Becoming Abravanel

02/01/2017 at 11:05 Leave a comment

“Becoming Abravanel”

 

Parashat Miketz

Neil F. Blumofe

31 December 2016

 

Do you remember the song Tradition in the musical Fiddler on the Roof, as we are being introduced to the various inhabitants of the town Anatevka, we meet Reb Nahum the beggar – who after getting only one kopek this week from Lazar Wolf responds to him, nu, if you had a bad week – why should I suffer?

 

In this week of lighting our Hanukkah candles as we look to restore hope and balance in this world with our increasing lights, it has been a strange, imbalanced week – a time when we could say that there has been a disturbance in the force.  Many of us traveling or on vacation, looking to take a breath and enjoy life for a few moments, were following with dread these past few days instead, the recent decision of the United Nations Security Council Resolution – the first one in 36 years – that condemned the building of housing for Israelis in the areas known as Judea and Samaria – the West Bank – what are called settlements.  This was followed by a speech by the current US Secretary of State who defended the US abstention of this resolution and demanded that Israel end so-called settlement building – calling it an obstacle for peace.

 

I condemn this resolution and the public, one-sided nature of how the US abstention was rationalized and explained.  I do believe that this action emboldens others to merge legitimate critique with anti-Jewish and anti-Israel positions.  I appreciate the recent report concerning the British Prime Minister scolding Secretary of State Kerry for his focus on the settlements.  And I could go on – however, I feel to analyze political posturing and to comment on the agendas of others should not be my focus – certainly in this time of teaching and inspiring with Torah – and is to fall into a trap, of not seeing the forest for the trees.

 

For while upsetting, this attitude from America is nothing new – back in 1990, US Secretary of State James Baker famously said to his counterparts in Israel – everybody over there should know that the telephone number of the White House is 202-456-1414.  When you’re serious about peace, call us.  And while we are looking for a way now to move through this current ripple in the great Israel-US alliance, we should also be reminded that we should have no illusions about what constitutes partnerships in the realm of realpolitik.

 

Even more than people, countries act in their own self-interest, and we celebrate when these actions may coincide with benevolence and empathy.  We give our leaders too much credit if we think that they prioritize our needs before their own.  As Pirkei Avot shrewdly teaches – hevu z’hirin barashut, shein m’karvin lo la’adam elah l’tzorech atzman.  Nir’in k’ohavin bish’at hana’atan, v’ein omdin lo la’adam bish’at doch’ko – be wary of the authorities – they do not befriend anyone unless it servers their own needs.  They appear as a friend when it is to their advantage, however, they do not stand by anyone in the hour of need.  In addition, as we strive to make sense of the decisions of government — there is a method always to what is shared publically versus what is shared privately.  Who people are speaking to is not always obvious.  To this end, even when there aren’t organized services in this sanctuary, I like to take time and dwell in here, when it is quiet.  I have had a great privilege in my time in Austin, being a part of the envisioning of this space – and the small details of its construction continue to stay with me as I share them with you, as well.

 

As we direct our attention to the ark doors, we see the artful zodiac – which is meant to remind us of the ancient mosaics found in the sixth-century synagogue in Beth Alpha, located in the north of Israel, near Beit She’an.  In addition, the study of astronomy is meant to connect us to the once great Jewish civilization in Babylon – the place where the Talmud was codified and rabbinic Judaism flourished, establishing our Jewish practices, even today.  Everytime we say mazal tov, which means, may our stars be favorable, we are evoking our legacy from Babylon.

 

The larger copper doors themselves were by design, manufactured in Europe, specifically in Germany, and evoke a connection to the once glorious Jewish presence in Europe – where Jews became an indispensable part of the fabric of Western civilization – and both of these civilizations of learning and leading – Babylonian and European — are long gone – there are no Jews safely living in modern day Iraq – and the majority of Jews in Germany and Poland are largely reconstituted from Russian and Israel, today.  Thus, our sanctuary in its beauty is an elegant open question, and a silent referendum about our own current success. As we come here to pray and to put our trust in God – a question beneath our prayers is always — In America, as Jews, how far can we go?

