Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, December 3, 2016
Rabbi Michael Friedland
We are a couple of months out from national elections and the one thing we can say about the impact of the elections is – Not so good for the Jews.
Much has been said about Steve Bannon, the choice for Chief Political Strategist. That he himself is anti-Semitic, that his cyber magazine Breitbart, encourages and foments racism, misogyny and anti Semitism, and misinformation. Michael Flynn the National Security appointee likes to retweet neo-Nazi, white supremacist views. And the pick for Defense secretary, James Mattis, has been quoted as suggesting Israel is headed for Apartheid and the pro Israel bias of the US harms America’s interests in the Middle East.
On the Democratic side, a leading contender for the post of chair of the Democratic National Committee is Keith Ellison, congressman from Minnesota. In the past Ellison has been a supporter of Louis Farrakhan. Despite his insistence that he now disavows such views and supports a two state solution between Israel and the Palestinians, he regularly votes against support for Israel. Now all of these individuals have apologists who insist that they really are not anti– Semitic or anti-Israel. And that may be fair and correct. For we are now in the midst of a very popular parlor game played by Jewish partisans of the left and the right called “Find the Anti-Semitic statement”. In this game everyone attempts to undermine the other sides’ argument and political views by parsing comments, tweets, sentences to show that “Your side is represented by an anti-Semite, but my side, which you accused of being anti-Semitic, is actually unfairly represented.”
In the meantime, the Jewish in-fighting allows politicians to ignore Jewish communal concerns.
Here in South Bend, a growing number of Jewish community members need assistance from Jewish Family services and the Food pantry. But the current Congressional leadership have proposed making changes in Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security and Healthcare that will severely hurt members in our community and many other Americans.
Israel is going to need American support more than ever as the Middle East and the world as a whole becomes more unstable. The incoming administration has promised to continue American support for Israel but it also promises closer ties to Russia, which supports Iran and Assad in Syria, whose goal is the destruction of Israel.
And the choice for Secretary of State is from the oil industry which has always been supportive of a more Arab friendly foreign policy. Donald Trump has said that America needs to focus on itself and recede from the world stage. Who will be there to assist Israel if the U.S. is pulling back?
We have to train ourselves not to get exercised over every obnoxious comment or foolish statement that political leaders make and focus on policies that make a difference in our society. Gutting the safety net will destroy lives. An ugly swastika can be painted over. Sympathizing with Palestinian hardship, does not an anti-Semite or anti-Zionist make, but ignoring the Boycott, Divest and Sanction movement and allowing it to link arms with legitimate human rights causes will endanger Israel and intimidate many Jews from speaking out in support of Israel.
Our patriarch Isaac showed us an approach that we might learn from. “Isaac sowed in the land and reaped a hundredfold the same year. The Lord blessed him, and the man grew richer and richer until he was very wealthy: he acquired flocks and herds, and a large household, so that the Philistines envied him. And the Philistines stopped up all the wells which his father’s servants had dug in the days of his father Abraham, filling them with earth.”
Water means life for all living creatures. Especially in the desert. Why were the Philistines destroying the wells –so that they too could not benefit from them? Was it simply out of spite?
The Biblical commentator Rabbi Jacob Tzvi Mecklenberg from Germany in the 19th century offered this explanation: “ ‘Isaac called their names after the names by which his father had called them’ – Isaac named the wells – ‘The Lord is my sign’, or ‘The well of Him that Lives’ just as his father did. For Abraham would call the well by a name that would drive home the lesson of the true existence of the One God. Wells were a necessity and by using the nomenclature of the well to promote the knowledge of the one true God, Abraham was able to initiate people into the true faith. Abraham strove to turn the hearts of those who denied God. While he was alive he was greatly respected by the people of the land. When he died though they reverted to idolatry. Stopping up the wells was a way for them to erase belief in God and return to false
opinions. The Torah teaches us that Isaac followed in his father’s footsteps and endeavored to dig out these same wells and resurrect their names in order to restore the crown of the true faith to its former glory.”
According to Rabbi Mecklenberg, we are not really talking about wells. The Torah’s language indicates that destruction of wells were a mask to the true intention of the Philistines of the day – they wanted to destroy the development of ideas and policies that would undermine idolatrous practices. If Isaac was focused exclusively on repairing the wells, he would have lost the bigger picture – promoting the flow of monotheistic revolution and its values.
Isaac was able to see the big picture. He was following in his father’s footsteps in promoting values that enhanced human life – belief in One God which leads to a consistent moral vision, treating all human beings with respect – and he was successful in working and negotiating with those who seemed to be enemies to continue to promote his vision.
The conclusion of this passage illustrates that Isaac was successful. The Philistines come to him for support and make new agreements, feast together and “they exchanged oaths. Isaac then bade them farewell, and they departed from him in peace.”
If we as a Jewish community on a local and national scale can focus on our values and policies that promote those values and try hard, and it will be hard, not to get side tracked on ad hominem attacks, or alleged anti-Semitic statements from one side or the other, we like our ancestors can be successful in digging deep wells of righteousness and justice in our society.