Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Love Can Overcome Differences

Parshat Noach

by Rabbi Avi Billet

 All Harry Potter fans know that Lily Potter gave her life for her son, and what saved his life in his various encounters with the villain of the series (who must not be named) is Love.

 The theme of Love was also the savior in Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time” when minds and destinies were to be lost and destroyed were it not for love.

 I am sure this theme is recast in many forms in countless successful books.

 But it seems far removed from the tale of Noach, in a story in which it might have played a critical role. 

Noach is certainly portrayed several times as being a “tzaddik” – a righteous man (6:9, 7:1). Rashi explains in 6:14 that Noach took 120 years to build the Ark because he wanted people to see what he was doing, so they could ask him about it. In explaining to them about the coming flood, he would be giving them the opportunity to repent, so the decree could be reversed.

 While Noach merits to have his family join him in the Ark, Or HaChaim suggests they were unworthy of being saved. They were only brought on board because they were his family. After all, God told Noach “you are the (only) tzaddik I see in this generation.” Was it love that saved his family? Or was it his righteousness? (My vote is not with “love.”)

 In the book of Bereshit, love appears a number of times. Yitzchak is loved by his father, who brings him to a mountain with intent to kill him. Yitzchak later loves Rivkah, but they turn out to have very different ideas on how to raise children, leading each to direct their love each to their own favorite son. Yaakov loves Rachel, but she is the only wife with whom we see him have a real spat (30:1-2). Shechem loves Dinah – which is beautiful, if we can call what he does to Dinah an act of love (we can’t). Yaakov showers his love on Yosef, and the brothers hate Yosef because of that love. Even Yaakov gets angry with Yosef (37:10)

 It would seem that love doesn’t get the same honor and stature in the Torah as it does in modern literature. Which, in a way, is understandable. The Torah is not a romantic novel, nor is it a guide for the value of love. However, the Torah does inform us about life – about its ups and downs, its trials and travails, and about human triumph and suffering. Because unlike works of fiction, the Torah is very very real. And the narratives in the Torah have an incredible insight into the reality of the human condition.

 But, I would argue, though the examples of love in the book of Bereshit are not all that inspiring, the idea of loving others – whether it’s in the form of “loving one’s neighbor” (Vayikra 19:18) or “loving the stranger” (Vayikra 19:34, Devarim 10:19) – is a key teaching of the Torah. Rabbi Akiva called it an essential teaching.

Aharon HaKohen is credited with being the success he was because he was a “Lover of peace and a pursuer of peace, who loved people and brought them close to Torah.”

 I learned a very important lesson this week, from a Tzanzer chossid I probably never would have met were I not invited to be the mohel for a very unique family. The baby’s father grew up Chassidic, but lives a vastly different lifestyle now – absolutely Jewish, but not particularly observant. And yet he told me over and over how much he wants his parents and brother, who were to be flying in from Israel, to feel comfortable at the bris. “I don’t live as a chossid. But I love them, and I respect them so much.”

 After my post-bris visit, I told his parents how much I admire their ability to embrace their son’s choices, and to maintain the connection with him – despite the physical distance and the worldy-distance. His father told me they email each other several times a week, and of course speak on the phone. I complimented them – the parents – for keeping their son close to them.

 And then his brother said to me, “He is also mekarev us.” (He brings us close to him). “He has really opened our eyes. And we need that more than anything.” This insightful comment really struck home.

 How often do we see families torn apart over religious differences? How often are children rejected, or parents ignored, or grandparents deprived of a relationship with their grandchildren (which hurts both directions) on account of a fight or disagreement that should not be irreconcilable? Egos are hard to drop. Taking a stand in the name of religion or God is hard to give-in on. But we must recognize what the greater lesson, what the greater value is, when we encounter what we see as conflicts that cut to our core.

 A Tzanzer chossid loves a secular Jew because he literally is his brother. And his eyes have been opened to the idea that life is much bigger than one way – that people can be Jewish in many ways, and they can still have a “Yiddishe neshoma,” a Jewish soul.

 Noach had his own conflict with his son Cham. His attitude was to curse his son. The result of that curse led to the birth of the seven nations of the land that gave ancient Israel so many problems. Avraham threw Yishmael out of his house, and sent away the children of Keturah. This may have similarly set the stage for the modern state of affairs facing contemporary Israel.

 The Torah’s examples of love are not the best. But the lesson we can learn is that love, when it is real, and when it comes from a place of tolerance, has the ability to bring the people from the furthest places to be as close as can be.

 May Israel be blessed to be rid of the culture of hate that plagues any potential peace partners. As long as there is hatred, peace will never be achieved.

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