In Abraham, a model for our divisive times

Whatever your feelings about the outcomes of the 2020 election, one thing is certain: We are a deeply divided country.

We see these divisions even in our own families. Friendships have been destroyed, there have been online spats, and disagreements at family gatherings.

Searching for answers, longing for comfort, we turn to our tradition. It’s been our people’s best coping mechanism for almost three millenia. And it’s a nice coincidence that, in the cycle of Torah reading, we find ourselves in the book of Genesis — basically our people’s shared record of disagreements at family gatherings.

We are in the middle of the story of Abraham, our patriarch. Here are a few lessons from Abraham that can help us navigate this challenging moment.

The first lesson for us is about conflict resolution. We read of a family dispute between Abraham and his nephew, Lot. They are both herdsmen with large flocks. Some of their workers begin to quarrel with each other about where to graze their livestock. It starts to get ugly. Anyone who is part of a family business can probably relate.

Here’s what Abraham says to Lot:

“Let there be no strife between you and me, between my herdsmen and yours, for we are kinsmen (אַחִים אֲנָחְנוּ).”

Abraham then suggests that they go their separate ways - “if you go north,” says Abraham to Lot, “I’ll go south.”

Sometimes — when things start to get a little heated — it might be wise to give each other a little distance, a little space.

Don’t misunderstand me — or Abraham. This isn’t “cancel culture.” You don’t have to unfriend one another or vow never to speak to each other again. Remember that this heated moment is but one chapter in our national story. You don’t have to write those with whom you disagree out of the story all together but, for now, give each other a little room. You might agree not to discuss politics with one another.

Give yourself some space, too. Take a nice walk outside, away from the news, away from your screen. In those quiet moments, think about that relationship. Remind yourself of some of the things that you love about that person. Remember that we’re all family, after all — אַחִים אֲנָחְנוּ.

Lesson number two: Sometimes it’s helpful to understand challenging moments as a test. Meet that challenge with courage and grace, intentionally channeling your highest values, bringing the very best version of yourself to the table.

According to Rabbinic tradition, God tests Abraham 10 times, including, most dramatically, at the end of last week’s parsha, Vayera, asking him to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac.

Now let me be clear — I do not think that the political divisions of our day are in any way a Divine test, nor do I even believe in a theology that imagines God intentionally throwing difficult situations at us to see how we might respond.

I do, however, think that framing challenging moments in this way can help us to be more intentional about our response.

This moment matters, it is consequential. How we respond matters. Let’s try our very best to be our very best right now. Let’s be as empathetic as we can, as compassionate, as fair, as patient, as loving.

See this moment as a test in the way we behave as individuals and the way we behave as a nation. Let’s do A+ work by being A+ people.

The final lesson for this moment comes when Abraham does something quite extraordinary — he challenges God with a profound moral argument.

The Torah tells us of God’s disappointment with the behavior of the people of Sodom and Gemorrah. God decides to destroy the towns entirely. “Will you sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? … Far be it from you to do such a thing! Will not the Judge of all the earth do justice?” (Gen 18:25).

It’s an extraordinary moment. Abraham speaks truth to power, challenging God to do the right thing.

Abraham passes this test — God wanted him to fight for the innocent people of Sodom and Gemorrah. Why? Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (of blessed memory) argues that “Abraham had to have the courage to challenge God if his descendants were to challenge human rulers, as Moses and the Prophets did. Jews do not accept the world that is. They challenge it in the name of the world that ought to be.

This is a critical turning point in human history: The birth of the world’s first religion of protest – the emergence of a faith that challenges the world instead of accepting it.”

With respect, with love, with “malice toward none” and “charity for all,” let us in this moment resolve ourselves to continue to fight for what is right.

When politics becomes divisive and ugly, it’s tempting to walk away, to give up, or to give in.

But some good news about this election is the tremendous engagement that it displays. Voter turnout was up significantly, in the middle of a pandemic no less. Projections suggest that it will be the highest level of voter engagement since the year 1900.

This is the Jewish way — we speak out. We get involved. We protest. We don’t just accept things as they are, we challenge them so that we can make things better.

The very definition of democracy is that no one person can control the outcome of an election. We each have a voice, we each have a vote, but none of us, not even the President of the United States, gets to decide alone. The ultimate result is beyond our control.

What we can control, what we do get to decide is how we’ll behave, how we’ll respond, how we’ll react.

Let’s do so in ways that bring greater harmony, even if that might require us to give each other a little room.

Let’s imagine these moments as tests of our character and let’s do our best to pass with flying colors — let’s be A+ people especially in these trying times.

And, finally, with so much uncertain, of this we can be sure: Our task is not to accept the world as it is. Our job is to envision the world as it ought to be and then, with grace, compassion, respect, and love, we struggle with all of our might to make that vision real.

Yoshi Zweiback is the Senior Rabbi of the Stephen Wise Temple and Schools in Los Angeles.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

In Abraham, a model for our divisive times

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