Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Toldot Yitzhak Sodom’s Greed versus Rivkas’s Hospitality

Toldot Yitzhak 2013
            Sodom’s Greed versus Rivkas’s Hospitality

            This weeks portion is Toldot Yitzhak, which translates" The story of Isaac". However, it is not Isaac's story, nor is it the story of his two sons, as much as it is Rivka's, Rebeccas.
            We speak, constantly , of the "Avot" --the fathers. In the usual teachings of Hebrew school and heder lessons, we concentrate on"  Avot"-Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob .They are the dramatic ones – As for the wives, Sarah--well-she is known for kicking out her husband's concubine. Rachel and Leah--they are known for competing jealously with each other for more children. We have little insight into the other aspects of their personalities other than the fact that they strongly support their husbands.
Today, to be egalitarian, we make sure to add, “imahot” -- the mothers. In many congregations, in the Amidah, the phrase  used is :”elohei Avraham v Sarah, Yitzhak ve rivka, Yaakov v Rachel v Leah”. God of Abraham, and Sarah, God of Isaac and Rebcca, God of Jaocb and Rachel and Leah.  But , again, what do we know of the ‘imahot’ , the mothers, to put them in the same boat with the fathers? Sarah is mostly a support for  Abraham , Rachel and Leah mostly compete for more children.
            Rebecca , however, of the mothers, seems to be in a category all to herself.
 If we talk about our " avot"- it should really be, not Avraham, Yitzhak, and Yaakov, but Avraham, Rivka, and Yaakov. It is Rivka who is clearly the patriarch of the second generation, Rivka who wears the pants in the family..
            Yitzhak, it is clear, is  the more passive figure, a good man, an honorable man in his dealings, who reaps one hundred fold, who deals honorably with the Philistine neighbors, and who, undoubtedly, as a loyal son, went up to the Akedah without a peep.
But that is it. Not much more.
            Rivka's personality is the glimmering and shining one.
            Rivka is the perceptive mother. It is for this reason, that Rivka, not Isaac, will mold the future of the Jewish people. Rivka has the two twins, Yaakov and Esav, and it is Rivka who will determine which one shall be the heir to the title of chief of the clan and founder of the future people of Israel.
            Yitzhak, the passive, quiet, "nice guy", is impressed by the older twin, Esav, yodeah zayid, ish sadeh, the cunning hunter in the fields. He has prowess and might, he is all that Yitzhak never was.  
Perhaps we can see this in our day, when otherwise intelligent men have heaped praise on brutal 

dictators or allowed the leeway in horrible acts for the sake of peace. Thus , Neville Chamberlain, a 

pacifist, could make his famous “peace in our time” and justify aggression.” How many otherwise 

intelligent people spoke highly of Stalin or Mao as they slaughtered their millions. How easily were 

