I’ve been wondering what would happen if Avraham and Sarah lived in the 21st century. This is how I envision it:
It would all start with a TikTok of Avraham smashing his father’s idols. Anti-establishment, anti-authority, this man is cool. He’d get a gazillion followers and the hashtag #breakstuff would be trending for weeks.
Then, he’d get a book deal writing a memoir called, Leaving Charan. It would describe the challenges of leaving home, parental rejection, being an immigrant, and how to start a new life. It would probably make it to Oprah’s Book Club.
And finally, the tent Avraham and Sarah set up would be more popular than Burning Man. Anyone looking for an experience of radical inclusion and unconditional gifting would flock to them. They would be wildly popular, attracting a diverse following ranging from heroin addicts from the streets of San Francisco to royalty like the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.
And that’ll be about when things go south. The downfall will start with a Twitter account, under the handle, Lot, a disgruntled relative of theirs, who claims that Avraham and Sarah are not heroes, they are cult leaders. This account will share snippets of conversations that allegedly take place with guests, demonstrating how the chesed that Avraham and Sarah perform are contingent on the guests becoming monotheists. Of course, this will set off a Twitter war, with the many Avraham-Sarah stan accounts sharing pictures and stories of unbridled kindness and accusing Lot of jealousy.
Eventually the Twitter war will spill over into more mainstream television. Tucker Carlson will have an episode slamming Avraham for involving himself in wars that aren’t relevant to him, and not paying enough attention to his own people. He’ll follow that with a feature on how Avraham saved the people of Sedom despite them being on the wrong side of the culture wars. Then the View will spend a full week talking about how Sarah treats, or rather mistreats her maidservant.
The straw that breaks the internet will be the front-page news, reported by both the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times – Avraham Attempts to Slaughter Yitzchak. And all hell will break loose. Avraham will be investigated by the CIA, Sarah will face a lawsuit by Yishmael, and within a short while, their popularity will plummet.
Yitzchak will go to the grave defending his parents but will be pitied by the media on the left and right as a brainwashed child, who was traumatized by his parents. Yaakov will change his last name to avoid the negative PR, and by the time his twelve sons are born they don’t even know their grandparents existed.
In the modern era, Avraham and Sarah would be scorned into oblivion. Despite their many good deeds, despite the unique path they blazed, they wouldn’t make it past the cynicism and #antihero sentiment of the 21st century. Our society is too cynical, too suspicious, and too individualistic, to allow for a nation to develop around role models like Avraham and Sarah. Had they lived today, Judaism as we know it would be dead upon arrival.
Now, one could argue that our modern skepticism is healthy. Isn’t our cynicism helpful in creating appropriate checks and balances against fraudsters? Doesn’t our society’s extreme transparency and openness ensure that we never follow people blindly? Does the Torah not want us to think for ourselves?!
Yes, yes, yes, but.
Yes, the opposite extreme, that of unchecked adoration, treating Torah leaders as infallible, and believing the leaders to be experts on everything is fraught with danger. You have probably read in the news this past week about Torah scholars in Israel or in New York telling their followers who to vote for. Are these rabbis prophets? No, they are not.
And yes, abdicating any personal responsibility in decision making is not a Jewish value. I remember a woman coming to me years ago, telling me that I have to Paskin – I have to rule – where her son should go to school. I looked at her blankly. How could I tell you where your son should go to school? She eventually left my office and found a rabbi who would.
Yes, I, and am sure, many of you here, have read stories of rabbis who, according to the biographer made a bracha before being nursed by their mother. These stories are false, and lying, of course, is prohibited in all forms.
And yes, we have all heard tragic tales of Torah scholars who have committed horrendous crimes and yet were defended nonetheless by their followers. G-d is infallible, no one else is.
But – if our society is such that an Avraham and Sarah would not succeed in developing a nation, if our society is such that these two giants would be denigrated to such an extent that no one would take them seriously, if Judaism would be dead upon arrival in 2023, then we probably have some soul searching to do.
Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin suggests that G-d wrote the entire Book of Bereishis so that we can learn from the yashrus, the uprightness of our forefathers. G-d wants us to have role models. G-d wants us to have lofty aspirations. G-d wants us to have heroes.
Imperfect? Oh yeah. Subject to mistakes? Yes. Infallible? Not even close. But by throwing away the baby with the bathwater, by throwing away the hero with his or her flaws, it impacts us as well. Because without people to look up to, without people that we venerate, we are left with a static society, we are left with a culture that celebrates the antihero, that highlights our imperfections – “this is me and I’m not changing.”
