Michael Rainsbury
Jewish Educator

Lech Lecha: A post-election commentary

After four years of political instability, we now know the direction Israeli politics will be taking. Every election is divisive and elicits strong emotions. But after five of them, with all of the dramatic events that we have seen, and the knowledge that the results are now final, means that the emotions are significantly stronger. The victors have really won, and those defeated have truly been defeated. I too have strong emotions, and have thought of many ways of conveying them in a blog. But instead of that, I took comfort in the eternal words of the Torah, specifically the weekly parasha, which is there to guide, challenge and teach us timely lessons. I have tried to learn those lessons in a way that I hope to be meaningful and unifying.

“And Hashem said to Avram ‘Lech Lecha’ from your land, and from your homeland and from your father’s house to the land which I will show you.” (Bereshit 12:1)

How many of us have uprooted our lives to come to this land, with its unique culture, challenging economic climate and different values? And yet despite all the problems, we will always come back to our moment of Lech Lecha: the first time we decided to make Aliyah; the day we made Aliyah; our first Yom Ha’atzmaut as an Israeli; our first election. The parasha is named after that dream of Aliyah, reminding us that when its reality is hard and harsh, we never should forget our hopes and dreams.

“And there was a famine in the land, and Avram went down to Egypt…” (Bereshit 12:10)

While the Ramban says that Avraham sinned by leaving the land, the Abarbanel believes that this was a test for Avraham, which he passed. The wide range of rabbinic opinion shows that there was no easy answer to Avraham’s dilemma. For some people, the election results have made them feel as if they are on the cusp of a famine. Some may even be asking why should they stay in the land? That is a totally understandable emotional reaction given the strength of views on so many critical issues facing the fundamentals of Israeli life today. But it’s also not a real solution. Whenever the Avot, or the Jewish people, leave the land, they return. Whether because we are not wanted in other lands and we have no other, or because we hear God’s call to be a Jewish nation again, our futures are inextricably bound in this land. We have to make it work.

“And Avram said to Lot, ‘let there not be an argument between me and you; and between my herdsmen and your herdsmen because we are brothers. Is not the whole land before you? Let us separate…” (Bereshit 13:8-9)

Let us separate into religious and secular cities, Charedi and Dati Leumi, Ashkenazi and Sephardi. If we all live separately we will have fewer arguments. But when Avraham and Lot split, the Torah uses the words ‘הפרד and ‘ויפרדו’, both of which mean ‘separated’ but also which have at their root the word פרד, which means mule. Mules have advantages over donkeys and horses, yet have one fundamental disadvantage: they can’t bear offspring. It may have been necessary for Avraham to separate from Lot, but it was certainly painful. If we want to guarantee our future as a nation together, we must find a way of bringing people together and having the arguments we need to have in respectful, and perhaps painful, ways. Because we are all brothers and sisters.

“And Hashem said to Avram after Lot split (הפרד) from him…All the land which you see I am giving to you and your descendants forever…And [Avram] dwelt in the plains of Mamre in Chevron ((חברון…” (Bereshit 13:14,15,18)

Chevron is a tinderbox and an enigma. For some it is a demographic and geographic inconvenience and yet one cannot ignore that it is the most powerful of all Jewish sites. It’s the first time that Avraham settles down in any town in this land – the first ever Jewish settlement. Chevron, from the root חבר (friend/connect), is the opposite of פרד (separation). Is it possible that in today’s divided Israel, the root of connection between Jew and Jew, and between Jew and Arab, can be found in Chevron, the city of extremes? My head tells me no, it is not possible. But there is also something inside me saying that Chevron and what it represents cannot be ignored and must be dealt with. Maybe we need to search some more.

“When Avram heard that his brother had been taken captive, he mustered his disciples…and went in pursuit…” (Bereshit 14:14)

However divided we are today, we also know that at a moment’s notice, an external attack will unite us all. Just as Avraham travelled from Chevron to Damascus to save his estranged relative, so too will the people of Israel unite in the face of an external enemy. If we can be united under duress, we must find a way to also do so without external threat. Our future as a people depends on it.

“Then the king of Sodom said to Avram, “Give me the persons, and take the possessions for yourself. But Avram said to the king of Sodom, “I swear to God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth: I will not take so much as a thread or a sandal strap of what is yours; you shall not say, ‘It is I who made Avram rich.’” (Bereshit 14:21-23)

It’s not enough to be honest, but we must be seen to be honest. Avraham achieved a surprising and decisive military success, taking a band of brothers to rescue Lot, and bringing back the women and possessions of the Five Kings, led by the King of Sodom. This is the first ever Jewish victory speech. But instead of extolling his own virtues or gloating, Avraham ensures that he would not be accused of dishonesty or being someone else’s pawn. All parties in an Israeli election feel that they are justified and perhaps even have God’s seal of approval. But Avraham taught us that it’s not enough to feel secure in your own righteousness – it must be present in the eye of the beholder, of one not like us.

“After these things, the word of Hashem came to Avram in a vision, saying: ‘Fear not, Avram’…”

Avraham’s fear came straight after his greatest victory. Why? Rabbi Levi, in Midrash Bereshit Rabba 44:4, attributes it to his concern that he may have killed a righteous man in battle. Ramban’s second answer to this question is that he fears he will die childless. For Rabbi Levi, he was fearful about the past, whereas for Ramban, he was scared of the future. There are many Israelis who did not vote for the winning parties who are fearful about the future – that is a natural reaction to defeat. But the Midrash is drawing attention to a Jewish reaction to victory, and that is to be concerned, or self-critical, about the past. After all, there can be no victory over our own people, because we are all brothers and sisters.

About the Author
Michael Rainsbury is the Head of Adult Education at the London School of Jewish Studies and a Sacks Scholar. He created the first dedicated English language tours of the Israeli President’s Residence in Jerusalem and leads Jewish heritage tours with JRoots. All articles are written in a personal capacity.