Several years ago, I was reading a very interesting book looking at archaeology and bible studies called ‘Return to Sodom and Gomorrah’ by Charles Pellegrino. (I later introduced Pellegrino’s work to a filmmaker friend and the result was a large part of a film executive produced by James Cameron, and my first film credit…but that’s a story for another time.)
Pellegrino looked at the biblical treatment of snakes - particularly the story of the snake in the garden of Eden. The idea that stood out was that in the context of evolution and the emergence of societies, the snake was the embodiment of what the group or family had to fear. It could come around the campfire or the shelter, silently, it could wound or kill and slither away…it embodied danger. So it was no wonder, to the author, that the snake played such a prominent role in the Torah’s description of humanity’s encounter with the elements we would come to know as evil.
Recently I listened to a speech given by Richard Dawkins, a scholar and compellingly articulate champion of atheism. It was surprising to me that in listening to a man who would question the mere consideration of biblical narratives, I encountered his take on the source of one of the hallmarks of familial fidelity and religious observance, namely the rationale for obedience - more specifically immediate obedience. Dawkins infers that this rationale comes from the need to protect or immediately remove the defenseless (children, mostly) from harm. In this he sees evolutionary utility leading to what became religious motivation.
Why have I shared these two perspectives? Well, it is to frame a third one, one we are familiar with as Jews. Why does our tradition direct us to help the vulnerable in so many ways? It demands that we do not consider power or wealth in judgment. It assumes that our charity is informed by righteousness (Tzedek). It advises us to leave produce for the indigent, and it underscores this all with a national memory almost primeval in its effect on us. “Because you were strangers in the land of Egypt”.
Really, we don’t need to travel back 3500 years to Egypt. We were strangers in Baghdad and Berlin; in Madrid and Morocco; in Yemen and Yekaterinburg. We’ve come ashore from countless immigrant ships, we’ve come to town with a carpetbag or a pushcart, we’ve left behind family or tragedy or horrible experiences. But the one thing we knew in our guts was that there were people, our people, who would help us. They would build a synagogue, a school, a mikvah, a cemetery. They would speak on our behalf to the officer, the mayor, the senator. They would establish a free loan society, a soup kitchen, a food bank.
Why? Because, I suggest to you, it is and must continue to be innate in ourselves, and supported in our communities. It is an evolutionary imperative for our people. It is how we distinguish ourselves and how we become more resilient than any other people in the history of the world. Kindness. Chesed. Responsibility for one another. Generosity. It is what sets us apart. May it always be so, and may your support for the Federation’s work be your demonstration of it this year and every year.