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In A Place Where There Is No Humanity, Let Us Strive To Be Human


November 6 2020

This week’s drash on parashat Vayera.

One of the reasons I love creating midrash—interpretive stories based on the narratives of the Torah—is because it gives us the opportunity to look for the places where we might see ourselves. Ancient and foreign as its ideas can be sometimes, the Torah can often provide a mirror to how we are feeling and what we are thinking about at any given moment.

And in this week’s parasha, that mirror is Abraham.  

I knew earlier this week that we might find ourselves looking at Genesis 18, where God reveals to Abraham a plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorroh, and Abraham argues that the city be saved, even if only ten of its citizens are righteous. I knew this week would demand that kind of chutzpah: using our voices to defend the innocent, and speaking truth to power rather than choosing to be a bystander. Abraham in this story serves us all as a model of moral courage.

But as the week wore on, I began to look at this same story differently. As we counted our ballots, a new question emerged for me: What must it have been like, to win this argument with God, to know that his statement was right and his cause was just, and then to wait patiently for the head count, anxious to learn whether there were, indeed, ten righteous people to be found in the city?

What was must it have been like for Abraham during that period of waiting for the righteous to be counted? What might it have been like for God to do the counting? What were they thinking and feeling? What were they hoping would happen and what were they afraid of?

My colleague Rabbi Eric Solomon gave a beautiful drash on this story in which he points out that, though Abraham argues for the people of Sodom and Gomorroh, there don’t turn out to be any righteous people there. Abraham wins the battle, but he loses the war. And what does he do? “And Abraham returns to his place” (Gen. 18:33). Rabbi Solomon tells us that Abraham “respects the process” that he and God have agreed upon, saying nothing when the cities are destroyed. Abraham’s behavior can thus teach us something about how to lose, and also how to weather disappointment.

Rabbi Solomon says: “Early in the Torah, we learn that…life is going to be filled with moments where we put our necks out… for people we know and even people we may not know. We take a risk to do what we believe in, to try to achieve whatever our dreams are, and we’re gonna lose, it’s not gonna work out, even with our best effort. … What the Torah is teaching us here is that when we don’t get our way, when we lose, we’re going to learn and reveal and develop our character actually more than when we win. … To be a mensch is to reveal oneself, not just in how you win, though that’s also important, but in how you lose.”

Perhaps the best example of this in our current moment is the work of Stacey Abrams. When Abrams lost the Georgia gubernatorial race in 2018, she could have responded to her disappointment in any number of ways. In fact, though she is not herself Jewish, she told reporters she “sat shiva for ten days” before deciding what to do next. Rather than go after her opponent, or immediately run for a different office, Abrams transformed her disappointment into a statewide and later nationwide effort to fight voter suppression, registering approximately 800,000 new voters in the last two years. Whatever the results of this election, the results in Georgia will be in large part due to her efforts.

At the moment I am writing this, I am both hopeful and disappointed. I am hopeful because it appears that an overwhelming number of people in this nation believe that we can do better for ourselves and each other than we’ve been doing.

But I am also disappointed in the sheer number of people who still support, either tacitly or outwardly, an agenda of hate, fear-mongering, ignorance and lies. And there were a frightening number of people who faced unconscionable barriers to having their votes counted in the first place.

Already, we can see that there are battles we have won and battles we have lost. And what we do next will determine our character as individuals and as a nation.

So even though, as I write this, we are still waiting for the results of this election, we know that no matter what happens, there will be a tremendous amount of work to do. We will need to hold our leaders accountable, pushing them to make changes that will better the lives of the vulnerable. We will still have to break through partisan gridlock to get things done, and combat future efforts of widespread voter suppression and intimidation. We will still have to confront white supremacy and systemic racism, and acknowledge our own privilege in a system that oppresses others. We will still have to be vigilant to protect the rights of LGBTQ people and to promote reproductive justice. We will still have to fix our systems of education, criminal justice, and healthcare so that they truly serve all of our people. We will still have to make it possible, once again, for those who work hard to thrive, and for those who need help to get it without being shamed. We still have to get the pandemic under control, and we’ll have to overcome widespread misinformation and mistrust to do so.

All of this will be true, no matter what color the map turns, and no matter who is in power. Like Abraham, we will need to continue to do the work of speaking out for the voiceless, even in the face of disappointment. Our task will continue to be, as the Mishna tells us (Pirke Avot 2:5): b’makom shein anashim hishtadel lihiyot ish, “In a place where there is no humanity, you must strive to be human.”

As we prepare to meet this challenge, I wanted to share “A Post Election Prayer” by Rabbi Andrea L. Weiss:

No matter what happens, this we know:

we must recalibrate our national compass

and reconfirm what matters most:

“one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

How do we get from here to there?

The Torah guides our way:

It is not enough to “love your neighbor as yourself”;

you must love the stranger as yourself. (Lev. 19:18, 34)

The prophets tell us what to do:

“Let justice roll like water

and righteousness like a mighty stream.” (Amos 5:24)

The Psalms remind us:

The night may be dark,

but morning always comes. (Ps 30:6)

May we each do our part

to bring about the dawning of a new day.


Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz