On the Other Hand: How to Be Generous

In Parashat Lech L’cha, Abraham shows what it means to be a Jewish leader of depth, courage, and generosity. In this episode of On the Other Hand, Rabbi Jacobs shares lessons that he’s learned from Abraham’s generosity, and tells a story of modern-day generosity that embodies Abraham’s behavior.

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[URJ Intro:] Welcome back to On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by reformjudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, teaches us a little bit about the Torah portion in about 10 minutes or less. This week, Rabbi Jacobs teaches us about Parashat Lech L'cha. And he asks, what does it mean to really be generous of spirit?

[Rabbi Jacobs:] This week, we focus our attention on Parashat Lech L'cha in the book of Genesis. It's one of those parshiyot that if, like if you're having a bar or bat mitzvah and you say like I got Lech L'cha, feel like you won lotto. I mean, it's just-- it's so dense with incredibly powerful and compelling teachings for us, all of us, on our life's journeys.

So here's a part of Lech L'cha that doesn't get much attention. But it just jumped out. It's like, you know, as if it hadn't been there for all these years that I've been studying. It's the 13th chapter of the book of Genesis.

And it's this dramatic moment when Abraham and his nephew lot are traveling. And they've just, you know, kind of noticed that their flocks are full and that the shepherds and the cattle-- there's a riyb, a Hebrew word, a quarrel, develops among them. And what happens shows us who Abraham is, what it means to be a Jewish leader, of not only depth and courage, but of generosity.

And what happens is the following. And I've just got to give you a little bit of the flavor. So it says, "And there was quarreling between the herdsmen of Abraham's cattle and those of Lot's cattle. The Canaanites and the Perizzites were then dwelling in the land.

Abraham said to Lot, 'Let there be no strife between you and me, between my herdsmen and yours, for we're kinsmen. Isn't that the whole land before you? Let us separate. If you go north, I'll go south. If you go south, I'll go north.' Lot looked about him and saw how well-watered was the whole plane of the Jordan, all of it, this was before the Eternal had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah all the way to Zoar like the Garden of Eden."

So here's this moment. This is Jewish leadership. Remember, first of all, this is an uncle and his nephew.

And Lot's family, his parents have died. So Abraham has this loving relationship of protection for his nephew. So here they are in a journey.

And what could have happened in this quarrel? Think about it. You know, our herds aren't actually able to both live on this particular land. We need to separate.

Abraham's a senior member of this relationship. He's the guy god called with Sarai to lead the Jewish people. It should be for Abram-- or he's later called Avraham-- to choose. But this guy has such generosity.

He gets to that point, he says, you know what, Lot, let's not have a quarrel here. Let's just separate this. There's enough land here. What part do you want?

You choose. You want this part? Take it. I'll go there.

You want there? Take it. I'll go here. Incredible. Just he models for us what generosity is.

Now in Jewish tradition, we have midot, right? These are soul qualities. These are ethical core values that we live. And he exemplifies the midot of nedivoot, generosity in the most beautiful way.

And it's sometimes hardest to be honest to practice that with your family. Sometimes families have the most tension and particularly around resources, right? You know, I can think of times where I've officiated at funerals and, you know, the deceased's estate becomes this huge bone of contention for the family.

And that's, in a sense, what we have between Lot and Avram, that it's about-- there aren't enough resources so that they have to separate. What's also amazing in this story is, Rashi points out, that the place where Lot chooses turns out to be Sodom and Gomorrah. He's attractive there because it's well-watered. That's what the text just told us.

But the people there could not be more antithetical to the values that Abraham is trying to live and teach and embody. These are places that has no place for strangers, no place of hachnasat orchim, of welcoming the stranger. And Avram seems to get second choice, but turns out to be the land of Canaan, later the land of Israel.

So he's able to create meaning and beauty and community wherever he goes. And Lot made a bad choice. And Rashi says he was attracted not just in terms of qedem, eastward, but also he, in a sense, was leaving the Kadmon, the one, the primal one, God. So he made that choice. So I think of our lives, can we be the people who embody nedivoot, generosity like Avraham.

