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Fighting for the World

Rabbi Yehuda Septimus

"War is an ugly thing,"   John Stuart Mill reminds us…  “but not the ugliest of things…  the decayed and degraded state of moral… feeling which thinks that nothing is worth a war is much worse.

In last week’s parshah Avraham had to fight an ugly war, triumphantly saving the day in the War of the 4 Kings against the 5 for no reason other than his loyalty to his nephew Lot. But in this week’s parshah, Avraham must witness something much uglier indeed.   He must witness the decayed and degraded state of broken morality to which Lot has sunk in Sodom.

Avraham sees a vision: two angels going to Sodom, Lot greeting them with the same reverence that Avraham famously showed to his guests just hours earlier, urging them to stay at his house overnight, Lot’s alacrity in serving the angels paralleling Avraham’s in form and content.   At first the two angels refuse, but Lot won’t take no for an answer, making them a feast.  Before they can go to sleep, the men of Sodom surround the house.  They want Lot to reveal his guests, but Lot refuses, begging them to not act wickedly.

Lot then does something unthinkable.   He offers up his daughters to be assaulted and used by the men of Sodom just so as not to have to “compromise” the safety of his guests.

I always struggled with this story.  Why does Lot do this horrible thing?   And let’s say that the Torah is simply sharing with us the sad state of reality, how low Lot had sunk; why does God have to show this of all things to Avraham?

I would like to make an assertion that I don’t know whether others have made: I would imagine they have despite it not being reflected in some of the classical commentators.   I believe that this – God showing Lot distorting the values of tzedakah u-mishpat, of kindness and justice that he had clearly learnt from Avraham himself – was one of the 10 trials that we are told God sent Avraham’s way.  He is to see his beloved nephew, whom he has taught to be kind and just – misrepresenting what kindness and justice mean in one of the most perverse ways possible!

What exactly is God trying to teach Avraham in this?  I believe he is teaching Avraham an essential lesson.   He is saying “yes, you have a job to teach the world kindness and justice,” but “no, it won’t always be easy; they won’t always learn the right lesson.”   Sometimes, your values, my values, will be distorted.

Chevra,is this not the challenge we are all facing right now?  We are seeing before our very eyes the values of Avraham Avinu that he taught us and he taught the world perverted, people turning the values of Avraham, of social justice and kindness and telling the world to feel these feelings for a terrorist organization bent on the destruction of our People.    Many are doing so cynically and intentionally, others unintentionally but no less painfully.  We are seeing notions of basic justice and rightness turned on their heads, and it is endangering us, yes, Jews, as a People, but it is actually endangering the whole world, not just Jews.

This war is not just a regional conflict between a terrorist organization and the State of Israel.   It is the bleeding edge of what Walter Russel Mead called this past week “a world spinning out of control.”  As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks Zatzal stated so powerfully, when antisemitism rears its ugly head it's not just bad news for the Jews.  It is a sign of something much more profound; it is a sign that something is rotting at the foundations of our society.

As Shai David, Assistant Professor at Columbia Business School said this past week:  “I fear, because there are student organizations on my own campus who see my beautiful children as legitimate targets. I fear, because the president of my university—my very own employer—refuses to speak up against such senseless violence and hatred. Let’s call this what it is.  This is cowardice.  I see my son’s and daughter’s faces in the faces of the hundreds of innocent children and teenagers who were murdered, tortured, raped, brutalized, and kidnapped on October 7th.   For Hamas and its supporters, those children are acceptable targets.  And right now, in colleges and universities all across the country, there are hundreds of pro-terror student organizations that are celebrating these vile crimes against humanity.  This is what the President of Columbia is refusing to condemn.    This is what the President of Harvard is refusing to condemn.    This is what the Presidents of Yale and NYU and UC Berkeley and many other ‘enlightened’ institutions throughout the country are refusing to condemn.”

I’d like to share one last personal note.   Last week, crushed by a sense of betrayal by people from my own healing community of psychotherapists from whom I expected support for my People’s plight but from whom I received hate and vitriol, I turned my back on those healers, and went to seek healing among my own People. I have to apologize that I did not post pictures.   I’m not much of a self-promoter.

But this trip was less for me to be able to show you, “look, I did this and this and this.”   It was simply about me being able to be there - and by extension, since I represent you all, us all being able to be there with our People.   We are foot soldiers, members of Klal Yisrael doing our best to stand up for ourselves together as a nation and by doing that to be an or lagoyim.

After a painful few days with members of the community of Sderot, wounded people in hospitals, and entire communities uprooted by the atrocities of Hamas, I had the opportunity to sit at a tisch Friday night at the hotel with the evacuated residents of the town of Shlomi, in Northern Israel and then at Seudah Shelishit with the evacuated residents of the Gaza border town of Kefar Maimon.    I sat with 3 doctors, one Chabad, one modern Orthodox, and one secular, all of whom had come to volunteer for Israel.    I sat with the rabbi of a shul in Argentina, one of whose congregants had been taken captive by Hamas.   And we joined together to reaffirm that we were all the children of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov.   That our People had been deeply wounded and down.   Down but not out.    Down but ready to come back stronger than before.

Because only once Avraham sees the very values he has tried to teach turned on their heads, only then can he proceed to pass those values on successfully.   Because as much as this world is indeed spinning out of control, within all of us we have a moral compass.    And by accessing our own moral compass, we do our best to help the rest of the world access theirs.   

Because we understand that the chayalim in Gaza right now -- as Walter Russel Mead and Rabbi Sacks explained -- are fighting not only for the security of the People of Israel.   They are fighting for what’s right in a broken world.   In a world of Avraham’s values turned on their heads…   In a world of descendents of Avraham who heard the message to slaughter their own children but somehow failed to hear the soft sound of the angel begging them in the end not to do it.  Not to put civilians in harm’s way…   Not to build terror bases under hospitals…   Not to use their own people cynically as pawns in a war of terror.   

God shows Avraham that the role of the Jewish People, spreading kindness and righteousness to the world, would not be a straight and easy path to victory.   But Hashem has promised us that eventually victorious we will be.   May that victory come speedily, in our days.

Sat, May 18 2024 10 Iyyar 5784