Lech Lecha: Lessons from Avram About the Election

Does the election matter anymore? I am sitting down to write a few hours after I cast my vote. I am sure that by the time Shabbat has begun, many of you have already cast yours. With that premise in mind, is there anything left to say the Shabbat before a presidential election? I believe that there are, actually, a few things left to say. After all, I am never here to persuade anyone how to vote from the pulpit, so there is relatively little I can say to convince you of anything before you cast your vote. But as we sit in this sort of twilight between casting ballots and waiting for the results, there are still some matters to think about. Furthermore, we will need to move on after the election with whatever results we receive. What will our hashkafa, our perspective, be at that point?

Avraham Avinu (hereon ‘Avram’), introduced in last week’s parasha and featured as the protagonist and patriarch of this week’s parasha, encounters kings and leaders at a few different points in Lech Lecha. But there is one episode that is often overlooked where Avram maintains a high profile with some of the most powerful monarchs in the Near East. I refer to the story in Bereishit Chapter 14. A rebellion bursts as a group of five kings rebel against the predominant group of four kings. One of the five is the king of Sedom, where Avram’s nephew, Lot, resides. Upon losing this battle, many inhabitants of Sedom are taken captive, including Lot. It could have been that Lot would disappear into oblivion as an average captive. Lot has little merit of his own to escape this situation. But his uncle, Avram, saves the day by driving away Sedom’s opposition, thereby freeing Lot. Avram is then recognized by the king of Sedom and the priest named Malki-tzedek.

There are two takeaways from this story on which I wish to focus.

One striking lesson is that family matters above all. We must first note that Avram was alone. While there are nine different kings involved in this battle, all of whom have people over whom they rule, Avram belongs to nobody and rules over nobody. It is up to him alone to organize the effort to save Lot. If we accept Rashi’s explanation that the חניכיו of Avram who waged battle was Eliezer alone, this was the effort of just two people. Even with his victory, Avram does not remain on cloud nine. On the contrary, he immediately finds himself worried. As Ramban points out at the beginning of Chapter 15, Avram has great reason to worry for retaliation from the kings whom he defeated. They were not just defeated; they were humiliated by this “nobody!” While he prevailed once, what is the guarantee? He has no allies; he is relatively small.

Meanwhile, for all intents and purposes, Avram and Lot had a political falling out, which further isolates Avram. They both had lots of cattle, and their shepherds were fighting over land for grazing. While this may not seem “political,” it certainly is because what is politics if not managing and quarreling over the distribution of resources? They solve their dispute diplomatically by agreeing to separate. Yet, one might have expected there to be resentment about the dispute. Perhaps Avram saw Lot as greedy and felt he deserved what he got by being part of the polity of Sedom, the people who are רעים וחטאים לה’ מאד – very wicked and sinful to Hashem. He further could have used his smallness as an excuse to abandon Lot. But instead, Avram takes care of Lot like a brother; in fact, despite that they were not technically brothers, the Torah (Bereishit 14:14) says “Avram heard that his brother was captured.” Without a moment of hesitation, in that very same pasuk, Avram lines up his men for battle. They go to bat for Lot. Avram and Lot are very different. But family comes first. And we must continue to internalize this.

While this issue is not new this election, and I am far from the first to note it, politics has the potential to tear families and friends apart. I have seen the threat with my own eyes. Even when people know better than to let anger rule when a family member does not vote like them, tension and sadness are both there. Remember that Avram did not go to battle because he was on team Sedom. In fact, Avram was clearly aware of the moral turpitude of the king of Sedom (his name is ברע, perhaps hinting at his wickedness) and his constituents. Despite this, he saves Sedom because his family matters. Many might argue that the candidate they did not vote for is morally depraved. But we will not abandon our family because of their affiliation, like Avram did not abandon Lot.

Likewise, family here must include the entire Jewish people, אחינו כל בית ישראל. While we may have more allies than Avram did, we are still alone in many ways. We cannot afford to “un-friend” fellow Jews (whether literally on Facebook or figuratively in life) solely over an individual’s choice of president. Furthermore, when this is all over, we will still need to fight for our brothers in Eretz Yisrael, whom we cannot abandon. We cannot allow partisan politics to sabotage the importance of the United States’ support and aid for Israel; it must remain bi-partisan, and we cannot write off an entire party in a two-party system in a contest of who is better for Israel. The same is true for antisemitism. We need to fight for our brothers in this country and throughout the world who are subject to harassment and abuse that stems from antisemitism. We cannot abandon our family as a long-term consequence of making antisemitism a partisan issue. A recent poll shows that 7 out of 10 American Jews think the Republican party is antisemitic. Those who think that a whole party inherently antisemitic only serve to imperil, not save, our brothers who need our help. There are Jews in both parties, and we must fight this battle as a family, together, wherever on the spectrum we stand. Neither party has the monopoly on Jewish values or the Jewish people. As descendants of Avram, we might find ourselves alone at times, and family therefore becomes all the more important.

