by Marc J. Rosenstein
EDITORS NOTE: The following was originally posted in the Rabbis for Human Rights newsletter, Nov. 3, 2022.
[I was asked, as a member of Israeli NGO “Rabbis for Human Rights,” to take my turn to write the Torah commentary for their weekly newsletter. I was assigned the portion “Lech Lecha [=get out],” (Genesis 12:1–17:27), which this year was read in synagogues all over the world on November 5. So I did my assignment, without really thinking about the fact that it would be published the week of the Israeli election – the results of which make my reflections, alas, of continuing relevance.]
Every year when we read Lech Lecha, I find myself wondering anew about “what really happened” in that moment of Abraham’s call/decision to get up and go, to abandon his family, his society, his culture, and set off for points unknown. The midrashim that emphasize his intellectual disillusionment with the religion of his father (breaking the idols…) feel somehow trivial; I am unwilling to suppose that the origin of Judaism was just a case of adolescent rebellion.
We know (from his separation from Lot, who seems to have lived happily in Sodom until…he didn’t; and from his nudging God about the justice of Sodom’s destruction) that Abraham had a strong sense of justice. Was his “lech lecha moment” an expression of rejection of the moral values of his environment? Was it the result of one too many mornings when the day’s headlines sent him into a depression? Does the story leave out an account of his efforts to reprove, persuade, cajole, protest – until finally he couldn’t take it any more? Was Abraham a model for Moses – who, enraged by injustice, strikes down an Egyptian and experiences his own “get out of town” moment.
Jeremiah, on the other hand, refused to shut up and couldn’t or wouldn’t flee, complaining (from the stocks and the dungeon) [20:9]:
I thought, “I will not mention Him,
No more will I speak in His name” –
But His word was like a raging fire in my heart,
Shut up in my bones;
I could not hold it in; I was helpless.
And contemplating Abraham’s moment of decision, I think about my own moments, and decisions. Our tradition recognizes the dilemma but is ambivalent. On the one hand we have [Talmud Yebamot 65b]: Just as one is commanded to reprove when the reproof can be accepted, so one is commanded not to reprove when there is no hope of its “being heard.” But on the other hand [Talmud Shabbat 54b]: Anyone who can reprove his household but fails to do so becomes complicit in their sin; similarly for his city – and for the whole world.
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Rabbi Marc J. Rosenstein made Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. His book on the struggle to define a Jewish state, Contested Utopia: Jewish Dreams and Israeli Realities, was published by the Jewish Publication Society. He was an APRIL/Auburn colloquium fellow in 2022.to Moshav Shorashim in the Galilee in 1990. For 20 years, he directed a nonprofit promoting pluralism and Jewish-Arab cooperation, and from 2009-2015 he served as head of the Israeli Rabbinical Program at