Rabbi Rachel Timoner – Shabbat Chayei Sarah 5783

Rabbi Timoner uses the relationship of Ishmael and Isaac to discuss Israel–Palestine, Dave Chapelle, and Black–Jewish relations.

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On Israel-Palestine and Black-Jewish Relations

Naomi and Ben, what important messages you have brought us today. I want to dig in to the scene in which Abraham negotiates for the Cave of Machpelah (Sarah’s burial place) with the Hittites, and then relate it to two big topics: Israel Palestine and three recent incidents in this country in which Black Americans said or did antisemitic things and have faced rebuke or punishment for it. This will all naturally lead us back to the relationship between Isaac and Ishmael. Here we go.

If we look at chapter 23 of Genesis, right at the beginning of the parasha, we see Abraham approach the Hittites after Sarah’s death. The first thing he says to them is “Ger v’toshav anochi. I am a resident alien among you.” In other words, he’s saying, “I don’t know your ways, and I don’t have a claim to the land, but I have a need for land. Will you teach me how to respectfully purchase land from you?”

The text then tells us “v’Ephron yoshev,” meaning Ephron (the owner of the land that Abraham wants to purchase) was present among the Hittites when Abraham approached them with this request. Rashi notes that yoshev is written without a vav, which means it really should be read yashav, the past tense of the verb, meaning, Ephron sat or was seated. Rashi interprets this to say that that very day Ephron was seated as a leader among his people, that he was “elevated to a dignified position” so that Abraham, who was widely seen as a prince, would be negotiating with an equal.

Next, the text tells us that Abraham “bowed low to the people of the land.” He did so twice. Chizkuni explains his humbling himself before all of the people as follows, “Abraham was dependent on the goodwill of everyone in that town. Even if Ephron had been willing to sell his field or plot, Abraham would have needed the townspeople’s permission to turn it into a mausoleum.”

Finally, we see Abraham plead for understanding. “Ach im atah lu shmaeini. But if you, if only you would listen to me.” Here we have people from two different cultures who are having trouble hearing each other. The Hittites are offering to give Abraham land but he feels misunderstood. He doesn’t want a gift. He wants them to understand that from his perspective only a fair purchase of the land will give him the security of knowing that he has properly cared for Sarah in her burial. And Abraham isn’t the only one asking to be heard. The Hittites say Shmaeinu “hear us” as their first response to him. Ephron will say “Shmaeini, Hear me” two more times to him. Finally, when the price of 50 shekels of silver is deemed fair by both parties, the
Torah tells us that Abraham fulfills the agreement in the hearing of all the people.

Let’s review what happens here. First, Abraham acknowledges that he is a stranger to the Hittites and their ways and that the land does not belong to him. Second, Ephron is elevated to a position of dignity so that Abraham and Ephron are equals for the purpose of negotiation. Third, Abraham bows low to the people of the land twice, recognizing and acknowledging his dependence upon them. Fourth, the process begins with and centers on the request to be heard, and it ends with Ephron and Abraham hearing each other and all of the people hearing them both.

The Torah is clear throughout that in an absolute sense the land does not belong to any of us. Not Israelis. Not Palestinians. Not White Americans. Not Native Americans. It belongs to Gd. (Or in the language of Native Americans, Mother Earth.) We are all ger v’toshav on any land we inhabit. According to Torah, the land of Israel is our inheritance and we may reside on it IF we live appropriately upon it. Our place on the land is conditional. That is always painfully clear in the Torah and the Hebrew Bible.

In that sense, the Jewish experience of being ger v’toshav, resident aliens, wherever we live— often because antisemitism makes other people see us as foreigners even if we’ve been in a place for a thousand years — is actually instructive for all of the other peoples of the earth. The land, the society —any land, any society—belongs to no one. We are all resident aliens with each other. We are all strangers who have a great deal to learn about each other. And we ought to approach each other with that kind of respect, care, awareness of not knowing, and openness to learning.

