This is one of those moments when the weekly Torah portion serves as a lens through which we can better understand our reality. I write these words the week before Nov. 3 and you are probably reading them before we know the definitive outcome of our elections.
“Darn those Ds!” “Darn those Rs!” Each one of us might have said these words. I am confident we have all heard them.
Let’s turn to the eternally contemporary words of Torah to better understand where we are today.
For the second time in his married life, Abraham tries to pass off his wife Sarah as his sister, assuming that a perceived non-adulterous sexual encounter between Sarah and Pharaoh (Genesis 12) and this week with Abimelech (Genesis 20) will save his life. Let’s be clear: It is patriarchal and misogynistic and calls out for #MeToo. No matter what the standards were in those days, it is just wrong. As we dive deeper into the narrative and motivations, we can learn much about our current perspectives.
Abimelech is perceived by God as morally corrupt: “But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night and said to him, ‘You are to die because of the woman that you have taken, for she is a married woman’” (Genesis 20:3).
What a stinging indictment from the Holy One of Blessing: “Your immorality makes you a dead man!”
But wait, God was wrong: “Now Abimelech had not approached her. He said, ‘O ETERNAL, will You slay people even though innocent? He himself said to me, “She is my sister!” And she also said, “He is my brother.” When I did this, my heart was blameless and my hands were clean’” (Genesis 20:4f.).
There are three lessons to be learned from all of this.
First, Abraham was wrong. No matter how hard we and our tradition might try to manipulate words that are recorded on parchment to Abraham’s credit, he was plainly and simply wrong. You can’t try to pass off your loved ones, those who rely on you, so that they will be harmed and you will be saved. In our world today, we hear national and local leaders, along with our own closest circles of friends, family and neighbors arguing that they didn’t say what they did say, or we misunderstood it.
Second, Abimelech, the perceived immoral actor in this Torah tale, the one who we might have thought went “low,” actually went “high.” He made his decisions based on the wrong facts he was given by both Abraham and Sarah. Our parents Abraham and Sarah shared the fake news of the day and it was despicable.
Worse yet, it was fake news shared by the good guys! Today, we need to stop spreading fake news. No matter our political color, we have a responsibility to stick to the real facts.
Third, and perhaps the hardest one to write and read: God, the ultimate arbiter of justice, was wrong in this case on first impression. God sentenced Abimelech to death before hearing the other side. How powerful it was for the perceived moral villain, Abimelech, to echo the perceived moral hero, Abraham, right back to God.
When fighting for the innocent in Sodom and Gomorrah, it was Abraham who questioned God only two chapters before: “Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (Genesis 18:25). Here, it is the innocent and misinformed Abimelech who challenges God’s character: “O ETERNAL, will You slay people even though innocent?”
If God can be called in on moral grounds, then every single one of us can be called in, too, no matter how we vote.
In our contentious 2020 world of medical, moral, economic and political pandemics, we look back on our people’s big story to better understand our own paths forward:
Words matter, no matter which side speaks them. Facts matter, no matter which side offers them. Morality matters, no matter which side is acting. PJC
Rabbi Ron Symons is the founding director of the JCC’s Center for Loving Kindness and Civic Engagement. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.