Yehonatan Ben Israel

To Love like Avraham Avinu Pt. 3

(Language Advisory for above video)

“Someone needs our help.”
“Why? Is he sick?”
“No, worse! He’s discouraged!”
–From the film, It’s a Wonderful Life.

Back in 2014, I was getting ready for Aliyah. I had all my paper work together, and if I’m not mistaken I even had my plane ticket ready. It had been a long hall. Two and a half years of working as an officer at a prison. It was a state special prison for inmates who had diseases that needed extra medical care, as well as those with intense mental health issues. Often times security and medical personel had to respond to someone who had committed serious self-mutilation. The inmates themselves were in for blue-collar crimes–from murder, human trafficking and rape to robbery to drug possession. Needless to say, for both inmates and employees, it was an “interesting” place to spend one’s time.

I was sitting at my desk, calling out inmates to go to lunch, when one of the inmates came up to me and said to me, “Hey Wallace, we hear that you’re leaving soon. Just wanted to tell you thanks for treating us like human beings in here.” By state policy, inmates and officers were to keep a professional distance and not shake hands. I shook his.

In my past couple of blogs on Avraham Avinu, I described how Avraham Avinu saw people as souls from Heaven. Indeed, the writings of Rav Kook and others detail how teshuva (“repentance” or “returning to G-d”) is to truly return and realize who we really are–beautiful soul sparks. One of my rabbis when giving a class on Yom Kippur pointed out to us that “What we do is not who we really are.” He must have saw this bothered me, because I also had my share of guilt for things I’ve done. So he looked at me and said, “Yehonatan, you do realize that, right? What we do is not who we truly are.” How many of us need to hear this?

The hesed (“Lovingkindness”) of Avraham Avinu is that he saw everyone as they truly were. With such an awareness, there is no such thing as dishing out something like what we could call “Jewish guilt,” or guilt trips. Most of us when we do wrong, know we’ve done wrong, much like inmates in a prison of our own making. For my part, I basically came to the conclusion in my work that inmates were sent to prison not so much for punishment as “rehabilitation,” not to be sent to prison to be bashed with such overwhelming guilt that they couldn’t rebuild their lives. Indeed, the conversations with fellow guards, nurses, and other employees gave some confirmations that often among other reasons, these self-mutilators would hurt themselves because of the guilt that they felt for what they had done. We may often joke about “Jewish guilt,” but for me, there’s not really much of anything funny about it. Often times it’s really more like receiving a stab wound from the realization that we have fallen, and then feeling the knife suddenly twisting when someone puts us down even further by telling us how awful and weak we are as a human being. OK, so most of us probably aren’t going to try and make ourselves bleed out if we become overwhelmed with guilt (G-d forbid), but… what we say to ourselves and to others matters. All too often, we’ve self-mutilated our hearts and souls by telling ourselves that we aren’t good enough, or have done the same to others by using our words to cause unnecessary pain when they were trying to make a recovery. G-d created the entire universe by “speaking,” and we are made in the “image of G-d.” Again, what we say to ourselves and others matters.

Indeed, often times, when we fall, we are overcome with a vast amount of guilt. Or we become numb. Numb to the point of letting go and becoming apathetic of what we believe in, to the point of simply abandoning our beliefs and principles. And sometimes this can have gigantic effects. This is, I believe one of the things that caused Paulene Christianity spread.  In essence, if indeed Paul was who he claimed he was (“A pharisee among pharisees,” of which I personally have serious doubts), then based simply from his writing, we can only assume that he gave in completely to his own discouragement:

“Once I was alive apart from the law; but the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died… We know that the law is spiritual, but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin… Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?” (Paul’s letter to the Romans, Chapter 7:9, 14, 21-24 NIV)

For Paul, the answer in the very next verse was placing his trust in a man-god which was part of a fragmented deity who took the fall for him, so obsessed and despairing was Paul with his guilt and lack of self esteem (“I am unspiritual.”) And this contagion of guilt and despair of being able to maintain one’s responsibility spread like wildfire throughout the Mediterranean world. In essence, throughout the writings of Paul, the contention with Torah is that though it points out what is right and wrong, in the end it gives no strength to those who have trouble finding the strength to maintain their commitment. Thus for Paul and those who followed both back then and today, an alternative way is required not involving personal responsibility for one’s actions, devoid of the realization that “As merciful as  a father is towards his children, so has Hashem shown mercy to those who fear Him. For He knew our nature, He is mindful that we are dust.” Psalm 103:13-14. Just because we may fear/be in awe of G-d won’t meant that we won’t make mistakes, but it does mean that when we do that He–not a man god or human sacrifice, will help us pick up the pieces and have mercy on us.

