Friday, October 29, 2010



Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi





No, my lord.  Hear me out.  I have given [natati] the field to you, as well as the cave that is in it.  I have given it [netatiha] to you.  In the presence of the members of my people I have given it [netatiha] to you.  Bury your dead.  (Genisis 23:11)

Our text contains the Hebrew verb natan [give] three times.  The three-fold repetition of a word in a single biblical sentence is unusual, given the Torah’s well-known economy of language. Obviously, the repetition is deliberate  and invites interpretation. 

Many of the commentators stress its simple moral lesson.  Although Efron the Hitite, the owner of the property, says over and over again that it is his gift to Abraham, he has no hesitation in suggesting an exorbitant sum of money as payment.  His “talking the talk, but not walking the walk”, contrasts sharply with the Jewish ethical imperative: ”Say little, but do much,”  annunciated centuries later by Shammai. (Avot 2:15).

I believe that our text contains another crucial lesson.  Abraham was not na├»ve.  He was fully aware of the self-serving strategies of Efron.  He was not at all taken in by what Efron so clearly stated because he knew that Efron’s actual intentions were in stark contrast to his verbal generosity.  The Hittite political niceties were not to be taken at face value. 

Significantly, not withstanding  Efron’s politically correct statement,  Abraham knew that, if he wanted a piece of the promised land, he would have to pay dearly for it.  This is, I believe, the real message of our text:  If you want the promised land, do not rely on the words of others. In its Balfour Declaration, Great Britain promised that all the territory from the Jordan to the Mediterranean would be the Jewish homeland. But it emasculated its commitment by issuing White Paper after White Paper, reducing the size of the homeland, limiting Jewish immigration even during the Shoah, and thus implicitly encouraging  bloody anti Jewish  riots and massacres  in such places as Hebron. 

The Family of Nations  promised us a State by voting for the partition of Palestine in 1947, then stood back as we were invaded by seven Arab nations.  Promises after worthless promises.   Why is there a Jewish State today? It is because, like Abraham, we have paid for it be-achuzat kever, with precious Jewish lives, with many thousands of Jewish graves.

The Declaration of the Catholic Bishops this week is yet another striking reminder of the emptiness of diplomatic utterances.  Think back on the history of the Church’s relationship with the Jews.  In the view of the founders of the Christian faith, the Jewish rejection of their messiah-god  caused God to reject the Jewish people, by embracing the Christian community as the new Israel, and Rome as the new Jerusalem.  The Jew could thenceforward be legitimately persecuted, and  made permanently stateless as living testimony to the Church triumphant and Israel defeated.  

Raoul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews has convincingly demonstrated the parallel between Hitler’s Nuremberg Laws and centuries of Church decrees against the Jews.  The complicity of the Vatican with Hitler’s Third Reich remains a very black chapter  in the Church’s long, dark history of anti Semitism, and even in the aftermath of the Holocaust, even after the UN vote to enable the establishment of the State of Israel, the Vatican refused to recognize its existence. 

Naively, we rejoiced at the long delayed recognition of the Jewish State by the Catholic Church as an act of penance for its bloody past, foolishly believing that the horrible history of anti Jewish prejudice by the Church had finally ended. 
We should have known better.  We should long ago have learned not to trust diplomatic documents. 

Stop and think. Why were Catholic Bishops meeting in Rome?  Their agenda was  their concern for the safely and security of the diminishing and increasingly embattled Christian communities in the Muslim world.  The Declaration at the end of the convention conveniently shifted the blame for Muslim intolerance to the Jewish people.  The Clerics actually had the temerity to suggest that the Israeli “occupation” was the reason for the suffering of  Christian communities in Muslim countries. They declared that the Israeli political leadership arrogantly invoked the notion  of the Chosen People and scriptural promises about the Promised Land  to justify immoral, indeed abhorrent, political policies.  According to the Bishops, Israel’s Knesset had become the Devil quoting Scripture.  No matter that the largely secular Knesset has never invoked such claims, despite the price we have paid for the land be-achuzat kever, with our blood and Jewish graves, the Bishops again trumpet  the old anti Semitic  canards.

The more things change, the more they are the same.  The despicable Declaration of the Bishops is eerily reminiscent of the Vatican’s complicity in the Shoah, once more cynically ready to sacrifice Jews on the false belief that Christian communities will thereby be spared.   The chutzpah of the Bishop’s moral judgment about Israel is monumental.  The blatantly Machiavellian strategy of the Church is, on the contrary, itself a massive instance of immorality.  Besides, what makes the Church, itself  so deeply mired in accusations of widespread child-abuse and moral turpitude worldwide  an acceptable arbiter of  the ethical standards of others?

