You can find the rest of the parsha text on Chabad.org at Vayeira.
This week’s thought is offered by Rabbi Aviva Richman.
There is a prayer reverberating loudly in me in this moment. It was written in the 18th century by a woman named Sara bas Tovim. In a tkhine (Yiddish prayer) to be recited while preparing candles for Yom Kippur, she powerfully reframes the fire of the Akeidah (the binding of Isaac), turning it into a prayer of protest:
And through the merit which I gain by preparing the wick for the sake of our foremother Sarah, may hashem yisborekh – praised by He – remember us for the merit of her pain when her beloved son Yitshok was led to the binding. May she defend us before God – praised be He – that we should not – khas vesholem – be left widows this year, and that our children should not – khas vesholem – be taken away from this world in our lifetime…
You have commanded us to blow the shoyfer on rosheshone using the horn of a ram, a reminder of the binding of yitskhok. Remember this merit so that we may be able to provide for our children’s needs, that we may be able to keep them under the guidance of a teacher, so that they may become accustomed to Your service and respond, “Omeyn. Yehey shmey rabo.´ May the merit of my mitsve of candles be accepted as equivalent to the flame which the koyen gadol lit in the beys hamikdesh, so that it may illuminate the eyes of our children in the study of the holy toyre.
Two years ago, in a weekly Dvar Torah, I reflected on this tkhine and Sara bas Tovim’s embrace of Sarah instead of Avraham in the story of the Akeidah. I wrote:
When we embrace Sarah as a religious role model, Akeidat Yitzhak offers a starkly different set of guiding principles for our relationship with God. The God we pray to is not the God who demands we give up our children, but the God who never wants parents and children separated. We come close to God through a web of deep commitments to loved ones, not by virtue of our willingness to sever these ties. The way we demonstrate our religious devotion most fully is not by sacrificing those most dear to us, but through the day in and day out work of tending to their physical and spiritual needs.
In the wake of the Akeidah, Sara bas Tovim prays: Never Again. May we never experience the loss Sarah felt at the prospect of her child being killed. In our current moment, we have witnessed shocking forms of terror, intentionally and horrifically severing ties between loved ones. As we relive our ancestor Sarah’s trauma of the Akeidah, we can scream out Sara bas Tovim’s prayer: “May our children never be taken in our lifetimes!”
But the crisis in which we find ourselves also brings to the fore a more traditional prayer borne out of the Akeidah. It is a paradoxical prayer, found in Rosh Hashanah Musaf:
ותראה לפניך עקדה שעקד אברהם את יצחק בנו על גבי המזבח וכבש רחמיו לעשות רצונך בלבב שלם, כן יכבשו רחמיך את כעסך מעלינו… ועקדת יצחק לזרעו היום ברחמים תזכור. ברוך אתה ה’ זוכר הברית.
May the binding that Avraham bound Yitzhak his son on the altar and subdued his mercy to do your will with a full heart—be pleasing to you. So may your compassion overcome your anger against us… and remember with compassion the binding of Yitzhak for his descendants today… Blessed are You God who remembers the covenant.
Here, we pray for the merit of Avraham’s ability to “overcome” his compassion, so that God will allow divine compassion to overcome divine anger. We laud Avraham’s willingness to overcome his compassion for a split second, because that would pave the way for a future defined by compassion.
Right now, the paradox of this traditional prayer rings loud and clear. In many ways, the closest event in our modern lives to the Akeidah is the reality of people willing to sacrifice themselves and their children to fight a just war. As Am Yisrael, we prize compassion and we pray to a God of compassion—א-ל רחום וחנון. How can a situation that demands holding back compassion ultimately yield greater compassion? How can we fight a war—knowing lives will be lost—and at the same time hold up compassion as our defining trait?
This prayerful rendition of the Akeidah teaches that sometimes exercising narrow compassion will not create a world where compassion abounds. Instead, there is a need to see beyond a narrow definition of compassion so as to unlock the much more abiding divine compassion.
At this moment, I am praying for a complex compassion that leads to the world in which God’s compassion is wholly manifest. On the one hand, I am sobered by the fact that this can entail the necessity to overcome shortsighted compassion and to accept real losses. At the same time, I feel accountable to Sara bas Tovim’s insistence that we should never become numb to the pain of people separated from their loved ones that necessarily ensues when we “overcome” our compassion. We have to scream out her prayer even in the midst of following through in a moment that calls for sacrifice.
I hope that our fear, trauma, anger, and pain will ultimately fuel our fortitude to transform the fire of the Akeidah into the “illuminating glow” of nourishing the next generation, physically and spiritually, as Sara bas Tovim demands. I pray that the ethics of sacrifice ultimately give way to an ethics of compassion. As our traditional prayer articulates, this is the only reason for an ethics of sacrifice in the first place.
From Rabbi Yael Levy
A Way In Jewish Mindfulness: Sitting at the Opening
It is so difficult to know what to say, to find words to speak into the sadness, turmoil and pain.
Last week the Infinite Mystery called: Go.
Leave. Explore. Become.
This week the Mystery calls: Sit.
Be still. Be with. Notice.
Avraham sat among the trees
At the opening of the tent,
He lifted his eyes
And saw the Infinite Presence
He saw that the Infinite Presence
Is within promise, hope, turmoil and pain.
The Infinite Presence is in conflict and longing.
The Infinite Presence is in
Grief, devastation and despair.
And the Infinite presence is in
Possibilities for healing and transformation
Not yet seen or imagined.
This awareness filled Avraham
And he rose to meet whatever life would bring
With humility and strength.
What can help us sit in the grief, sorrow
And chaos of these days?
What can help us rise into each moment?
I find inspiration and comfort in this teaching from Etty Hillesum:
And you must be able to bear your sorrow; even if it seems to crush you, you will be able to stand up again, for human beings are so strong, and your sorrow must become an integral part of yourself; you mustn’t run away from it.
Give your sorrow all the space and shelter in yourself that is its due, for if everyone bears grief honestly and courageously, the sorrow that now fills the world will abate. But if you do instead reserve most of the space inside you for hatred and thoughts of revenge—from which new sorrows will be born for others—then sorrow will never cease in this world.
And if you have given sorrow the space it demands, then you may truly say: life is beautiful and so rich. So beautiful and so rich that it makes you want to believe in God.
May we find moments of love and connection that help us bear our sorrows. May we have moments when we lift our eyes and can sense that the Infinite Mystery is sitting here with us, holding us all with compassion and care.
Hagar’s Tears and Ours: Choosing Connection over Despair
Rabbi Ayelet S. Cohen
VAYERA | ROSH HASHANAH
Genesis offers us narratives of our biblical ancestors struggling with many of the deepest challenges that we may face in our lives, whether in our familial or interpersonal relationships or as we face the uncertainty, fear, and loss of living in a broken world. Throughout the Genesis cycle we encounter families who accept the fallacy that there is not enough blessing to go around, and thus make terrible mistakes. Parents choose favorite children, siblings are pitted against each other as rivals. This year we return to these stories shattered by the horrific violence of the October 7th massacres, as we see a new and terrifying chapter unfold in the primal conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. We know that there is enough suffering and trauma and outrage to go around. We wonder if there is enough compassion or enough hope to carry us through this time.
In Parashat Vayera we encounter Sarah and Hagar, two mothers who are more accustomed to scarcity than abundance and become trapped in their own fears for their beloved sons. After years of longing, Sarah receives the blessing of a son, of Isaac. She experiences a moment of pure joy.
וַתֹּאמֶר שָׂרָה צְחֹק עָשָׂה לִי אֱלֹהִים כׇּל־הַשֹּׁמֵעַ יִצְחַק־לִי׃
Sarah said, “God has brought me laughter; everyone who hears will laugh with me.”