We should contrast the words of Paul with the words of Rebbe Nachman:

“You may be so far from God that you imagine your every movement is a blemish before God. In that case, you should know that when someone is so deeply sunk in the grossness of the world, every single gesture and movement which he makes to extricate himself little by little from his grossness is more dear and precious in God’s eyes than words can describe. Even the faintest motion such a person makes to draw himself out of the grossness causes swift running in the upper worlds over thousands upon thousands of miles.” (Restore My Soul, Translated by Avraham Greenbaum. Section 31.)

This above statement is goes to the very heart of the essence of the Torah–and contrasts Paul’s assertion that something besides Torah is needed–that Hashem wants us to draw close to Him even if we are weak in our ability. This most definitely is hesed of Avraham Avinu. Indeed, the generosity of Avraham was more than just food, drink and hospitality. According to Rabbeinu Avraham Ben HaRambam, it was also spiritual:

“Do not think that his generosity was limited to feeding and hosting guests. In fact, that was just one small aspect of his generosity. You should know that he was generous even with his knowledge, his religion, his influence, and his wealth. He was generous in teaching the unity of God and His ways…” (Avraham Ben HaRambam’s The Guide to Serving God. Chapter 5.)

Generosity with a religion can only be there when people want it. And by nature those who are lost on their way will usually be looking for hesed and warmth from the difficulties that so often happen in life.

Thus when looking at the above scene of the film Good Will Hunting, we are looking at a scene about a lost genius soul spark. Since he is lost, he does damage to himself and those around him. And when confronted with an extra lecture of how guilty he is, he may react even worse. So what does it mean when his therapist tells him that “It’s not your fault?” Will knows he’s a man responsible for his actions… so what is not his fault? Maybe, for someone like Will it’s a bit exaggerated to say that it is not all his fault.  And yet… like Will, we all have our own storms of confusion, fallings, risings, and times when we cause others pain in the midst of our own. These become more potent in the midst of abuse that sometimes come crashing down on us, that sometimes literally beat the hell out of us. Should there not be some mercy for the “Good Will Huntings” of the world? Because so often, he is us and we are him. As one insightful man by the name of Ian Maclaren once said, “Be kind, for everyone you know is going through a great battle.”

In an age of spiritual darkness when cold figures like Nimrod reigned supreme, the Torah that Avraham Avinu taught in his generation was how to help those feeling confused, nihilistic, depressed, and overall discouraged to find their way back to their Creator, and thus to the realization of who they truly are. Of course this would at times have to involve rebuking someone of their actions, as Proverbs 27:6 says, “Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses–” but like Robin Williams’ character who is there to comfort Will, one must first be a friend. It makes me wonder how often a scene like the above could have happened between Avraham Avinu and those he interacted with, and I don’t doubt that there were many.

We are all on some level, lost soul sparks trying to find our way back to Hashem. It is hard enough recovering as it is. We don’t need to give the extra guilt trip–either to ourselves or those around us.

On the other hand when we treat our “fellow inmates” like human beings, regardless of their issues and actions, we bring greater light into the world. This is the Torah and Hesed of Avraham Avinu.

Avraham Avinu was no doubt a spiritual giant. A master Kabbalist. A scholar. A warrior. But Avraham Avinu’s ultimate greatness was not his abilities for infamous feats, but the ability to look at those around them and see them with an eye that saw the inner goodness and beauty.

May we learn and imitate the hesed of Avraham Avinu.

About the Author
Yehonatan was born in Dover, Tennessee, US. After converting to Judaism under the conservative movement, he made Aliyah, and converted again in Jerusalem under the Israeli Rabbanut at Machon Meir. He lives in Northern Israel with his wife, daughter, and son.