Next, Rashi brings the insight that both parties in a negotiation or conflict need to be elevated to a position of dignity. We all do better in negotiating our differences when we see ourselves and each other as equals, and when our power positions are comparable. The debasement, traumatization, and shaming of a population, whether Jews through conspiracy theories and attempted annihilation, or Palestinians through massacres, forced exile, and brutal occupation, or Black Americans through slavery and ongoing forced and structural subjugation, cripples our ability to negotiate our differences with one another. This is why inequality is always harmful for Jews. It doesn’t matter whether we are on the top or bottom of the inequality. The bigger the inequality the more dangerous the conditions are for us. When people are crushed — whether that’s us or others— their capacity for empathy radically diminishes. Our interest in the stories and life experience of others is enabled by our well-being. This is true for Jews and it is true for everyone. If you are stressed, if you are oppressed, if you feel devalued in your humanity, it is extremely difficult to look outside of yourself. This means that every single thing that humiliates or chokes Palestinian life, and every single thing that terrifies Jews, makes the possibility of mutual understanding more remote. And the bigger we make the imbalance of power between our two peoples, the harder it will be to find peace. We are going in exactly the wrong direction therefore, not only for justice (of course for justice), but even for our own wellbeing, safety, and future.

When Abraham bowed low to all of the people, he demonstrated wisdom we need. We are all always dependent on others, and on the other. Even if we’re powerful, all humans are interdependent. All oppression, all violence, all hate therefore endangers us, even if we are not its target. If we didn’t already know it, the pandemic and climate crisis have made that abundantly clear. Further, humility is not weakness. Lowering ourselves to show respect, particularly when we have power or are perceived to have power, is a way of acknowledging the Gd given dignity and stature of other people. It may even indicate that we have something to learn from them, which we always do. It is our best chance of hearing and being heard.

Which brings us to the last lesson of this passage in Torah. Abraham and the Hittites simply want to be heard and understood. They are trying to communicate across cultural barriers. They are trying to negotiate how they will coexist on the land, and specifically whether a Jew can have a holding on Hittite land to bury his dead. As we know too well, this is complex, it is emotional, it could easily fall apart. Their only chance of success is in hearing and being heard.

In this country, the Jewish people are in a time in which hearing and being heard are more essential than ever.

There is no doubt that Kanye West’s words were deeply antisemitic. There is no doubt that the film that Kyrie Irving posted is antisemitic. And though it is more subtle and complex, Dave Chappelle’s SNL monologue did more to reinforce antisemitism than either Ye or Kyrie. It did so by denying it was doing so and then doing so. It did so through the comedic move of naming the taboo and making fun of it while also engaging in it. The only problem is that the taboo can be life threatening for us. I humbly refer you to a sermon I gave about the threat of antisemitism two weeks ago.

A few specific points about Dave Chappelle’s monologue while I’m here:

Number one. That’s right, as Dave Chappelle joked, that you shouldn’t say The Jews, just like you shouldn’t say The Blacks or The Asians. Or The Muslims. Or The Homeless. Or The Disabled. It’s an easy tip off that you’re generalizing and likely the next thing you say will be a stereotype. That’s not special to us and it does not make us hypersensitive. That standard should be applied to everyone and often is. Acting like it’s special to us is another way of saying that we have to be treated specially and that we have special hidden privileges and power — which is the essence of antisemitism.

Number Two. That’s right that there are a lot of Jews in Hollywood, just like there are a lot of Blacks in Ferguson, and as Chappelle joked, it doesn’t mean they run the place. Obviously the humor here is the massive power differential between these two realities. But there are actual reasons why both of these things are true. Black people were redlined and excluded from many neighborhoods in St. Louis but were allowed to settle in Ferguson. Jews were barred and excluded from many other fields in the early part of the 20th century but were allowed to work in the movies. As Jon Stewart said, just because people are in a profession doesn’t mean they secretly control it.

