I can’t help but stare in wonder as I watch the army around us make camp for the night. It seemed like we’d been on the move for a week. And the entire time, a continual stream of scouts had been coming in and out of the camp, reporting what they encountered to the senior commanders. Baggage trains, supported by little armies of their own, seem to emerge from the land ahead of us, bending towards us as we move. I watch them, and they seem to me like some procession of ants; except instead of taking home some bit of milk or honey, they are bringing supplies to us – the army.
There are tens of thousands of men here, a human mass that seems almost impossible to sustain in one place. But they are being sustained. They’ve gone to war, they’ve engaged in battle, and they don’t seem slowed or weakened by the experience. The camp doesn’t smell of sweat or fear or exhaustion. Instead, wafts of wine and meat barbecued in smoke of native trees seems to waft over us.
This army is a wealthy army.
But there are exceptions. And I am one of them.
I smell like the men around me. I smell like fear.
Because unlike the mass of this army, I am about to die.
And I should have seen it coming.
I’d come from the East. I was a young man when I’d left. But I learned what the Easterners could do. They organized huge cities. They ran industries. They operated incredible taxation systems. Their leaders had awe-inspiring wealth. Theirs was a dynamic world. Regularly, new alliances, better at organization or with some slight benefit in arms, would rise to the fore. Borders were constantly shifting. But it was also a static world. Because the elites never changed. It took tremendous amounts of money and influence and power to organize to hold your own in their world. And if you weren’t powerful, you would be suppressed. It wasn’t possible for new people to gather the resources necessary to stand alone in a world without natural boundaries. In this world, startups played no part. Try to jump into the ranks of power and you’d be slaughtered in particularly colorful ways.
But it had gotten even worse. One man, a master of organization and business, had pulled together an alliance around a simple principle. He would control the market for grain. He had life and death in his hands. Entire cities could be destroyed, and no army would be needed. This man could charge whatever he wanted for his product, and he did. He gathered incredible sums of money and gained the ability to field ever larger armies with better and better technologies.
And his alliance grew. It was increasingly clear that others had no ability to resist.
We called him He-who-surrounds-the-grain.
Everything in that old world was becoming calcified. It was stifling. For an energetic young man like me there were only two choices: join the bureaucracy or get killed. Smart young and energetic men weren’t allowed to not join the team. I didn’t like my choices.
That’s why I’d agreed when my uncle decided to leave.
Most people in my world don’t just move around. If they go to a new place, it is either as a soldiers in a conquering army or as captives of a conquering army. We don’t reach across societies. My grandfather was the exception. He loved to move. He loved to surround himself with new people. I think he had the same problems I do; he just found one place, one culture, stifling. And so he never stuck around. But he never really got where he was going, either. He never really got beyond the borders of the calcified world. He travelled for a thousand miles and really ended up in the same place he’d started, ruled by the same kinds of men.
My uncle didn’t want to stop there. But he wasn’t motivated by wanderlust. If he had been, he wouldn’t have done what he did. No, my uncle has an inner drive: he loves people more than any other man I’ve ever met. His face lights up with the chance to speak to them. And people love him. They talk to him and they feel important and elevated by doing so. They feel like he’s lifted them up and carried them forward.
All the troubles of the world vanish when he is around.
My uncle is wealthy, but his great power is not wealth or military might or technology. His power is his love of people. Perhaps that is why he known as “the father of elevation.” He was lucky to marry a woman who would protect his legacy, because he doesn’t have that bone in his body. Together, the two of them decided that if they really wanted to change the world, they had to leave what they knew. They had to go someplace that wasn’t so settled. They had to go someplace that was truly dynamic.
Then, they could plant new ideas.
It wasn’t like they planned it out, though. My uncle just got the idea in his head that the world would change. And then, somehow, his love for humanity would spread and even the world we came from would somehow shift its course and become a better place. The farmers would be raised up. And the great men would be cowed. And the terrible wars would end.
My uncle has this incredible inner spark. He’s a great man. But he’s also crazy.
Nonetheless, I was happy to leave. With him around, I felt like I’d be okay.
When the time came, we sold everything, bought a bunch of sheep – a sort of mobile wealth – and then we just left.
Things weren’t easy at first. He kept calling out in the name of his deity, like he expected a miracle at any moment. But all we got was trouble. We had to leave, almost immediately, for Egypt. It was the kind of place I was used to. Lots of culture. But there things were really fixed in stone. They were led by a Pharaoh who could do, and did, whatever he wanted.
If my uncle’s G-d actually has any power, those Pharaohs have got it coming.
Eventually, we made it back to the frontier. Somehow the Pharaoh paid my uncle to leave. And then business finally began to pick up. Our flocks grew and things were great. But our employees were fighting. My uncle loves me. He didn’t want to fight with me. So, we went our separate ways. Of course, he’d come to change the world while I’d only come to escape the world I’d come from. It was only natural for us to go our separate ways. As I looked down towards the Jordan River valley, I knew what I must do. There, in the middle of the deadest of deserts was a city surrounded by verdant green crops. That was where I decided to go.
