This week’s Torah portion finds Isaac facing a famine in the Land of Israel. In order to survive it, he settles in the region of Avimelekh, the king of the Philistines. For a time, the King deals kindly with Isaac. Unfortunately, Isaac soon finds out that the King only welcomed him out of his own self-interest. Isaac works hard and becomes wealthy. Avimelech, for his part, sees Isaac’s success, as well as his growing independence, as a threat to his own power and wealth. The King cuts ties with Isaac and insists that he leave, stating, “Go away from us, for you have become far too big for us.”
A short time later, however, Avimelech approaches Isaac seeking to renew their association. Isaac is a bit incredulous and states,
“Why have you come to me, seeing that you have been hostile to me and driven me away from you?”
To his credit, albeit a bit unwisely, the King answers honestly stating,
“We now see plainly that Adonai has been with you and we thought: Let there be a sworn treaty between our two parties, between you and us…”
In other words, the King once again saw personal benefit in working with Isaac and attempted to erase his prior rejection of him.
The rabbis of the Talmud warned about such people when they taught, “There are many persons who eat and drink together, yet they pierce each other with the sword of their tongues.”
As one scholar notes, “[This] notion of friendship denigrates people by viewing them as tools to be used, rather than hearts to be esteemed.”
He continues, “True friendship is not a utilitarian tool—friends are not objects to be used and then abandoned when they no longer serve our needs. A friend is a treasure to be cherished and guarded, requiring a level of fidelity that takes constant effort.” (Rabbi Brad Shavitz)
Sadly, the world we live in today seems to be evermore transactional in its nature as people seek to determine what they will personally gain from a friendship, or a volunteer position or an organizational affiliation before committing to it.
That is why I am so grateful to everyone who has thus far supported this year’s High Holy Day Appeal. This annual appeal runs counter to Avimelech’s “what’s in it for me” nature of our society and, instead, reflects the communal and covenantal nature of TSTI. HHD Appeal gifts allow us to fulfill our pledge to one another that, despite the transactional nature of society, we will continue to be a community based on values and relationships that promises to embrace anyone who seeks to become part of the TSTI community. I doubt Avimelech would understand or appreciate a donation that strengthens community but does nothing to benefit himself directly. I am grateful to serve a community where so many of us do.
Rabbi Daniel Cohen