Lech Lecha

Genesis, Chapters XII – XVII

Barry Blum, MD
October 27, 2012

In the portion Lech Lecha we find several powerful stories. The first is the portion’s namesake, Lech Lecha. HaShem speaks to Abram and tells him, “Lech lecha, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto the land I will show thee.” He doesn’t tell him in advance specifically where to go, just go.

Abram does so, but spends only a brief time in the Land of Canaan because of a famine, quickly moving on to Egypt. There we are told the story of how Abram, realizing that the Pharaoh would be attracted to his beautiful wife, Sarai, tells her to tell the Pharaoh that she is Abram’s sister rather than his wife. Were she his wife, Pharaoh would kill Abram to be able to marry Sarai, but if she was his sister, he would not have to kill Abram to marry her. How Sarai deals with this situation, and how Abram winds up with gifts galore from the Pharaoh and how Sarai is given Hagar, completes this section.

Next come three stories, less frequently the subject of D’var Torah. One is how Lot and Abram choose their respective portions of Canaan in which to live, Lot choosing Sodom and Abram choosing the fertile plains of the Jordan River. There follows the War of the Four Against the Five Kings and Abram rescues Lot. Then Abram and Mechizideck meet.

The next section is more well known. Sarai, being barren and aware that Abram wants an heir, offers her slave, Hagar, to become Abram’s concubine. Hagar conceives, Hagar grows arrogant, Hagar runs away, Sarai brings her back. Ishmael is born.

God makes a covenant (brit) with Abram. He changes Abram’s name to Abraham and Sarai’s to Sarah and promises him a son – to be born to Sarah. Abraham then circumcises everyone. Cutting was apparently not an uncommon way to seal an agreement or promise (although not necessarily that part of the body).

An amazing story! It doesn’t even matter if we believe some or any of the details, or even if we believe in God. This story is a cornerstone of our heritage as Jews, it is part of our DNA as a faith community, an essential of our storyline, and even if we reject any or even all parts of our religion, we are still defined by these stories. I’m excited to explore how this story applies to Kona Beth Shalom today.

This past August, the Kamehameha Schools, surely not by divine right even if they consider themselves bigger than God, declared to our congregation (as to others), “Lech lecha. Go. Gei gezunt. Get outta town brah.”

If Abram had not left Haran when he did and with whom he left, the Jewish people as we are known today would not have come into being. Babylonia was at the time the most powerful empire in the world. But it was a land of idol worship, a practice inimical to Abram’s budding comprehension of monotheism. This “call” was a demand for him to cut himself off from all the bad influences surrounding him, even from his own father’s values and standards, as well as a test of his devotion. All three monotheistic religions have exalted Abraham as a man exemplifying man’s highest and noblest aspiration.

Well, Congregation Kona Beth Shalom is no Abraham and as I pointed out, Kamehameha Schools is no God. Yet the messages, the processes, the risks and the opportunities are similar. We have been led to believe that today is the last day that KBS will use the Keauhou Beach Hotel as our mishkan, our bimkam “temple,” our house of worship. Of course, we’re not the only ones being asked to leave. Like many of the others who work here or who use this place for their own businesses or community activities, we didn’t know where we would go when we were first notified.

Not unlike Abram, KBS was approached by an angel who offered us a destination. Unlike Abram, we didn’t immediately say, “Yessir, I’m ready to go.” More like the descendants of Jacob, the God wrestler – later named Israel, we had some major discussions, weighing all the pros and cons, and we needed to persuade ourselves that this was the right thing to do. Unlike Abram, we were given a quick tour of the Promised Land before deciding. But decide we did, and as a result, our next Shabbat morning service which will be on Thanksgiving Saturday, November 24th, in our new facility on the second floor next to the Monstera Restaurant, in The Shops at Mauna Lani. There is elevator and handicapped access. The place is spacious and even has a kitchen. Restrooms are next door.

Let me review for you how we Jews have been wandering here in Hawai`i (which means “let us have an island” in Hebrew).

The first recorded (or recalled) Jewish community event on the Big Island was the Bar Mitzvah of Gary Natan Rothstein, the son of Jerry and Judy Rothstein, in Hilo in 1973.

