Monday, October 27, 2014

Lech Lecha 75 - Caring Communities or a Welfare State

The portion-parasha of Lech Lecha deals with the many trials and challenges to Abraham's  faith in God and his unique approach to serving God through charity and loving kindness – 'chesed.' . God promised him lots of blessings in his new homeland of Canaan, but as soon as he settled in, there was a famine and he decided to move to Egypt. Abraham is criticized for leaving the land of Canaan. He should have shown trust and faith in God to help him through the drought and remain in Canaan just like his son Isaac would do. The Egyptians were notoriously immoral and Abraham would endanger his life and put Sarah, because of her great beauty, at their mercy by going to Egypt. Abraham's behavior  is dubious – he tells Sarah, please say that You are my sister –  and I will benefit as they will offer me gifts and let me live , but  if you say you are my wife they will kill me. After Abraham succeeded in defeating the kings and free Lot who was taken into captivity, Abraham rejects the offer from the King of Sodom of the spoils of the war saying that he did not want any personal gain from the war and so that The King of Sodom could not say he is the one who made Abraham rich and not God. Why is Abraham happy to accept gifts now from the Egyptians because of Sarah? Would it not have been better for Abraham to remain in Canaan and trust in God rather than have compromised Sarah's safety? The Plan does not seem to take care of Sarah's safety concerns.

R' Isaac Sher explains that we need to understand Abraham in the context of his role in the world. Abraham introduced a different type of theology into the world. The Yeshivot and houses of learning of Shem and Eiver were more detached from the physical world. Abraham taught that one should serve God by following God's ways of doing  good to mankind. Abraham would serve God by being involved in the world, providing for and doing chesed and loving kindness to his fellow man. He would use his money and wealth in a very spiritual way by addressing peoples' both physical and spiritual needs. He would take no credit but say the wealth is from God and then teach people about God and spirituality. Abraham taught that doing 'chesed', loving kindness and charitable acts is not enough. One has to be active and participate in building God fearing and caring communities with many organizations reaching out to serve God and people.

 Because of the famine in the land of Canaan, people were not in a position to hear Abraham's message and participate in a spiritual journey. Abraham had to move on and find another place where he could build charitable institutions and caring communities and teach the people about God and his ways. Egypt was the place but had challenges. Calling Sarah his sister is true in a sense as a sister can mean also a relative. It would absolve the Egyptians of the sin of wanting a married woman. People would try to impress Abraham by donating to his projects and institutions and participating in the learning programs. In this way Sarah would benefit Abraham – promoting the belief in God and involvement in charity. Sarah herself was taken to Pharaoh's palace to lecture to women and girls and there Pharaoh thought that he would be honoring Abraham if he took his sister as a wife. After seeing God's   miracles done for the sake of Sarah, Pharaoh decided to give his daughter Hagar to become a handmaid in Abraham's home.  When it became known that Sarah was really Abraham's wife and not his sister, Abraham felt his loss of credibility compromised his ability to work and promote  God's truth and ' chesed' in Egypt. Abraham left Egypt not tainted by its immorality and impurity and having succeeded in establishing charitable institutions and teaching about God's truth and 'chesed.

 Abraham taught that serving God through ' chesed' was not only being caring and supporting other people both physically, emotionally and spiritually but actively cooperating with others to create caring communities with   institutions that can help many people. Schools can create an environment which encourages cooperative learning and pro-social behavior. Many schools have 'jobs' where each grade can not only learn by doing but also be of service to the school community as a whole. Jobs include running the school Post Office, canteen, supplies store, newspaper, print shop, and an older brother- sister and tutoring organization. Parents can not only invite people into their homes, support needy people but also participate in chesed and charity organizations. Their children can become partners with parents in these endeavors.

Unfortunately the ' welfare state' has replaced ' caring communities'. It is now the government and the social services who deal with poverty and supporting the needy. While the government role is crucial, every person has a need to be of service to others. When doing chesed and charity is how we serve God and follow his ways, there will always be caring people and communities and a welfare state.   

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