Ukrainian Torah: The Kedushas HaLevi on Avram

Last week on Facebook Rabba Leah Sarna wisely asked, “What Ukrainian Torah will you be teaching?” I know that it is complicated for us as Jews to related to this question. While there is a rich history of Jews in the Ukraine, it has been far from all possitive, and relatively few Jews there understood themselves to be Ukrainian. That said, Zelenskyy, their heroic President, is one of us.

So I let the question marinate for a moment. This circumstances of Russia’s war on Ukraine got me thinking about the War of Nine Kings which is described in the Torah in Genesis 14:1–17. The Torah explains that the Battle of Siddim occurred between four Mesopotamian armies and five cities of the Jordan plain. According to the biblical account, the Elamite King Chedorlaomer subdued the tribes and cities surrounding the Jordan River plain. After 13 years, four kings of the cities of the Jordan plain revolted against Chedorlaomer’s rule. In response, Chedorlaomer and three other kings started a campaign against King Bera of Sodom and four other allied kings.

Avram intervened to save him cousin Lot who was caught up in in the middle of the war. There we read:

They seized all the wealth of Sodom and Gomorrah and all their provisions, and went their way. They also took Lot, the son of Avram’s brother, and his possessions, and departed; for he had settled in Sodom. A fugitive brought the news to Avram the Hebrew, who was dwelling at the terebinths of Mamre the Amorite, kinsman of Eshkol and Aner, these being Avram’s allies. When Avram heard that his kinsman had been taken captive, he mustered his retainers, born into his household, numbering three hundred and eighteen, and went in pursuit as far as Dan.

Genesis 14:11-14

In his eponymous book the Kedushas Levi, Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev (Levi Yitzchok Derbarmdiger) (1740–1809) shared his thoughts on Avram’s heroic activity. It it relevant to me the Berditchev is in the Ukraine.

There he wrote:

“when Avram heard that his kinsman had ‎been taken captive,”(Genesis 14:14) When the Torah continues and speaks ‎about Avram taking with him 318 men in his pursuit of ‎Chedorlaomer and his armies as far north as the tribal territory of ‎Dan (in the future), the number 318 is not accidental, but ‎represents the numerical value of the word ‎שיח -to speak‎, another word for ‎דבור -to speak‎, suggesting that Avram defeated these armies by means of ‎uttering the holy name of God. ‎The word ‎דבור ‏‎ also means ‎הנהגה- leadership; the word ‎שיח=318‏‎ ‎also occurs in the sense of ‎השפלה- humiliation, i.e. Avram ‎humiliated these boastful kings. The word occurs in Proverbs ‎‎23:27 in that sense, i.e. ‎שוחה עמוקה זונה‎, “a harlot is a deep pit.” ‎‎

Kedushat Levi on Genesis 14:14

So how does Avram seek to save Lot? According to the Kedushas Levi there might have been any of four ways, but all of them are rooted in this number 318 having the gematria value of an act of speaking. The four ways are:

  1. Saying ineffable name of God. This is an allusion to when ‎Moshe killed the Egyptian in Exodus 2:13, an act referred to in ‎Exodus 2:14 as having been accomplished by a אומר- saying a word.
  2. Avram acted was through his leadership.
  3. Shaming Chedorlaomer.
  4. Something ambiguous regarding a harlot being as a deep שוחה- pit.

It is noteworthy that the holy Berdichever was a Hasidic master and Jewish leader who was also known as the “Sneiguron Shel Yisroel”-defense attorney” for the Jewish people, because he would intercede on their behalf before God. Known for his compassion for every Jew, he was one of the most beloved leaders of Eastern European Jewry. He very much saw his own role as someone who would use his words like Avram for his brethren.

So what do we make of the Berdichever’s reading? When Avram sees Lot in danger he intervenes. His mode of attack is actually with words and not soldiers. There are four ways:

  1. Through the revelation of God’s name.
  2. Through diplomacy and leaderships
  3. Through shame
  4. This whole thing with the harlot is still not clear to me.

Clearly this story the War of Nine Kings is relevant to what we are seeing as the Russian attack on Ukraine. There is merit to look to Avram for guidance as we determine what we should do in response. We are all appalled by this violence, horrified by the enormity of this refugee crises, of AND terrified by the prospects of World War III.

So what do we make of this four-fold Ukrainian Torah of the “Sneiguron Shel Yisroel”-defense attorney” for the Jewish people at this moment:

  1. Through the revelation of God’s name- While it is easy to imagine that this crisis is just about NATO, East vs West, or Putin’s power game at home, it is critical to reframe things. This is actually a religious war between Russian Orthodoxy and the West. For Putin this is a crusade for the  “spiritual security”  of their historical “Third Rome” concept. Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, explained in early 2019, “Ukraine is not on the periphery of our church. We call Kiev ‘the mother of all Russian cities.’ For us Kiev is what Jerusalem is for many. Russian Orthodoxy began there, so under no circumstances can we abandon this historical and spiritual relationship. The whole unity of our Local Church is based on these spiritual ties.” Even if you say that Avram used words to combat Chedorlaomer, words can kill. Words of being rational will not end a crusade. We might need to fight religious war with religious rhetoric. It did not help when Pompeo hailed it as a “historic achievement for Ukraine” which represented America’s “strong support for religious freedom.” We are playing into the story of the East being the infidels in this Russian Orthodox crusade (for more on this see this compelling article.)
  2. Through diplomacy and leaderships. NATO like Avram needs to step up to lead with sanctions and political impact to support Ukraine and fight this Russian invasion.
  3. Through Shame- Unlike absurd Kremlin propaganda lines about “Ukrainian Nazis” perpetrating  “genocide” against Russians, we need to get the truth out there. That said, we should be worried about shaming Putin any more than he is already embarrassing himself. If he cannot leave with his pride, many more people will die.
  4. So when it comes to this harlot, I think about the old joke. There man says to a woman, “Would you sleep with me for one million dollars?”. The woman says sure. The man replies, “How about for ten dollars?”. The woman replies, ” What? Do you take me for a common whore?” The man retorts, “We’ve already established that. All we’re doing now is negotiating the price.” Why would she care about being called a whore? Once we sell ourselves, the price is just a detail. Words are just words, at some point we are only judged on our actions. While the Kedushas Levi imagines that Avram intervened with his 318 men means with his words, at some level Avram acted and brought in his army to end the war and save Lot. At some point words are not enough and we will need to actually intervene.

So when we think about the Ukrainian Torah, think about the ways we can try to intervene, end this war, and save lives.

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