In August of 1974, Roz Silver and her husband Bill moved to Kona from southern California. Disappointed not to find High Holiday services here, the Silvers quietly celebrated at home. As things occur, Gil Martin, food and beverage manager at the Kona Golf Club, noticed a mezuzah nailed to the Silver’s door jamb, and a menorah. Agreeing that it would sure be nice to have a Jewish congregation, they started to make contacts. Gil knew a couple from Hilo – he was Jewish and she was Japanese. They knew the Reichman’s in Pahoa. One contact led to another.

When someone suggested they contact the Jewish Federation in Honolulu, the Federation provided prayer books for the 1975 High Holy Days, and arranged for Kirk Cashmere, who since became a prominent ACLU lawyer, to perform the service. The group, dubbed Aloha Beth Shalom, became the forerunner of Kona Beth Shalom. The 1975 High Holidays services took place at the Hilo Community Clubhouse. Kirk Cashmere brought over a tiny printed Torah and the prayer books. A total of 85 people showed up for these first Jewish services on the Big Island! After the Yom Kippur services, the first Big Island Jewish potluck took place with the main topic of conversation being, “When can we get together again?”

Since the High Holidays were celebrated in Hilo, the first Chanukah party was to be celebrated in Kona at the Silver’s home. People from Hilo were invited to stay overnight with those living in Kona. Roz remembered, “One couple, on their way to Kona, stopped and picked up a hitchhiker, who turned out to be Jewish. More than 65 people from all over the island came to the Chanukah party.”

The first Passover Seder was held at the Kona Golf Course Restaurant, not open to the public that day. The restaurant provided a commercial kitchen with restaurant size cooking facilities, utensils, and space needed to accommodate the 70 seder reservations. Gil Martin and Roz Silver prepared the dinner. Matzos came from the Jewish Federation and kosher wine was available on the island. The menu included gefilte fish Hawaii-style made with mahi-mahi, ahi, ono and aku, chicken soup and matzo balls, roast chicken, vegetables with tsimmes, a mixed fruit compote, home-baked coconut macaroons, as well as charoseth and other seder plate items.

For its final event of the Hebrew calendar 5735 (1976), the congregation held a Jewish Soul Food Picnic at the Hapuna Beach pavilion.

With the distance so great between Kona and Hilo, several of West Hawaii’s Jewish kama`ainas (residents) decided in 1980 to base the congregation in West Hawaii where they and others could come together to worship and thereafter it was known as Kona Beth Shalom. The original Board of Trustees included Morris Baker, President; Rosalind Silver, Vice President; Jerry Rothstein, Secretary; and Helen Rabin, Treasurer.

Rabbi Julius Nodel of Temple Emanu El in Honolulu led the first Bat Mitzvah on Hawaii Island in August 1980 for Elise Rael Sachs, the daughter of Alva Sachs. Services were initially held at an outdoor pavilion at the Keauhou Beach Hotel. Rabbi Nodel, alternating with Rabbi Avi Magid, also of Temple Emanu El, returned to Kona monthly to lead Shabbat services.

In August 1982, Gary Rothstein (Hawaii’s first Bar Mitzvah) returned to lead Shabbat Services and speak about his experience in Israel. He had become Torah observant and now lives in Jerusalem with his Israeli wife Advah and their many children.

In December 1983, Seymour Lewis’ grandson, Aaron Wyrick, led Shabbat Services for us, and in August 1984, our Board of Trustees selected Seymour Lewis to be the spiritual leader for Kona Beth Shalom.

In 1985, the congregation acquired a Torah scroll with the assistance of Mark Talisman, Director of the Washington, D.C. office of the Council of Jewish Federations. The Torah, which is well over 250 years old, had belonged to the once-thriving Jewish community in Polna, in what is now the Czech Republic, where it remained in use until the Holocaust. The Nazis had stored the scroll and other artifacts for display in what they intended as a museum to an extinct race. After the War, the cache of artifacts and 1,564 Torah scrolls was discovered in Prague and transferred to the Westminster Synagogue in London where Rabbi Michael Berenbaum restored our scroll.

Since the War, those Torah scrolls for which no European congregation remained have been made available for permanent loan to congregations in need of a Torah. In March 1985, our Torah scroll, accompanied by Mr. Talisman, traveled from London to Honolulu and then to Kona where it was formally presented to Congregation Kona Beth Shalom and dedicated at Shabbat services on March 30, 1985.