But when we are accustomed to feeling empty, lonely, less than, it can be hard to stay in that place of joy. And so when Sarah becomes concerned about the behavior of Ishmael, the son of Hagar, towards her own son, Isaac, she reacts with seemingly unrelenting fury.
וַתֹּאמֶר לְאַבְרָהָם גָּרֵשׁ הָאָמָה הַזֹּאת וְאֶת־בְּנָהּ כִּי לֹא יִירַשׁ בֶּן־הָאָמָה הַזֹּאת עִם־בְּנִי עִם־יִצְחָק׃
She said to Abraham, “Cast out that slave-woman and her son, for the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.”
Her words are dehumanizing. Painful. I would rather imagine that Sarah and Hagar had built a relationship through their years of being in the same family, parenting side by side. But so often our fear of inadequacy turns us inward. If we doubt whether we are worthy of love, we may close ourselves off from others. Our fear that we and those we love will not have enough can make us regard others as competitors for the same scarce resources. We forget that generosity and connection are available to us. Instead of turning towards connection and generosity, which can lead to abundance, we turn away from them.
Abraham, while distressed about doing so, sends Hagar and Ishmael out into the wilderness with only some bread and a skin of water. Rejected by Sarah, betrayed by Abraham, when the water is gone Hagar quickly descends into despair.
וַיִּכְלוּ הַמַּיִם מִן־הַחֵמֶת וַתַּשְׁלֵךְ אֶת־הַיֶּלֶד תַּחַת אַחַד הַשִּׂיחִם׃ וַתֵּלֶךְ וַתֵּשֶׁב לָהּ מִנֶּגֶד הַרְחֵק כִּמְטַחֲוֵי קֶשֶׁת כִּי אָמְרָה אַל־אֶרְאֶה בְּמוֹת הַיָּלֶד וַתֵּשֶׁב מִנֶּגֶד וַתִּשָּׂא אֶת־קֹלָהּ וַתֵּבְךְּ׃
When the water was gone from the skin, she left the child under one of the bushes, and went and sat down at a distance, a bowshot away; for she thought, “Let me not look on as the child dies.” And sitting thus afar, she wept.
Hagar cannot bear to see her son suffer, and so she moves away from him. The rabbis do not want to believe that Hagar is abandoning her child in this moment. Radak, Rabbi David Kimchi, explains the unusual measure of a bowshot to explain that while Hagar went some distance away, she remained close enough that she could still see Ishmael. She is so consumed by her fear and grief that she moves away from him. Yet, she is motivated by love and so she stays close enough to still see him. We don’t know if Ishmael can see his mother. We don’t know if he knows she is still there. In her own grief and isolation, Hagar moves away from her one connection, and inadvertently deprives him of her presence. So now they are both alone, thirsty, and afraid.
Hagar weeps. Ishmael must have wept too, and perhaps while she could still see him, she was too far to hear his cries, because the text continues:
וַיִּשְׁמַע אֱלֹקים אֶת־קוֹל הַנַּעַר וַיִּקְרָא מַלְאַךְ אֱלֹקים אֶל־הָגָר מִן־הַשָּׁמַיִם וַיֹּאמֶר לָהּ מַה־לָּךְ הָגָר אַל־תִּירְאִי כִּי־שָׁמַע אֱלֹהִים אֶל־קוֹל הַנַּעַר בַּאֲשֶׁר הוּא־שָׁם׃
God heard the cry of the boy, and a messenger of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heeded the cry of the boy where he is.”
Midrash Rabbah teaches that from this we learn:
יָפָה תְּפִלַּת הַחוֹלֶה לְעַצְמוֹ יוֹתֵר מִכֹּל
The prayer of a suffering person on their own behalf is more beautiful, more desired, than the prayers of others.
Rashi explains that if a person is in a position to pray on her own behalf those prayers will reach the One of Blessing first. Yet the midrash is saying even more than this. According to this reading, God responds to Ishmael’s cry for help first, and only then to Hagar’s tears of despair. God wants us to hope. We must reach towards the Divine to express our desire to survive and our hope that a different future is possible. Seeking that connection can open us to receive blessing.
Hagar must confront her despair and break through her isolation to reconnect with her child in order to reclaim her will to survive. Abraham Joshua Heschel understood deeply the delicate line between fear and despair. In a 1963 speech titled “Religion and Race,” he acknowledged that despair is seductive, because the evils of the world are tremendous. In the face of the greatest acts of human depravity, of brutal racism and injustice we may feel “that the most practical thing we can do is ‘to weep’ and to despair.” But, he argues, succumbing to despair is an abdication of our most fundamental human responsibilities, and a betrayal of God. “The greatest heresy is despair, despair of humanity’s power for goodness, humanity’s power for love.”
קוּמִי שְׂאִי אֶת־הַנַּעַר וְהַחֲזִיקִי אֶת־יָדֵךְ בּוֹ כִּי־לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל אֲשִׂימֶנּוּ׃ וַיִּפְקַח אֱלֹקים אֶת־עֵינֶיהָ וַתֵּרֶא בְּאֵר מָיִם וַתֵּלֶךְ וַתְּמַלֵּא אֶת־הַחֵמֶת מַיִם וַתַּשְׁקְ אֶת־הַנָּעַר׃
Come, lift up the boy and hold him by the hand, for I will make a great nation of him. Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went and filled the skin with water and let the boy drink.
(Gen. 21: 18-19)
First Hagar must rise out of her isolation and despair and go back to Ishmael to hold him. Then God opens her eyes, and she is able to see the well of water. Perhaps it had been there the whole time, but she was so focused on looking away from Ishmael that she couldn’t see it. When she remembers the power of love and connection, the possibility of good, her eyes are unclouded and she can find the water.
May each of us seek out connection to defeat the isolation and despair that clouds our vision, so that we may remember our potential to choose hope, and with that, our potential to help build a different future.
Based on a d’var Torah delivered at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in New York City on Rosh Hashanah 5784/2023.
From J. Magazine
Are guilty or hateful leaders worthy of our prayer?
BY RABBI AMY EILBERG | NOVEMBER 11, 2022
As I studied a beloved text in this week’s parashah, Vayera, a whole new level of meaning revealed itself to me.
The text is the cherished story of Abraham’s bold challenge to God to spare the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. God has let Abraham know that “the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great,” implicitly revealing God’s plans to destroy the two cities. (Genesis 18:20)
Abraham, summoning his moral strength in the face of God, came forward and called out, “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? What if there should be fifty innocent people within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justly?” (Gen. 18:23-25)
I had always thought the plain meaning of the text was that the city should not be destroyed if there were righteous people in it. The principle was that the righteous minority should not be punished for the sins of the wicked majority.
But taking a characteristic deep dive into the words of the text and the perspectives of various classical commentaries, Israeli Biblical scholar Nehema Leibowitz asks, “On whose behalf did Abraham intercede? To save the righteous? Or the wicked as well?” (Nehama Leibowitz, “Studies in Genesis”)
Biblical scholar and Hebrew poet Solomon Dubnow points out that Abraham begins by praying that the righteous should not be swept away with the guilty because of the sins of the guilty (Gen. 18:23). Here, Abraham’s plea is to save the innocent, even if the rest of the city is destroyed.
But in the next sentence, Abraham asserts that if there are 50 innocent people in the city, then the city — “the place”— should not be destroyed at all (Gen. 18:24). Consider the logic of this: The entire city (of mostly wicked people, from God’s perspective) should be spared if there are any innocent people in it. In other words, Abraham is praying to spare the guilty people simply because they live in proximity to innocents.
Confusingly, in the following verse (Gen. 18:25), Abraham reverts to praying especially for the innocent, saying, “Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty.”
There are times I pray earnestly only for the political leaders I consider good.
