Strength by Helping the Weak
Parashat Eikev 5776 / August 26, 2016 / Jonathan Bubis
Anybody experiencing Olympics withdrawal? I actually didn’t watch so much, but many of my friends and family had their TVs on constantly, watching the games. And whenever I was in a space where the Olympics happened to be on, I did sit down to watch, and typically was mesmerized. To see those incredible athletes do what the human body cannot normally do. Seeing Hussein Bolt run and jump with mind-boggling speed and precision; or Simone Biles flip, leap, and land with such grace; or Michael Phelps glide across the pool with such ease and seamlessness.
The Olympics are so appealing because they make us say “Wow.” It leaves us awe-struck by the level of strength and athletic ability of these human beings, a level that we couldn’t even dream of achieving. That, in some part is why the medalists are put on podiums, because we are psychologically placing them above — not only the other athletes, but above ourselves. So much so that we admire and even revere them.
The competitions are inherently related to the original Olympic Games, created by the Greeks some 3,000 years ago. They also had a religious connection, since the sporting events coincided with ritual sacrifices honoring Zeus. This was fitting because the way in which the athletes were put on a pedestal was similar to the way Greeks perceived their gods. In fact, the gods in their visual depictions looked like athletes — muscular, imposing figures set on top of a mountain. Noble, glorious, remote. Their gods were transcendent, unreachable, beyond.
In some ways, that depiction of the divine is also present in our tradition, particularly in our parasah this week, Eikev. Yes, full disclosure: this drash is about God. You may not believe in God and that’s ok. In fact, I’m going to tell you about the God that I don’t believe in. And then also I’ll share the type of God I do relate to, all in the way of explaining the type of human being I want to be in the world.
So, Eikev features some famous descriptive words of the divine (10 points to the person who can raise their hand first and tell me where you know the words from). Ha’el ha’gadol…“God, great, mighty, awesome.”
Here, we get a description of a God whom we are literally supposed to “look up to,” a God who is noble and removed from us. A God who is called in Torah ish milchamah, “a man of war,” the God who performs wonders like inflicting plagues and splitting the sea. This is the big, buff, powerful God who has a beard and ripped biceps that we have all pictured once in our life, especially in our childhood.
And it in a way, in makes sense to pray to this type of God. We do so all over our liturgy, like in the Amidah, the main prayer of petition. Why else would we pray to Hakadosh Baruch Hu for something we need unless Hashem was better, stronger, more powerful than us?
This God also reflects the types of things we respect and revere in our larger American culture. Not only the superhuman strength and ability of our athletes — but the perfect looks of our Hollywood stars; the size and might of our military; the physique and power of our comic book heroes; the unwavering, non-flip-floppy record of our politicians. Our society is an extension of the Western Greek philosophy- to worship the strong, the perfect, the victorious.
But you know what? Yeah, I like the superhero movies and good-looking stars like everyone else; but I do not relate to that kind of perfect God. I don’t want a God of war, I don’t believe in a powerful God who performs supernatural miracles and reaps destruction and rewards us for being good little boys and girls. Sorry, not for me.
And that is why I am so glad that there are also another elements to God in our tradition that distinguish our God from the Greeks. And this is evident by seeing the Amidah wording in its context, in our parashah. Yes, it says that our God is, “great, mighty, awesome.” BUT then, right afterwards it says that this God, “does not show favor or take any bribes, but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow and loves the stranger, providing them with food and clothing.”
The God I revere doesn’t show strength by flexing muscles or by winning wars or by only listening to the upper crust of society who can pay for the judicial/political outcomes they want: My God is strong by caring for the weak. Our tradition says that that is the God we are meant to recognize and look up to: the God who gets down in the mud and pulls up the people who need help the most. The God who is divine mother, who has unconditional love for her children and who cries when she sees them suffer (Yes, our tradition says God cries for us). This is the God we’re not only supposed to pray to, but the one we’re supposed to emulate.
The very next verse in Torah says, v’ahavtem et ha’ger, “and you too must love the stranger, because you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” We are meant to walk in God’s ways- showing strength by helping the vulnerable. Emulating God by giving a damn.
One of the people who I want to be like when I grow up has a tradition when she moves to a new place. Others, when they move might want to look for the closest supermarket, drugstore, movie theater in order to get situated and comfortable. This person looks for the closest homeless people who live on the streets. She makes it a point to go there, get to know them, take them to restaurants and sit down for a meal with them. That’s how she spends her free time. That’s how she makes a new place of residence feel like home.
Some of you might be shocked by that. Giving some money to a homeless person, yes. Maybe even buying some food, but getting to know them? Sitting down with them for a meal? That sounds crazy, dangerous even! And it makes sense that we have that reaction — I did originally too — because we are biologically programmed to avoid those who look, sound, or act differently than us. When we see someone “strange,” our instinct tells us to either fight or run away.
Last week Nicholas Kristoff in the NY Times published an article in which he shared that he had written two pieces the week before: one a comment on social media about his beloved golden retriever dying; and a column calling for greater international efforts to save Syrians from starvation and bombing. The former post received hundreds of touching condolences about the dog, but his piece on Syria received torrents of harsh comments with the basic message: “Why should we help them?” Because Syrians — like Jews, or blacks, or Muslims — are not like us.
This, sadly, is our instinctual reality: to not want to trust or help anybody different. Because oftentimes it’s “icky,” or awkward, or lonely, or even scary. So when you think about it, it is truly a show of great strength, to care for the other. That is why our tradition tells us to resist that urge to push away, and instead embrace. It tells us that when we want to walk away from that dirty person on the street, or avoid inviting the new guy into our circle of friends, or mock the “eccentric” dude with the crazy hair, or ignore those suffering in our midst and across the world — that we should instead open our hearts and be mindful of the stranger. That’s what my God does; that’s what I aspire to do to the best of my ability. Let’s try to create a world in which we not only admire those who have powers and capabilities above our own, but honor those who use their strength to bring others up as well. Shabbat Shalom.