On Shabbat morning, October 7th, Israel was brutally attacked by the terrorist group, Hamas. Ever since, as Israel fights for its very survival, trying to bring home the over 200 hostages taken, and hopefully remove the terrorist group Hamas from the land, she is being ostracized from around the world as the ugliness of antisemitism rises once again.
This bigotry has been present on the streets of New York and sadly, on many of our college campuses. We are seeing acts of hate apparently inspired or emboldened by the horrific events in Israel; people are sending a series of racist and expletive-filled notes to Jews, warning them to leave or worse. Along with hundreds of other Jewish communities that have experienced harassment or intimidation in the past few days, our own community has been shaken. In figuring out how to respond, I want turn to this week’s Torah portion, Vayera (Genesis 18L1-22:24), and to a passage from the Talmud about which characteristics distinguish the children of Abraham.
Before destroying the evil cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, God decides to bring Abraham into the decision-making process, saying, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do…? For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to guard the way of God by doing what is just and right…” (18:18-19) The Talmud (in Yevamot 79a) expands on what it means to do what is just and right. As Rabbi Harold Kushner translates: “The descendants of Abraham are characterized by three traits: a capacity for kindness (harachamanim), a sense of shame (habayshanim), and a commitment to doing what is right (gomlei chasadim).” The passage in the Talmud concludes, “All who display these three qualities are worthy of being a part of the nation.’” I would argue that these qualities would also serve us well in these times as Jews here in America.
On the first quality, kindness or compassion, the Talmudic passage quotes Deuteronomy 13:18-19, which talks about God being compassionate and human beings following God’s example. As Abraham’s compassion towards the people of Sodom in pleading their case before God, we too must find our way to compassion and kindness across our many differences. We must be kind to our neighbors, our friends, our family, and our community. We must be kind to ourselves, remembering to take care of our own well-being and allowing ourselves to return to some degree of normalcy. We must be kind to strangers, as Abraham and Sarah famously were. We must be kind to those whose views differ from our own and work to repair relationships that may have frayed with those across the aisle. Even when they express views that are truly hurtful to us.
Regarding the second quality, the capacity for shame, or humility, the passage quotes Exodus 20:17, which says, right after the receiving of the Ten Commandments, that God’s awe should be on our faces so that we don’t go astray. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner teaches a complicated midrash by the Hasidic rebbes Menachem Mendel of Rymanov and Naftali Tsvi Horowitz of Ropczyce, which concludes that the main revelation from Sinai is that we need to be able to see God’s image in every other person’s face. In our Torah portion, when defending Sodom to God, Abraham is humble as he marvels that he dares argue with God, “I who am but dust and ashes.” The quality of humility reminds us not to be certain of our own righteousness or of others’ lack thereof. Humility reminds us that we need to see all people, including those with whom we passionately disagree, as holy, made in the image of God. We all agree that there are thousands of innocent Palestinians paying the heaviest of price for the evil of Hamas.
For the third quality, the commitment to doing what is right (literally “doing deeds of loving-kindness”, the Talmud’s proof text is Abraham defending Sodom. Rabbi Natan Tzvi Finkel said that Abraham should have rejoiced at the downfall of evil Sodom, but he pleaded for them anyway, as it was his way to try to help everyone. If Abraham went out of his way to give a town of cruel people the benefit of the doubt, how much more so should we stand up for those who may be unfairly maligned or whose rights may be at risk. This is the most challenging for us as it is difficult to help any group of people who are hellbent on destroying the very existence of Jews. We will continue to support anyone whose rights are threatened because they are considered “the other.” Nevertheless, we do NOT need to support anyone or any organization whose hatred dictates eliminating anyone they do not agree with. I just hope so called allies will take the risk and defend us a Jewish people.
Over the last month, we have been blessed by friends and allies outside of the Jewish community who have expressed their concerns for our well-being and safety. Over the last few days, the police, school community, active citizens, and interfaith clergy have come together to respond to the latest iteration of bigotry. There is much work to be done locally and nationally, to support and guide our government, to repair communities, to champion the vulnerable, and to suppress the emboldened voices of hate. We need to roll up our sleeves and work “within” for change and healing, being paralyzed neither by the enormity of the tasks nor by our imperfections and limits. In these turbulent times, may we find the courage to follow Abraham’s example, to be compassionate, humble, and willing to stand up for justice.