07 Nov Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Avimelech
Many dramatic and heroic personalities dominate the stories of Breishit. Parshat Toldot showcases a secondary character known as Avimelech the King of the sea-faring Plishtim. His first impressions are encouraging as he is remorseful and contrite in response to Avraham’s harsh rebuke. Unlike Pharo in Egypt who retaliated by scapegoating Avraham and accusing him of dishonesty, Avimelech reads the situation, acknowledges the promiscuity of his own subjects, and excuses Avraham from culpability while accepting the blame. Unlike Pharo who expels Avraham from Egypt, Avimelech invites Avraham to remain in his country while showering him and Sara with affluence and favors. Avimelech’s next appearance is even more encouraging: recognizing that “G-d is with Avraham” Avimelech inks a treaty with Avraham which ultimately yields the first Israeli city of Be’er Sheva. Surprisingly, in Toldot, a very different and extremely aggressive Avimelech emerges and instigates a tense showdown with Yitzchak. Avimelech’s men seal Avraham’s water cisterns prompting a confrontation between Yitzchak and Avimelech. The latter demands that Yitzchak vacate the area and Yitzchak is forced to journey to ‘Gerar’ hoping to resume his agricultural activity and the excavation of new wells. However, the tensions yield new quarrels with the local shepherds of the region of Gerar. Taking a page from Avimelech’s playbook they also seal the newly dug wells. Finally, after repeated attempts, a single peaceful and undisturbed well is constructed in the city named Rechovot (literally -peaceful expansion).
The response of Avimelech, as well as the neighboring shepherds is bizarre and the overall behavior seems schizophrenic. Having earlier supported Avraham, Avimelech suddenly turns on his partner and bitterly opposes Yitzchak’s presence!
In truth, we are witnessing Avimelech’s response to two very different initiatives of Avraham and his children. Avraham revolutionized human consciousness and religious faith. He spoke of a G-d who was unknowable to the human imagination and was the sole source of all diversity and dichotomy in our world. Avraham also preached a religion meant to enhance the human condition. For two millennia humanity had assumed that G-d was angry and vengeful; in all honesty humanity had only observed suffering and flooding, and naively assumed that G-d was constantly angry. Avraham rejected this notion while preaching that G-d was kind and compassionate and coveted human welfare. To demonstrate the overlap between the service of G-d and human prosperity, Avraham felt compelled to be an actual agent of change and human advancement and not just a preacher. He personally discharged chesed and personally rallied for justice. Avraham’s empowering message was eagerly and enthusiastically embraced as humanity sensed his grand message and the potential it offered the human experience. Avraham was broadly accepted and his message enthusiastically adopted. His covenant with Aviemelech was a microcosm of the international acceptance which Avraham enjoyed. Aside from Pharo who remained unconvinced, most of the ancient rulers began to appreciate the foundations of Avraham’s message as their alliances with Avraham deepened and expanded. The world at large was eager to embrace the Jewish message and the contribution of Judaism to the advance of the human condition.
So it was and so it is..The world has always recognized Judaism’s broader “contributions” to humanity as our ingenuity, creativity and moral conscience have fueled the progress of the human spirit. We have always served on the frontline of philosophical inquiry, scientific innovation and financial commonwealth. Fittingly, the modern State of Israel has continued to pell back the horizons of human achievement with innovative technology which had radically improved the modern condition.
However, this grand agenda- to introduce a brave new formula of religious consciousness- is wedded to a second agenda- without whichthe first is incomplete. We are meant to broadcast these epic messages from a particular location-the land chosen for G-d’s people. These messages attain full resonance when they are transmitted from the land of Israel which is aligned with the Divine throne. This agenda of settling our land is more abrasive to, and certainly less enthusiastically embraced by, the international community. The same Avimelech who enthusiastically celebrated Avraham as a man of G-d and formed cultural and economic treaties turns hostile once Yitzchak becomes a successful farmer. Avraham lived a nomadic life of a shepherd, roaming from mountain to mountain without fixing any roots. This mobile lifestyle staked no claim to the actual land and didn’t elicit local opposition. The local inhabitants were happy to host Avraham as ahonored guest!!
Yitzchak the man of the field, transitions into an agricultural state and establishes the first homestead in an area called Meah Shearim- named for the phenomenal success of scaling crop output 100 to 1. This entrenchment was staunchly opposed by Avimelech and ultimately by the neighboring shepherds as well. Though all welcomed the Jewish message, the notion of Jewish settlement in the land of Israel was a different story altogether.
So it was and so it is…Our world, by and large, celebrates Jews and their contribution to humanity. Sadly, last week we were exposed to the ugly face of hatred and fear masquerading as anti-Semitism. However, that virulent hatred is the province of a minority of humanity, most of whom retain a healthy respect for all of G-d’s creatures. Likewise, much of our world acknowledges the unique contribution of the Jewish people in the realm of science and culture and most are able to trace modern developments in these areas to the State of Israel. Yet, politically many of the same people who celebrate Israel and her people and benefit from our “contribution” to humanity, also excoriate us for our desire and attempt to settle our homeland. The duality of Sefer Brieshit is still very much lodged within human experience.
For some Jews this contrast is jarring. Unable to reconcile international embrace in one area and international opposition in a different realm and unable to shoulder this heavy contradiction, their support for our settlement agenda in Israel often withers. Unencumbered by this confrontation surrounding land they can enjoy full international approval for the broader Jewish Experience. Breishit informs us otherwise. Our Avot lived through this duality and with the frustration of facing a world obliged to them for their inspiration but hotly opposed to their settlement. These two agendas aren’t dichotomous- our attempts to settle our world are geared to establishing an era in which our message truly re-landscapes human experience precisely because it emerges from Zion and is transmitted by a reunited people lodged in their homeland. Until that day we are fated to live through the same odyssey as our Avot. To be embraced and disputed at once!!