And the story that always comes to mind is the story of Nadav Ben Yehuda, this young Israeli who wanted to climb Mount Everest. Nadav's first name from nedivoot, right? It's the same root, one who is all about doing for others. And Nadav was this Israeli kid who always liked to climb. And he had this dream that he's going to be the youngest Israeli to ever climb Mount Everest.

And he finished his army service. And he trained and trained. And he actually got to Everest. And he was there as part of a whole expedition.

And just arduous thing to get up that mountain and a lot of physical strength and determination. And he's literally up at the campsite just before being able to make it to the summit. He can actually see the summit.

And the brutal cold and the wind. And he's barely able to just get through the night. And then he climbs, you know, what is just really within meters of the summit. And he looks down in the snow.

And he sees that there's some outline of a body. And he recognizes the body. It was the person he had met actually at base camp who was nearly frozen to death.

And he looked at the man in the snow. He looked at the summit. And he decided that the only thing immediately to do was to pick up the man who was nearly frozen to death. And he carried him down the mountain, unreal.

He risked his life and the frostbite that set in. And eight hours, and makes it down to the camp. They were able to helicopter them out.

He never got to the top. And the man whose life he saved was a Turkish Muslim man named Aydin Irmak. And you think, if I need another example of nedivoot, Nadav, Nadav Ben Yehuda. This guy has got the same gene of generosity, of doing for others, of exemplifying the best of humanity. And it's just inspiring.

Last thought is I have this wonderful book by my friend and colleague Amy Eilberg, Rabbi Amy Eilberg, the first woman to be ordained by the conservative movement, really one of our great, great teachers. She has a book that's called Enemy to Friend: Jewish Wisdom and the Pursuit of Peace.

So you think about Lot and Abraham, it's about trying to create peace in the family. That gets kind of spread out. That's peace in the community and maybe even at some points peace around the globe.

And she has concrete ways to create that greater peacefulness with people that you're having tension. Maybe your herd is conflicting with their Herd. That's to use a biblical analogy. But you get the idea.

She says, here's some concrete things to do. She said, extend a warm greeting to someone at work with whom you have recently disagreed with. She said, or invite someone of another political perspective or another religious faith to lunch. Read something, a commentary, a perspective that's very different than your own.

Just try to like put yourself into other settings. If someone speaks sharply or critically to you today, stop and ask yourself, what pain or pressure in his or her life might have led them to that harsh speech? So how do we practice generosity? How do we deal with the riv, the quarrels, the arguments, and not let them consume us, but for us to move from the quarrel to a sense of sharing and of peacefulness?

That's Abraham's model. That's Genesis 13. That's Lech L'cha. But it's also, frankly, it's the high holidays being carried forward into the year. It's about how we live the best of our values.

And with musar, with the practice of these midot, how do we begin to act in a way that doesn't just nod to these values, but puts them into concrete human life situations. Amy Eilberg gives us some beautiful ways to do that. So when we read Lech L'cha this year, we'll, of course, read the opening and the spires, we'll read all the different sections. But pay particular attention to Abraham and Lot.

Pay attention to the 13th chapter of Genesis. And pay attention for all of us, the moments where we could exemplify that nedivoot, that generosity. We don't have to be getting up onto Mount Everest to be able to express those values. It may be that something is going to happen to you today in your life, wherever you are, listening to this podcast, where you'll get a chance to do that in a beautiful way-- and maybe a hard way, maybe an unfamiliar way.

This Torah of ours isn't simply something we dutifully look at occasionally or maybe regularly. It can actually open us to live more fully and more generously. Isn't that a gift that's worth digging into over and over again?

I'm sure the answer for all of us is absolutely. So let's be the best, the best examplars of nedivoot. Imagine a world where it's not the exception, but maybe even the rule.

[URJ Outro:] Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah. If you liked what you heard today-- and we hope you did-- you can find new episodes each week at ReformJudaism.org and on Apple Podcasts, where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit ReformJudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism, including rituals, culture, holidays, and more.

On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life.

Until next week, l'hitraot.