Rabbi David ben Samuel Halevi, in his commentary on Rashi, tries to resolve the apparent contradiction among the verses. He asserts that Abraham would not have had to even ask God to spare the righteous. Of course God would not have killed the innocent: “That is but justice and requires no prayer.” The daring part of Abraham’s prayer, by this logic, is the request to God to spare the wicked, subverting the rule of justice by extending mercy to them. But then Abraham concludes that God should at the very least spare the innocent, since “this is not a question of seeking a special favor but is only justice” (Leibowitz).
Of course, we know how the story ends. There are not 50 innocent people in the city, nor 45, nor 30, nor even 10. However we may feel about it, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is described as the obliteration of two utterly evil cities.
But the head-spinning analysis we saw in the commentaries raises a question with implications far broader than this particular Biblical event. The question is: For whose well-being do we pray? Do we wish for the best for those whose voices we find objectionable? Do we hope that those incarcerated for crimes be spared further suffering? Are the guilty and the hateful worthy of our prayer?
Such questions may arise for many of us especially when we recite a prayer for our country in these troubled times. What goes through your mind when you recite such words as these from Siddur Lev Shalem (the most recent Conservative movement prayerbook): “Pour out your blessings upon this land, upon its inhabitants, upon its leaders, its judges, officers, and officials, who faithfully devote themselves to the needs of the public”?
When I recite these words, I usually think about the latest political outrage that has consumed my attention during the week. Honestly, there are times I pray earnestly only for the political leaders I consider good. Occasionally a snide thought arises that the others — the bad ones — need prayer.
But occasionally my heart is big enough to think about how hard it is to be a civic leader right now and how complex the problems are that face these officials every day. Sometimes I imagine those people — the “bad ones” — sitting at home enjoying a meal with their families or playing with their children — living lives much like mine.
When we pray for our country — or any country — in these very difficult times, sitting safely in synagogue or in our own homes, can we stretch our hearts to care about all the people of the city, the state, the country?
If we all did this, even for a few minutes each week, our country might become a better place.
From Reform Judaism.org
Vayeira, Genesis 18:1–22:24
D’VAR TORAH BY: RABBI STACY RIGLER
At times, it seems light is hard to find. When the clocks change and the weather grows colder, I find myself struggling more often to be motivated to work towards change in our world; to see hope in the world. Last year, a friend recommended a book to me, “The Lightmaker’s Manifesto” by Karen Walrond, promising that the author’s insights would help me see the light I was looking for.
“There is no one way to change the world. The world changes when we take inspiration from the different forms of good work and light and make them our own,” writes Walrond. This quote reminds us that change only happens when we open our eyes and allow ourselves to experience goodness. We gain the strength necessary to create change.
The portion Vayeira (God appeared) provides us with several examples of how we can change our world. This portion contains pain and turmoil including infertility, destruction of an entire community, the abandonment of a young mother and her child, and a test of faith through child sacrifice. Alongside every challenge there are lessons of hospitality, kindness, meaningful dialogue, and courage. God appears amidst the suffering. God is with Abraham and Sarah in their fertility struggle, God is in Sodom and Gomorrah when the townspeople are sinning, God is with Abimelech when he is committing accidental harm, and God is with Hagar and Ishmael when they are expelled to the desert.
In these moments of crisis, we learn how human actions can change biblical events. Let us look at Hagar, forced to leave her home and enslaved to Sarah. When Sarah is barren, Hagar bears Abraham a child. But when Sarah has a child, she evicts Hagar and Ishmael, sending them into the desert. Bereft, Hagar thinks her child will die of thirst in the wilderness. Hagar demonstrates courage and understanding. She holds God accountable, demanding that God see her and her suffering. She cries out to God, and God opens her eyes. At that moment, Hagar sees water that was not apparent before, a way to nurture her child. With that water comes the hope and belief that they can persevere. The water does not provide a resolution to her challenges, but it offers her hope and the path toward change.
If I were Hagar, my anger towards Abraham and Sarah would have consumed me. I doubt I would have possessed the clarity to call out to God, even if God had offered me protection before. I am inspired by Hagar’s ability to use her gifts to summon hope and action. I am amazed that her powerlessness did not overwhelm her.
This portion contains multiple stories of destruction and pain, with humans using their abilities to create change. Abraham and Sarah share their hospitality, Lot demonstrates compassion and courage, and Abimelech shows sensitivity and understanding. These are the examples of light that Karen Walrond encourages us to notice. She encourages us to look inward and recognize our gifts and talents, even in a world of pain and suffering. She argues that, without introspection, we will lack the stamina to pursue the fight for justice. In each case, when the humans acted, God appeared.
The Kotzker Rebbe, a Hassidic rabbi, teaches, “Where does God appear? Wherever you let God in.” We can let God in by cultivating empathy, compassion, understanding, and courage. We use our skills to do good in the world. When we generate good in the world, we are more likely to be able to see godliness in the world. When we see godliness, we renew our faith and reignite our hope. With hope and faith come the desire and fuel to work for change.
God does not just appear, even in our ancient stories. Our actions create God’s presence all around us. Our actions generate light in the dark. This year, I’ve taken a new look at how to find light in our world and at Hagar. May we all learn from her example, remember our gifts, and use them to notice the godliness all around us.
Lessons from Lot’s Daughters
BY : ABBY EISENBERG
Parashat Vayera is the fourth Torah portion after Simhat Torah, the celebration of our annual Torah reading cycle and the culmination of the fall holidays. As we begin the new year, we also begin anew our exploration of ancestral family dynamics. Arguably one of the most famous parent-child scenes in all of literature can be found in Vayera: that of Abraham bringing Isaac to offer him as sacrifice. The parashah also contains another version of child sacrifice when Lot, Abraham’s nephew, subjects his unnamed daughters to assault and danger. From the tragedy of Jephthah’s daughter to the boldness of the daughters of Zelofehad, relationships between fathers and daughters in Tanakh are both deeply troubling and inspiring. The story of Lot and his daughters is certainly the former, and, perhaps surprisingly, potentially the latter.
The narrative begins with messengers (mentioned earlier as emissaries of God, Gen. 18:1–2) who have just arrived in Sodom, where Lot resides, to inform him of the city’s impending destruction. When the townspeople violently and aggressively demand that Lot send his guests outside so that the townspeople can force themselves upon the visitors, Lot instead offers his young daughters to them (Gen. 19:6–8).
While today we are shocked at Lot’s behavior and find it vile, medieval commentators express differing views on Lot’s decision. Chizkuni (France, d. 1310) makes sense of Lot’s deplorable actions by placing blame on his daughters and writes on Gen. 19:8 that “the daughters of Lot were not chaste and did not shy away from engaging in seducing men, as we know from later when they initiated carnal relations with their own father” (Gen. 19:33). This victim-blaming interpretation is deeply offensive and unacceptable for us today. Alternatively, Ramban (Spain, d. 1270) cites an early midrash on the same verse (Tanhuma Vayera 12, c. 500–800 CE) and in strong terms casts blame on Lot for despicable behavior: “This bespeaks nothing but an evil heart . . . and that in his opinion he would not be doing such great injustice to his daughters . . . this man hands over his daughters for dishonor” (Ramban on 19:8).
But what if we direct our attention to the reaction of the daughters themselves in our evaluation of Lot’s behavior? Although the biblical authors were certainly very likely to be men, and of course the medieval commentaries express a male perspective, through a close examination of the daughters’ own words and actions, we may be able to expand our perception of this dark episode and its possible meaning for us today.
After the destruction of Sodom (19:15–26), including the famous transformation of Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt, we read that Lot did not initially wish to dwell in the hill country or the town of Tzoar, so he and his daughters moved to a cave. The elder of Lot’s daughters suggests to the younger that they intoxicate their father so that they could initiate intercourse: “Come, let us make our father drink wine, and let us lie with him, that we may maintain life through our father” (19:32; phrase repeated in 19:34). Exploring commentaries on this phrase and imagining the motivation behind the daughters’ actions can yield compelling insights for us.
