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The Genesis of Liberty - חיי שרה

Friday, 2 November, 2018 - 11:40 am

download.jpgThe Genesis of Liberty

Liberty and freedom are fundamental to the Torah’s values, teachings and stories. The struggle for liberty and freedom plays out dramatically and powerfully in the second book of the five books of Moses. Yet a careful read of the first book, the book of Genesis shows that liberty is embedded from very beginning, early on in the life and teachings of Abraham our first patriarch.

Let us begin with this week’s portion, the portion of Chayey Sarah. Most of the portion is dedicated to the story of how Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, was dispatched to Charan to find a wife for Isaac, Abraham's son. The Torah relates how Abraham requested that Isaac only marry someone from Abraham’s own birthplace.

[This pattern continued in the next generation. Rebecca, Isaac's wife, insisted that her son Jacob not marry a woman from the land of Canaan but rather she instructed her son to go back to Charan, her birth place, and marry from amongst her own family].

Why not marry someone from the land of Canaan? Wasn't the land of Canaan the place where G-d instructed Abraham to travel to, “go to yourself”, “to the land that I will show you”?

To understand the nature of Canaan we must try to figure out who Canaan was, what his value system, culture and belief system were. When we journey back in the story we read about Noah and his three sons who were saved from the flood. The youngest of the children was Ham the father of Canaan.

After the flood, the first thing Noah did was plant a vineyard. The Torah tells us:

And Noah began to be a master of the soil, and he planted a vineyard.

And he drank of the wine and became drunk, and he uncovered himself within his tent.

And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father's nakedness, and he told his two brothers outside. And Shem and Japheth took the garment, and they placed [it] on both of their shoulders, and they walked backwards, and they covered their father's nakedness, and their faces were turned backwards, so that they did not see their father's nakedness.”

Noah awoke from his wine, and he knew what his small son had done to him. And he said, "Cursed be Canaan; he shall be a slave among slaves to his brethren." [Genesis 9:20-25].

What is the meaning of the curse “he will be a slave”? Does it mean, that the Torah condones slavery? More specifically, does it mean that the Torah approved of the descendants of Shem and Japheth enslaving the children of Ham?

The descendants of Ham believed that the best way to create a successful civilization was through hierarchy; each class submitting to the class above it and ultimately at the top of the pyramid  rests the king to who all must submit. They believed that in order for society to reach its full economic potential, and for society to be strong and protected, the individual must submit to the hierarchy, he must give up a significant portion of his freedom in exchange for the prosperity and security he would receive in return.

No surprise then that the first king recorded in the Torah was Nimrod, a descendant of Ham. ["Like Nimrod, a mighty hunter before the Lord.” And the beginning of his kingdom was Babylon and Erech and Accad and Calneh, in the land of Shinar. Ibid. 10:9-10] Nimrod was also the one who conceived of the idea to build the tower of Babel, “a tower whose head reaches the heavens”. Nimrod surely understood that no tower can reach the heavens, but this was a political ploy to get the people to submit to a building project that would never be completed.

Abraham himself [according to some opinions, (see Iben Ezra)] was enthusiastically involved in the building of the tower. The young idealistic Abraham must have been excited by Nimrod’s great vision of transcending the individual and submitting to the collective. Yet, in time, Abraham became disillusioned with Nimrod, Abraham rejected Nimrod and his vision of a society built upon the individual submitting and relinquishing his own freedom in return for economic security.

Abraham’s spiritual search eventually led him to discover the truth of Monotheism: there is only one source of power in the universe and no other angel, force of nature, or human being has any control.  

Then, in the third portion of the Torah, we read about how G-d appeared  to Abraham telling him to go to the land of Canaan. The Torah then goes into very specific details about the geo-political state of Canaan at the time:

Now it came to pass in the days of Amraphel the king of Shinar, Arioch the king of Ellasar, Chedorlaomer the king of Elam, and Tidal the king of Goyim.

That they waged war with Bera the king of Sodom and with Birsha the king of Gomorrah, Shineab the king of Admah, and Shemeber the king of Zeboiim, and the king of Bela, which is Zoar.

All these joined in the valley of Siddim, which is the Dead Sea.

For twelve years they served Chedorlaomer, and for thirteen years they rebelled.

And in the fourteenth year, Chedorlaomer came, and the kings who were with him, and they smote the Rephaim in Ashteroth Karnaim and the Zuzim in Ham, and the Emim in Shaveh Kiriathaim. [ibid. 14:1-5].

Why so many kings? Because they were the descendants of Ham and Canaan who believed in submitting to the stronger party in order to gain security. Which is why the five kings, in turn submitted to the four kings, each class submitted to the class above it in the hierarchy. But as soon as Abraham arrived on the scene preaching monotheism , things began to change. We read about Lot, Abraham’s nephew, moving to Sedom. What happens next? The king of Sedom, and the five kings rebel against the four kings. Hard not to see the influence of Abraham’s idea of freedom beginning to affect the five kings.

The four kings, including Nimrod who was mentioned earlier, the first to create a form of an empire, joined the other three kings and crushed the rebellion. Who do they take captive? Who is their true enemy? Not the king of Sedom who rebelled against them, but rather Lot the nephew of Abraham, the one spreading dangerous ideas of freedom.

Abraham then launched a surprise gorilla attack and defeated the four kings. He risked his life in order to save his nephew, but also to free the land of the oppressive ideology of the four kings, the suppressive ideology of the children of Cham and Canaan.

The attitude of submission to hierarchy prevalent in the political realm, affected their spiritual beliefs as well. They understood the universe to be a hierarchy of power, with the human being controlled by forces outside of himself. Thus morality, which is based on personal choice, on the freedom to make the right choice, was virtually non existent. For if one is controlled by the gods and powers of nature, then one cannot be asked to fight his own instincts and commit to a moral choice.

Underlying the stories of the book of Genesis is a culture clash between the philosophy of Cham, which seeks to submit to and serve any power stronger than himself, which denies that the human beings greatest gift is the gift of moral freedom; and the teachings of monotheism as embodied by Abraham who taught that the one G-d endows us with the freedom to choose moralistically. The human being is not controlled by the forces of nature, not by a group of Gods battling with each other over authority, not by instinct and not by astrology. For the only authority in the universe is the one G-d.   

Thus, when Abraham began to search for a wife for his son Isaac, for a matriarch of the future people of Israel, and when Rebecca wanted her son to marry and build the nation that would teach the world about monotheism and the freedom and liberty it inspires, they understood that the culture of Canaan, a culture that believed that the human being is enslaved by his instincts to the forces of nature, must be rejected.

Thus Abraham turned to his own family, the descendant of Shem son of Noah. For they were open and ready to accept the responsibilities of freedom, the dedication to morality, inspired by the belief in the one G-d.


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