The Right Father – Parashat Vayera 10/12

Rabbi Alexander Davis

Rabbi Alexander Davis
November 4, 2012 / 19 Heshvan 5773

Yossele Rosenblatt was the most famous cantor a century ago, known not only for his chazzanut but for starring in “The Jazz Singer,” the first talkie.

Gary Rosenblatt is the current editor of the NY Jewish Week. By his own admission, if you heard him sing you’d know they weren’t related.

But in other ways, there was a chance of confusing them. Yossele Rosenblatt’s son was a well known rabbi in Baltimore. Gary Roesnblatt’s father was a rabbi in Anapolis.

On the first day in class, Gary Rosenblatt’s professor at Yeshiva University, Alexander Litman was playing a bit of Jewish geography.

He called out “Rosenblatt,” and he asked, “Are you from Maryland? Is your father a rabbi?”

Rosenblatt answered yes, but had a sinking feeling he was on the wrong track.

Ah, Rosenblatt, I know your father well, your grandfather was a towering figure. Your father and I studied Ugaritic together at Johns Hopkins with Professor Albright.” And with that, Professor Litman was off and running, free-associating, telling stories.

“How is your father?” he finally asked.

“He’s fine,” Rosenblatt said, “but my father’s a rabbi in Annapolis and we’re not related to the rabbi in Baltimore.”

Professor Litman was quiet for a moment; he  glared at Gary, looked down at his name card in front of him, looked at him again and then said brusquely, “Rosenblatt, you’ve got the wrong father.”

With the knife dangling dangerously close to his neck, I wonder if Isaac said to himself, “I’ve got the wrong father.” We ask the same question. Avraham was named in last week’s parasha “Av hamon goyim, the father of multitudes of nations.” We call him, “Avraham Avinu. Abraham, our father.” But what makes him the right father? Why was he elected to be the forefather of our nation? It was because of his performance in a debate.

Putting aside for the moment Abraham’s version of the “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Dad,” we have gotten to know an Abraham who is caring, compassionate and courageous, Abraham who is spiritual and brave, faithful and inspirational.

But perhaps one scene more than others, speaks to Abraham’s legacy as a father and our duty as his children. It is a scene in which God teaches Abraham about parenting. I am talking, of course, about Abraham’s debate with God over the fate of Canaan’s Twin Cities. Just after Abraham learns that he and Sarah are to become parents, God gives us a glimpse at what He expects of the father of multitudes: “I have singled him out that he might command his children and his household after him, to keep the way of the Lord, doing what is just and right l’maan y’tzaveh et banav v’et beito aharav v’shamro derekh hashem laasot tzadaka v’mishpat.”

Abraham is commanded to instruct his descendants to walk in the way of God, doing tzadaka v’mishpat. I want to pause over that phrase, tzadaka v’mishpat, righteousness and justice for their combination is greater than their individual definitions.

Eliezer Berkowitz was one of the leading rabbinic voices of the last century. Chair of the philosophy department of Hebrew Theological College in Chicago, his writing challenged the orthodoxy of his day and ours that separated prophetic Judaism from rabbinic Judaism, that disconnected ethical life and spiritual life. Berkowitz insisted that the path of halakha allowed for, indeed demanded the pursuit of justice. In his essay, “The Biblical Idea of Justice,” he cites example after example from the Tenach to demonstrate that mishpat, law, goes hand in hand with hesed and tzadaka, lovingkindness and righteousness.

The prophet Micha calls out, “What does God want from you only to love hesed and do mishpat.” Zechariah warns, “Execute mishpat, exercise hesed and rahamim.”

“To Western ears,” Berkowtiz writes, “the combination is surprising. Hesed and mishpat, tzedaka and mishpat are opposites. A judge is either just or merciful. One either loves or judges…” Not so in the Bible. Mishpat, justice, seems to be a member of the same group of values to which loving-kindness, compassion and charity belong.”

It is not that the terms are interchangeable. Mishpat means justice. It stands for strictness of law. Tzadaka is benevolence. But they are part of a constellation that exist together, that balance each other. Mishpat is justice that is loving. And tzadaka is charity that is required. In the Bible, justice is not harsh legalism. And law is not some legalistic formula divorced from human compassion as some Christian writings portray them. Quite the contrary, the practice of justice is an extension of love. (Dorff, “To Do the Right and the Good”, p. 125). Tiger parents know this. At their best, they use rules, they enforce consequences out of love for their children.

