Parsha Lech Lecha 5778
Rabbi Steinhardt's Sermons

Parsha Lech Lecha 5778

Harvey Weinstein and Abraham

Poor Harvey Weinstein. The movie mogul sits voluntarily in rehab. He’s in a rehab for sex addicts. Sex addiction has not, perhaps yet, been defined by the DMS as an actual disease. But many, particularly the really powerful and wealthy men, when they get into trouble for their impropriety or often illegal behaviors, they check themselves into a facility for sex addiction.

Frank Bruni recently wrote about this.

In a self-pitying statement, he vowed to conquer his demons. Three times he wrote about his need for therapy.

It wasn’t long ago we read about that now slimy guy, Anthony Weiner and his disgusting misdeeds. Weiner also spoke about his addiction.

And in some way, it seems that by defining bad behavior as a sickness, there is a sympathy to be found, an excuse to be had, and a sense that all will be well again.

It’s not the case.

With Bill O’Reilly and now tens, if not hundreds of men in power being exposed as lechers and sexual predators something much bigger is happening. And the world is changing for the better. I believe that.

First though, I’d like us to go back to our Torah reading this morning. Abram is leaving Canaan with his wife, Sarai and their family. There is a famine and so they are off to Egypt.

Sarai, as we know is beautiful. And, her beauty becomes the first measure of her objectification. You are beautiful my wife, when Pharaoh sees you he will want you. So, say you are my sister.

Thus, begins a series of narratives known as the wife/sister motif, which we find in the early chapters of the Torah.

Pharaoh, of course is cursed with plagues because he takes another man’s wife. The Bible doesn’t comment on the moral complexity of this story. Perhaps, it is because of a time when women were property. So, there is no ambiguity.
Perhaps, it is obvious that the issue here is a tension between human life and human dignity. And above all, we choose life.

Or do we?
That is a moral question that may be situationally dependent.

Would you want your husband to give you over to a tyrant in order to save his life, I ask the women here?

And to the men…how far would you go to protect the dignity of your wife? For whom would you sacrifice yourself?

I’m not pretending this to be an easy question. What I am saying is that it opens a space for us to talk about some very challenging issues.

There’s a midrash where the rabbis claim that Abram put his wife in a box, trying to sneak her beyond the border patrols. They ask what’s in the box? And Abram negotiates with them. When they see that he was willing to claim the most expensive items possible were in the box, they then realize that it is his beautiful Sarai. And he is forced to give her over.

What brings me some comfort is that the rabbis were obviously troubled by the Abram who said, like Henny Youngman, Take my wife, please.

Ramban, in the 13th century commentator, is also deeply disturbed by the story. And, in fact he rewrites so that it is about Abram saving Sarai’s life, and not his own, but that is not the literal meaning.

The modern reader, in most places has to be greatly troubled by this. Aren’t we? And, yet we read it in context, understanding the times where it came from.

But there are places where a text like this is studied and no one questions it in relation to gender rights or responsibilities. It’s just not part of the mindset.

I believe we are, today, living at a precipice of a new revolution. It may have been initiated, unknowingly by the grotesqueness found in the Billy Bush tapes, before the last election. And furthered by the flip responses of so many after its appearance. But that wasn’t going to last long.

This past February a very courageous woman named Kara Swisher stood up to a major officer at UBER and participated in what will be the beginnings of a change in corporate culture. She was approached for sex in a place where those in power felt free to ask those who are dependent for their livelihoods to compromise that which is most sacred. And she wrote a blog and an essay about it. She revealed a culture, not just at Uber, but throughout Silicon Valley. And a revolution is underway. No longer can this happen so easily. Women are empowered to stand up, to say no, and to expose the men who believe that they are theirs for the taking.

What gave Kara the courage? She was independent, she was homeschooled growing up, she had a great thirst for learning, and she read great literature and thinking. She read the works of the great Greek philosophers and saw herself as a Stoic. She was independent and strong and believed it was worth the risking for her dignity. She did so, and she is a type of hero.

Sexual harassment has been totally kept under wraps but it has existed in every place where men and women gather and men have the power.

For some, there undoubtedly is still the attitude, its harmless, I mean it’s really nothing, it’s even funny.

Most of you have seen it and know it. It is exhibited in your country clubs and at your parties.

And women are afraid because they will be told that nothing was meant by it. It was in fun. It was innocent. Where is your humor…or worse, do you want to remain in your position, do you want to keep your job?

The elder President Bush was called on it just Wednesday and the family responded with dignity, remorse, honesty and respect.

And you know what I believe, in his time and under his circumstances he was acting innocently or cutely…but there is no longer and excuse. Because the times have changed.

And certainly we know too well how Bill Clinton abused his power with a twenty something year old intern.

For those of you who still believe that this is much to be made out of nothing, it is because you are the one with the power. And you are not the one being treated as an object of fantasy or lust or the desire of another. You’re the woman who walks through the crowd being leered at or touched inappropriately or without permission or violated.

You are understanding how she feels; degraded, and demoralized and made into a thing, a possession…

Let’s go back to the Torah.

Lech Lecha…this is the portion and this is the story that separate Avram to be Abraham from the rest of humanity.
And what is the call?

It is to go out, to leave the environment you came from, to enter a new land and to create a new people. And who are these people? His descendants? And what is their task? It is to create a nation guided by tzedek and mishpat…Righteousness and justice.

Righteousness demands mercy. It demands compassion. And to have compassion one must stand in the shoes of another.

Mishpat is justice. And justice is dependent on truth, law. And our law, as we have learned it, and developed it, is to be a law that exhibits fairness to all…to all. It’s not dependent on whether you are privileged or not, it’s not dependent on whether you are rich or poor, it’s not dependent on the language you speak, it’s not dependent on the color of your skin…it’s not dependent on whether you are a woman or a man.

Less than 100 years ago, women received the right to vote.
Less than 35 years ago, women could become rabbis in our synagogues.

So our world is changing. It has taken a long time. Abraham’s call is a call for freedom…and dignity…and respect. That’s what it is.

And the call to “GO” is not only a call to go out there, it’s also a call to look deep inside and see what you are, and who you are and who you can be? What will you do to another? What will you tolerate from another?

We have dignity as human beings. All of us. And that dignity involves the decisions we make. Sure, there is all sorts of behaviors that we can succumb to, but we have the capacity to control them. That’s what being a human being is about. Animals eat whatever is in front of them. Animals mate indiscriminately. But we control our urges. And so our true freedom then is found, not in doing whatever we please, but in self-restraint.

A man can see a woman, a man can feel what he feels…but he is restrained by law, and dignity, and respect…and this then increases freedom of the other.

A new day has arrived. And new conversations must be evoked. So now we can begin to speak about attraction and sexuality and love…at the right time, in the appropriate places…and hopefully the next generation will be a little better than we were.

Shabbat Shalom…I say this with love and attraction…to all of you!! In the best way possible!

Shabbat Shalom