Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Sermon – Rosh HaShanna Day 1, 5780

There is a Midrash, about Abraham, when he is younger, living with his father, Teraḥ. He went to his father’s shop and smashed all but the biggest idol there. Then he took a stick, and placed it in the hands of the biggest idol. When Teraḥ came into the store, he asked Abraham what he had done.  Abraham replied, “but father, I didn’t do it, your idol did!”  Teraḥ replied, don’t be silly boy, how could an object of wood take a stick and smash the other idols? So Abraham replied, “but if it’s just an object of wood, why do you worship it?”

This pithy story is designed to bring humor to a serious situation. It is written to highlight Abraham as a soldier of God, a hero of monotheism. But it can be read in a different light as well.

We could see Abraham as a troubled child who is misbehaving for some reason, willfully destroying his father’s property. Does he have a developmental disability? A mental health issue? Or – is he a victim of abuse at the hands of his father. Children have been known to respond to abuse by destroying things of importance to their abusers. Perhaps that is the case here as well.

This then leads to the question of why we read the selected reading from the Torah today. Our liturgy for Rosh HaShanna states that today is the birthday of the world. Perhaps we should read the story of the Creation. We read that it is Yom Teruah – a day of Shofar Blasts. Should we read something about Temple/Mishkan rituals? Malkhuyot – Kings – the section about kings? But no, we read about Abraham and Avimelekh, along with the birth of Isaac. 

Of course this sets up the reading of the Akeidah for the second day, but that doesn’t have a huge direct connection to the day either. But this section for the first day really has little to nothing to directly do with the day.

So let’s explore the story of Abraham and Avimelekh instead to see what we can learn. Avimelekh was a Philistine King. Recent news has reported that the Philistines were in fact European invaders of the Middle East. This is in fact not new scholarship, but it was in the news recently. The implications of this are startling.  White European Imperial/Colonial attacks on the Middle East have been occurring for much longer than originally thought, for well over 4,000 years. And we still have not learned our lessons. White European peoples have colonialized or attempted to colonialize every indigenous people in the world, always with disastrous results.

So if we go back to Abraham, when we read about him in earlier chapters of Bereshit/Genesis, we see that he travels with a large army, and so he should not be in fear. He can stand in the face of nearly any enemy and prevail. Yet, something strange happens here.

In the desert, control of wells is life. Abraham’s servants dig new wells, yet they are closed up in an attack by Avimelekh’s men.  This is a hugely aggressive act. It is tantamount to an act of war. Avimelekh has thrown down. He has told Abraham, I’m here to take your land from you, and there is nothing you can do about it.

Abraham confronts Avimelekh, and Avimelekh puts the blame squarely in Abraham’s lap. Classic bully! He says, “I don’t know who did it, and you never told me about it, and I only just heard about it today!” In other words, Avimelekh is saying, if this is so important to you, why didn’t you come to me sooner? It’s YOUR fault, not mine! Avimelekh is in no way interested in appeasing Abraham. Clearly he knows what his men were doing and knows why they did it – he told them to.

But Abraham’s response is really startling. First he gives Avimelekh flocks and cattle, and they make a pact. Then Abraham sets aside seven sheep for Avimelekh. Avimelekh can’t figure this out, and the reader is to be baffled as well. He asks Abraham why? Abraham states that these are a sign that he, Abraham, dug these wells.  In other words, he is buying the wells back, or paying a ransom, to Avimelekh. He is treating this like a business transaction. Abraham is rich, so what are some sheep and cows to him?

But, if we see Abraham as a survivor of domestic abuse as a child, then this looks very different. Avimelekh is a King. He has a huge army, bigger than Abraham’s. He is mightier than Abraham. He is like a father figure.

So Abraham can only stand up to him so far. But in the end, even though Abraham may be LEGALLY in the right, in practical terms, he knows that if he resists, he will be beaten. He is the little child facing abuse at the hands of the abuser again. So he uses the defense mechanism he learned that works. He appeases.

Avimelekh makes NO attempt at Teshuva in this text.  This has bothered me for many years.  I have highlighted this point in many sermons in the past. But this insight of Abraham as a survivor of abuse is new this year, due to work I’ve been doing as a communal advocate recently.

Seeing Abraham in this light makes the story in this Torah reading make much more sense. Teshuvah does not occur, because it CANNOT occur here. So Abraham, as the survivor of abuse, must work to make his own peace.

But is he successful?  We will explore this more in the sermon for the second day.

May we see a year where domestic abuse is ended, where families learn to live in harmony, a year where all learn to read the true messages that Sefer Bereshit, the Book of Genesis carries, not just the fundamentalist ones of unflawed religious heroes, so that we may all grow and learn derekh eretz, proper ways of conducting our lives.

Shana Tova Umetuka – A Sweet and Happy New Year.

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