The disgusting Declaration by the Catholic Bishops reminds us yet again of the lesson of our text. Abraham taught us not to rely on the pretty words and politically correct promises of others.  He bought initial possession of the Holy Land with the grave of his beloved.  We have continued to do so.  We cannot, will not rely on the word of others.  We have long ago learned that there are no allies, but only interests-- and that interests change.  Our claim to the land of Israel does not change.  For us it is a matter of life and death. And we shall choose life, whether the Church likes it or not.  

Wednesday, October 27, 2010



Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi

 Rabbi Abner Weiss’ Weekly Torah Teaching

Parashat Va-Yera  5771/2010

Dealing With Defeat

Ve– Avraham shav limkomo  “And Abraham returned to his place (Genesis 18:33).

 Our text takes up the narrative of Abraham’s spiritual journey following his encounter with God prior to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Abraham had been the quintessentially obedient servant of God, answering His call, doing His bidding without reservations. He had uprooted himself from everything that had been familiar, to undertake an undefined mission in a foreign country, whose people spoke a different language, practiced religion differently, and held values from his.  In an audacious demonstration of caring and commitment, he had participated in a multi-.national armed conflict, motivated primarily by his desire to rescue Lot, who had been taken captive.  Not withstanding his significant contribution to the victorious outcome of the war, he had refused to sully his reputation for altruism by accepting the spoils of war for himself.  God had instructed him to be a blessing [“And thou shall be a blessing” (Genesis 12:2)], and he had become a blessing in every way.

Then comes the news of the Divine intention of destroying the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because of the unspeakable corruption of their inhabitants.  Characteristically, Abraham, the personification of loving kindness, is horrified by the huge, threatened loss of life.  With almost unbelievable chutzpah, God’s servant challenges God Himself: “To do such a thing is sacrilegious, to kill the righteous together with the wicked so that the righteous and the wicked will suffer the same fate.  How can you do so sacrilegious an act!  Shall the Judge of the whole earth not do justly?” (Genesis 18:25).  But Abraham’s intervention is for naught.  God is unconvinced by his pleas. With the exception of Lot and his two daughters, all the inhabitants of the cities perish.  The servant of God has, as it were, been defeated by God. 

How does Abraham deal with defeat?  Ve– Avraham shav limkomo  “And Abraham returned to his place (Genesis 18:33).  According to the sages, mekomo can also mean “ to his God”.  Indeed, the designation of God as “Makom” is usually in the context of our search for connection with the Divine when we have suffered disappointment and loss.  Mourners are comforted with the blessing “May the Lord [Ha-Makom} comfort you among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.  The Passover Haggadah, recalling the spiritual alienation of the broken, dehumanized Hebrew slave masses, and God’s intervention on their behalf in their demoralized condition, declares: “Blessed be the Lord [ Ha-Makom] blessed is He”.  This is precisely the meaning of our text- Ve– Avraham shav limkomo  “And Abraham returned to his place (Genesis 18:33). Despite  his disappointment and defeat, Abraham remains steadfast in his faith, resuming his relationship with God as it had been before the Divine rebuff.  Once again, he prayed as he had always prayed.

Everyone has suffered disappointment, loss and defeat.  Our lives are punctuated as much by tragedy as by triumph.  We have  dreams unrealized, hope frustrated, love lost, trust betrayed, accomplishments denigrated and dignity stripped away. How do we deal with defeat?

The natural reaction to failure is despair.  But despair, if unchecked by optimism can spiral into ever-darker depths of depression.  Abraham has taught us that the human spirit is resilient, capable of lifting us up when we are down--if only we  dare to dream again. Ve– Avraham shav limkomo .  Can we find the strength to return to where we were, to reclaim our faith, to reconnect with God, even when we feel alienated  and rejected?

 We often feel forsaken, beating our fists against the heavens, crying out :”God, why me? Why have You abandoned me?  Did I really behave badly enough to deserve this great loss, this huge defeat?  Why have I been singled out for such radical rejection? “  Our cry of despair seems all too reasonable, but  loss of faith only makes matters worse.  Abraham’s response to defeat by God was not self-pity.  He did not attempt to do God’s arithmetic or to understand the divine calculus, because nobody can.

Ve– Avraham shav limkomo .   Can we find the courage to follow Abraham’s example?  I believe that this Torah teaching tells us that we can.  Abraham models a path for each and every one of us  whenever we feel abandoned and rejected.

  Try it. It works.   

Thursday, October 21, 2010



Traditionalists have long been convinced that Abraham was the first monotheist.  The sages of the Midrash account for his theological revolution by suggesting that he was persuaded that a design as intricate as the cosmos required an omniscient Designer, and that the unity inherent in all things suggests a single creative Intelligence.  But Abraham (or Abram as he was still known) was not the only monotheist.  The Torah describes his meeting with at least one other contemporary monotheist, Malkhizedek, King of Shalem, “the priest of the most high God”.  So how did his monotheism differ from Malkhizedek’s?