The point, for Berkowitz and for us of course, is not an academic survey of the Tenach. We are to embody these values, to uphold both tzadaka and mishpat as did Abraham. God tells Abraham “do tzadaka and mishpat.” And Abraham immediately takes up that charge saying, “Ok, God, you asked for it. Do you really call yourself a just God? How can You wipe out these cities? Does the judge of the earth not do justice? Hashofet kol haaretz lo yaaseh mishpat?

We are emboldened and inspired by Abraham’s hutzpa. But this week especially we pause over the question. In the Torah, God threatens to bring about a major natural disaster out east, on the eastern edge of Canaan. As the storm is brewing, Abraham like Job after him, calls on God to justify Himself: “You told me to do justice and righteousness. What about You. Is this what You call just, destroying the good along with the evil?”

There are a few approaches to understanding this classical theological conundrum- why bad things happen to good people. In polytheism, there is no question about bad things happening to good people. In ancient times, there was a god of the sun, and sea and hurricane. In such a world, we can’t expect justice because there is no supreme Judge. There are many judges.

In modern times, the opposite approach has prevailed. There is no question of why God bring deadly storms for there are neither many Gods nor one God. There is no God. There is no justice for there is no Judge and religion is just the Opium of the masses.

Monotheism protests against both of these approaches saying, there is a God who is just and good; our existence is not an accident.  To Job’s protest of God’s injustice, God says, “you cannot understand My ways.” To Abraham, God says, understanding is not the issue, responding is key.  In the words of England’s Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, “Were we to understand divine justice, we would cease being human. [For] we would accept all suffering and thus become deaf to the cries of those in pain” (To Heal a Fractured World, p. 22).

But Judaism, the faith and practice of Avraham requires just the opposite. Abraham was commanded davka “to teach his children to do righteousness and justice.”  This is not only parenting. It is theology. Here, God instructs Abraham how to be a father. To be a father is to raise child who question and who take responsibility, who challenge and who care, who heed and who heal. God does not want a people who passively accept evil and injustice. He wants them to hear the cry of the oppressed. Opium desensitizes us to pain. Abraham’s monotheism sensitizes us to it. (Sacks, p. 28). Here, the Torah becomes God’s call to human responsibility.

In this sense, the story of the binding of Isaac is not a test of Abraham’s faith but of his parenting. It is a test of his son. Will Isaac speak out against a practice common in his day? Abraham, raising the first child in God’s covenant raises the knife hoping for, waiting for Isaac to protest. But there is only silence. It would take until the time of Moshe Rabbeinu that the lessons of Avraham are reinforced with a clever educational tool. “Bind them on your arms and let them be a sign between your eyes.” Just as a child enters Jewish adulthood, just as parents step back and children step up we lay tefillin, we bind God’s words on our hands. They are a daily reminder to do the right thing for as we wind the straps we call out, “v’erastikh li b’tzedek uvamishpat.” “I will do that which is right and just.” In this way, every day, we proclaim, “I have the right father. I am honored to be his son.” And as we walk in the path of Avinu Shbashamiyim, in the path of Avraham Avinu, in the path of our parents, as we take up responsibility, respond to injustice, pursue righteousness, we will hear them say, “And I am proud you are my child.”

On Tuesday, our nation heads to the polls. On one level, we look forward to getting past the ads and the debates. But more importantly, we do so with tremendous pride in our country, with respect for our government and with the weight of responsibility that is the price of freedom.

I won’t tell you who to vote for but I will tell you how to vote- b’tzedek uvamishpat. For that is the very key to our very survival.

Above our ark are three words- emet, din v’shalom. Above the words, a world reflecting the teaching of Pirkie Avot that the world rests on these three things- emet, din v’shalom. What is din? In amidah we recite three times, we pray for din saying, “melekh ohev tzadak umishpat. God loves justice and righteousness.” They alone will not protect us from hurricanes or from fire and brimstone, but they will establish a strong foundation on which to build and sometimes rebuild our lives.

May the judgments we render and the responsibilities we uphold bring righteousness to our cities, strength to our nation and peace to our world.