Rabbi Alexandra Wright
22 November 2019
Parashat Va-yera includes several significant stories – including the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael and the Akedah, the binding of Isaac. But between these two accounts of Abraham as a husband and father, we come across twelve verses that turn our attention to Abraham the diplomat or politician, standing on the world stage and making a treaty with Abimelech, the king of Gerar. As Abraham takes up his residence near Beersheba, he must settle negotiations with the king, whose servants have stolen a water well.
There are few stories in the Torah that might suggest a model for a Liberal Jewish manifesto, one that we can consider as we contemplate our choices in the forthcoming General Election. But this account, while not telling us how to vote, informs our vision and helps us to clarify our values as Liberal Jews who have a voice and who want to be part of a society that is based a different kind of politics from the kind we are seeing today.
These verses demonstrate a politics of kindness, courtesy and consideration. We see how the king does not confront Abraham; his language is neither combative nor hostile. He acknowledges the patriarch’s faith: ‘God is with you in all that you do.’ There is humility and acceptance of the other. He appeals to Abraham’s higher nature: don’t be false to me or my offspring, he says. But do me kindness and be kind also to the land in which you are staying. What an extraordinary statement of concern for the very earth that is beneath their feet. Be kind to the land, a phrase which we can understand to mean – don’t exploit the land, don’t take more from it than is needed, replenish it and look after it. But it is also a plea: the nineteenth century Rabbi, Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (Ha-amek Davar) comments that this phrase implies a request from Abimelech to Abraham: ‘When you inherit the land do not drive us out, but treat us with friendship, just as we treated you.’ The land should not witness any form of ethnic cleansing, nor any kind of mass emigration.
We find, too, in these verses an acknowledgement of the need for justice, truth and honesty as Abraham rebukes Abimelech on account of the well that the king’s servants had stolen. And in spite of this theft, Abraham responds with generosity, handing over sheep and oxen as they forge a collaborative treaty.
At the beginning of this chapter, Abraham takes the Egyptian born slave girl, Hagar, and their son, Ishmael into the desert where he abandons them. In the following chapter, he blindly obeys a command to offer up Isaac, his second son, as a sacrifice. Here though, there is sustenance, a desire to protect each other’s people; there is no confrontation, but standing together, sharing land, sharing responsibility and pursuit of peace.
The tone of the conversation is courteous, earnest, honest and generous. And what does Abraham do as Abimelech and Phichol part from him; he offsets his carbon footprint by planting a tree. In a rather beautiful midrash on this passage, Rabbi Yehudah explains that the eshel – translated as the ‘tamarisk tree’ means an orchard. How does he arrive at this interpretation? He creates a pun on the Hebrew letters of the word eshel by switching round two of the letters to spell, not eshel, but she’al, meaning ‘to ask.’ ‘Ask for whatever you wish,’ says Rabbi Yehudah, ‘ask for figs, grapes or pomegranates.’ Abraham did not simply plant one tree, but a whole orchard of fruit trees.
Creating a Liberal Jewish Manifesto for the December 12th General Election is not about being party political. It is rather about extracting the essential values that lie at the heart of our Judaism. It is about teaching a new generation that politics need not be combative, angry and hostile; they do not have to be divisive or about naming and shaming. Rather they should be collaborative and truthful, kind and honest. They should be based on trust, co-operation and mutual respect.
As we consider how we are going to cast our vote on December 12th, let us take a moment to think about the changes we want to see in this country. Yes, they will certainly be about the climate catastrophe, about poverty and homelessness, about asylum and refugees, the NHS, physical and mental well-being, law and order and host of other things.
But even before we think about climate change and social and economic change that will make for a safer and more sustainable future, we need to affirm the need for collaboration and compassion, trust and mutual respect, kindness and empathy, integrity and truth. And these are the qualities that we must seek to cultivate in ourselves as well.
The world is a difficult place at the moment and many of us fear for our young people, for the anxiety and pain that they are experiencing, growing up in a place that seems inhospitable, impatient and angry. Let us show our young people, that life doesn’t need to be like that. Let us model for them a way of life that is more gentle and patient, where we give each other the benefit of the doubt, where we don’t leap to conclusions about each other, but strive to be guided by kindness, trust, compassion and empathy – the foundation stones of our Jewish faith and way of life.
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