Rashi (France, d. 1105), following Genesis Rabbah (classical midrash on Genesis, c. 500 CE), explains that the daughters undertook this course of action to ensure the perpetuation of the human race. Indeed, “they thought that the whole world had been destroyed” (19:31). He suggests that following the destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah, the daughters were isolated in the cave and did not realize that there was human life outside it. The daughters were using the seed of their father to achieve this larger goal. Perhaps the older daughter’s motivation arose out of deep anger at her father’s behavior in Sodom. Indeed, some commentators have also discussed the daughters’ behavior as an act of vengeance against their father. Lot initiated a possible assault on his daughters; now the daughters are portrayed as assaulting their father.
Radak (France, d. 1235) points out that Tzoar, the city to which Lot and his daughters initially fled after Sodom’s destruction, was not destroyed (Gen 19:20–25, 30). Thus, despite their seclusion, the daughters must have known that only Sodom and Gemorrah were in ruins, not the full human population. He imagines the daughters saying, “If we will die without having children there will not be a memory of our father at all.” Radak suggests that the daughters were not concerned with perpetuating all of humanity but specifically with their father’s lineage. Their worry about the continuation of their father’s family line exists despite the trauma they have endured. In comparison to what might motivate the daughters to sustain humanity, sustaining a specific bloodline is more personal. Could this interpretation imply a measure of forgiveness toward their father? The daughters’ behavior follows the biblical trope of heroic women within a patriarchal system who have more keen awareness about sustaining a family line than do the men in their lives. These women (Tamar, Gen. 38; Ruth, Ch. 3, Book of Ruth), like Lot’s daughters, make extreme and out-of-the-box choices to perpetuate the family line.
Is it possible that we can embrace multiple interpretations of the daughters’ behavior and of the behavior of those in our own lives? Relationships—particularly between parent and child—are complex and our interpretation of difficult events may transform over time. Is it also possible that various emotional reactions are appropriate at different times in our lives? Perhaps there are times (though we do hope not many of them) when vengeful behavior is appropriate. Perhaps there are (many more, we hope) circumstances in which forgiveness for those who came before us is helpful to us in our daily lives.
As we continue to wade through the dramatic stories of our foremothers and forefathers, may we reflect on all of our ancestors, and perhaps specifically on one of the most tender and intimate relationships in our own lives—that of the parent-child relationship. When necessary, may we confront the stark realities of the past—perhaps even with anger—in order to heal. At other times, may we approach our stories and those who are part of our lives with abundant compassion and forgiveness. May the stories in Tanakh—with the perspectives of our commentators—inspire us to deepen our own understanding of our roots, and ultimately guide us to a sense of wholeness and peace with our closest loved ones and our lineage.
D’VAR TORAH BY: RABBI KARYN D. KEDAR
I sat by the water, moving from sun to shadow, listening to the sound of the slight breeze creating a ripple effect. In the sky, an occasional seagull, butterfly of cinnamon color, or airplane would fly by. The world was in constant motion, and yet I sensed a stillness. And then, at the heat of the day, upon the highest branch of the tallest tree I saw a glint, no bigger than a flicker of blue and crimson, maybe a bit of orange. It was a great distraction. I wondered what it was. I expected it to disappear, go away, untangle itself from the leaves and fly like a deflated mylar balloon that escaped the hand of a child and got caught in the arms of the great oak. As I watched the light sparkle, I felt a presence, a calm come over me. Shalom aleichem, welcome, you angel of peace.
The angels of the Tanach are metaphors of our highest desires. Raphael, God is my healer; Michael, who is like you O God; Gavriel, God is my strength; Uziel, God is the source of my power; Oriel, God is my light. How we long to have a divine sense of strength, healing, light, power surround us with a sense of protection. Sometimes the angels of the Tanach are messengers. Often these messengers are in the guise of people, strangers that appear to communicate a divine truth.
This Torah portion is abundant with eternal messages. It begins: God appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day (18:1). According to the rabbis of the Talmud (bava metzia 86b), it is the third day after Abraham’s circumcision and he is sitting in the heat of the day in a great deal of pain. He is in need of comfort and healing. Suddenly, by the oaks of Mamre, the angel of healing, Raphael, appears. Abraham is healed from his agony and we, the generations that follow, are taught that visiting the sick is a powerful commandment. Raphael, God is the healing power.
Then, in that same verse, three men approach the tent. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men were standing over against him; and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent entrance, and bowed down to the earth (18:1-2). To Abraham and Sarah they look like strangers in need of respite from a long journey, so they extend to them a haven of safety from the brutal realty of desert life. The strangers sit down in the shade of a grove of trees and they are offered water, nourishment, safety.
Abraham and Sarah do not know that the strangers are the angels of blessing and destiny who have come with a divine message: A child shall be born to Abraham and Sarah. God’s promise will now manifest through Isaac: I will bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore (22:17). The destiny of the Jewish people will unfold and the course of history is set. Michael, who is like you O God?
Healing, blessing, and now justice. The Torah turns its attention to Sodom and Gomorrah, two cities that are lawless, where evil is the norm and cruelty common place. God tells Abraham that these cites must be destroyed. And angels appear to Lot. And the two angels came to Sodom in the evening, and Lot sat by the city gates. When he saw them, he rose to meet them and bowing low, he said, “I pray you now, Adonai, turn aside to your servant’s house and tarry all night and bathe your feet and you shall rise up early and go on your way (19:1-2).
It is evening. The angels are at the city gates. Lot, who like Abraham and Sarah see them as strangers on a dusty journey, offers to wash their feet. But it is the city that is need of cleansing. The metaphor is clear: God will not allow evil to flourish. Gavriel, God is my strength.
And now the angel of Hagar. Hagar, at the request of Sarah serves as a surrogate. Abraham’s first born is of Sarah’s maidservant. But now there is Isaac. Sarah demands that Hagar and Ishmael be banished to the wilderness. Hagar is frightened and cries out from the wilderness “I am in utter despair, do not let me see my son die.” God heard the cry of the boy, and an angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heeded the cry of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him by the hand, for I will make a great nation of him” (21:17). An angel of mercy and compassion appears as a voice from heaven. Mother and son are comforted. Ishmael will be the father of a great nation. Uziel, God is the source of my power.
Sometime afterward, God put Abraham to the test. He said to him, “Abraham,” and he answered, “Here I am.” And God said, “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you” (22:2). Abraham is tested. He must take his son Isaac and sacrifice him to God. Obedient, he walks silently three days with Isaac, lays him upon the alter, raises a knife and suddenly: an angel of the LORD called to him from heaven: “Abraham! Abraham!” And he answered, “Here I am.” And he said, “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from Me” (22:11-12.) We are to be a different society, honoring our children and teaching them, not sacrificing them as is the custom of the time. Oriel, God is my light, I shall not fear.
Our narrative has woven a tale through the angels, metaphors of healing, blessing, promise, justice, mercy, compassion, and enlightenment. I returned to that tree the next day and I was not surprised that the flicker of light was gone. But as I closed my eyes, the birds returned — and the wind, and the sound of the water, and a sense of presence. And peace.
Running Far, Drawing Near
BY RABBI NAOMI KALISH
“Shalom, shalom to the one who is far away and to the one who is close.” Drawn from the Yom Kippur haftarah, the editors of Mahzor Lev Shalem used these words to open the high holiday prayer book. This year the words held a special poignancy, as each of us was simultaneously “the one who is far away” and “the one who is close.”
We experience distance this year like never before—we are physically separated, and many of us are emotionally downtrodden or feeling spiritually disconnected. Some of us find that differences in politics have created distance between us and our friends, relatives, and neighbors. For many of us, virtual communication has made us feel closer to those who live far away and the world feel smaller even as others have felt an existential isolation like never before.