The other key component to understanding Avram in this episode is that he understood that הכל בידי שמים חוץ מיראת שמים – everything is in the hands of Hashem except for fear of Hashem. It is precisely at the moment that Hashem anticipates Avram’s loneliness that he says אל תירא, אברם, אני מגן לך – do not fear, Avram, I will protect you (15:1).His loneliness is only exacerbated by his simultaneously realization that he does not have children. What will become of his future? It is faith and only faith that can comfort Avram from his loneliness. והאמין בה’ ויחשבה לו צדקה – he believed in God, and this became his merit. He knows that his protection lies with Hashem. Avram realizes the role of God even in the midst of the episode with the kings. After victory, the king of Sedom greets Avram. He tells Avram to hand over the captives, and he will give Avram the booty. And Avram refuses to give over the booty. Avram responds:

וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אַבְרָ֖ם אֶל־מֶ֣לֶךְ סְדֹ֑ם הֲרִימֹ֨תִי יָדִ֤י אֶל־יְקוק אֵ֣ל עֶלְי֔וֹן קֹנֵ֖ה שָׁמַ֥יִם וָאָֽרֶץ׃

אִם־מִחוּט֙ וְעַ֣ד שְׂרֽוֹךְ־נַ֔עַל וְאִם־אֶקַּ֖ח מִכָּל־אֲשֶׁר־לָ֑ךְ וְלֹ֣א תֹאמַ֔ר אֲנִ֖י הֶעֱשַׁ֥רְתִּי אֶת־אַבְרָֽם׃

But Abram said to the king of Sodom, “I swear to the LORD, 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 Abram rich.’ (Translation from Sefaria.org)

Rav Moshe Feinstein asks, why does Avram need to lavish praise on Hashem in the presence of the king of Sedom? He did not believe in God! And why is Avram so concerned with the appearance of the king of Sedom rewarding him well, no less providing even as little as a thread or sandal strap? He explains that it is not that Avram does not want to be wealthy. Avram wants – needs! – to be wealthy. But Avram’s emphasis is on faith, not wealth. In his fashion of spreading monotheism, he wanted to teach the king of Sedom that wealth does not lie in the hands of powerful human beings but in Hashem. If Avram becomes rich solely from the king of Sedom, though, that message gets diluted.

One of the most important messages we can take away from the election right now is that a lot is in God’s hands. I have not looked at a single poll this election season because it is entirely irrelevant. We aware that polls were especially deceiving in the last election. Some people were majorly blindsided by the results. The whole concept of placing trusts in polls is misplaced – how can surveys of a slice of society predict how everyone will actually vote? We have hopefully learned that the polls mean little; we can wait with faith until the count takes place. Furthermore, for many, this election is the most important one ever, whatever agenda one supports. There is a lot of angst about the consequences of who takes the White House and Congress. But there is One entity orchestrating this all. Faith does not mean that everything will be “okay” as we imagine, or that everything will go our way. But it does mean that God is there. Avram wanted to teach us that. However windy the path may be, Hashem will be taking us somewhere, no matter who wins this election. What is in our hands, once we have cast our vote, is not how the winner is declared, but whether we see the hand of God in whatever may transpire. We must never place our full faith in another human being, even if he is president of the United States. Arthur Brooks wrote in The Atlantic this week about the quandary of happiness in the 21st century. One of his pieces of advice is: don’t put your faith in princes or politicians. “Governments and politicians do affect our lives. But they cannot bring happiness.” Avram knew this. ארור הגבר אשר יבטח באדם… cursed is one who depends on man. ברוך הגבר אשר יבטח בה’ – blessed is one who trusts in Hashem!

As many are still going to the polls and we await the final results of the election, we should remember we need our family and we need our faith after the election. We have a tremendous gift of choice in our governmental officials. While human nature, even God’s will, is that we have different opinions, may Hashem grant us the wisdom to see this time as an opportunity for coming closer regarding that which unites us and renewing our faith.

About the Author
Judah Kerbel is the rabbi of Queens Jewish Center and teaches middle school Judaic Studies at Ramaz. He received his rabbinic ordination from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and an MA in medieval Jewish history from the Bernard Revel Graduate School, and he learned at Yeshivat Har Etzion.
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