Planting Seeds of Peace in a World of Hate

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By Rabbi Scott A. Hoffman

Parshat Vayera

I began my rabbinical career in the summer of 1991 in New Orleans. That fall, what was no doubt the most disturbing political race in my lifetime unfolded.


David Duke, a former KKK grand wizard who celebrated Hitler’s birthday and was (and still is) one of the world’s leading Holocaust deniers, ran for the governorship of Louisiana. To my amazement, Duke received 40 percent of all votes cast, as well as a majority of the white vote.

Even more astonishing, Duke had run the previous year for the U.S. Senate and received 44 percent of the vote. In other words, while being a KKK grand wizard or Holocaust denier might not be exactly mainstream, it apparently didn’t disqualify an individual from holding public office.

I must admit I had forgotten about Duke in the intervening years until he resurfaced as one of the organizers of the Charlottesville, Va., march in 2017. Terrifying as that event was, it is instructive to ponder the fact that things could have been much worse. Had Duke prevailed in his bid for the Senate in 1990, it is likely that he would, in 2017, have been the senior senator from Louisiana. In other words, one of our country’s most powerful men would have been responsible for a protest that both traumatized and embarrassed the nation.

Duke’s electoral strategy is obvious — exploit racial and religious hatred for political gain. There is, and always will be, all of the dreaded –isms in our society, but we expect more of those holding elected office. But for someone willing to take the low road, the possibility certainly exists of planting the seeds of divisiveness for personal gain.

Against this backdrop, it is perhaps instructive to look to an overlooked incident in this week’s portion, Vayera. Vayera is arguably the richest of the Torah’s 54 parshiyot in terms of homiletical material. You can focus upon the angels’ visit to Abraham and Sarah, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the birth and early life of Isaac and, finally, the binding and near sacrifice of Isaac on Mount Moriah.

But I would prefer to skip all of this and focus on a comment made almost in passing — that Abraham, after his meeting with Abimelech and Phicol, decided to plant a tamarisk (eshel) in Beer-sheva.

Now what, you ask, is a tamarisk tree? It turns out that we definitively know the answer. The tamarisk is a large tree, called attal in Arabic, which grows to a significant height and has grayish green leaves. The leaves trap the moisture at night but release it during the day, producing a cooling effect.

Abraham, in other words, planted a tree that would provide respite for passers-by during the hottest part of the day, when it is vital for both people and animals to seek shelter from the sun. In fact, one could read the text as saying that Abraham planted not one tree but an entire stand of trees. This would make Abraham’s actions even more dramatic — he created a rest stop for travelers that would benefit everyone, friend and foe alike.

On the surface, Abraham had little reason to care about “the other.” After all, he had seen his wife Sarah taken both by Pharaoh, king of Egypt, and Abimelech, king of Gerar; been forced into battle to rescue Lot from captivity during a war of local chieftains; witnessed the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; and fought with Abimelech’s people over wells of water.

In short, Abraham lived in a world that was as chaotic and unsettled as our own. The primary difference between the world of four millennia ago and our own is primarily that the scale of our wars, and their scope of destruction, is exponentially greater than in the past.

Yet against this background, Abraham chose to sow seeds of peace. He no doubt took this as part of his mission that through himself and his descendants all the nations of the earth would be blessed. As Abraham’s descendants, we are bidden to follow his example.

In today’s world of hatred and division, one can choose to exploit hatred or one can choose to pursue peace. Ultimately, however, only the latter path can be said to enjoy the imprimatur of Jewish teaching and tradition. 

Rabbi Scott A. Hoffman is rabbi of Congregation Beth El in Yardley. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.

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