“Parsha and Purpose” – Lech Lecha 5781
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

“A Journey from Despair to Engagement”

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“A Journey from Despair to Engagement”

A quick look at the news can make even Pollyanna cynical.

Behaviors in the face of looming US elections, political mayhem in Israel, irresponsible actions of some communities in the face of the pandemic, refusing to take safety precautions or revering Jewish custom at the expense of Jewish law and values.

The easiest course of action is, of course, to give up on people instead of trying to engage them; to insulate ourselves and withdrawal while the world turns – and burns – around us.

The Torah provides us with two paradigms for approaching this issue in the different narratives of Noach and Avraham.

When Noach learns of the Divine plan for the destruction of humanity and the world at large, he dutifully follows the command of God and proceeds to construct the Ark.

Noach is unable or unwilling to convince even a single person to correct their ways and be saved from the flood.

He gives up.

This is one of the great tragedies of Noach. 

For this reason, the prophets call the flood מי נח – the flood of Noach. Isaiah 54:9 Because his unwillingness to improve society puts responsibility for the world’s destruction on his shoulders.

In stark contrast to Noach, this week we learn about Avraham, who argues passionately with God in order to save the people of Sodom and Gemorrah. Genesis 18:23-33

Two nation-states whose residents the Torah describes as “very wicked sinners against God”. And yet, Avraham protests on their behalf anyway! Genesis 13:13

And this is what makes Sarah and Avraham the leaders of a movement that ultimately introduces the entire world to monotheism. It is why God changes their names to include his own – from Avram to Avraham; Genesis 17:5 and Sarai to Sarah. Genesis 17:15

It is so easy to give up on people, especially in times of crisis. But we are the children of Avrahama and Sarah!

We do not give up on our people, or on humanity.

There is no shortage of inspirational examples.

The nursery school teachers, medical professionals and therapists who embrace the children in their care, even though they know by doing so – despite all the safety protocols – they are placing themselves at risk.

The madrichim and madrichot of our Darkaynu Programs for young adults with special needs who chose to enter quarantine so that their students arriving from abroad should not have to go through it alone.

Gerer Chasidim in the Israeli city of Arad who wished to protest a local issue – but did so while maintaining social distancing.

Soldiers in the midst of Corona who are still bringing refugees in the middle of the night to be treated in field hospitals.

These examples and so many more like them remind us that even with so much cynicism in the world, we must never give up on people.

The words “Lech Lecha” mean “Go to you”. Our parsha is about a journey. And for me, it is the journey to defy the infectious spread of cynicism.

A triumphant march from despair toward engagement; from a tendency to view others cynically, as Noach did, to a focus on never giving up on people, as modeled by Avraham.

When we work to help each other on our collective journey, we become a source of light to God, to ourselves and our families, and to the world around us.

The British philosopher William Blake wrote:  

“I sought my God and my God I couldn’t find;
I sought my soul and my soul eluded me;
I sought to serve my brother in his need, and I found all three; My God, my soul, and thee.”

Shabbat Shalom


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