Parashat Lekh Lekha begins Abraham and Sarah’s saga. They are imperfect, but we have much to learn from them. Abraham in particular teaches us to strive.
Abraham fights both for family and strangers. Hearing that his nephew Lot has been captured, he fights four kings to save him. In next week’s Torah portion, Abraham attempts to persuade God not to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. True, Lot lives there. However, Abraham doesn’t only try to save Lot and his family. He advocates for all the inhabitants. This he does, although we are told that all of the other residents are evildoers.
Fighting for family and strangers alike, Abraham’s deeds reflect what we just learned in the first chapter of the Torah. Every person is created in God’s Image – not just Jews, and not just the wealthy. The Torah specifically includes both men and women. This teaching must guide human rights defenders. We must defend all, whether they are family, members of our ethnic group, unrelated to us, or even our enemies. Rabbi Isaac Newman z”l, one of RHR’s early members and twice chairperson, frequently quoted the addition to “Who is mighty? One who controls his/her urges.” (Pirkei Avot 4:1) in Pirkei Avot d’Rabbi Natan 23, “Who is the mightiest of the mighty…Some say the one who turns an enemy into a friend.”
Again, Abraham was far from perfect. Twice he hands Sarah over to other men to save himself. He allows Sarah to abuse Hagar, and gives in to her demand to expel Hagar and Ishmael (The midrash nevertheless teaches that Abraham would visit Ishmael, and continued to care for him.) The Abraham who fights for Sodom and Gomorrah doesn’t argue when told to sacrifice his Isaac.
A midrash teaches that Abraham had it wrong, “Rabbi Acha said… The Holy One, blessed be God, said, ‘When I said, “Please take your son,” I did not say, “slaughter him,” but rather, “and bring him up.” …And now, bring him down.’ A different version: They said a parable about a king that said to his friend, ‘Bring up your son to my table.’ His friend brought him up and his knife was in his hand. The king said, ‘And did I say to you, “Bring him up to eat him?” I said to you, “Bring him up”‘ (Bereshit Rabbah 56:8)
We must learn both from Abraham’s praiseworthy deeds and his mistakes. He teaches us that is wrong to only care about fellow Jews, or only about non-Jews. I and many human rights defenders do in fact try to advocate for every human being. However, when I read the story of the near sacrifice of Isaac, I ask myself whether I have sometimes sacrificed my own family in the process of fighting for others.
Returning to Abraham’s positive deeds, many midrashim ask how Abraham discovered God. Perhaps we can write a modern midrash: Maybe Abraham discovered God because he perceived God’s Image in all human beings. Furthermore, when there is tension between the shepherds of Lot and Abraham, Abraham says, “Let there be no strife between you and me, between my herdsman and yours, for we are family. Is not the whole land before you?” (Genesis 13:8-9). We might continue our midrash to say that Abraham advocates for Sodom and Gomorrah after he realizes that all the descendants of Adam and Eve are truly family. We generally translate “re’ekha” as “family” or “neighbor” in “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). However, Abraham comes to understand that re’ekha is anyone who is essentially like us. The One found in every human being makes us all profoundly one. Towards the end of our parasha, God recognizes Abraham’s achievement by adding a “heh” (h) from God’s Hebrew Name to change “Abram” to “Abraham,” and “Sarai” to “Sarah.” Their very names teach them and us where to find God. They remind Abraham and Sarah that they honor God’s Image in themselves when they act as Godlike as humanly possible.
I think of Abraham and Lot, and their flocks, when we are defending Palestinian shepherds from settlers and soldiers. Without even addressing the question of whether settlers should be in the Occupied Territories, it is all too clear to me why settlers bring their flock into the areas grazed and planted by Palestinian shepherds even though the settlers have plenty of other lands for their herds. “Is not the whole land before you?” I also recall Abraham when in the Negev. a place so closely associated with him. Fighting human rights violations against the “unrecognized” villages of Israeli Bedouin citizens, or the harm to Jews in Beersheva and Dimona in need of public housing, I wish we could remember that we are all family.
Last week the “center-left” stopped the right wing attempt to take over the World Zionist Congress and its institutions. The traditional consensus giving positions to all was somewhat restored, a consensus excluding non-Jews. The KKL-JNF/HImanuta has a thirty-year agreement with Elad, a settler organization dedicated to “Judaizing” East Jerusalem, to evict the Sumarin family from their East Jerusalem home. In their eyes, the Sumarins aren’t family.
Abraham’s words rang in my head on Shabbat Lekh Lekha of 2015/5776. I recited Birkat HaGomel (the blessing recited during the Torah reading by those who have survived a dangerous experience), after having been attacked with a knife during the olive harvest. I requested the aliyah in which we read “For we are family.” It seemed to be the most appropriate act I could take to remind myself and others of the difference between how I believe we should relate to each other, and what I had experienced.
Shouldn’t Abraham’s descendants fighting to inherit this Land learn to struggle just as tenaciously to inherit Abrahams spiritual legacy? Imperfect broken vessels that we are, can we be true to what we are capable of?
God, may it be Your Will that we learn from Abraham to strive to perceive and honor You in every human being, thereby uniting and repairing that which is broken in us, our country and our world. Through us, may Your Promise to Abraham repeated throughout Genesis be fulfilled, “Through you, shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” (Genesis 12:3)
A version of this week’s dvar Torah was written for my former organization (of which I am still a member), Rabbis For Human Rights