The Jewish Congregation of Maui gave us our first Aron HaKodesh at that time. In 2001, Joe Rosner, a long-time member of the Congregation, built a brand new Aron, designed by Morty Breier, using Hawaiian koa wood and incorporating that original Aron. Gifts from several KBS members (some deceased – like Barry Saunders, some living) made possible the creation of this special home for our special scroll.

Through the years, the congregation conducted Shabbat services at the Keauhou Beach Resort, the Kona Hilton Hotel, the Church of the Nativity, the Salvation Army Chapel and the Kona Surf Resort. Until 1995 we held services only on the last Saturday morning of each month. We then we added a Friday evening service followed by a potluck dinner. We returned to the Salvation Army Chapel after the Kona Surf closed in June 2000, but a fortuitous meeting with the new owner of the Aston Keauhou Beach Hotel at our 1999 Community Seder resulted in an invitation from him to return to where we started. The hotel later acquired a new owner and was renamed the Outrigger Keauhou Beach Resort. We met here on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings on the fourth weekend of each month for many years, more recently on just Saturday mornings; and we’ve met here for holiday celebrations.

That brings us to today. What about the other sections of this portion, Lech Lecha?

At the start of his journey, Abram checked out lots of different locations in the Promised Land. On the way in he went as far as Shechem, then to the mauka Bethel, and then to the Negev. Then after leaving Egypt and returning to Bethel, Abram and Lot’s followers began to quarrel. As a result, they each took different portions of the land. That’s not a solution that KBS is seeking but it’s valuable to us to see that this outcome is always possible. We can learn from our history what paths we want to take as well as paths we do not want to take.

How about Abram’s behavior in Egypt? Lying to Pharaoh? Learned scholars interpret this section differently. On one hand, Abram lied to save his life and put his wife at risk of being sexually taken advantage of by a horny Pharaoh. Some authorities say this was a sin. Others say that Sarai was perfectly able to take care of herself. Did she play coy with the Pharaoh, did she rebuff him, did she succumb to his charms? We’ll never know, but we are told that Sarai was an extraordinarily intelligent woman, and we do know that she and Abram were a solid couple for over 75 years. She did what was needed, whatever that was, and we have all benefited.

Relevant to us is the blessing of the women of KBS. There has never been a Shabbat service where there was not someone able to read Torah. The vast majority of these torah readers and leiners are women. The present and the past president of our congregation are both amazingly intelligent and thoroughly competent women. Coming as we do from a religious history, patriarchal in its structure for so long, we are living in the times of the first women cantors, the first women rabbis – and we are so fortunate.

But later we read about Sarai and Hagar. Did these women take advantage of each other? Did either woman do right by the other? Was their hostility the basis of the “eternal” (I hope not) strife between Arab and Jew? What can KBS learn from this? The last Lubovitcher Rebbe said, “If it was created, it was created for holiness.” I sure don’t know why this hostility was created. I suspect that the story about this hospitality was created in response to a question extant at the time. I’m assuming that there was already hostility between tribes. Some was explainable; “I want your land, you want my sheep, I want your water, etc., let’s battle over it.” But some was probably inexplicable, even then. So some wise people created an explanation – and wrote it into Torah. The rationale is weak and wrongheaded. It’s an example of wives and mothers having favorites, of sisters and brothers competing sometimes with devastating consequences. Maybe that’s the message. Look at who you hate. Is it really necessary? If you can’t figure out why (seeking more of the illusion of power is not a good reason), maybe it’s for a stupid reason, so maybe you should drop it.

Glib? Perhaps. But KBS has gone through some upsets in years past. I remember the reasons, and so maybe I think those reasons do justify one side or another. But in the end, it may serve us better to not try to keep track of all those details, all that storyline chatter. OK to not forget to be attentive, but not to ruminate on divisiveness.

Finally, the circumcision. A few weeks ago we sealed the deal with The Shops at the Mauna Lani. No, there was no blood shed, no cutting for a deal. I say, let’s keep the issue of brit milah where it belongs, as a sign of our covenant with HaShem. Even if you disagree with the practice, that’s what it’s supposed to represent. This brit, this covenant, this agreement with our new “angel” is a gift, an act of tzedakah to support the Jewish community of the Big Island. This gift to us has meaning only insofar as we take it upon ourselves to use this new facility as a means of enhancing, enlivening, strengthening and growing our congregation. Bringing children as well as adults into our kahal in Kohala with the same energy that we express when we kvell over a newborn, with her untapped energy, and his limitless potential.

Shabbat Shalom.

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