Two weeks ago, Rav Hershel Schachter the Rosh Yehiva of Yeshiva University, and Rav Shlomo Amar, the former Sefardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, came to Baltimore. Have they made mistakes in their life? I am sure they have. Nonetheless, I spent about an hour with them, and I listened as they humbled me with their depth and breadth of Torah knowledge. I watched intently as they exemplified what it means to ensure that your every breath is consistent with Torah values. I was inspired by their genuine humility and kindness. I will tell you, and I don’t say this flippantly, I walked away from that meeting a changed man. It forced me to reassess and change the Torah learning that I engage in. It forced me to consider how I act in public. So tell me, is veneration, exposure to great Jewish leaders who expand our aspirations, is that not a good thing?
I’ll share more – as I mentioned, I do not ascribe to the idea that a Torah scholar is, by definition, knowledgeable on every topic. The Torah scholars I consult with will regularly tell me they need to speak to a psychologist or doctor or lawyer to better understand a particular subject. Many questions do not need to go to a rabbi. Relationship questions should typically go to therapists. Financial questions should typically go to financial advisors. Etc. etc. However, every time I have spoken to a true Torah scholar about any personal issue, I have walked away with a fresh perspective informed by an absolute immersion in Torah values. I have walked away, almost always, with a perspective that pushes me, that expands me, that I would not have come up with on my own. Is seeking out advice from people who are immersed in G-d’s values not helpful in navigating this complicated world?
Among the many things we’re celebrating today, we are celebrating the birth of a daughter to Simcha and Margie Gross. Their daughter’s name is Chaya Henna. Chaya is named after Rav Chaim Kanievsky and Henna is named after Henny Machlis.
If you recall, last week I shared a story about Henny Machlis – about the man who woke her up in middle of the night to ask her to remind him how to make pizza. And how she graciously got out of bed at 3 AM and patiently reviewed the recipe with him. Did that story not expand your horizons? Did that story not force you to question if you’re really as patient and kind as can be?
Today, allow me to share with you just a little about Rav Chaim Kanievsky, who passed away just a few months ago. Rav Chaim Kanievsky was blessed with many natural gifts. He had a photographic memory, and he chose to apply his gifted mind to Torah study. By the age of 13, he completed the entire Talmud, something many people don’t finish in a lifetime. From the age of 20 and on, he would complete the Babylonian Talmud, the Jerusalem Talmud, Nach, Medrash Rabba, Medrash Tanchuma, Tosefta, Sifra, Sifri, Mishnayos, Rambam, Tur, Shulchan Aruch, Mishnah Berurah, and the Zohar. Every year. In-depth. And he knew it.
I remember hearing Rabbi Hartman, a great scholar in his own right, describe searching for a source of a comment made by the Maharal, but could not find it. He finally bumped into Rav Kanievsky who was crossing a street in B’nei Brak. He asked him if he knew where it was. And as they crossed the street, Rav Kanievsky went like this: “Babylonian Talmud… no. Jerusalem Talmud… no. Medrash… no. Zohar… no. Tikunei Zohar – yes!” And gave him the exact location. All this before they finished crossing the street.
He was meticulous with his time. He barely slept, learning Torah every moment he had. And despite his dedication to Torah study and writing important works of Torah literature, he opened his home daily to a stream of visitors who came to him for advice, encouragement, or just a listening ear.
He never accepted a formal position, turned down offers to buy him a nice home, and lived a most simple life, absolutely dedicated to Torah, to the Jewish People, and to G-d.
My children are named after family members, people that we loved, and one child was just given a name that we liked. But Simcha and Margie chose to name their children after role models, after heroes, a Tzadik and a Tzadeikis, Rav Chaim Kanievsky and Henny Machlis. And it’s not surprising that they did so. The Gross’s think big, they act big, they aspire to greatness.
With this name that you gave your daughter, she will forever be inspired to strive to be better tomorrow than she is today. She will forever be reminded that angel-like people do exist in this world, human, yes, imperfect, yes, but angel-like. She will forever be reminded that there are people who are worth associating with, people who are worth speaking with to gain perspective on personal matters.
I’ll conclude where I began – We are here today because our ancestors saw both the good and the bad and chose to focus on what would help them grow and because of that we have a Jewish People. But if Avraham and Sarah appeared on the scene today, how would we respond? Would we seek them out or would we put them down? Would we look up to them, despite whatever flaws they may have, or would our cynicism prevent us?
Because the truth is, Avraham and Sarah do exist, all around us. But to see them, to grow from them, we need to allow our hearts to be a little less biting, a little more generous, a little more hopeful.