October 2018, Parshat Lech Lecha

Dear friends,

This week’s Parsha is one of the portions in the Torah I most connect with. It is a story about Avraham, the first Jew who’s clearly a great guy. Because our Jewish identity is important to us, learning how it all began and about the founding father is as enlightening as a child learning about their parents. The more we understand them, the greater the understanding of ourselves and our place in the confusing and hectic experience we call human life.

We often hear members of our tribe refer to ‘Jewish values’. Personally, to me this smacks of self-congratulatory smugness which causes me discomfort especially on an empty stomach in the morning. It is the same as ‘Australian values’. It is very un-Australian to be anything we don’t like, which is basically like saying Australians are the primary example of virtue and excellence. I often wonder how people, and Australians in particular, detest those with a tall-poppy syndrome, yet as a collective we feel it perfectly fine to talk about what an amazing bunch we are.
But what are the ‘Jewish values’ anyway? Usually it is a reference to either family values, loyalty to community, studious, legalistic, duty-bound, action-based, or most importantly, reverence and subservience to higher authority. When God asked the Jewish people if they want the Torah, they didn’t ask God about the content but rather emphatically responded ‘Yes! We will do and we will listen’. Imagine signing a contract which will significantly affect every part of your life and that of all your offspring till eternity, without so much as asking about a single detail it contains?!

Not only is this unwise, it is actually the exact opposite of what Avraham, the first Jew, represented. If such a thing as ‘Jewish values’ makes sense at all, surely it would have something to do with the qualities its founder exemplified. In this week’s Parsha and the next we are taught those values, and they run almost entirely contrary to the list above.

Avraham is not the paradigm of family values. Both of his two primary children who get any coverage at all nearly died by his hand. I know a lot of people are highly critical of their parents but spare a thought for Yishmael who nearly died of dehydration, heat stroke, and starvation as a result of being kicked out of home as his capitulation to a jealous step-mum. Or for Yitzchak, who was astonished to find himself bound to the altar and a machete only seconds from slicing his neck at the hands of his illustrious father.
Leaving aside for the moment explanations for these stories defending Avraham’s humanity, epitomising Avraham as the ultimate family man is one long bow indeed.

Loyalty to community is another total nonsense. Avraham was anything but loyal to his community. He openly despised everything they stood for. He smashed their idols and contravened every one of their norms that everyone wanted him dead and indeed tried to kill him. In fact, the very first thing we know of Avraham is that God tells him to leave his birthplace, his home, his community, and his family.
Avraham was neither studious nor interested in the legal framework he came from. In fact, he was an experimental scientist/philosopher who managed at least one successful and most influential experiment arguably of all time. By smashing the idols and remaining perfectly healthy he proved beyond any doubt that the idols they were worshipping had no powers. Since we do know Benjamin Franklin’s lightening rod experiment took his world by storm and that dispelled only one superstitious nonsense, imagine the impact of Avraham’s experiment which proved they were all rubbish!

Worst of all, the idea that Avraham was reverent and subservient would have him turning in his grave. God goes to visit Avraham recuperating from his circumcision ordeal at 100 years of age, when he sees three dirty travellers emerge from the desert. He literally stops God in midsentence whilst he goes and attends to their needs. Clearly for Avraham, addressing human suffering is more important than praying respect to God.

As a by the by, there are those who think Avraham kept the Jewish law in its entirety many hundreds of years before it was given. Perhaps, they hold so dear their more recent legalistic tradition that they super-impose it even when it’s blatantly obvious they are doing so. When Avraham makes a feast for them the Torah is explicit that he made them a platter of fine cheese, a fat cheeseburger, and rack of lamb with a side of yoghurt. Maybe the exact menu needs powers of Talmudic exegesis but the fact of his mixing of dairy with meat could not be clearer.
Whilst in style he was irreverent, in content he was unambiguously subversive. When God tells Avraham he is going to destroy the cities of Sodom and Amora, he doesn’t submit to the will of God. He does the exact opposite. He asserts that there are standards of morality binding to all, and most of all to God. ‘Will the judge of all the world not do justice?!’ he indignantly challenges God. God doesn’t pound his chest and act belligerently with counter accusations of Avraham’s real or perceived shortcomings. It will be another 3500 years before Brett Kavanaugh gives us that. No, God accepts the premise of the moral argument just explaining that actually no innocent person is going to be hurt.
Avraham disposes of another tragic ubiquitous myth that Judaism is not about social justice. Some even go so far as to publicly attack Bnei Mitzvah programs devoted entirely to social justice saying it’s all very nice but there’s nothing Jewish about it. And they attack the fastest growing Jewish community in Melbourne composed of sensitive spiritual Jews who yearn to do good in the world. They are dismissed as a new-age fad and Jewish in background only.

And so Avraham is my all-time favourite character in the Torah. He is the kindest, most generously hospitable, humanitarian, champion of truth and justice. He speaks his mind which is very sound and does not care which powers that be he may offend. And he admits defeat when he is proven wrong. He is not a self-righteous fundamentalist who abhors reason but in fact retracts his criticism when shown to be misplaced.
A gentleman, a righteous philosopher, and a social activist. How then does he nearly kill his two sons in two separate incidents? For that I’m afraid we shall have to wait till next week when we come across it.

In the meantime, let us nurture our souls by caring with compassion and empathy to the misery around us. Let us sharpen our minds and forego authority-worship in whichever form it manifests. Let us invite the dirty stragglers of society into our homes, seek to do the right thing even against all the odds of an apathetic or confused society. And don’t be wowed by big names if they talk crap.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Shneur