Parashat Vayera tells a story of someone living through crisis, difference, and distance. When a conflict develops between Sarah and her Egyptian maidservant, Hagar, Sarah convinces Abraham to expel Hagar and her son Ishmael from their home. In the wilderness, their water runs out. Hagar responds by moving away from Ishmael (Gen. 21:16). They experience multiple other separations too. Physically, Hagar and Ishmael are far from home. The conflict, expulsion, and separation intensify the power differential between Hagar and Sarah and between Ishmael and Isaac.
Commentators have read this part of the story and characterized Hagar as despairing. However, developmental psychologist Carol Gilligan challenges us to hear the complexity in people’s emotional and spiritual experience. She affirms that people have multiple and simultaneous feelings and modes for existing, and she refers to them as contrapuntal voices (“Listening Guide for Psychological Inquiry,” Qualitative Psychology 2:69–77). Listening for the contrapuntal voices in the Biblical text illuminates the array of Hagar’s emotional and spiritual experience and reveals a more dynamic story of her survival, endurance, and even perseverance through the crisis.
The most evocative verse in this story is Gen. 21:16:
And [Hagar] went and sat down at a distance, a bowshot away; for she thought, “Let me not look on as the child dies.” And sitting thus afar, she burst into tears. (NJPS translation)
The beginning of the verse appears to be an intertwining of two different statements—two contrapuntal voices. One of these is “vatelekh . . . lah.” “Vatelekh” is “she went,” and “lah”—“to her”—is rarely included in translations. If these two words are connected, the full phrase reads “she went to her/herself” and resonates with the well-known opening words of last week’s parshah, Lekh Lekha (Gen. 12:1). In that case, God had commanded Avram “lekh lekha,” “go forth,” and the preposition “lekha”—“to him”—is also often not included in the translation. However, the Hasidic commentator the Mei Hashilo’ah translated the verse as “Go to you,” elaborating, “[go] to your essential self. Nothing out there in the world is properly alive. The only place you’ll find real life is inside you.” Avram had become restless and begun searching for deeper meaning, and God commanded him to look inward for clarity.
Perhaps Hagar, too, was turning inward, taking some time to connect to her authentic self to gain clarity about how to proceed, taking a moment to breathe and assess her own needs. During a crisis, the roles of caregiver and care receiver often break down. Hagar had been in the role of caregiver for Ishmael, who she feared might die. She was also in need of care. In fact, her crisis may have been more acute than Ishmael’s: even if he were to be revived, the two of them would remain homeless and in poverty.
Hagar had already faced adversity with resilience and a connection with her spiritual life:
Then Sarai treated her harshly, and she ran away from her. An angel of the LORD found her by a spring of water in the wilderness . . . . And she said, “I am running away from my mistress Sarai.” (Gen. 16:6–7)
In this earlier story, Hagar took clear actions in response to this crisis: she distanced herself from abuse, found a spring of water in the wilderness, and spoke.
We could assume, therefore, that Hagar comes to the crisis in Parashat Vayera already equipped with spiritual and emotional resources. When Hagar “goes to herself,” she is seeking to ground herself in order to better respond to the crisis.
The second of the contrapuntal voices is vateshev mineged, “she sat afar.” This appears twice, often understood as a repetition to emphasize that she was despairing and had abandoned Ishmael. However, the first use includes the word harhek, from the word “distant.” It is followed by an elaboration on how she experienced this distance—it was “a bowshot away; for she said [to herself], ‘Let me not look on as the child dies.’” Here Hagar expresses her fear in a prayerful way, looks away, and is at a loss for her own agency.
Hagar’s two responses to the crisis are quite different: In one instance she turns inward as an act of coping, self-care, and resiliency, re-focusing on herself. This is a healthy distancing, less away from Ishmael and more toward herself. In the second instance, she specifically distances herself from Ishmael. Her turning away is filled with fear, despair, and loneliness. Gilligan encourages us to resist thinking about emotional experiences in binary, either/or categories. Hagar is despairing and resilient. Accepting that these are both Hagar’s genuine experience, we can listen to how these voices interact. Are they harmonious, conflicting, silencing? What happens with Hagar’s despair and resilience when they encounter each other? The verse begins with rapid movement between the statements of resilience and despair, then moves to a longer reflection on her fears. We see Hagar experience conflict between her despair and her hope.
Then the verse shifts again with the second mention of the phrase vateshev mineged, this time without the word harhek. The absence of the word “distance” makes it unlikely that this part of the verse is reinforcing her distance; it could simply mean “facing.” At this pivotal point, Hagar turns from looking away to facing Ishmael. She shifts psychologically from being at a distance to being connected. Hagar emerges and reengages her work as caregiver and activist. She “lifts up her voice.” The next verse states that “God heard the cry of the boy” even though he is not recorded as crying. Perhaps Hagar lifting up her voice is an act of advocating on behalf of Ishmael.
The verse concludes “and she cried.” Her tears may have been tears of desperation, of relief or cleansing, or a combination. She is able to stop moving away from Ishmael and begin moving toward him only after expressing her fears about him dying. By acknowledging these fears she was able to re-emerge from inner conflict as an activist and caregiver.
A few verses later the Torah describes, “Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went and filled the skin with water, and let the boy drink” (Gen. 21:19). In the earlier story, Hagar had found the well by herself. During this instance, God helped her identify what she struggled to see.
We learn from Hagar that living through difficult times involves movement—distancing oneself, dwelling in place, and drawing near. These are true whether the distance is physical, emotional, spiritual, or ideological. Making space for this complexity in ourselves and in others allows both grieving and resiliency. Allowing for our full experience opens the possibility of seeing our own wells of water.
From J The Jewish Weekly
Taking a stand can define you (hopefully not as a pillar of salt)
BY MAHARAT VICTORIA SUTTON
“To know who I am is a species of knowing where I stand. My identity is defined by the commitments and identifications which provide the frame or horizon within which I can try to determine from case to case what is good, or valuable, or what ought to be done, or what I endorse or oppose. In other words, it is the horizon within which I am capable of taking a stand.”
—Charles Taylor in “Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity”
Two figures in this week’s parashah are well known for where they stood.
The first is Avraham, who “remained standing before the Lord “ (Genesis 18:22) as he famously argues with God for Sdom’s salvation. The second is Lot’s wife, who was forever transfixed where she stood to look back at Sdom’s destruction.
Avraham’s motivations are clearly delineated: He refuses to move until he has justly defended Sdom against its impending Divine destruction. This stance is a defining moment for Avraham, and for us today as his children, of what it means to “keep the way of God to do what is just and right.” (Genesis 18:19)
Lot’s wife, in contrast, appears only briefly, and is just as abruptly rendered a pillar of salt. There is a complete lack of dialogue or inner motivations in the text. Despite the Torah’s minimal treatment, Lot’s wife sparked the imagination of Biblical commentators and generations of readers.
The midrashic tradition often portrays her in contrast to Avraham and Lot’s grand hospitality, an embodiment of the closed-hearted people of Sdom. Her salty fate is explained by some as payback for her meanness to guests in skimping on salt so the food wouldn’t be very appetizing. Others explain it as punishment for her desire to gaze at Sdom’s destruction, despite the angel’s warning not to look.
Yet, in another oft-cited midrash, Lot’s wife’s fateful turn is described as a flash of maternal love and care amidst the harsh backdrop. “The compassion of Idit the wife of Lot was stirred for her daughters, who were married in Sdom, and she looked back behind her to see if they were coming after her or not. And she saw behind the Shechinah, and she became a pillar of salt.” (Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer 25:11)
This compassion for her daughters contrasts sharply with Lot’s cruel and abusive behavior toward his unmarried daughters — first, offering them up to appease the violent mob in Sdom and, later, engaging in incest after they flee to the safety of the mountains.
