Yitzhak Rabin, Bill Clinton, and Yasser Arafat during the Oslo Accords on 13 September 1993 | cc: wikipedia
This week we witness a shocking coincidence. Every year that we mark the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin z”l, we read Parshat VaYera, in which we learn of the binding and rescue of another Yitzhak. Dvar Torah to parashat Va’year, written by Josh Weinberg, an HUC rabbinical student.
By: Josh Weinberg
This coincidence, which incidentally this year is enhanced with the occasion of the Muslim holiday Eid-Al-Adha falling on the same portion – sparks many thoughts of which I would like to turn us back to the words of President Bill Clinton from his 1995 Eulogy at Rabin’s funeral, the only eulogizer to make this connection:
“This week, Jews all around the world are studying the Torah portion in which God tests the faith of Abraham, patriarch of the Jews and the Arabs. He commands Abraham to sacrifice Yitzhak. “Take your son, the one you love, Yitzhak…” As we all know, as Abraham, in loyalty to God, was about to kill his son, God spared Yitzhak. Now God tests our faith even more terribly, for he has taken our Yitzhak. But Israel’s covenant with God for freedom, for tolerance, for security, for peace – that covenant must hold. That covenant was Prime Minister Rabin’s life’s work. Now we must make it his lasting legacy. His spirit must live on in us.”
In the spirit of the aforementioned tolerance, security and peace, I would like to address a slightly different topic and share with you an open letter to our own Minister of the Interior Eli Yishai:
Dear Mr. Yishai,
Shalom! I trust that this letter finds you well. For some time I have been meaning to write to you and express some of thoughts and feelings which now carry a greater intensity during the week of Parshat VaYera. I have heard you express time and again with great piety that the Torah is the ultimate authority – of course in close 2nd to Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef and his council of sages. I would like to offer you a reading of this parsha of which I suggest to evaluate the behavior of Abraham to influence our current situation.
The portion begins with a description par excellence of welcoming the stranger one of our most important mitzvoth – a mitzvah without measure. Abraham goes to out to welcome the three “guests” that are coming, and in a somewhat surprising manner, gets out of his recovery bed and runs to greet them:
“And he lifted up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood over against him; and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed down to the earth,” (18:2)
Hold on a second! Let’s pause and learn from Abraham, as it seems that you would do exactly the opposite. When you hear of “People coming towards” you, or us, you chose to lock them up, deny them basic necessities, and to make them into the enemy. Yet, not only did Abraham “run” towards them, he did everything he could to ensure their comfort, and instead of being suspicious or frightened of them, he chose to help, host and welcome them. And you, not only do you not rise up to greet them, you abandon them thirsty – longing to cross that barbed-wire barrier separating them from freedom. With your permission Mr. Minister, let us remember a famous saying of of the Babylonian Talmud Shabbat:
“R’Yochanan said: Receiving guests is as great as rising early to attend the house of study. Rav Dimi from Nehardea says: Receiving guests is even greater than rising early to attend the house of study. Rav Yehuda said in the name of Rav: Receiving guests is greater than greeting the Divine Presence.” (Shabbat 127a)
If in fact, greeting guests is greater than receiving the divine presence, then why don’t you do it??? I am well aware that there is an acute difference between a single individual welcoming guests, which is clearly his/her obligation, than a state or government, which faces considerably different challenges. However, I also believe deeply that a government should be an example for its citizens if not the entire world. The State should raise the behavioral standards and accomplish acts that individuals cannot.
In this parsha we see that Abraham clearly internalizes this message, although we also learn that the situation is more sever that we previously thought.
I am sure that we are all aware of the plot of the Sodom and Amorrah story, as it is written:
“And the LORD said: ‘Verily, the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and, verily, their sin is exceeding grievous. I will go down now, and see whether they have done altogether according to the cry of it, which is come unto Me; and if not, I will know.’ (18:20-21)
Yet, what exactly were the sins of the people of Sodom? Ezekiel offers us an alternative explanation:
“Behold, this was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom: pride, fullness of bread, and careless ease was in her and in her daughters; neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy.” (Ez. 16:49)
In other words their sin was a complete and total lack of moral sensitivity, with an added emphasis of communal corruption. Somehow we have lost that religious value so deeply enshrined in our heritage – the value of welcoming the stranger. Somewhere on our long path, we have forgotten to love “the stranger for we were strangers in the land of Egypt.” You, Eli, have forgotten that this is a value that makes us Jewish, not one that threatens our Judaism. We have forgotten that the meaning and essence of a Jewish State should be to be a state that welcomes the stranger and “runs to them,” not like those of Sodom that mistreat and abuse their guests. And not as the leaders of the Jewish State who treat those who have come to seek haven as a “cancer in our bodies” or as you have recently stated that “we must put all of them in jail, or secured facilities and encourage them to leave.”
