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Lech-Lecha 5783           November 5, 2022

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom,

     Our Parsha this week, introduces us to Abraham, or as he is formerly known, Avram. His family has been on a journey out of the mountains of southern Turkey to the upper regions of what will become Assyria. Called by God, Abraham will continue his journey south to the land of Canaan to pasture his flocks in what will become someday the area around Hebron and extend his range south to the Negev and east toward the city of Gerar. He will also spend some time in Egypt.

     God has made promises to Abraham, that he will become wealthy and famous and that he will be the father of a nation and the founder of a dynasty. In our parsha this week, we find that God will make good on two of the three promises. Abraham returns from Egypt with great wealth and after raising an army to defeat an invasion by five kings, he becomes famous. But still, he, and Sarah his wife, remain childless.

     His heir apparent is his nephew Lot, the son of his deceased brother, who has followed Abraham in his migration. Lot has also become wealthy by his association with Abraham, but it is that wealth that begins to cause a problem. Both men have extensive flocks of sheep and now it has become impossible for them to graze the same pastures. Lot and Abraham will have to split up. Standing on a hill Abraham tells his nephew to choose a direction, if Lot goes east, Abraham will go west; If Lot goes north, Abraham will go south. According to the Torah, Lot sees the Jordan valley with rich pastures, but which also has the sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Lot decides to take his chances there. Lot goes west and Abraham goes east. The arguments between them have been resolved.

     Eitan Cooper, the Vice President of the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem notes, in his D’var Torah this week, that this choice by Lot is an indicator of the difference between these two men. He writes: To resolve the conflict between their shepherds, Avraham asks Lot to choose – If you go to the right, I will go leftward, if you go to the left, I will go rightward. In the story, Lot only looks one way, and seeing the beautiful Jordan Valley below him, never even bothers to look the other way. He “chooses.” Rashi quotes from Midrash Rabbah that Lot was like a man “chasing after his mother’s dowry” – he runs after the familiar, the sure thing. He stays within his “comfort zone.” It is a choice of sorts – but he stays well within the box.”

     Lot chooses in a similar fashion as many of us would choose. Most people would take a check for a thousand dollars over a lottery ticket for a million. Lot knows that there will always be enough pasture for his flocks in the Jordan valley. He knows that in such a place he cannot help but prosper. Why live in the mountains and have to work hard to pasture his sheep when he can have the easy life in the valley? His choice makes sense in many ways. Even though there are corrupt people living in the valley, he decides that he can deal with the problems and chooses to move his family and flocks to the east.

     Eitan Cooper is right. Lot stays within the box. He makes his choice based on what looks like common sense. It is the easy route. It is the sure thing. It is an easy decision. Abraham, however, already has a long history of choosing the harder road. He could have stayed home in Paddan-Aram with is family and with all that was familiar. He could have settled in Haran and not become a nomad, a man without a real home. Abraham did not HAVE to live in a tent, he had chosen this life. And we will see over the next few parshiyot that it is this decision that will form him into the famous patriarch of the Jewish people.

     It is not hard to realize that we are all the results of the choices we have made in our lives. Dr. Cooper notes: “The evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker points out that our senses are adapted to see and hear and smell within a limited range, because if he saw and heard and smelled everything, early man would have been unable to function in his environment, to discern dangers, to satisfy basic needs. The development of the human brain expanded our evolutionary capacity, but within limits. We may have choices, but only within the range determined by our senses. Similarly, the cultures that we grow up in, our immediate environment, play the key role in determining the range of our choices. They create within us a set of preferences based on language, aesthetics, and values. They teach us how to survive and thrive in our environment by limiting our choices. As the poet Shaul Tchernichovsky stated, “a man is nothing but the shape of his native landscape.”

