12 Oct LECH LECHA: WHO WOULD ABRAHAM VOTE FOR?
A PALACE IN FLAMES
THE GENESIS OF A FAITH
How did the Jewish faith, the father of all monotheistic faiths, begin?
The Midrash (in this week’s Torah portion) describes the birth of Judaism with the following cryptic parable:
The Lord said to Abraham, “Leave your land, your birthplace, and your father’s house.” To what may this be compared? To a man who was traveling from place to place when he saw a palace in flames. He wondered, “Is it possible that the palace has no owner?” The owner of the palace looked out and said, “I am the owner of the palace.”
So Abraham our father said, “Is it possible that the world lacks a ruler”? G-d looked out and said to him, “I am the ruler, the Sovereign of the universe.”
Abraham is the first Jew. His bewilderment is clear. This perceptive and sensitive human being gazes at a brilliantly structured universe, an extraordinary piece of art. He is stirred by the grandeur of sunset and by the miracle of childbirth. He is in awe of the respiratory system and of the bee dance when returning to the beehive from lunch. He marvels at the roaring ocean waves and at the silent, steady heartbeat of the human heart. The world is a palace indeed.
But the palace is in flames. The world is full of violence, bloodshed, injustice,, and strife. Liars, thugs, abusers, rapists, terrorists and killers are continuously demolishing the palace and its royal inhabitants. Innocent people are beheaded; dissidents are tortured. Human life, in many regions, has no value.
What happened to the owner of the palace? Abraham cries. Why does G-d allow man to destroy His majestic world? Why does He permit such a beautiful universe to go up in flames? Can G-d have made a world only to abandon it? Would anybody build a palace and then desert it?
Some resort to easy answers. Some suggest that the palace has no owner. The entire palace is a product of random mutations. Others deny the reality of evil. It is all a delusion. In the next world, all will be good.
But the first Jew rejected both of these perspectives. Abraham knows this world is a mansion; and he is perturbed to his core by the evil he encounters.
So “The owner of the palace looked out and said, ‘I am the owner of the palace.’ G-d looked out and said to Abraham, ‘I am the ruler, the Sovereign of the universe,’” the Midrash records G-d’s reply. Britain’s former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks presents this compelling interpretation to G-d’s response.
WHERE IS MAN?
Note that the owner of the palace does not make an attempt to get out of the burning building or to extinguish the flames; he is merely stating that he is the owner of the palace going up in smoke. Why did he not leave the mansion? It is as if, instead of racing out, the owner was calling for help. G-d made the palace, man set it on fire, and only man can put out the flames. Abraham asks G-d, “Where are you?” G-d replies, “I am here, where are you?” Man asks G-d, “Why did You abandon the world?” G-d asks man, “Why did you abandon Me?”
Thus begins the revolution of Judaism—humanity’s courageous venture to extinguish the flames of oppression and violence and restore the world to the harmonious palace it was intended to be. Abraham’s encounter with G-d in the presence of a burning palace gave birth to the mission statement of Judaism: to be obsessed with good and horrified by evil.
G-d created an imperfect world, one vulnerable to natural disasters, viruses, diseases, and of course man’s destructive choices. This too is part of our mission: To do what we can to preserve life, to protect the weak, bring healing to the ill, and protection to all. To never allow political correctness, arrogance, or misplaced compassion to cause harm to the innocent.
RECLAIMING OUR MISSION STATEMENT
For too long, many have succumbed to the lure of the popular notion that there is no such a thing as absolute evil behavior. “Thou shall not judge,” became our cherished motto. We have been taught, instead, to probe and understand the underlying frustrations compelling the aggressor to follow his extremist route.
This sophisticated and open-minded point of view allowed to us sustain our ethos of boundless tolerance, accepting all forms of behavior, since at the core of every mean act lies a crying heart.
Few ideas have been rejected in the Torah with so much passion. Because Judaism placed as its highest ideal the creation of a good and ethical world, while the refusal to take a stand on what is wrong results in its victory. A non-judgmental view of someone who beheads a woman in France, for example, may appeal to our sophistication, yet in reality, it is a display of extreme cruelty to the innocent victims who will die at the hands of frustrated militants.
Judaism, in its obsessive attempt to turn the word into an exquisite palace, created absolute universal standards for good and evil defined by the Creator of the universe, articulated in His manual for human living, the Torah. Taking the life of an innocent person is evil. No ifs, buts, or why’s. The killer may be badly hurting but that never ever justifies the evil of murdering an innocent human being.
Yet, tragically, we have become numb to our mission statement. For many years the leaders across the world and in the Jewish State displayed tolerance toward terrorists, neglecting our most cherished doctrine that the preservation of human life reigns supreme over every other consideration. The results of our moral confusion were devastating: Thousands of innocent Jews and Arabs died. And terrorists the world over learned that they could continue their despicable work without serious consequences.
In recent years, the tide began to shift. We learned the hard way that, as Churchill put it, an appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.” Good people of the world are waiting to be inspired by our four-millennium long heritage of standing up to evil and banishing it from G-d’s palace.
This is part of what to think about when you decide who to choose as a leader. Who will help keep our country and our world safer? Who will be more likely to take on the bad guys trying to destroy the palace? Who will define evil as evil and treat it such?
Abraham would ask us to reflect on the most important questions facing us: How do we create a world filled with kindness, goodness, and justice? How do we construct a society based on moral responsibility to man and to G-d?
Abraham, I would imagine, would say one more thing: Do not get petty, and do not allow arrogance and fear to rule you. Do what you must do to the best of your ability and trust the Creator to do the rest.