Dust, Stars and Democracy

Election Day is quickly approaching (PSA: don't forget to fill out and return your ballot by Tuesday!!), and like many of you, I'm feeling anxious about our country's future. With lies and conspiracy theories swirling, a backdrop of violence and white/Christian/male supremacist ideologies, and many political races looking like all-out battles between democracy and fascism, it's clear just how much is at stake right now, locally and across the United States.

Election Day is quickly approaching (PSA: don't forget to fill out and return your ballot by Tuesday!!), and like many of you, I'm feeling anxious about our country's future. With lies and conspiracy theories swirling, a backdrop of violence and white/Christian/male supremacist ideologies, and many political races looking like all-out battles between democracy and fascism, it's clear just how much is at stake right now, locally and across the United States.

In this week's Torah portion, Lech L'cha, Abraham, too, feels highly anxious about the future. As the parasha begins, he leaves his home and his family behind, setting out -- as God has commanded him -- for "the place that I will show you." Although God has promised Abraham offspring, he and Sarah find themselves unable to conceive. At a couple of different points in the parasha, God issues powerful promises, intended to reassure Abraham about the future:

  • Genesis 13:16 says: "I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth, so that if one can count the dust of the earth, then your offspring too can be counted."
  • Genesis 15:5 reads: "And [God] took [Abraham] outside and said, 'Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them'—continuing, 'So shall your offspring be.'"

At face value, both of these promises are about the number of offspring Abraham will someday have: they will be as impossible to count as the grains of dust on the earth, and as numerous as the stars in the heavens. Throughout many centuries, though, there's a long history of Jewish commentators who read these lines against the grain of the text, insisting that God's reassurance to Abraham goes far beyond just a quantitative promise, to a qualitative one.

So, for example, Rav Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (a 19th C. German commentator) explains that the word used in the first verse above for “to count” (“limnot”) actually means “to ascribe importance to.” God blesses Abraham’s descendants, not that they will be as numerous as the dust of the earth, but rather that they will be important to the world in the same way that the earth is important... that their contribution to the world should be significant and tangible. About the second verse above, Rav Naftali Zvi Berlin (a 19th C. Lithuainian scholar) similarly interprets that, like the stars, Abraham’s descendants will have a special power to illuminate the world, their contribution radiating across history and pointing the way forward for human progress.

Rav Kook -- one of the founders of religious Zionism (late 19th/early 20th C.) -- comments on both of these verses, and also Genesis 22:17 (which isn't in this week's parasha but contains yet another similar promise), interpreting:

"The comparison of Abraham’s descendants to stars indicates the importance and greatness of every member of the Jewish people. Every soul is a universe unto itself, as the Sages wrote, ‘One who saves a single soul of Israel, it is as if he has saved an entire world’ (Sanhedrin 37a). But the Jewish people also have a collective mission, as indicated by their comparison to sand. A single grain of sand is of no particular consequence; but together, these grains of sand form a border against the ocean, establishing dry land and enabling life to exist. Israel’s collective purpose is to bring about the world’s spiritual advance, as it says, ‘This people I have created for Me [so that] they will proclaim My praise’ (Isaiah 43:21)."

Today, adding to my anxiety about the upcoming U.S. midterm election is my consternation over the results of this week's Israeli election. One headline I saw this morning read "Far-right extremism is the real winner of Israel's elections," and that (sadly, terrifyingly) feels like an apt summary. While details of the new coalition are still being hammered out, it appears almost certain that former Prime Minister Benjamin ("Bibi") Netanyahu will be returning to power even while under indictment, and that one of the most powerful players in the right-wing coalition will be Itamar Ben Gvir, leader of the Jewish Power Party. Ben Gvir has a long history of violence, a track record of being racist, misogynist, and anti-LGBTQ, and he openly incites against Palestinians and calls for their transfer. His win -- even in a democratic election -- is sadly a win for facism and "Jewish supremacy" over democracy in Israel, and this scares me (even more than I was scared before) for the future of Israel and the Jewish people.

I believe that we -- the Jewish people -- have a unique history and mission, and special responsibilities to act in the world as a force for goodness, and yet my inclination is to re-read Rav Kook's commentary on God's promises to Abraham in a way that could take into account not only the Jewish people, but ALL of Abraham's descendants. If we were to do that, we might interpret God's promises -- the ones about being like the dust of the earth and the stars in the sky -- as reminding Abraham (and, by extension, us) that:

  1. every single human being is important and infinitely valuable, and
  2. collectively, we can work together to bring about progress in the world.

Rav Kook's two statements -- taken together and read in this more expansive way -- also sound like a beautiful re-definition of the system of government called democracy. Democracy is premised on the equality of every single individual* (*or at least every individual eligible to vote... a category that generations before us have fought to expand throughout U.S. history), and the belief that collectively, the whole population has the ability to make the best overall decisions on behalf of society.

Viewed through this lens, voting, participating in our democracy, and working to protect democracy (both close to home and far away) can all be seen as manifestations of our core Jewish values. It is incumbent upon us to uphold the ideals that all voices should be heard, that elections must remain free and fair, and that truth matters. We have an obligation to strive towards a vision of "liberty and justice for all."

Throughout Parashat Lech L'cha and beyond, Abraham's anxiety has to be allayed many times, as God's promises don't come to fruition immediately. For us, too, at a time such is this, it is helpful to keep in mind that as we work towards "the world's spiritual advance" (as Rav Kook described it), this is long-term work. And so, as we move through the final lead-up to the 2022 U.S. midterm elections and grapple with the results of the Israeli election, let us look to both the dust of the earth and the stars in the sky for inspiration, reassurance, and hope.


Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum