Elisha ben Abuyah is the main character in Milton Steinberg’s famous novel, As a Driven Leaf. Elisha is born in second century Palestine, under Roman rule and Hellenistic influence. His mother dies in childbirth. He is raised by his father who is sympathetic to Greek culture and philosophy, but he dies when Elisha is ten. His uncle now raises him in a traditional Jewish environment. He is brilliant, becomes a rabbi and a member of the Sanhedrin. He increasingly grows disillusioned by strict Orthodox law. He moves to Antioch, leaves his family, adopts the philosophy of stoicism, is expelled from the Jewish community and lives his life searching – a life that ends in despair, loneliness and poverty.
The title of the book, As a Driven Leaf, is taken from the Book of Job, who also spends his life questioning and challenging the wisdom and goodness of a faith that can cause such human suffering. He protests to the god in whom he wants to believe – “Why do you hide your face, and treat me like an enemy? Will you harass a driven leaf?”
Both Job and Elisha ben Abuyah are trying to make sense of a life where they feel helpless in the face of injustice and human suffering over which they have little or no control. When i asked a former student and friend how he and his family were doing, he responded that they were doing fine, but then he observed that is a common response, but that “fine” is not good enough. They needed to have some hope, a vision that life would be better, that they and their young children would know a future where life would not seem so unsafe, where they could feel more secure and unafraid, a future in which they felt in control of their lives.
We may be feeling like a driven leaf in the face of this pandemic. At the same time, the events of the recent past, in which hundreds of thousands of people the world over have marched to bring justice and humanity to our societies, point to a different virus that has plagued our planet. Millions of people have been willing to risk their health and their lives because they know that racial injustice also is an epidemic, and that conquering it is within our control. The disease of COVID-19 descended upon us from life forms below us on the Darwinian scale and we hope will be defeated by the science of medicine. The disease of racism has been endemic in our human life form for centuries and will only be defeated by our moral consciousness. Perhaps this moment has taught us the difference between what we can control and what we cannot. A virus from without is very different from a sickness from within. If we have learned from this pandemic that nature does not distinguish among Black or white, Asian or Arab, young or old, straight or gay, that we all are equally vulnerable and therefore, we understand that we all are equally human, then perhaps hundreds of thousands of us will not have died in vain.
In this week’s Torah portion, titled Pinchas, from the Book of Numbers, Moses is instructed to go to the top of Mount Abiram, in other sections called Mount Nebo, and look over the land which he will not be allowed to enter. He will die, not stepping foot onto the promised land with the people he led for forty years, because, according to the text, he disobeyed instructions when giving the Israelites water from a rock. Moses asks the god whom he worships to appoint a new leader. Rashi, in his commentary on the text, makes the point that Moses understands that the virtues of the righteous are that they disregard their own needs and occupy themselves with the needs of the community. Moses lobbies for his own son to inherit his position. It is not to be. Rather, it is Joshua. Again, according to Rashi, Joshua’s great strength is that as a leader he will tolerate each person according to his individual character.
Milton Steinberg, the leaders of Black Lives Matter and Civil Rights movements of any name, the authors of this Torah portion— all bring us to this critical moment in our lives and in the life of our country. We are on this earth as visitors, all inheriting a divine image. We are equally vulnerable to natural forces beyond our control, but we are in charge of our own lives and who we are as human beings. The tzadikim, in the words of Rashi, the righteous, will always occupy themselves, not with their own needs, but with the needs of the community and will tolerate each person according to his individual character. We seek those qualities in ourselves, and we must insist on those qualities in those who will lead us to a better future.
In his search for meaning, Elisha ben Abuyah sets forth this philosophy:
“A man has happiness if he possesses three things–those whom he loves and who love him in turn, confidence in the worth and continued existence of the group of which he is a part, and last of all, a truth by which he may order his being.”
Those are values we must hold dear through these trying times. We seek to love and be loved. Each one of us is a small part of human life on this planet. Its healthy continued existence must be our primary goal – one nation, one world, with liberty and justice for all. That is the truth by which we must order our being.
The march of science and the march of people says there is hope. There is a future. There will be an end to the flood and the dove will find a resting place, and with our determination and because of our innate goodness, a rainbow will appear in the sky.
D’var Torah delivered July 10, 2020.