Abraham’s Better Angels: Shabbat Lech-Lecha 5777



November 11, 2016 – Veterans Day

Standing before a divided country, Abraham Lincoln concluded his first inaugural address by appealing to “the better angels of our nature.”

The same Abraham Lincoln, haggard and weary, would, four years later, conclude his second inaugural, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”  Leave it to Abraham Lincoln to sound the chord that must ever be sounded in times of national discord.

From this Abraham we would turn to the first Abraham.   Even as Abraham the President sought our better angels, so too Abraham the Patriarch.

Tonight I want to isolate three incidents from Abraham’s story that may help us call forth the better angels of our nature.

The title of the parasha, Lech Lecha, comes from God’s instruction to Abraham in its opening verse.  Lech Lecha m’artzecha, u’mi-molad’tcha, u’mi-beit avicha, el ha-aretz asher areka.  “Go forth from your country, from the place of your birth, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.”

Whatever you think about the outcome of this election no one will deny that we are entering uncharted territory.  What does Lech Lecha teach us about how to set out on such journey?  The ancient Rabbis would have us read the instruction literally:  not Lech Lecha, “go forth,” but Lech, “go,” Lecha, “unto yourself.”  They tell us that what God really wanted Abraham to do was not go out and discover a new land, not discover a new religion, but to go out and discover… Abraham.  After self-discovery, everything else would follow.

So this is the first lesson of Lech Lecha:  Every journey into the unknown requires a journey within. 

If nothing else I hope and pray that this bruising and indecent election season will open up a period of introspection and critical reflection in America—a journey L’cha, unto and into ourselves.

We cannot journey forth until we commit to examine the deep divide in America, a rift that has left so many people feeling unrepresented by their government.  We need to understand the shifting forces of policy, culture, economics, technology and demography that have undermined their American dream and vaporized their hopes of prosperity.  We need to understand those who feel deflated by slow economic recovery, stagnant wage growth, skyrocketing health insurance costs.  We need to listen to people dismayed by the growing rift between Israel and the US, frightened by volatility and violence in Europe and the Middle East.  And we need to hear the voices desperate for change because they believe our politicians have failed us.

We also need to reflect honestly on how our national divide has widened during a campaign season that fueled division.  We need to probe the misgivings of so many Americans who recoil at speech that demeans immigrants, minorities, women, and people with disabilities, that traffics in insults.  We need to take seriously the anxieties of those who see bullies, xenophobes and anti-Semites emboldened in the new political landscape.  We need to be attentive to citizens who dread the curtailment of women’s reproductive choices; who are losing sleep over the threat of deportation; who are concerned about growing distrust between law enforcement and communities of color; and who believe that to deny climate change, to glorify torture, to allow unfettered access to guns, and to build walls—whether we fashion them of bricks and mortar or biases and mindsets—all represent backward steps for our country.

Lech Lecha tells us:  be introspective.  Be soul-searchers.  Do not let this moment for national self-reflection pass us by.  It may hurt—but it won’t kill us to learn more about our ingrained preferences and prejudices.  I pray that our elected officials and those who advise them will also take this journey of L’cha, of introspection, the wellspring of wisdom.

Lech Lecha:  Every journey into the unknown requires a journey within.

Later in the parasha, we read about Abraham’s evolving relationship with his nephew Lot.  Both have amassed much silver, gold, cattle, herds, flocks and tents.  So much material wealth, in fact, that one territory cannot accommodate both of them.  Their herdsmen begin to quarrel.  Abraham proposes that he and Lot go their separate ways.  He invites his nephew to have first pick:  “If you go to the north, I’ll go south; if you go south, I’ll go north.”  Lot sees the fertile Jordan plain and his eyes grow wide with tantalizing visions of prosperity and productivity.  Abraham stays in the land of Canaan with its rocky outposts and limited resources.

Lot, it turns out, has elected to live a life of luxury among the wicked denizens of Sodom and Gomorrah while Abraham has staked his claim on a piece of property that may represent a good spiritual investment, but which is definitely a dubious real estate investment.  Soon after, Abraham will tangle with Sodomites and even risk his life to rescue his nephew who, shortly after moving to Sodom, gets kidnapped by invaders.  From all of this we learn that Abraham cares about progeny more than property, about his nephew Lot more than his material lot.

Thus the second lesson of Lech Lecha:  put the greater good above what’s good only for you. 

Time and again Abraham demonstrates commitment to something bigger than himself.  He puts his own comfort and convenience, his fate and fortune at risk for the sake of family, community, tribe and people.  In Jewish tradition, Abraham serves as the exemplar for three of our most important mitzvot:  caring for the sick, redeeming the captive, and welcoming the stranger.