You, Minister Yishai, are empowering citizens of the Jewish state to continue to sway public opinion in stark contrast of the tradition of Abraham our father. Your propaganda and threats along that of other parliamentarians, cause great alienation and demonization of the other. You should know that your vicious speech is no different than the racist propaganda written on the eve of the mass North African aliyah of the 1950s. I have to imagine that you vehemently deplore the words of the journalist Aryeh Gelbloom writing in Haaretz on April 22, 1949 in an article entitled “The Yeminite Aliyah and the Problem of Africa“:
“This is an aliyah of a race unknown to us in Israel… Before us is a people whose primitive nature is of record proportion. Their education borders on complete ignorance, and even more serious is their complete ineptitude for anything spiritual. Generally they are only one step higher of our Arab citizens, Blacks, and other barbarians from their places. In spite of it all, they are of a lower status than the Arabs of the Land of Israel for whom we have already grown accustomed… More than anything else the simple fact exists: they will be unable to acclimate to life in Israel, and above all their chronic laziness and their aversion to work.”
Now, almost seven decades later, we hear the same rhetoric, although now the accused has become the accuser. Speech such as this does only harm the seekers of asylum but also it weakens the case of the government that you represent.
Rather than “running to greet them” and welcome them under your wings you threaten to imprison them, in attempt to send the message that “they should stop coming here!” And according to the Ramban, it seems as though your approach is that of Sodom:
“[The Sodomites’] intention was to stop people from coming among them, as our rabbis have said, for they thought that because of the excellence of their land… many will come there. And they despised charity… they continued provoking and rebelling against Him with their ease and the oppression of the poor… — (Ramban, Bereishit 19:5)
And the propaganda of against foreigners doesn’t end here:
“The South Sudanese are not at all the problem,” claimed Avri Gilad on Israel Army Radion two months ago. “The real problem is the Eritreans. The Eritreans are simply a plague. All of the sexual offenders are Eritrean and every day we hear of another Eritrean rapist. Just get them out of here. Are we now going to fund the problems of the Eritreans?”
Well, maybe!?!? Maybe it’s not entirely sustainable, and maybe we should deal with our own poor first, but we simply can’t continue to ignore it.
Mr. Yishai, not to worry, even Abraham our father was not perfect. In our parsha we see a bi-polar picture of his behavior. Shortly after Abraham welcomed his guests and negotiated for the lives of Sodom and Amorrah, he then fails:
“Wherefore she said unto Abraham: ‘Cast out this bondwoman and her son; for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac.” (Gen. 21:10)
Abraham surrenders to the fears and the pressure and instead of reaming the hospitable one, he becomes the exiler.
I know, that traditionally fear is associated with Yitzhak, and no doubt that Yitzhak has a lot to fear in this story, but here I am referring specifically to Sarah’s fear – fear that caused Abraham to banish Ishmael and Hagar. What was she so afraid of? Were Hagar and Ishmael imposing such a formidable threat? Maybe instead of reading “Hagar” she read “Ha-Ger” (the stranger), and was afraid?
Minister Yishai, it appears as though her fears are yours, and I then ask you, what are you so afraid of? Are you also afraid of the foreigner, the stranger? Are you afraid that if ‘Ishmael’ remains in our midst you won’t have an only child to love? That maybe we won’t be a large and powerful nation? Are you afraid that if we show love – if our tents our open to those that come towards us – that perhaps they will be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth, and we won’t have a Jewish majority? Perhaps. This is definitely a fear that we are forced to deal with, however if you continue in your ways against the Torah, the please take down the flag of Judaism. The moment that you as a minister of the Jewish State cut us off from our long tradition of welcoming the stranger you no longer operate under the auspices of Judaism. The absurdity is that you are working to strengthen and secure Israel’s Jewish society, and there are those that even laud your efforts as being for the sake of heaven. And I am saying to you here and now that your policies are endangering our existence as a Jewish state with Jewish values.
It is clear to us that the people of Sodom and Amorah paid dearly for their many sins, and that even Abraham could not save them from their terrible verdict. It is also clear that our beloved and admired Abraham who went to battle to save their souls, succumbed to the fear of his household.
Mr. Yishai, I just ask you one thing, that you do what is right and good in the eyes of God and don’t be afraid.
Well, what about us? What happens behind the four walls of our homes? I take pride in saying that I do not live in Sodom, nor do I live amongst Sodomites. Yet, maybe there is room for improvement. Perhaps we should see the needy in our midst and reach out to them. It is so easy to stay among friends and acquaintances, as if our doors are always open, but when the moment comes they are not really. We speak often of “community” and throw that word around with great frequency. Let us work to ensure that that word is more than a passing slogan. I am thankful that I don’t live in Sodom and that are many righteous people, but the threat of Sodom threatens us all and we must remember that “Receiving guests is greater than greeting the Divine Presence” and from there let’s go to work.