abu Awad, a former Fatah activist with powerful personal grievances against Israel, who nevertheless renounced violence in favour of reconciliation and nonviolent resistance. Do study the Talmudic tale of Rabbi Simeon ben Lakish, king of the thugs, who, lured into the study hall, ultimately became a great sage, his passion for the sword and dagger channeled into the power of the word and idea.
The gates of repentance are open to all, and we must desire all to walk through them.
It is extremely uncomfortable to be Abraham and extremely difficult. Even Abraham himself fails to live up to the ideal, when the king of Sodom tells him to return the captives he has recovered and take the goods for himself (Genesis 14:21), and Abraham responds that, by God, he will not take even a thread or sandal strap. Professor Leibowitz explains, in the footsteps of the Talmud (Nedarim 32a), that had Abraham passed up the wonderful but fleeting moment of sanctification of God’s name and instead accepted upon himself the thankless effort of setting right the souls of the Sodomites he had captured, his deed would have been infinitely greater.
We are living through dark times. But darkness and discomfort are there precisely in order for us to elevate them: with faith and trust in God, with a staunch moral compass, with love for Jews across the political spectrum, and hope and concern for humankind. When I saw a group of Jewish teens walking through downtown Jerusalem, shouting “Death to the Arabs” and then crowding around a taxi and shouting and trying to get in (presumably to try to attack an Arab taxi driver), I made myself call the police. I’ve never called the police in my life, and found the situation unpleasant and frightening, but my conscience bent my emotions to its will. I refuse to let my beloved religion and Jewishness be transformed into a base, inhuman nationalism infused with mob psychology and hatred, however disgusting and vile the terrorists’ actions are to me.
Abraham is no pacifist; he does not hesitate to go to war in order to save his nephew Lot, and attack and rout his enemy. Yet he does not lose his hope for humankind, however wicked. He still cares, he still prays for Sodom. There are many halachic discussions of the ethics of war, and these permit killing when it is required for defense, though the parameters of what is permissible range. But along with this, extinguishing a human life should never become just part of a day’s work.
In sum: All immediate threats to our lives must be removed as necessary—“one who rises up to kill you, kill him first” (Talmud, Berachot 58a). My personal safety is assured by people willing to actually take human life to protect all of us, and I am grateful for that; but not joyful. Let us not succumb to an un-Jewish bloodlust and indifference towards human life, a comfort with the idea that everyone else can die as long as me and mine are safe. We must never be just Noah, but rather pray for, and take whatever steps we can towards the emergence of all those around us—and ourselves—into a new level of consciousness, better choices, and an orientation towards a religion of good and life, not a distorted religion of death.
We must try to be like Abraham, though it is so challenging to do so that even he failed. For this is to be a Jew.
(I thank Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo for encouraging the publication of this piece, and also Reuven Resnick of Vayigash Avraham, conversations with whom helped me crystallize some of the ideas herein www.vayigash.org)
Questions to Ponder
– In the pshat, Noah is described positively. Is it possible that his attitude of obedience and passivity was
– What are the strengths in the essay’s message, and what are the risks?
– Do you see this essay as supporting “left-wing” or “right-wing” ideology more? Is this even a relevant question?
– Is there something you personally wish to take on, after reading this essay?