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Parashat Lekh Lekha 5782

October 15, 2021

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I find myself still catching my breath post Haggim. Taking the process of engaging in Heshbon HaNefesh – an accounting of our behavior – and transforming it into self-improvement in the new year – 5782.For me a question exists of whether it is helpful and productive to establish a high bar of behavior for ourselves; one that we ultimately cannot maintain. In this week’s Parashah, Sarah (still referred to as Sarai at this point), due to her inability to bear children, requests that Avraham (a.k.a Avram) take Hagar as his wife; literally that she gave Hagar to Avraham her husband to be his wife. (Genesis 16:2-3)

Notwithstanding the many ways in which this story understandably violates our sensibilities, e.g., the bigamy and misogyny, there is a lesson to be gleaned in how Sarah performs this selfless act. Nehama Leibowitz describes it as an act of supreme sacrifice. (Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Bereishit-Genesis, at p. 154) After all, Sarah could have asked Avraham to take Hagar as a concubine and not given her the status of wife. (I know, oy!)

I think Sarah’s act brings into sharper focus ideas of Jewish exceptionalism, what we expect of ourselves and how that creates expectations for what others expect of us. As it pertains to our Parashah, the relationship between Sarah and Hagar deteriorates to a point where, “Sarai dealt harshly with her [Hagar], and she [Hagar] ran away from her [Sarah].” (Genesis 16:6) Ramban points to Sarah’s actions as a transgression. (Rabbi C. Chavel, Ramban-Nachmanides: Commentary on the Torah, Bereishit Genesis, at p. 213) The transgression is a result of being over-generous in putting forth pious declarations; not thinking through some practical steps to fulfill our commitments that our made in a moment of unchecked enthusiasm. (Nehama Leibowitz at p. 157)

Specific declarations of ambitious, seemingly pious behavior have a way of morphing into a sense of self-perceived exceptionalism. Rabbi Donniel Hartman provides a theological framework to this sense of exceptionalism. “Love of G-d, or more accurately being loved by G-d, was perceived to be a zero-sum game – the more one was loved, the less another could be.”  (Rabbi Donniel Hartman, Putting G-d Second: How To Save Religion From Itself at p. 7) Hartman further observes that, “Muslim and Jewish religious ideologies are increasingly mainstreamed into political governance in ways that tend to fuel and exacerbate conflicts.” (Hartman at p. 8)

Growing up in the sixties and particularly experiencing the Six Day War in my Hebrew School class taught by a Halutza, an Israeli pioneer, Tzivia Gaba, z”l, I remember with enormous pride not so much our military prowess against enormous odds, but rather the high ethical standard to which we held ourselves. The famous quote attributed to Golda Meir that we can forgive you for killing our children, but we cannot forgive you for making us kill your children comes to mind.

I have thought about this sense of youthful Jewish exceptionalism often since last spring’s Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Particularly the tension between how we see ourselves and our sense of concern for how others perceive or judge us.

Closely associated with our sense of self is the expectations we set for ourselves. In the face of criticism regarding the Israeli response in that most recent of too many violent conflicts with Palestinians we have reasserted a series of defenses to which we have long held. Amongst those defenses is that regarding Israel’s response within a military conflict and observance of human rights, Israel is inappropriately and unfairly held to a higher standard than any other country.

I think there is a good argument to be made for the truth of that statement. However, it shifts the focus from how we change our own actions to altering how others critique our actions. We relinquish our obligation to engage in Heshbon HaNefesh; an internal ethical audit. Likewise, in regard to antisemitic attacks I think it cheats us (or we cheat ourselves) out of the opportunity for self-reflection and self-improvement.

My question, for which I do not have a definitive answer, is whether by seeking for Israel to be judged similarly to other countries (particularly its adversaries) have we abdicated our higher ethical or moral expectations of ourselves. Related questions might include whether we have, possibly to everyone’s benefit relinquished our sense of Jewish exceptionalism, and/or, by relinquishing any sense of exceptionalism have we lowered behavioral standards for ourselves to our detriment.

I miss that sense of ethical Jewish pride I had once felt in my youth, whether or not it was justified by our actions or simply our aspirational moral narrative. We have shifted toward a much more defensive posture. In some ways I think this tracks Sarah’s digression from a position of self-sacrifice toward a defensive posture born out of pain and resentment toward Hagar. My hope is we can see past our own pain and the many injustices we have experienced as Jews, and regain our internal moral compass.
Rabbi Doug Alpert (AJR ’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.