Number Three. That’s right, in lots of places and in lots of fields in this country at this time, Jews have power. Not more power than non-Jewish white people. Not the most power. And not coordinated power. But yes, when people say or do antisemitic things it is often true that there are consequences. That’s actually good. When people say or do racist or sexist or anti-immigrant or Islamophobic or ableist or ageist things there should also be consequences. Given the announcement of a certain candidacy for president, we’ve just begun another onslaught of such speech. As we know, hate speech and spreading lies about groups of people, particularly when you have a big audience, can lead to discrimination and violence against that group of people. People might die. It’s not something anyone should do. The question is what are the appropriate consequences when someone does it? This we have not gotten right. Cancel culture is not right and does not work. Whatever we do, our response to antisemitism and all forms of dangerous lies or hate speech should open up the conversation instead of closing it down. It should shine the light of truth on falsehoods instead of enforcing silence. And this was one of Chappelle’s very valid points.

In particular, we know that the Black community has experienced the extraction of wealth over many generations, from the actual theft of their bodies and forced unpaid labor, to usurious sharecropping and land seizure, to asset forfeiture and mass incarceration, to all of the many forms of structural racism today, including simply being underpaid for work compared to white people, which continues now in all parts of the economy. In some Black neighborhoods where property is being taken illegally today, including Bed Stuy, it is often Jewish people who are doing the taking. We have learned this painfully through our partnership with Antioch Baptist Church and from our members who work at legal aid prosecuting the people who commit this fraud. The perception in the Black community that Jews have a role, even a central role, in extracting Black wealth, is either initiated or reinforced by experiences like this. We have to face this ugly truth and in doing so make clear that these are outliers among our people and do not represent our values.

Also, one of the primary postures of white America toward Black America is punishment. We see it everywhere, from school disciplinary systems to policing and prisons. The expectation is that Black people are doing wrong and white people are correcting and punishing them. Therefore, when Black people say or do antisemitic things, we need to find a different way of responding if we want to stop participating in that general pattern, and if we want any chance of being heard, if we want any chance of mutual listening and learning.

I relate so deeply to Abraham’s cry: “Ach im atah lu shmaeini. But if you, if only you would listen to me.” I feel so misunderstood as a Jew right now. I feel so unheard. Maybe you do too.

In my fantasy world, I want everyone to tune into a big national conversation where we get to examine all of the lies about us and correct all of those lies with truth, where our non-Jewish allies stand up and say “Let me tell you why this idea about Jews, which may seem true to you, is not actually true.” I want all of the channels of hate and misinformation that course through our society to be flooded with compelling ads that demonstrate how the lies are lies. I want comedians and actors and talk show hosts and podcasters and social media influencers and politicians to make people laugh about the absurdity of the conspiracy theories against us, to make people feel what it’s like to be so misunderstood, to help people learn about how to recognize antisemitism and discern what’s true. I want that not just for us, but for all people. And I want us, despite our fear and exhaustion, to be able listen, truly listen, to the experience of other targeted groups, to understand where they are coming from. So that the cry “Shmaeini, Listen to me!” will be responded to with “Shamati. I heard you.”

As you taught us, Naomi, our people have fallen far from Abraham’s original encounter with the Hittites at the Cave of Machpelah. I agree that the best thing we can do now is to support those Israelis and Palestinians who are living up to Abraham’s example, who are elevating one another into positions of dignity and equality so that negotiations will be possible, and who are recognizing that we are dependent on one another — interdependent with one another — that the only viable future is one that upholds the dignity, safety, and freedom of both peoples. Sometimes it seems that peace and understanding with our neighbors —whether in Israel, here, or anywhere else in the world — will be impossible. But Ben, you remind us that despite the real causes of resentment and alienation between them, despite the stories that were told that would distance them from one another, Ishmael and Isaac found a way back to one another to bury and honor their father in peace and fellowship. If they could do it, surely we can do it too.