Responding to the Divine call, he sets out to a strange land and alien culture, and readies himself to settle among people whose language probably differed somewhat from that of his native Ur.  How could this foreigner possibly have persuaded the inhabitants of Canaan to follow his invisible God?  There is no record of Abraham’s sermons and lectures, probably because intellectual discourse was not central to his mission.  What is recorded is his ethical sensibility.  He welcomes dusty Bedouin travelers into his home with respect, and treats them with dignity.  He argues with God about the injustice of destroying the presumed righteous minority of the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah along with the overwhelming majority who were corrupt.

In a sense, Abraham personifies the later biblical adage: ”The world is built on loving kindness”.   His ministry represents the transformation of conceptual, philosophical monotheism into ethical monotheism.  Belief in God carries with it the imperative of bringing light into a world of darkness through caring and kindness.  This was Abraham’s real religious revolution and the reason for the success of his mission.

The entire world was recently transfixed by the incredible rescue of thirty-three miners trapped in the bowels of the earth for 69 days.  The operation was a striking instance not only of human technical ingenuity, but also of human goodness, kindness and caring.  For sixty-nine days the regular affairs of state in Chile were transcended by the fate of 33 ordinary people whose lives hung in the balance. The Head of government left the presidential palace to show solidarity with ordinary citizens and spared no expense to save their lives.  The emergence of those miners from darkness into the light precisely reflected the goal of the religion of Abraham, the shattering of the darkness of humanity with the light of human kindness. 

Coincidentally, Yolande and I were watching a satellite broadcast of the rescue on Euro News that was followed by a special on the devastating floods in Pakistan.  Some 22 million people were displaced; their homes washed away, their food supply destroyed, their drinking water contaminated and their bodies ravaged by diseases.  The enormity of this catastrophe boggles the imagination, but there was no pause in the bloody campaign of bombing marketplaces and mosques by people whose ideology added darkness to darkness.  Chile and Pakistan:  What a contrast between darkness and light, love and hate, kindness and cruelty, moral excellence and ethical paralysis.  In Chile, the biblical mantra: “The world is built on loving kindness” was translated into an incredible, almost miraculous demonstration of light and love.  In Pakistan chaos piled on chaos.

The story of the   Chilean   rescue   is majestic indeed, and its execution was grand, but Abraham’s moral imperative also translates into small, but very significant acts of loving-kindness that cumulatively transform communities, societies and civilizations.  In the Jewish tradition, his hospitality to the wayfarer is particularly emphasized even though it was not at all dramatic.  Nevertheless, when emulated by those whose lives had been touched, it created a culture of caring.  Not surprisingly, therefore, our sages count hospitality among those virtues whose rewards we reap both in this life and beyond.  Significantly, the passage that describes the importance of hospitality is the rabbinic reading with which we begin our daily worship.  Why is this so?

Few things are as painful as loneliness and alienation.  Few situations contrast those who feel alienated and excluded by being left behind after worship with people who leave the synagogue in groups for shared food and fellowship.  Their exclusion accentuates their loneliness and emphasizes their sense of alienation. 

The simple gesture of a smiling invitation to your home moves the light of worship into the hearts of the disaffected and lonely.  This is why our synagogue has a hospitality committee. Like Abraham, we strive to show concern and respect for the feelings and needs of everybody.  There are simply no excuses for not participating in this simple demonstration of kindness and concern.  You live too far away? Partner and share the costs of hospitality with a family that lives closer by. You’re not kosher enough? Raise your standards-- or at least join with a family that is kosher in hosting someone for a Sabbath meal.  These are tiny gestures, but a small flickering candlelight dispels great darkness.  Volunteer your home and participation in this simple mitzvah. This is one small but effective way of showing that the world is built on loving kindness and that each one of us is a builder.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Rabbi Abner Weiss

Rabbi Abner Weiss holds PHD's in both Psychology and Philosophy and is currently Rabbi of the Westwood Village Synagogue in Los Angeles, CA.

Rabbi Abner Weiss has had a distinguished Rabbinic career.  He was Chief Minister of the Provence of Natal in South Africa, the Riverdale Jewish Center in New York, the Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills and the Western Marble Arch Synagogue in London.  

He served as Principal (Dean) of the London School of Jewish Studies, and Affiliate of the University of London and was responsible for the training of Rabbis and Jewish Academics of the United Kingdom.

Rabbi Abner Weiss has held professorships at major universities in Africa, North America and Great Britain.

Through this blog-site, Rabbi Abner Weiss will disseminate weekly Torah teachings.