Thursday, October 26, 2017

Lech Lecha: Free Agency?

"There's no point in direction; we cannot even choose a side"--
Peter Gabriel, "Here Comes The Flood"

More often than not, I was the last or second to last picked when it came to team sports.

In this week’s parsha, Avram finds himself cementing an ostensibly strange wartime alliance, in a way that the “side” is essentially chosen for him.

One might not initially be surprised that Avram would be fighting to save his nephew and against the Amraphelite coalition; after all, as Rashi (pace TB Eruvin) notes, Amraphel is Nimrod, who wanted Avram executed for his iconoclasm.

Yet Avram finds himself fighting on the side of a coalition that includes the “five towns” that will be utterly destroyed for their unfettered depravity in next weeks parsha; in fact, a hint is given in Rashi as to the character of the coalition’s ostensible leading monarch, Bera the Sodomite king: “רַע לַשָּׁמַיִם וְרַע לַבְּרִיּוֹת”, “evil towards God and evil towards mankind”; his coalition partners are similarly described.

Notwithstanding the Patriarch’s plea next week to possibly spare the towns’ destruction, Rashi pace the midrashim goes more out of his way to impugn the character of Avram’s allies, sparing moral opprobrium from his opponents other than Amraphel himself. In fact, Chedorlaomer, identified by Rashi as the בַעַל הַמַּעֲשֶׂה, is the king of Elam, named after the ostensible firstborn of Shem, who praises Avram after the battle in his official religious capacity (as per Rashi identifying Malkitzedek as Shem) being mevarech al hara’ah when his progeny is routed on the battlefield—שֶׁאֵין בְּלִבּוֹ עָלָיו עַל שֶׁהָרַג אֶת בָּנָיו (wouldn’t he be as inclined to come to their rescue as Avram did for Lot?)

And let’s look at the character of whom Avram is coming to save: Lot who chose to live in Sodom (“עַל שֶׁהָיוּ שְׁטוּפֵי זִמָּה בָּחַר לוֹ לוֹט בִּשְכוּנָתָם”, Rashi hinting that it was specifically FOR that reason); Lot, who said to himself “I want neither Abram nor his G-d”; Lot, who eventually actually became a judge in Sodom (though apparently he tries to buck the trend of blatant judicial perversion to the point where he loses a daughter and his own life in eventually threaten by his constituents).

As detailed by Rabbi Dovid Green, there are arguments from both sides regarding the propriety of Avram having anything to do with Lot. But what further highlights the irony is that there was one prospective proselyte who came to Avraham of her own accord, unlike Lot who actively wanted to remove himself from Avram "kiruv" mission; yet she is rejected, and in her desperation to make any connection, she liaises with Esav’s son Eliphaz—her half-brother—and the resulting offspring is…Amalek.

The possible result of rejection as opposed to rescue.

And the result of rescue?

To further illustrate parallel ironies, Lot himself engages in incest with his daughters and the resulting offspring also manifest a level of Judeophobic hostility to the point that their male descendants are forever banned from joining the Jewish nation, although the females not only are NOT banned but are destined to produce the Messianic line. Either way, the Patriarch comes under Rabbinic scrutiny for some of his ostensibly less successful kiruv projects.

What conclusions can be drawn from all this?

First, while it may seem obvious, every political issue has some admixture of moral concern built in, which by extension means it can always be examined legitimately through a Judaic lens. (That almost NEVER means that a foregone conclusion is attached, which often seems to be a reflexive assumption, but neither does that invalidate the attempt—or more to the point, the necessity—of employing said lens. [Without delving into the socio-politico-philosophical implications of how the word is used, “hashkafa” contains the root used for “lens”, so no matter what one’s “hashkafa”, if there’s any Judaic consciousness of whatever stripe, the aforementioned examination might already be in the process of being administered, whether the examiner is aware of it or not.]

Second, even if one is on the right side of an issue and is for all intents and purposes working leshem shamayim, one shouldn’t necessarily assume that the lines currently drawn will stay that way in perpetuity, and sometimes alliances might have to be pursued even if cementing them is painful while necessary. A number of examples in the classic literature come to mind in addition to Avram’s dilemma, like these two:
  • Elisha is sent to facilitate the succession of the Assyrian line, even though he cries because of his simultaneous vision that the Assyrian heir “will do [harm] to the Israelite people: you will set their fortresses on fire, put their young men to the sword, dash their little ones in pieces, and rip open their pregnant women”; and the reluctance of Jonah to carry out his mission to Nineveh because it success would spell doom for his fellow Jews; 
  • Yoshiyahu haMelech, who, if he hadn't been specifically instructed by G-d through Yirmiyahu to allow Pharaoh Necho to pass through, would have otherwise been making the right call by standing up to the incursion that eventually did happen and cost him his life at Megiddo;
  • Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai, during the Churban and on his deathbed [see below].

A more contemporary example is described by Rabbi Yitzchak Adlerstein

“Growing up, I used to mock the idea of a “Judeo-Christian” legacy…Attempts to find their commonality could only be made by wearing lenses made to eliminate the vast majority of the spectrum. My thinking has changed…There is, indeed, a Judeo-Christian legacy. The Torah contributed it to Mankind, and – as the Rambam writes at the end of Hilchos Melachim – Christianity was one of the vehicles for spreading some of its content to the rest of humanity.”

[For the record—as a number of my previous pieces regarding the reflexive assumption that these socio-political alliances are ipso facto advisable illustrate, particularly this one—I think R Adlerstein’s provides a necessary baseline even while possibly oversimplifying the conflicts because, as he himself points out, “[s]ome of this owes to practical considerations. We find ourselves on the same side on important legislative issues, so we form alliances of convenience.” But in any case, the point stands: longstanding hostile relationships—even theologically hostile ones—can evolve.]

Even more instructive might be the story of Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai’s deathbed scene, as Rabbi Avi Weinstein explains:

“R. Yochanan asked for Yavne and its sages; [o]ther sages criticized him for not requesting that the Roman forces depart, leaving the city and the temple standing. R. Yochanan thought that asking for too much runs the risk of losing everything… According to [The Rav]…[t]hose aware of the complexity of questions of national significance which demand balancing competing ideals understand our lack of confidence in making such decisions. In fact, even years after the event, we remain unsure what the right decision was. For the remainder of his life, R. Yochanan ben Zakkai lived with the nagging question that perhaps he should have asked to save the city.”

Recently an embattled Conservative Rabbi in Atlanta was pressured to apologize for a Rosh Hashanah sermon that was perceived to be reflexively anti-Left. The Rabbi did acknowledge being too broad, but he stood by the substance of his remarks: “[A]s Americans and Jews, we must pick sides.” Sometimes the side is picked for us whether we realize it or not, whether we admit it or not. And sometimes “our” side will—switch sides.

The hidden “luxury” of having this fear is that it forces us to be ever vigilant—and allows us to be “free agents” in picking our “teams”. That’s something we should never forget we have, something we should never wittingly give up, and something we should not allow others--or our own, in many cases--to force us to give up.

(Postscript: The author is well aware of Mr. Gabriel's unfortunate and rather longstanding sympathy for BDS.)