What difference can Israel make?…ask the rabbi

October 19, 2015 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem….and answers your questions.

WHAT DIFFERENCE CAN ISRAEL MAKE?

The sidra begins with the magnificent call, “Lech l’cha”, “Leave everything behind and go to the place I will show you” (Gen. 12:1).

Rabbi Raymond Apple

Rabbi Raymond Apple

On one reading, “Ar’eka” – “I will show you” refers to the land of Israel. The patriarch had to heed the call and set out in the direction which God would reveal to him.

Pinhas Peli quotes another view about “ar’eka”, that it refers not to the land but to Abraham. When the patriarch got to the land, God would show him to the world. The Hebrew means, “Go to the land where I will show you (to humanity)”. JH Hertz implied something similar when he wrote that a land focusses a people: what sort of nation they are becomes clear only in the milieu God has chosen for them.

As far as Abraham was concerned, only in Israel – to used Peli’s words – would Abraham “discover its intrinsic meaning as a place where one becomes a ‘neighbour to the Divine Presence’ (shachen laSh’chinah) and… there qualified for prophecy, which could not transpire outside the land”.

In modern Israel we have to build a distinctive society in which we show (to God, to the world, to ourselves) what sort of nation we are capable of being. If it is the “holy land”, what sort of holiness can a people of diverse opinions create there?

WHY DO FAMILIES FIGHT?

A sad side of the story we read this Shabbat is the quarrel between Abraham and Lot. Though tied by bonds of kinship and love (Rashi says that they even looked alike), they fell out and were separated by suspicion and tension.

It’s all very well for Abraham to say, “Don’t let there be a quarrel between us since we are brothers” (Gen. 12:7), but surely something had to be agreed between them to make sure that they would live in harmony from then on.

One of the key factors was status and property. Which one would hold superior rank (can two riders ride on the same horse)? How would they ensure that neither would suffer from the material ambitions of the other? Did the interests of peace require them each to blur their own individuality and personality?

We all know (and some have experienced) the divisions that erupt between relatives. I can tell countless stories from my own rabbinic career. Relatives – and in-laws – who stopped speaking to each other because of jealousy, money or whatever. Family members who had to be seated at different ends of a wedding hall… I wish there could be one simple formula to ensure that such things would not occur and if they did, could be easily smoothed over.

But it’s never as simple as that. The only thing that is adamant in the many Jewish discussions of the subject is that there has to be a willingness to compromise.

The rabbis tell, for example, about Aaron going from one disputant to the other, preparing them mentally and psychologically to meet each other again and to be prepared for the moral courage to take a step backwards.

ABRAHAM’S GOOD EYE

Abraham is the great pioneer of faith who found God and brought people near to Him. He is praised in the rabbinic tradition as a man with a good eye (Avot 5:29). One could of course see this as an observation on the patriarch’s eyesight… at least as far as one eye is concerned; nothing is said about the other. But this would be to misunderstand rabbinic symbolism.

To appreciate what the rabbis really meant it is necessary to go to the actual passage, a comparison between “the disciples of Abraham our father” and “the disciples of Balaam the wicked”. It declares that “a good eye, a humble mind and a lowly spirit (are the signs) of the disciples of Abraham our father”, whereas “an evil eye, a haughty mind and a proud spirit (are the signs) of the disciples of Balaam the wicked”.

“A good eye” is a generous spirit; “an evil eye” is a grudging attitude. This is why the evil eye came especially in its Yiddish version, “einahora”, to mean wishing someone ill fortune, and all sorts of remedies were suggested in order to counter the evil eye. The Talmud says that 99 people die through an evil eye for one who dies from natural causes (BM 107a); it also remarks that a person may not stand over his neighbour’s field when the crop is ripe, and Rashi explains that he might harm it through an evil eye (ibid.).

However, the concept of the good eye is not merely a general disposition towards benevolence but specifically defined. In the Jewish agricultural system which required a portion of one’s crops to be given to the priest, an average donor gave a 50th, a mean person (the one with an evil eye) a 60th and a generous person who had a good eye a 40th.

Abraham is the prototype of the person with a good eye. When passers-by needed hospitality, he exerted himself for their benefit. Though he said he would fetch them “a morsel of bread”, he did more than expected and gave them a whole feast (Gen. 18).

He not only welcomed weary travellers but positioned himself outside his tent so that he could see them coming (ibid.). When he and his nephew Lot had to part, he offered Lot the better quality pastures for his flocks and herds. When his contemporaries needed spiritual guidance he went to them and brought them under the wings of the Divine presence: the first outreach programme in history.

What do we learn from Abraham? To cultivate a broad, generous heart which rejoices in the happiness of others and instinctively seeks their welfare.

Comments

One Response to “What difference can Israel make?…ask the rabbi”
  1. Lynne Newington says:

    Well if God can speak to Balaam through the mouth of a faithful donkey there’s hope for us all…….

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