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Prominent Indiscretions


Shabbat Vayera 5778 | November 4, 2017

It seems like a rare day when we don’t learn of some prominent person’s indiscretions. Our culture is awash with the news of those who mistreat others, who believe it is their place to harass women or subordinates, or abuse their power through inappropriate authority, financial scheming, or arrogant disregard for law and decency.

I am pained for the victims, their family members and friends. I am embarrassed for so many public figures who destroy their own dignity as they cause others pain. The good news is we’re now starting to pay attention. The bad news is this is nothing new.

“While he was sojourning in Gerar, Abraham said of his wife Sarah, ‘she is my sister.’ So King Abimelech of Gerar had Sarah brought to him.” Abraham puts our matriarch Sarah in a compromising position because he’s worried for his safety. Abraham doubts the people of Gerar’s integrity and social values. In response to Abimelech’s anger, Abraham explains he gave Sarah to him because, “‘I thought,’ said Abraham, ‘surely there is no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.’”

Abraham seems to think he is entitled to save himself, his prosperity, and his monotheistic project by putting Sarah and her dignity at risk. God takes a very different view. “But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night and said, ‘You are to die because of the woman that you have taken, for she is a married woman.’” Protecting Sarah while she is with the king, God prevents any harm from resulting from Abraham’s act.

Finally, to justify his bad act, Abraham exclaims, “And besides she is in truth my sister, my father’s daughter though not my mother’s; and she became my wife.” Voices in Jewish tradition want nothing to do with Abraham’s claim. I’m particularly struck by Nahmanides’ point of view.

“I don’t know the reason for this subterfuge. For even if it were true that she was his wife and his sister, and seeing their desire for her he said she was his sister to delude them in this matter, he still committed a sin toward her and brought upon them a grave wrong. In this matter, we cannot separate the truth from the lie.”

I accept that the Torah narrative is a story. I accept that we turn to a character like Abraham and his relationship with God as portrayed in the Torah for personal meaning, spiritual identity, and faith. I believe we must also glean ethics for our lives from what we read in Torah.

If our rabbinic tradition can call out Abraham for acting inappropriately toward Sarah, Abraham who himself called out God while trying to save any righteous people in Sodom and Gomorrah. As he hears God’s plans to destroy the cities, Abraham chastises God. “Shame on You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justice? Then we must be able to find a way in our relationships, in our society, in our work places and businesses, in our homes and communities, in the culture of celebrity, entertainment, media, and sports to call out those who act beyond proper boundaries of personal space and individual dignity.

We must also be sensitive. Why do various individuals presume the right to impose themselves or their desires on others? How arrogant and shallow is their self-awareness? I don’t ask these questions in search of answers. I ask them in order for us to consider our own interpersonal relationships and behaviors.

It really isn’t all that complicated. The rule is simple. Every gesture toward another person conveys what we think of him or her. Each overture we make toward someone suggests who we think we are in relation to him or her.

We relate to some people because of our, or their, position of authority. We come to know other people through personal experiences. Emotions and memories connect each of us to others. Let’s recognize this. When anyone looks at anyone else through an illusory lens of power and entitlement they see an object or a target, not a person worthy of their respect.

I learned this from my children and their friends many years ago when they were young. They taught me that I do not have the right to enter their personal space or touch their bodies with a friendly pat or tickle without permission. Permission is always required. This is true for someone who is 5 years old, 25 years old, 55 years old, 75 years old, or 95 years old. Our bodies and the spaces around us are private places. No one has access without our permission.

This even applies every time we greet one another. We have a decision to make. How do we invite each other into our personal place? How do we initiate contact? Should we? If we’re not familiar or comfortable with each other, we share an unsure moment or pause.

Do we shake hands? Do we embrace? Do we offer a social kiss? Do we share a bro hug? Quickly, instinctively, we ask ourselves which gesture is right for this moment? Understand, our answer depends on how we each see the nature of our relationship.

The rule is simple. Every gesture toward another person conveys what I think of him or her. Each overture I make toward someone suggests who I think I am in relation to him or her.

Every person I meet deserves a comfortable and appropriate physical interaction. Let’s be open, warm, and sincere with each other. Let’s hug, let’s kiss, let’s shake hands, let’s do whatever is right for our relationships. Let’s also be sure, everywhere we go, our relationships demonstrate mutual respect and regard.

As individuals, we can model in our behaviors our expectations for and toward others. We can all honor the character of our relationships and the invitations we choose to make and accept with propriety and dignity. We can do this with caring. We can do this as a statement to the society around us. Without permission, no one has a right to any part of who I am.

© 2017 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

Sat, March 2 2024 22 Adar I 5784