 

We are living in a toxic and corrosive environment – where the Jewish community is battling neo-Nazis on the right and on the left.  As students of history, this should surprise no one.  What is more dismaying is the quick willingness of Jews to denounce other Jews – adopting the language of the fascists in declaring what is right and proper in pursuing particular political agendas – calling Jews JINOS (Jews in Name Only), unJews, Erev Rav – a mixed multitude, kapos, and the enemy within – and declaring an absolute Truth and way forward that obscures more difficult truths is most distressing.  In these attacks among us, to separate the strength of Israel and liberal Judaism is a grave mistake.

 

Here, unfortunately, there are so many parallels to the story of Hanukkah – and the aftermath of the victory of the Maccabees.  For if we read the end of the Books of the Maccabees, we see that after the defeat of the Seleucids, the Maccabees began to fight among themselves — Jews against Jews – Judah Maccabee attacking other cities around Jerusalem.  The Maccabees finally lost against the Greeks in the Battle of Elasa in 160 BCE, where Judah Maccabee was killed.  However, based on the political considerations of the day and negotiations and interests of the larger world powers at the time, Jonathan, Judah’s youngest brother, became High Priest and ruled an independent Judea until about 100 years later.  In a disagreement then between two Hasmonean brothers, descendants of the Maccabees — the Romans were called in by the Hasmoneans themselves, to strengthen one particular side  – and once the Romans entered as an interested party, this unleashed a brute, impassive force against the Jews of the region.

 

I would rather we get to know the great thinkers and wisdom carriers of our tradition – and there is so much to say – however, let me introduce you today to just one figure in our tradition who can help guide us in these unprecedented times – the great leader, Yitzchak ben Yehudah Abravanel – a 15th century Jewish statesman and Torah sage – and a life that reflects the fate of Jews in this world, as we can take council from our history.

 

Commonly known as Abravanel – he was born in Portugal in 1437 – to a family that had escaped massacre in Castile in 1391.  He was appointed as treasurer to King Afonso V.  After this king died, Abravanel was considered a traitor by the new king – the move to a new administration was not good for him.  Eventually he moved to Toledo, Spain, and began to work for Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand – you may have heard about them – the ones who expelled the Jews from Spain in 1492.  I can only imagine the names Abravanel would have been called today by other Jews — Abravanel tried mightily to have the king and queen reverse their decision – offering to pay extraordinary amounts of money to have them to do so.  He was unsuccessful and left Spain for Naples – working for the king there, until the French invaded and Abravanel was forced to leave again without any of his possessions.  He eventually ended up in Venice where he worked in the government until his death in 1508.  He was buried in Padua – and the next year, there was a Siege of Padua by the Holy Roman Empire and the subsequent destruction of the Jewish cemetery – so his grave is currently unknown.

 

Hopefully we can get perspective from knowing more about the story of the Maccabees and the simple biography of Don Isaac Abravanel – we should know too, as we wade through our news feeds, this quote from Niccolo Machiavelli – politics have no relation to morals. 

 

So, let us celebrate Hanukkah and each day, excruciatingly aware of the world around us and yet not to have the world darken our spirits – we are not to be occluded —  we are to find the light in dark times – amid our grim preparation for confronting what is next, we are  to choose miracle out of morass.  We are to deeply acknowledge the darkness – and as we dwell within  this magnificent and thought-provoking sanctuary bracing for impact, to not only say – but to feel in the depth of our being – nes gadol haya po ­– as Hannah Arendt writes – even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination, and that such illumination may well come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and in their works, will kindle under almost any circumstances and shed over the time span that was given them on this earth.  We are, each of us, that uncertain, flickering, and weak light – and we are to persevere.  As Reb Nahum from Anatevka reminds us – this belief, this perseverance, is our tradition.

 

Shabbat Shalom.

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