In the spirit of Abraham, the time has come to renew America’s great tradition of self-sacrifice and public service.  How poetically appropriate that we meet here on Veterans Day.  My grandfather, Harry “Acky” Garb, served in the First Marine Corps as a medic in the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa.  Only in my adulthood, decades after his untimely death at the age of 74 in a motor vehicle accident in 1989, have I come to appreciate the meaning of his service to his country.  He, on the other hand, would have rejected these accolades.  My Pop-Pop would have told you that the only real heroes were the corpsmen—his brothers-in-arms—who never came back from overseas, the ones who gave to their country, again to quote Abraham Lincoln, “the last full measure of devotion.”

Service in our armed forces is of course only one way to put country before self.  We need our Jewish traditions of tzedakah—righteous giving—gemilut chasadim—compassionate deeds—and tikkun olam—social justice—now more than ever.  We need to apply our Jewish values to advance policies that will do the greatest good for the greatest number above those that benefit chiefly the few and the privileged.

American democracy at its best has always aspired to such aims.  Our own Reform Jewish leaders wrote in a post-election statement this week:  “President-elect Trump has the opportunity to use his office to bring Americans together, and to move us toward a brighter future.  If he does so, we will be ready to work with him for the common good. If he does not, we also stand ready to be fierce advocates for the values that guide us:  inclusivity, justice and compassion.”  Those are Abraham’s values.

Lech Lecha:  Put the greater good above what’s good only for you.

By the time we get to the last part of this week’s reading, Abraham has become a real macher, a person of influence.  But even he defers to the higher officials.  Several times in our portion Abraham encounters a ruling executive authority—including the Pharaoh of Egypt, the king of Sodom, and King Melchizedek of Salem (probably Jerusalem).  In every case Abraham treats the sovereign with respect and charity.

Still, Abraham’s highest allegiance is always to God, with whom he shares an inviolable covenant.

So this is the third and final lesson from Lech Lecha:  Know before whom you stand.

It is important for us to remember that Jews have always subordinated ourselves to the office of the ruling power.  The famous axiom דִּינָא דְּמַלְכוּתָא דִּינָא, an Aramaic phrase meaning, “The law of the land is the law,” is repeated four times in the Babylonian Talmud and twenty-five times in the Shulchan Aruch, that great Medieval legal code.  We have been among history’s most loyal and patriotic citizens of countless foreign realms, none of which afforded us the kind of freedoms and opportunities that America has for nearly four hundred years.  Who among us has not had occasion to affirm the first line of The Godfather:  “I believe in America?”

We Jews have taken pride and comfort in the vision of our Founders, that leadership comes not by blood or birthright but by the will of the people.

And we Jews have always prayed for the welfare of the government under which we live.  We did so in the days of our Babylonian Exile in the 6th Century BCE, throughout our long history in the Diaspora, and we do so today.  Our prayer book includes these words:

O Guardian of life and liberty,

may our nation always merit Your protection…

Grant our leaders wisdom and forbearance.

May they govern with justice and compassion.

Help us all to appreciate one another,

and to respect the many ways that we may serve You.

May our homes be safe from affliction and strife,

and our country be sound in body and spirit.

Still, like Abraham, we Jews also recognize that above all human authority resides an authority we name Divine.  Like Abraham, we honor our leaders but bow down only before God.  Like Abraham, we know that potentates and presidents do not decide ultimate right and wrong.  Even the Biblical king was required to keep a copy of the Torah by his side and study it all the days of his life.

Here in America, We The People hold our leaders accountable to the law of the land.

We The People exercise our freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly to demand godly behavior from our elected officials.

We The People take to the press, the pulpit, and the public square to make our voices heard.  We live with loyalty to government and love of country and fellow citizen.  But we also live in sacred covenant with the Most High, the spiritual power that summons us to the better angels of our nature.

Lech Lecha:  Know before whom you stand.

One last thought.  When we stand before God during the Tefillah—the central prayers of our service—it is customary to conclude, according to the Talmud (Yoma 53) by taking three steps back, then turning to the right, and finally turning to the left, as we offer a prayer for peace.

An Orthodox rabbi from Chicago, the late Menachem Ben-Zion Zaks, explains that we cannot pray for peace if we are not willing to step back a little and make room for others.  Achieving peace, he says, means acknowledging those on the right and those on the left—not just looking straight ahead.

Take a step back.  Look to the right.  Look to the left.  And pray for shalom. 


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