The rabbis named Lot’s wife Idit, “she who bears witness.” To what did she bear eternal witness? Lot’s wife turned to gaze at the Shechinah’s destructive presence in Sdom, looking past the Shechinah for signs of her loved ones, and immediately is caught up in the path of destruction. The Zohar adds that only by showing her face fully did she expose herself to this Divine destructive power (Zohar 1:08a).
Avraham stood in the face of God.
Lot’s wife turned to face God.
We know where and for what Avraham stands. This daughter of Sdom — for what did she stand? Was it for the corruption of Sdom, her pillar an everlasting warning against the spiteful and narrow-minded tendencies that can destroy individuals and societies?
Or did Lot’s wife stand in opposition to the callousness of Sdom, gazing with pity on Sdom as Avraham had done, forever frozen in that loving stance in the face of Divine destruction?
Or, perhaps, Lot’s wife simply looked back at something she was not supposed to see: the Divine presence descending over Sdom.
Whatever caused her to turn back, her sudden choice to disobey the angel’s warning and the abrupt and harsh consequences are etched in the reader’s imagination.
Lot’s wife haunts us all, whether we harbor impulsive tendencies, make split-second choices in moments of crisis, or simply yearn to gaze where eyes should not wander.
What if she hadn’t looked? How might the ensuing narrative of Lot and his daughters, and the course of history that followed from their children, be altered?
Lot’s wife stands at the crossroads, wedged in the text between two major moral dilemmas Avraham faces — facing God to argue for justice in Sdom, and following after God obediently with the Binding of Isaac.
Lot’s wife, a minor unnamed character, just a regular woman caught up in the course of historic events, serves as a foil for the larger-than-life Avraham. Her tale reminds us that her choices, her orientation to the Divine, are no less significant in their power to transform the individual and the course of history.
From the Hebrew College
By Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld
Open your eyes and look for each other.
As I write this week, my heart is trembling with love, fear, and a fierce sense of protectiveness for the transgender people in my life – friends, teachers, colleagues, students, children of friends. I tremble for them because of the latest attempt to erase their experience by taking away the language that might help us begin to see them and understand their lives. I tremble for all of us, because when any of us is erased and rendered invisible, we are all at risk.
Vayera is the parsha of seeing. It opens with a moment of clarity and vision at the entrance to Abraham’s tent, in the heat of the day. We are told that Abraham is sitting and recovering from his circumcision when the three visitors appear. It is precisely in this state of vulnerability and exposure that Abraham encounters the divine. But if the parsha’s opening scene is about seeing and its sacred possibilities, the rest of the parsha prods us to ask hard, even haunting questions about the painful limits of the human capacity to see and be seen.
What is it – and who is it – that we fail to see?
Abraham is deeply attuned to the divine presence and attentive to the needs of the visitors who appear outside his tent. But does he see those “inside the tent” as clearly? The mysterious visitors ask him: “Where is Sarah your wife?” The question seems innocent at first, but takes on darker overtones as the parsha progresses. “Where is Sarah?” we wonder when Abraham hides her identity from Avimelech, risking her safety in order to protect his own. “Where is Sarah?” we can’t help but ask when Abraham takes Isaac to the top of Mount Moriah. “Where is Sarah?” we hear in the silence after they return. The midrash suggests that Sarah is ultimately the one sacrificed on that altar – drawing her last heartbroken breath when she hears what (almost) happened on that terrible journey.
What happens when we cannot bear what we see?
There is something that Sarah sees when she witnesses Isaac and Ishmael playing together that is so painful or provocative that she can no longer endure the very presence of Ishmael and Hagar in her home. What is it that makes her demand that Abraham banish them from sight, cast into a wilderness of despair? A short time later, Hagar averts her own eyes, unable to bear the sight of her son Ishmael dying from thirst. And then there is the image of Lot’s wife, unable – or unwilling – to avert her eyes from the tragedy consuming the city in which she raised her own children. As a result, she is trapped in – or perhaps committed to – a gaze that leaves her frozen forever as a pillar of salt, a witness of waterless tears. Throughout this parsha of seeing, we are reminded of how tempting it can be to avert our eyes from the truth before us, and how searing the act of seeing can be.
What happens when it is not safe to be seen?
When the people of Sodom mob Lot’s home and ask, “Where are the people who came to you tonight?” we understand just how dangerous – even deadly – seeing and being seen can be. Lot hides the visitors from the angry mob, yet then, in a horrifying and perverse foreshadowing of the binding of Isaac, he offers his own daughters to them. When is hiding an act of self-denial and when is it an act of self-protection?
This is the parsha of seeing, but it is riddled with harrowing stories of what happens when we fail to see, when we cannot bear what we see, when it is not safe to be seen.
From within all of them, the voice of the God-who-sees-but-cannot-be-seen calls out and commands: Stop. No more sacrificing of human beings. Open your eyes and look for the ram and the well. Open your eyes and look for each other.
From Rabbi jonathan Sacks
22nd October 2018
God and Strangers (Vayera 5779)
God appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men were standing over against him; and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent entrance, and bowed down to the earth… (Gen. 18:1–2)
Thus Parshat Vayera opens with one of the most famous scenes in the Bible: Abraham’s meeting with the three enigmatic strangers. The text calls them men. We later discover that they were in fact angels, each with a specific mission.
The chapter at first glance seems simple, almost fable-like. It is, however, complex and ambiguous. It consists of three sections:
Verse 1: God appears to Abraham.
Verses 2–16: Abraham meets the men/angels.
Verses 17–33: The dialogue between God and Abraham about the fate of Sodom.
The relationship between these sections is far from clear. Do they represent one scene, two or three?
The most obvious possibility is three. Each of the above sections is a separate event. First, God appears to Abraham, as Rashi explains, “to visit the sick” after Abraham’s circumcision. Then the visitors arrive with the news that Sarah will have a child. Then takes place the great dialogue about justice and the imminent punishment of the people of Sodom.
Maimonides suggests that there are only two scenes: The visit of the angels, and the dialogue with God. The first verse does not describe an event at all; it is, rather, a chapter heading. It tells us that the events that follow are all part of a prophetic revelation, a divine- human encounter.
The third possibility is that we have a single continuous scene. God appears to Abraham, but before He can speak, Abraham sees the passers-by and asks God to wait while he serves them food. Only when they have departed – in verse 17 – does he turn to God, and the conversation begins.
The interpretation of the chapter affects – and hinges upon – the way we translate the word Adonai in Abraham’s appeal: “Please Adonai, if now I have found favour in your sight, do not pass by, I pray you, from your servant” (18:3). Adonai can be a reference to one of the names of God. It can also be read as “my lords” or “sirs.” In the first case, Abraham would be addressing God. In the second, he would be speaking to the passers-by.
The same linguistic ambiguity appears in the next chapter (19:2), when two of Abraham’s visitors – now described as angels – visit Lot in Sodom:
And the two angels came to Sodom in the evening, and Lot sat by the city gates. When he saw them, he rose to meet them and bowing low, he said, “I pray you now, adonai, turn aside to your servant’s house and tarry all night and bathe your feet and you shall rise up early and go on your way.” (Gen. 19:1–2)
As there is no contextual element to suggest that Lot might be speaking to God, it seems clear, in this case, that adonai refers to the visitors.
The simplest reading then of both texts – the one concerning Abraham, the other, Lot – would be to read the word consistently as “sirs.” Several English translations indeed take this approach. Here, for example, is the New English Bible’s:
The Lord appeared to Abraham… He looked up, and saw three men standing in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the opening of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground. “Sirs,” he said, “if I have deserved your favour, do not pass by my humble self without a visit.”
Jewish tradition, however, does not.
