Shabbat Shalom! As I mentioned at the beginning of this month, with references in the Sukkah to those whose houses may feel unsafe from within, October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Perhaps coincidentally, all month we have been hearing about abuse of power, of toxic masculinity and sexist oppression, and though the particular acts we see in the news right now were not committed in a shared home or by an intimate and trusted partner, there is far too much overlap in the cause and effects of this kind of violence for us to continue to ignore these issues in our communities. The man in the spotlight this month happens to have been Jewish. The problem of violence and exploitation against women and femmes is most definitely not specific to the Jewish community, but Jews, if we want to see change in this world, we have to start by creating it in our own communities.
You may remember, about a year ago, I attended a weekend-long workshop on the Intersections of Racism and Antisemitism. In the weeks after I returned, I spoke of many wonderful, difficult, eye-opening, community-building moments in that weekend, including a new perspective on how toxic masculinity and sexism play out in Jewish communities. That discourse is a long and necessary discussion to be had, and I’m going to retread that fully again now, I will say I have since seen more conversations on this topic in the last year. Some of the approaches have been better than others, but I’m glad to see people are inspecting this territory at all, and I hope will continue to do so in the coming year as well.
In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Lech-L’cha, our patriarch, Avram leaves his father’s home, the place where he has lived and known and been known his whole life. The Hebrew of “lech-l’cha”, doubles the verb for going and loosely translates to “go to yourself,” or and emphatic, “GO, you go!” The Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Violence (JCADA) reminds that this reflects an inner and outer journey. When Avram heard the call to go forth, he had to physically leave all he knew, but he also had to trust a previously unknown God and take on a spiritual journey. Similarly, the JCADA says, when a survivor of abuse is able to break free of the home that has brought such pain, they must not only physically leave the home, but they must take on a new spiritual journey to heal. Often, they must relearn to go to themselves, to trust themselves and others anew.
Meanwhile, while our honored father Avram’s journey reflects that of the domestic abuse survivor, he himself perpetuates similar abuse. Remember that it is not uncommon for people who have been hurt or are frightened to perpetuate their hurt, or act out in perhaps irrational ways to self-protect against their fears. When Avram and his wife, Sarai, arrive to the land that God has shown them, it is barren, and they must continue on their journey to Egypt in search of food. Avram is worried that because his wife is so beautiful, Pharaoh will kill him to take his wife, so Avram asks Sarai to play along with a lie to Pharaoh that they are brother and sister. Pharaoh then attempts to claim Sarai as his own, and God sends a plague to prevent Pharaoh from assaulting the woman, revealing the truth to Pharaoh, who immediately returns Sarai to Avram and asks them both to please get the heck out of his house, like, yesterday. Avram failed Sarai as a partner, enacting emotional abuse of denying their union and treating her like a pretty trinket instead of as a human, and he orchestrated a situation in which the Pharaoh could exert power and entitlement to exploit and harass Sarai.
Sarai’s journey through this parasha is certainly also one of inner and outer new beginnings. She is following her husband’s physical journey and learning so much more about the men of the world. She is having her own inner process, so private and intimate that we as the readers can only imagine what she is thinking and feeling through all this. But as so many of us can tell you, even without having to travel the world as Sarai did, violence and harassment are not traits particular to any singular population. Pharaoh is not unique in his assumption of ownership over another person’s body, and Avram is not unique in his.
We all must start calling out these behaviors when we see them. We must start calling in the people in our lives who are still capable of change. In the case of the Avrams of the world, the fearful and unsure who imitate what they see or behave in ways that they think will protect them, we must teach them to be honest and vulnerable for the sake of building stronger and more equitable relationships. We have to be willing to allow for healing for those who are acting out of their own internalized trauma while also holding them to a standard of treating other people like people. And perhaps we need to start acknowledging when it is time to ex-communicate serial abusers, and know when the sake of “community” is no longer worth the harm a person is causing to others within said community.
We can start small, with the people closest to us, with workshops and phone calls within groups of friends and local community to educate those most likely to perpetuate these behaviors and to deconstruct the underlying issues. I have faith that we can end our community’s silence on abuse. May we tackle the tough questions this week. May we find ways to heal and help and have hope for a world in which all couples and families are blessed with safety and love. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.