Parashat Hayei Sarah 5781

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A D’var Torah for Parashat Hayei Sarah
By Rabbi Doug Alpert (’12)For years I have worked with a number of organizations whose mission is centered around fighting racism. The Missouri branch of the NAACP, the Missouri coordinating committee for the Poor Peoples Campaign, the Metro Organization for Racial and Economic Equity in my hometown of Kansas City. So it is with much anticipation that I will participate in this year’s AJR Fall Retreat (albeit virtually) focusing on race and racism.

Much of the work in fighting racism is to wrestle with a sense of our own identity and community. Who is in and who is out, or, to coin a cultural moniker of Jewish identity that came up on day one of the retreat; who is a “member of the tribe.” (This reference had always struck me as a relic of my parents’ generation – z”l; a response of exclusivity if not Jewish exceptionalism to an America in which Jews were excluded from full professional and social participation.)

Avraham presents an early example of how we confront issues of Jewish identity in Parashat Hayei Sarah. In the charge to his servant Eliezer to find a wife for Isaac he instructs that, “I will have you swear by HaShem, G-d of heaven and G-d of earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites among whom I live” (Genesis 24:3).

Nehama Leibowitz, in working to answer the question why the Canaanites were off limits dismisses the idea that the goal was some sort of ethnic purity. “No idea is more foreign to Torah and Judaism” (Studies in Bereshit-Genesis p. 216). Leibowitz also dismisses the notion that Avraham’s decision was politically motivated. The land had already been promised to Avraham and the generations to follow by G-d.

Rashi cites to the acute corruption of the Canaanites. It was not differing beliefs but rather their abhorrent conduct that dictated vigilant avoidance. Yet, we know that Avraham had allies amongst the Canaanites. Aner, Eshcol, and Mamre were not just allies to, and colleagues of, Avraham, they were considered righteous men (See Genesis 14:24). Moreover, their daughters were also deemed righteous (Bereshit Rabbah 57:3). Yet, Avraham’s prohibition refers specifically to those daughters. “He cautioned him against going to the daughters of Aner, Eshcol and Mamre” (Ibid. 59:8).

Since Avraham and Isaac were dwelling amongst the Canaanites ultimately the overarching concern was assimilation. Here Nehama Leibowitz answers her question. Avraham, as she observes, was called Avraham Ivri – Abraham the Hebrew; a person from the other side [of the river]. As such they should have nothing to do with the inhabitants of the land in which they dwelled.

Notwithstanding where you land along the Jewish spectrum of thought and observance we all seek some degree of separation as a means to more comfortably or assertively live our Jewish lives, and connect in Jewish community. My teacher, Rabbi Dr. Moshe Berger described it as a natural by-product of being in service to G-d, not separation for its own sake. Indeed, if we were not distinct in some way our choice to live Jewish lives would be rendered meaningless.

Yet, from the outside looking in, the perception can be something less benign and more exclusionary. For a few years now I have been part of a weekly, interfaith clergy Torah study group. One of the participants, a Black minister, seminary professor and leader in our Kansas City community (with a Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible) sees a broad message in our Tanakh of exclusion; particularly economic exclusion. Previously, it had never crossed my mind to cull that interpretation from any part of our sacred text.

With our own history of pervasive marginalization and disenfranchisement it is difficult to see ourselves as occupying the space of the excluder. Is it possible to simultaneously be both the excluded and perpetrators of exclusion? In my work within Black organizations I have owned the fact that, while there were parts of my city where Blacks and Jews where both victims of racist/antisemitic deed restrictions, Jews were also full participants in white flight; abandoning the city and Black neighborhoods for suburban living. There are certainly other areas where, to the extent we could, Jews have availed themselves of the advantages of white privilege.

Ultimately any productive discussion surrounding how Jews related and still relate to white privilege require both honesty and some level of nuance to make real progress in fully fulfilling our obligations toward ending systemic racism. While we may have to reassess the degree to which we and non-Jewish African-Americans have a shared past of treatment here in America as less than, I am convinced that we can and should share a bond in our mutual pursuit of more just communities, and a more just country. Only with the eradication of systemic racism will we realize that dream.
Rabbi Doug Alpert (’12) is the rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami-Kansas City’s urban, progressive synagogue. He is the immediate past president of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Kansas City as well as Missouri Healthcare for All.