When I got there, the city wasn’t welcoming. It didn’t take me too long to understand why. They were hiding what they were doing. After all, how can they be growing such incredible crops in a desert? But they had worked it out. They were taking the water from the Salt Sea into shallow pools and letting it evaporate. They were producing something that wasn’t salt. They then combined it with our natural urban run-off. And what was left was the most incredible fertilizer I’ve ever seen. With water from the hills and the river Jordan, they could support tremendous crops.
When I finally understood what they were doing, I knew I could vastly improve what they were doing. It’s the Easterner in me. I knew I could scale up their enterprise.
When they finally let me have a chance, we ended up establishing huge stockpiles of the fertilizer. We had too much for our own lands and so we expanded, expanding existing cities. The entire time, we were loosely allied with He-who-surrounds-the-grain. He’d sent emissaries to us and rather than go to a war we weren’t ready for, we made an uneasy peace. We paid him tribute and he left us alone. But we lied about just how productive we were. Nobody was really allowed to know. As we grew stronger and stronger, we sold grain into his markets without telling him. I was doing exactly what I wanted to. And I knew that when we were strong enough, we’d throw off the alliance. And then we’d be free.
Before long, we’d capture cities of our own and transform them. And bit by bit, our crops would spread and we would grow as powerful as He-who-surrounds-the-grain.
But our fraud was discovered.
A traveler, a guest brought into a man’s house, turned out to be a spy. He worked out what we were doing. And just like that we were forced into a rebellion we weren’t ready for.
He-who-surrounds-the-grain swooped in. But he didn’t just attack us. After taking the effort and money necessary to form an army, he decided to use it to its fullest advantage. He decided to get rid of leaks in the market. He attacked and burned fields and massacred people. Not our people, other people. Innocents who were no part of our war. I heard the reports and I mourned, but what I could I do?
I didn’t expect my uncle to be attacked. He wasn’t a former. Instead, all of us just prepared for the inevitable.
Our cities were bordered on three sides. One by the salt sea and two others by slime pits where the salt waters had receded. We thought that made us stronger. So, we prepared to defend that fourth side. We expected the enemy to use fire, which would have been a catastrophe. A single torch set amongst our fertilizer would have blown the whole place sky high. Knowing this, we set ourselves well in front of the city.
We didn’t want it to become a bomb.
But it wasn’t burned. When the army of He-who-surrounds-the-grain finally came, it was overwhelming. We had five minor forces from an outlying region, and they had four major forces from the center of humanity. They had incredible numbers. And as soon as we saw them, we knew we could not fight. We also knew we could not flee. We were surrounded on three sides by what we had once imagined were defenses. We surrendered; without a fight. Our kings fled, but they were trapped in the pits. A few others managed to make it to the hills. They weren’t pursued. It wasn’t worth the effort. What could they do.
And just like that, S’dom was gone. And He-who-surrounds-the-grain took us all captive. He didn’t kill us. He wanted our secrets. He took us and he took a great amount of our fertilizer.
It was remarkably bloodless; like everything was a carefully executed business transaction.
And now the transaction is almost complete. One of us, predictably, has told He-who-surrounds-the-grain what we have been doing. We have no loyalty, only profit. Any of us would have volunteered, knowing that those who were not first would die. He-who-surrounds-the-grain made sure nothing was being withheld. It took about a week, during which time we travelled north. Into the hills and towards Damascus.
And now, night is falling and we are about to die.
For some reason, the army hasn’t formed us into a line. Instead, markings have been dabbed on our faces and we have been gathered into a tight group in a small clearing in the forests near Damascus. I know the area well, it is only an hour’s walk from our old home in Charan. Home might be close, but we are beyond help. We are deep within the territory of our enemy.
Before long, I see our executioners line up opposite us. They have beautiful short bows and almost no armor. I know the armies of the East are based on rapid movement overwhelming the defenses of their enemies. That, and their ability to strike from a distance.
I look at the executioners in the fading light and then I understand the formatting and the markings. The soldiers are barely men and He-who-circles-the-grain-market misses no opportunity. He is training his youngest soldiers to kill. We are to simulate an enemy formation. And each man has been marked as a single target for each of the young soldiers.
Amid all the excitement, I barely notice the rustle in the shrubs. But it is there. A shadow cast by the moon where there hadn’t been one before. Is it an animal? Could it be a person? But who could have come?
Perhaps it is simply another level of training for the boys?
But then the arrows are fired. Not the arrows of our executioners, but others from the bushes that surround them. They are not just arrows, they are arrows tipped with flame. And as they fly, I know where they are headed.
They are headed towards the stockpiles of our fertilizer.
Like one, I and my fellow citizens fall to the ground. And then, moments later, the earth beings to shake with a series of colossal explosions. It is like no sound any man has ever heard. Then the shadows emerge and become men. Not many men, only a few hundred. But in the sudden confusion and the massive death caused by the explosions, their sparkling blades cut through their suddenly helpless enemies. They are dressed in our enemy’s uniforms, but in a few moments, I know who they are. They are the allies of my father from the land of Canaan.