Peres, Rabin, and Clinton snookered by Arafat!
No, it is not enough to be the “good guy”. Recent research on the difference between men and women sheds light on the problem:” Women tend to be better judges of character.!”, this according to researcher  Dr. Anne Moire. Perhaps here we have the classical proof! It is Rivka who sees the future in her other  son, Yaakov, ish tam, yoshev ohalim, a quiet man, a man in the house. It is for this vision of the future that she risks bringing upon herself a curse for tricking her husband, and it is she who enables Yaacov to escape his brothers wrath by sending him back to her ancestral home.
            Rivka's personality stands out the minute we meet her.
            There is Rebecca at the well. Rivka is the only person who would go out of her way to give water to a stranger and to his camels. She is so thorough in her voluntary act of lovingkindness that the stranger, Eliezer, servant of Avraham, is dumbfounded. It is clear that she is the ideal personality to carry on the lineage of Avraham, because she is " gomelet Hesed", she does acts of lovingkindness.              Rivka possesses  that special attribute that makes her the ideal woman so that the descendants of Abraham will be marked as" Rachmanim, bnay rachmanim" merciful children of merciful parents"
            I had a teacher of Bible, Nechama Leibovitz, in Israel, one of the most delightful and inspiring teachers whose commentaries have fed severasl generations of Rabbis and teachers.  She recounted how, in the early days of the state of Israel, she taught the children of the new immigrants. The class was in a girls’ school, and she decided to incorporate math into the Torah portion.
            “Children,  a camel takes in 160 liters of water at one filling. There are ten camels. Rivka goes to the well to water the camels. She is a small child, and can carry at most 4 liters of water each time. It takes about five minutes to go to the well and draw each bucket How  long does it take her to water the camels?”
            One little girl raises her hand.
            I don’t believe she did it!
            Because it would take her so long, her Daddy would smack her for dawdling!
            To which the other children replied—Oh, but when her father finds out how she helped a poor stranger, he will surely be happy with her!
            My Bible teacher never told me the answer, so I’ll leave it to you to do the math.
            If kindness to the stranger is the hallmark of Rivka, of goodliness, then cruelty to the stranger is the hallmark of villainy. The most famous examples, just in the generation before Rivka, are the people of Sodom and Gomorrah.
            The word Sodomy comes from the name of this city, yet it is not their sexual behavior that defines them as evil--it is their behavior towards strangers.
            The people of Sodom and Gomorah have it good--they live in a rich and fertile country. They admit one stranger in their midst, Lot, but it is clear that they do so only because Lot, as an immigrant has a wealthy and powerful patron, Avraham, who gives them protection against their enemies.
            It is the unwanted aliens that they are cruel to--the ones without any special interests behind them. Thus, when the three strangers visit Lot, the towns people seek to rape them, not as an act of Sodomy  but solely as a sheer gratuitous act of violence toward the stranger. male or female.( Centuries later, a similar event takes place in an Israelite city in the time of the Judges, where a woman is gang raped in the same setting; a major inter-tribal war takes place as a consequence)
            Our sages picked up on this characteristic of the people of Sodom, and they chose to embellish the account. This is what it is to be the opposite of Rivka.
            First, there were their visa requirements:
            It is said that they had a special bed for all strangers. Three men would seize the visitor by his head, and three by his feet, and force him on the bed. If he was too short, they would pull and stretch his limb from limb, until he fit. If he was too tall, they would cram him into the space, until he fit just so. As he screamed, they would declare punishment" Thus shall be done to any man that comes to our land." Certainly, this is more unique than standing in a long line at an American consulate to get an entry visa.
            If a traveler would make the mistake of coming to visit these cities, they would let him in the door, and give him gold and silver. But they had a law that no one could sell him any food, so he was bound to die of starvation.
            We have what’s called a  progressive income tax system; the people of Sodom invented the regressive tax system. The richer a man was, the more he was favored before the law. The owner of two oxen had to pay only one day's public service, but the owner of only one ox had to pay two days. One who took the ferry across had to pay four dollars, but one who had no money, and just waded across, had to pay double.
            Our sages commented on God’s claim that he “heard the cry of Sodom.” What cry was it, they ask that moved God so much. It is said that one woman found a stranger, and gave him water and bread to eat. When the towns people heard of this, they arrested her and brought her to court. She was immediately condemned to death, by being smeared with honey and exposed to the bees, who stung her to death. Her crying in death , it is said, finally moved God to action.
            What motivated such  perverse behavior?
            Sodom , said our sages, was literally, the goldene medina-the land whose street were covered in Gold. The soil was rich in gold, and they had exceptional wealth. The more they had, the less they were ready to share. So they flooded their highways with streams of water so no one could find their way in.
            That was then, this is now.
            Two centuries ago, or more, there was  a great scholar, the Gaon, or Genius, of Vilna. The community of course wanted him involved in civic issues since he was both learned and righteous. He agreed however, on the condition that he only be called to meetings when a new issue was brought up.
            One day, the Jewish community leaders, who were very wealthy, were fed up with the schnorrers, the freeloaders, who came pounding on their doors, day by day, asking for a handout. They wanted approval to forbid door to door schnorerei, and force all panhandlers to collect at the central charity for an organized hand-out. They called upon the Gaon to  attend the next meeting of the community council to give his opinion. He refused to come however.
            They quickly sent a messenger ( before telegraph, telephone, pager, cell phone, and e-mail, of course). “Dear Rabbi, You promised you would attend our meetings when a new issue came up!”
            He replied to them” This is not a new issue. It is as old as Sodom and Gomorrah!
            We too have our issues. We are always confronted with the moral quandary. Are to be like Rivka, going out of her way to provide water for the wayfarer and for his herd, or like Sodom and Gomorrah, slamming the door on those in need?
            We , as Jews, understand this very well. How many of you here had the door slammed in your face because you were persecuted, yet no country would let you in? It is very personal.
            Compassion for the stranger and the weak in our society is central to Jewish teaching.
Yet we are also aware that these are not vague platitudes to be preached. There are real issues.
            This is a nation of immigrants; all of us here are either first or second generation immigrants. Yet we ask, how far can we open the doors, without overwhelming our medical system or undermining wages for those who are here already who must compete. Can we be equally good to one without hurting the other? We want to be helpful to strangers, yet we also teach our children not to talk to strangers, lest, among the many decent, there is the one malicious. We want to help others who can’t support themselves, yet we don’t want to create generations dependent on welfare. We seek to help the “deserving poor”, yet we are worried that the quarter we took out of our pocket may go to another pint of whiskey or an ounce of crack cocaine.
            I don’t pretend to resolve these issues. There are volumes and volumes of Jewish responsa, the Rabbinic discussions, on issues of charity, treatment of strangers, the proper administration of welfare.
Perhaps the best known Jewish prescription for Tzedakah is the     “Eight Degrees of Charity, by the master Sage, Maimonides, the Rambam.: (Hilchot Matanot L'Ani'im 10:1,7-14, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Presents to the Poor)
            “We are required to take more care about the mitzva of tzedaka ( to do rightly with your fellow person)- that is, to support him when he is in need.(Deut. 15:7-8)] than for any other positive mitzva. For the mitzva of tzedaka is the sign of the righteous descendents of Abraham our father, as "[God] has made known to him , so that he shall command his sons to do tzedaka." (Genesis XVIII:19) “
Next he explains what that truly means: He goes in reverse order, from greatest to least, least being to give only when forced, and not enough, to giving freely, but publicly, to giving generously, but secretly, but above all else is this one:

            “There are eight levels of tzedaka, each greater than the next. The greatest level, above which there is no other, is to strengthen the hand of another Jew by giving him a present or loan, or making a partnership with him, or finding him a job in order to strengthen his hand until he needs no longer [beg from] people. For it is said, "You shall strengthen the stranger and the dweller in your midst and live with him," {Leviticus XXV:35} that is to say, strengthen him until he needs no longer fall [upon the mercy of the community] or be in need. “
            Although the Rambam speaks in terms of giving to Jews, the laws of charity and kindness, according to the Talmud, must be extended to all people.
            Our acts of charity to those in need must be so structured that they create healthy, self-sufficient and productive partners in society. That is what all  of our social organs, whether it be government or civic or religious charitable groups, need to aim for.
            We are between Sodom and Rivka, between slamming the doors on those in need, or running to care for those in need. It is clear that Rivka is our mother, and the people of Sodom are doomed. As Hillel said, “love your neighbor as yourself is the great theme of the Torah.” But, this was his great catch, “ Now-go and study, and find out what that means and how you really do it.” We must go and study in what way we act most like Rivka imeinu, Rebecca , our mother.                        ###

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