     Just as Lot is shaped by his choices, and Abraham (and through him, the Jewish People) is shaped by his choices, we are all making choices that will shape who we are and where we will be going in our lives. Last week, Israel had an important election and the choices that the Israeli citizens made will decide where their country will be going for the near future. This was their fourth election in three years, so we get the idea that the citizens of Israel have not really made up their mind as to where they want Israel to go in the long term. It has been a bitter struggle between the Left and the Right in Israel and now we will have to see if this election will make clear which direction the people of Israel want their country to go.

      Right here in the United States, we are preparing for an election that also could have serious consequences for the direction of our country. We are being asked to make decisions not just on who we want to lead us but where we want them to lead us. There are choices to be made about how inflation will be put under control, about public safety and crime and who has the best plan for keeping our streets safe. But there are also choices about what kind of a government we want to lead this country; how are elections to be decided and who gets to make the decisions. This election will also guide our leaders in determining how much control we have over the most basic decisions in our lives, how we make medical decisions, how we make personal decisions and how we are to fight bigotry in this country.

     I say this every two years, voting is not just a right that we have as Americans. Voting is not just a privilege. Voting is a responsibility. We are given the right to choose a path for our country and we have a responsibility to get out and tell our leadership where we want them to take us. This is what every election is about. I vote in every election in which I am called to make a choice. I have already mailed in my vote for this election. I have made my choice. Now is the time for all of us to decide who should lead us and where it is that we want to go.

     But Dr. Cooper reminds us that how we make the choice is also important. Will we, like Lot, stay within the box of our upbringing? Will we vote for a party just because we have always voted for that party? Will we vote for issues that we have always voted for, or can we reach outside our box, like Abraham, and put ourselves and our country on a different journey? Dr. Cooper notes, “Research shows that political choices – how we vote, left or right, are most often driven by our proclivities and personalities, both inborn and learned. Despite the universal democratic right to choose most of us are like Lot, and usually only a small minority will seriously consider crossing political lines.

     Dr. Cooper may be right, only a small minority may choose to vote outside their comfort zone, but it is that minority, in a close race, which can make all the difference. This is true for the Israeli elections last week, and it will surely be true for our elections this week. That is why it is so important that every vote be counted no matter how long it may take. Sometimes the difference between candidates is large and a few hundred votes, one way of the other don’t make a significant difference. But I was in Florida for the Bush/Gore election where the count depended on just a few hundred ballots in Palm Beach County. I have seen local elections decided by just one or two votes and once, only once, thank God, where there was an exact tie between the candidates, and they decided who got the job by a flip of a coin.

     The way votes are counted in different states means that we don’t get instant election results. In some countries it can take weeks to gather and count all the votes. In our country it still can take a few days to get the tally correct. In some places, a close race requires a recount of the ballots to make sure the count is correct. Any candidate who has questions about how ballots are counted is entitled to a recount or a judicial review of what was done. It is not unusual for a close race to take some time to determine the winner.

     What is not fair is for candidates to say a vote is only fair if I win. That is how children behave when they don’t know any better. Democracy depends not only on determining who the correct winner is, but it depends on the concession of the loser. Violence is not the way a free and fair election is conducted. Threats and intimidation are not the way to win an elected office. Sometimes it is hard enough to go outside our comfort zone to pick someone who we feel might be the best candidate. Having armed men in tactical gear taking pictures of those putting their ballot into a ballot box is not a way to conduct an election. Threatening election workers and their families does not insure free and fair elections. No matter who an election worker votes for, they still need to do their job to count votes with transparency and without intimidation.

     I don’t know what next week will bring. Will it bring social unrest like the election in Brazil, or will it be just another day in the life of America? Only God knows the answer to that. But if we care about our country and if we care about our democracy, one thing I am sure of, that all of us have a responsibility to vote. Whether you vote like Abraham or like Lot, at least we can say that we made our choice, and the rest will be up to history.

     May we with vote with confidence and with faith in our elections and may God bless our country as we guide her into the future as we say...

Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Tue, February 7 2023 16 Shevat 5783