Normally, differences of interpretation of biblical narrative have no halakhic implications. They are matters of legitimate disagreement. This case of Abraham’s addressee is unusual, however, because if we translate Adonai as “God,” it is a holy name, and both the writing of the word by a scribe, and the way we treat a parchment or document containing it, have special stringencies in Jewish law. If, by contrast, we translate it as “my lords” or “sirs,” it has no special sanctity. Jewish law rules that in the scene with Lot, adonai is read as “sirs,” but in the case of Abraham it is read as “God.”
This is an extraordinary fact, because it suggests that Abraham actually interrupted God as He was about to speak, asking Him to wait while he attended to the visitors. According to tradition, the passage should be read thus:
The Lord appeared to Abraham…He looked up and saw three men standing over against him. On seeing them, he hurried from his tent door to meet them, and bowed down. [Turning to God] he said: “My God, if I have found favour in Your eyes, do not leave Your servant [i.e. Please wait until I have given hospitality to these men].” [He then turned to the men and said:] “Let me send for some water so that you may bathe your feet and rest under this tree…”
This daring interpretation became the basis for a principle in Judaism: “Greater is hospitality than receiving the Divine Presence.” Faced with a choice between listening to God, and offering hospitality to what seemed to be human beings, Abraham chose the latter. God acceded to his request, and waited while Abraham brought the visitors food and drink, before engaging him in dialogue about the fate of Sodom. How can this be so? It seems disrespectful at best, heretical at worst, to put the needs of human beings before attending on the presence of God.
What the passage is telling us, though, is something of immense profundity. The idolaters of Abraham’s time worshipped the sun, the stars, and the forces of nature as gods. They worshipped power and the powerful. Abraham knew, however, that God is not in nature but beyond nature. There is only one thing in the universe on which He has set His image: the human person, every person, powerful and powerless alike.
The forces of nature are impersonal, which is why those who worship them eventually lose their humanity. As the book of Psalms puts it:
Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands.
They have mouths, but cannot speak,
Eyes, but cannot see;
They have ears, but cannot hear, nostrils but cannot smell…
They that make them become like them,
And so do all who put their trust in them. (Psalms 115:4–8)
One cannot worship impersonal forces and remain a person; compassionate, humane, generous, forgiving. Precisely because we believe that God is personal, someone to whom we can say “You,” we honour human dignity as sacrosanct.
Abraham, father of monotheism, knew the paradoxical truth that to live the life of faith is to see the trace of God in the face of the stranger. It is easy to receive the Divine Presence when God appears as God. What is difficult is to sense the Divine Presence when it comes disguised as three anonymous passers-by. That was Abraham’s greatness. He knew that serving God and offering hospitality to strangers were not two things but one.
In one of the most beautiful comments on this episode, Rabbi Shalom of Belz notes that in verse 2, the visitors are spoken of as standing above Abraham (nitzavim alav), while in verse 8, Abraham is described as standing above them (omed aleihem). At first, the visitors were higher than Abraham because they were angels and he a mere human being. But when he gave them food and drink and shelter, he stood even higher than the angels.
By choosing the most radical of the three possible interpretations of Genesis 18, the sages allowed us to hear one of the most fundamental principles of the life of faith: We honour God by honouring His image, humankind.
 Rashi on Bereishit 18:1; Sotah 14a.
 Moreh Nevuhim 11:42.
 See Shabbat 127a.
 Ibid. See also Shavuot 35b.
 Dover Shalom ad loc.; cited in Peninei Ĥassidut (Jerusalem) to Bereishit 18:2.
From Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan
SODOM IS EVIL: WHY DIDN’T I SEE IT COMING?
The name evokes evil. Rape. Corruption. Hatred of immigrants.
Of course, you know that now. This week. But you did not know it last week. Not really.
Last week, in synagogue, we read that the people of Sodom are bad (Gen. 13:13). But we felt sorry for them anyway. Because we saw them as victims.
Four kings from the east invade Sodom’s region. They conquer five local cities. For twelve years, Sodom and its allies serve the conquerors. But in the thirteenth year, the allies rebel. Unsuccessfully. The four eastern kings strike back at the locals, including the refaim, emim and other tribes. Then, they take Sodom’s food and property. Sodom’s survivors flee. (Gen. 14:1-11).
But our hero Abraham appears to help them. Because the invaders have captured his nephew. And because he has a treaty with one of the tribes. When he leads the allies to victory, the King of Sodom offers to pay him for his trouble.
Sodom has a nice king.
Or so you might think.
Unless you pay attention to a favourite saying from journalist Sarah Kendzior. “When somebody shows you who they are, believe them.”
Torah’s details show us exactly who the king of Sodom and his allies are. And who the invaders are. How? Through intertextual hints and nuances of Hebrew language.
Here are the names of the king of Sodom and his friends. There’s Bera, whose name means “through evil.” And Birsha, “with wickedness.” Shinab, “father-hater.” Shemever, “destroyer of limbs.” Plus, an unnamed king.
In Biblical Hebrew, the word for “name” can also mean “reputation.” As in a bad one. For example, Torah calls the nefilim and their children “people of the name” (Gen. 6:4). Commentators call them infamous, corrupt. The people of Shinar build the tower of Babel in order to “make a name for ourselves” (Gen. 11:4). Commentators call them greedy.
The king of Sodom and his friends have horrendous names. Obviously, they also have terrible reputations.
Let’s also take a closer look at the foreign invaders who conquer them. One does come from Shinar, land of greed. But, together, what do they do? They conquer the refaim and the emim — local names for the corrupt nefilim. (Num. 13:33; Deut. 2:11).
And what are the names of the invaders? Their reputations, that is? There’s King Amraphel, “speaker of wonders.” Arioch, “striking lion.” Chedorlaomer, “boundary of measure.” And Tidal, the one who “knows about.”
These foreign invaders, it seems, do a bit of good in Sodom. They conquer corruption. Enforce just weights and measures, i.e., honesty in business. They bring knowledge and positive discourse. And they back it up with strength.
How do we, the readers, miss the virtue these foreigners bring? We don’t look at the details. Because ancient politics are just too confusing.
Abraham glosses over the details, too. Of course, he needs to save his nephew. But he also props up a wicked regime. One that hates foreigners, rips apart families, and harms people’s bodies.
But this, as it turns out, it is a bad idea.
Because, “the cry [of the oppressed in] Sodom…is great and their [the oppressor’s] sin is very serious” (Gen. 18:20).
Finally, Abraham understands the city is doomed. Still, he pleads for the lives of the few good people left (Gen. 18:23-33). But it is too late. Justice, knowledge, and civil speech have been driven out.
Friends, are you living in Sodom? Please don’t wait until it is too late to save your city.
From Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
Shabbat Parashat Vayera
By: Rabbi Adam Greenwald
We Plant Seeds
Before God leveled the twin-sin-cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, God revealed the divine judgment to Abraham. Perhaps surprisingly for God, Abraham does not respond by meekly accept the decree. Quite the opposite, he instead initiates a lengthy debate on behalf of the doomed cities. Over and over he demands that God be absolutely sure that the innocent not be wiped out together with the guilty. In one of the most eloquent protests in history, Abraham cries out: “Will not the Judge of all the Earth act with Justice?!” (Gen. 18:25).
Abraham’s challenge eventually fails, and the cities are indeed destroyed. However, the Jewish tradition is unstinting in its praise of his “holy chutzpah.” Our Sages see Abraham’s willingness to protest as a sign of the depth of his moral sensitivity and one of the reasons that he is fit to be the patriarch of our people.
Elie Wiesel, one of modern Judaism’s true prophetic figures, tells a beautiful story that suggests that Abraham was not the first person to engage in a protest outside of Sodom. In his intriguing re-telling of the tale, there was another morally courageous soul who had once tried to save the cities.
“Long before Abraham came along, there was a certain man, who used to stand outside the gates of Sodom and cry out against it. Day after day, year after year, the man would stand there, all by himself, pleading and demanding that the people change their ways.
