Abraham in Canaan and Jews in Pittsburgh

November 2nd: Hayeh Sarah
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

In two instances in this week’s Torah portion, we see a tension between Abraham belonging to his society and Abraham being an outsider. In the first case, Abraham is preparing to bury his wife, Sarah, and he wants to buy a piece of property from one of the local landowners. The Torah goes into a great amount detail in re the negotiating and the price he paid (400 shekels of silver), more than seems necessary for a simple real estate transaction. The Commentators explain this in terms of Abraham’s temporary status in the area: though he is well respected, in the words of the Hittites, “the elect of God among us,” he is, in his own words, “a resident alien among you.” (Genesis 23.4-6) He does not feel secure in the Hittite society, and he does not own any land. So, the Commentators observe, in lieu of permanent property records, he chooses to pay an exorbitant price for the property, creating a local story for everyone to tell and remember, and making his ownership a matter of public and popular knowledge.

 The second case is when it comes time to find a wife for Isaac. Abraham is concerned that the wife not be local, and he sends his servant back to Mesopotamia to go procure a wife for Isaac. He has the servant swear “by the Lord, the God of heaven and the God of earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites among whom I dwell, but will go to the land of my birth and get a wife for my son Isaac.” (Genesis 24.3-4) Though Abraham lives in the Land—and though God has decreed that Abraham and his descendants will live there forever, Abraham wants a wife from the “Old Country,” guaranteeing that Isaac and his family will be part of but not totally part of Canaanite society.

 This dynamic tension in Abraham’s situation has been the Jewish destiny throughout the generations. We always work to be a part of our communities—and, in many places and times, we have been extraordinarily successful. We have both benefited from welcoming societies and made great contributions to them. And yet, in order to maintain our Jewish identities and communities, we have limited our total assimilation—focusing also on intra-group activities and relationships. It is and has been an interesting position for a people to maintain—resulting in a continuing discussion in our texts and in our strategies for successful lives.


And so we get to Pittsburgh this last Shabbat. In an act unspeakable on so many levels, a hateful person lashed out at innocent worshippers—identifying them and us as outsiders and enemies. That his logic is stupid is beside the point. Acts like this never make sense and never help any positive agenda. However, the fact that such hatefulness exists is terribly troubling, and we find ourselves asking why.

 Many point to the rhetoric of our President, the rallies he organizes, and the exuberantly angry crowds he whips up and eggs on. When Mr. Trump instigates outbursts of anger and violence, how surprised can we be when someone acts out the emotional message with guns? Paraphrasing the old adage: When you lead a horse to water, you shouldn’t be surprised when it takes a drink.

 The President and his defenders insist that he never advocates actual violence—that the violence he espouses is psychic and is a response to the psychic violence that his followers feel has been directed at them. There may be some logic in this reasoning, but it puts Mr. Trump in a reactionary position that is ill-posed to help anyone. He makes himself into a caricature—an emotional outburst rather than a positive actor.

 Though Mr. Trump and his phenomenon seem particularly dramatic, it is not as unique as we might think. We can see populist anger and political expression throughout the five centuries of American history, and the improvements of modern life have not remedied this social tendency. Writing in the 1970s and 1980s, Dr. Murray Bowen, the noted psychiatrist and developer of Family Systems Theory, often discussed an overly-reactive and emotional, circling-the-wagons type mentality that was taking over the country.

 If we believe we have gone too far, how do we repent as a nation and return to civil discourse and communication?

 A simple answer is that we can follow the teaching of Hillel:  “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. (That is the whole Torah; all the rest is commentary; now go and study!)” (Talmud, Shabbat 31a) We can also take it one step further, following the teaching of Reb Shmelke: “What is hateful in your neighbor, do not do yourself.” Should we model the same behavior we hate, or should we look at bad behavior as a lesson in what we do not want to be?

 Here is a question for supporters of President Trump: Is heaping abuse on Democrats—speaking of them as traitors, murderers, and enemies—the best way to convince them of your political vision? Here is a question for opponents of President Trump: Is the best way to dial down the anger and vitriol of political discourse to heap abuse on the people who cheer on the President and who resonate with something in his message?

 There are, I suspect, fanatics and nuts all over the political spectrum—and, please God, protect us from them, but I do not believe that the majority of people in either party are crazies or wicked or stupid—and I do not think calling them such names is very persuasive in making progress. The vast majority of people on both sides of the political divide are people of principle and intelligence who have real hopes and real fears. I believe that their actions both practical and emotional are born of the reality of their lives, and dismissing them or disrespecting them does not make their thinking evaporate; it just drives them deeper into their anger and fear. It is not nice. It is also counterproductive.

The basis of our democratic republic is that people are intelligent and possessed of decency and moral fiber. The goal of a democratic society is not for the proponents of one point of view to destroy their opponents but rather to convince them and find solutions together. Let us beware any rhetoric on any side that does not respect these core principles.