It seems like only minutes before the camp falls and even He-who-surrounds-the-grain is dead. And then, just like that, the East is left in the East and the West is freed.
When I finally see my uncle, his normally bright face is darkened by the death he has caused. But there is something else there as well. Some sort of sadness. He sees me, comes towards me and embraces me.
“Thank you,” I say.
He nods sadly and answers, “I was too late.”
I am only confused for a moment. But then I understand. Those other people, those other farmers, died. The Raphaim, the Zuzim, the Emim, the Horim, the Amorim and the Amalekim. So many innocents were killed. So many died.
And my uncle, the man who loves all of humankind, did nothing.
He only acted when I was in danger.
I can’t quite explain the revulsion that washes over me. But I pull away from him. He rescued me. He helps those he loves, but he does nothing – when the risks are high – for strangers.
He could have helped, but he did nothing for the innocents.
He doesn’t pull me back towards him. He doesn’t argue. He just asks, “Are you going back to S’dom?”
And in that instant, I know I am. My people were betrayed by a traveler. They were betrayed by a spy. They will slaughter any stranger.
My uncle pretended to care about others. He pretended to care about the innocents. But he did nothing for the the Raphaim, the Zuzim, the Emim, the Horim, the Amorim and the Amalekim.
I will do better. I will rescue the foreigner. I will even rescue the spy.
Because the stranger should not be set above one’s own kin.
We travel together, back towards our unsettled lands. But our split is inevitable.
Never can the two of us be brought back together.
This story was remarkably difficult to write. I tried to write proxies for it from Avraham’s perspective. I set it in contemporary urban neighborhoods, in Benghazi and even on Mars. I tried to focus on Avram’s perspective. But all of those were just a proxy for the Torah’s version of the story. Avram is a man who travels to a new land to make a difference. He is motivated by the opportunity to change the world in a place where the rules are not yet firm. G-d promises him he will be a blessing to the families of the world. He is like many who make Aliyah to Israel, escaping the calcification of societies that had previously hosted our people.
And so, I decided to the story the Torah tells, but from another perspective.
As I see it, Avram makes a difficult decision. He chooses not to help Amalek and the others. He only helps his kin. In an era in which we are surrounded by wars and tremendous cruelty, his choice is incredibly relevant. Do we intercede in the catastrophes along our borders? It is a difficult question.
In the end, Hashem reassures Avram that he made the right choice. But Amalek believes differently. They dedicate everything, for evermore, to revenge. They can’t forget or forgive. If this was in Amalek’s character, then perhaps they should not have been rescued. How could Avram have known he made the right choice?
I’ve struggled with this question. How can you choose not to intervene when innocents are being threatened? I even wrote a book, The City on the Heights (www.CityontheHeights.com), proposing a way to help without simply going ‘Team America’ on the aggressors.
Ultimately, the challenge Avram faced is core to knowing G-d. G-d does not impose the good. Avram’s tool was relationships, and Hashem’s is as well. Avram reached out to those around him, establishing webs of relationships. He wouldn’t stand up for Amalek, with whom he had no relationship. But he would stand up for Lot. And if Lot would stand up for others and if that web were to grow out like some fractal of love, then those who would attack it we would find themselves isolated and weak. Aggressors can then be crushed and reformed.
Today, we call this a civil society.
Avram didn’t stand up for Amalek because force in support of a stranger would not build a lasting relationship. Those who are bent towards the worst interpretations, as Amalek was, will find them. They will claim Avram wanted their lands or their property. They will claim it was simply PR. They will claim he had no good intentions, beneath it all.
Avram’s idea did not require a plan to execute. All that he needed was the aspiration and the trust in the Lord Almighty. And we can follow his example. We can, like him, spread kindness that lasts thousands of generations. And we can, ultimately, extinguish the hate that takes hold in the cultures of those who cannot forgive.
This story is dedicated to a man in my Kehilla’s extended community who passed away this past week. He visited our community somewhat regularly and he always took the time to speak to me. He was full of life and joy and he lifted you up just like I imagine Avram must have done. When he died, I was surprised. He seemed healthy to me. He never said anything to the contrary. I thought that it must have been a surprise. Then I went to his funeral and I discovered another truth. He’d been battling stage 4 cancer for 18 years. He was incredibly ill. But he did not share that with me. All he shared was joy.
Like Avram, he started with a love of man and learned trust in G-d. Like Avram he must have been challenged by the hardship of his reality. But he loved those around him. And then he became religious and he moved to Israel to live out exactly one year of his life. I believe he moved because he was hoping to continue to spread his love to those around him, in the homeland of his people.
His name was Michael Libman and I hope you can join me in continuing to spread his joy; despite the hardship that may mar your own lives.
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Image: David Shankbone, Wiki-Commons