Once, after many years, a delegation came to the man and demanded to know what he was still doing there– hadn’t he realized that his protests would not change anything? The man replied: “I came to Sodom to try to change them– and I have long since realized that that won’t happen. However, I must keep trying, because if I leave, they will have changed me.”
Protest is exhausting work – not so much, because it is tiring to hold a sign or march down a street. Instead, protest is exhausting because the results are almost never immediately apparent. Change often comes at a glacial pace, and quite often society’s problems get worse long before they get better. The spiritual work of protest is a matter cultivating audacious hope, of believing that there is something valuable about standing up for what’s right even when it feels like nobody is listening. It’s about refusing to be a bystander in the face of injustice – if we cannot solve the problem, then at very least we can start by not being part of the problem.
This month, the Catholic Church canonized as a saint one of my heroes – Father Oscar Romero. Father Romero was the Archbishop of San Salvador, and was a tireless advocate for the poor and oppressed in his country. On March 24, 1980, he was assassinated while saying the mass at the order of the Salvadorian regime. One of the most famous prayers that he wrote addresses the fundamental challenge of speaking out even when (especially when) you know that complete change will not happen in your lifetime:
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.
May we be inspired to speak our truth, to stand up for justice, even from the Master of the World. Our accomplishments may not always be immediately visible, but may we be strengthened by the faith that the seeds we plant will ultimately flourish in a new world that is waiting to be born.
From My Jewish Learning
Service And Community, In The Desert, Among Strangers
In his covenant with Avimelech, Abraham provides us with an example of how to build peace, justice, and kindness where they seem to be absent.
BY RABBI JONATHAN SPIRA-SAVETT
“Shall I hide from Abraham what I am doing?… For I have known him in order that he may command his children and his household after him, that they may keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice.” So says God as God contemplates plans for the city of Sodom and its surroundings, whose reputation for evil and whose shrieks of corruption have become more than God can bear.
God knows that for Abraham and his descendents to become responsible for justice in the world, God must first apprentice Abraham, including him in a monumental decision about justice and human beings. (Abraham, of course, ends up challenging God to save the population of the cities if even ten righteous people can be found in the area.)
Justice & Familial Struggle
Parshat Vayera places this passage in the middle of a flow of events that somehow link the issue of justice in the wider world to Abraham’s own family struggles. As the Torah reading begins, Abraham sprints from the door of his desert tent toward three travelers, who turn out to be divine messengers come to announce the birth of a son to elderly Sarah and Abraham.
As the reading ends, Ishmael and his mother Hagar are driven out, because of Sarah’s jealousy and her urge to secure the inheritance of her own son Isaac. God saves the cast-out boy and his mother. God then tests Abraham, asking him to give up his remaining son Isaac as a sacrifice on Mt. Moriah. Yet again God intercedes and saves the boy.
This interplay between the discussion about Sodom and the struggle for peace and justice in Abraham’s household resist an easy lesson.
Toward the end of this week’s reading is an episode most of us don’t remember. Between the banishment of Ishmael and the binding of Isaac, Abraham is approached by Avimelech, king of the neighboring Philistines. Avimelech proposes a treaty, in recognition of past friendship. After the covenant is made official, the Torah relates that “Abraham planted an eshel-tree in Be’er Sheva, and there he called the name of Adonai, Eternal God. And Abraham lived in the land of the Philistines a long time.”
The peace treaty is jarring–it comes as Abraham’s own family seems to be collapsing, and stands in counterpoint to the doom of Sodom and Gomorrah. The rabbis of the midrash (rabbinic exegetical narrative) try to make sense of the episode, and their point of entry is, of all things, the tree.
In one midrash, two rabbis offer their views on what exactly the eshel was. One says: an orchard. The other says: an inn, a way station for desert travelers. Either way, Abraham marks his new bond with the Philistines by getting involved with them, providing and sharing food. For Abraham, the alliance isn’t just with Avimelech, and it isn’t just an agreement to insure against future conflicts. It has to create a new relationship of hesed, of covenantal kindness, between two peoples, starting now.
Maybe Abraham was reflecting on his experience with Sodom. He had argued on their behalf, but from a comfortable distance–looking down into the valley from his home up in the hills. For all his talk of justice, he had done nothing to engage with the evil and corruption right in those cities. Here, Abraham decides to take seriously his own talk about justice, creating community right there in the desert, looking out for vulnerable travelers among the Philistines as well as his own people.
The rabbi who teaches that an eshel is an inn has to justify his creative translation. The three letters of the Hebrew word eshel, he says, each stand for an element of Abraham’s hospitality: aleph for “achilah,” eating; shin for “shtiya,” drinking, and lamed for “l’vaya,” accompanying travelers on their way.
“Then Abraham lived in the land of Philistines a long time.” Not in the cities he had settled in when God first brought him to Canaan, but in the land of the Philistines. Who knows how many strangers Abraham met, what he learned as he shared meals with them, what they taught him as he escorted them toward a safer journey.
If they thanked him, say the rabbis, he would respond: Do you think you have me to thank? Let us thank God together, for it is God’s food we are sharing. And, we might add: It is God who brought me to this land, who separated me from people so that I would have to figure out from the beginning how to order my relationships, how to sustain justice in my own home, which I realize is a place of ayn-shalom, no peace.
What is Abraham’s life, after all, but a twisting story about connection and disconnection? Leaving home, wandering the new land, leaving it in time of famine. Reaching out to travelers, speaking out for ten hypothetical innocents hidden in a culture of evil. In the middle of the desert, Abraham makes a tentative step, staking out a small parcel for peace and devotion to others with no expectations in return. None of them will be announcing miracles to Sarah or good fortune for their descendents. The eshel is a moment of pure service.
It is interesting that in one rabbinic legend, this is the time that Abraham sends messengers to check on Ishmael, and eventually to reunite the family–only for a time, of course, before the terrible challenge from God to offer his other son. But I like to think about that legend, and to imagine Abraham and Sarah with their children at the eshel in Be’er Sheva. Peace in the home, service to others. How to preserve that moment, they do not teach us–Torah forwards that challenge to us.
Reprinted with permission from SocialAction.com.
From Rabbi David Kasher
PORTRAIT OF A PAIR – Parshat Vayeira
It took a toll on their marriage.
All the years of wandering, with no clear destination. Persecuted by enemies all around them, as they tried to spread their message and build a small community of adherents. Abraham and Sarah were following the command of a God they could not see, who had promised blessing and abundance, but often times delivered hunger and hardship.
They tried to model faith to their followers, but expressed doubt and fear to one another. They were known for their exceptional kindness to strangers, but did not always show each other the same care and compassion.
In the face of danger in Egypt, Abraham used Sarah as a human shield, asking her to pretend to be his sister:
In order that it go well for me because of you, and so that I remain alive thanks to you. (Gen. 12:13)
לְמַעַן יִיטַב-לִי בַעֲבוּרֵךְ, וְחָיְתָה נַפְשִׁי בִּגְלָלֵךְ
Abraham does remain alive, but Sarah is seized by the Pharaoh, and only released when God afflicts his house with plagues.
Nachmanides, usually one to praise the righteousness of the patriarchs, famously says that:
Abraham sinned a great sin when he brought his righteous wife into danger and sin because of his own fear that they would kill him.
אברהם אבינו חטא חטא גדול בשגגה שהביא אשתו הצדקת במכשול עון מפני פחדו פן יהרגוהו
Yet just eight chapters later, back in enemy territory, Abraham tries it again – this time not even bothering to ask Sarah to play along, but simply declaring, “She is my sister.” And predictably, she is taken by the king again.
What conversations did they have after these episodes? How did they maintain closeness and trust in the face of these challenges?
Alas, there were signs that perhaps they had ceased talking all that much, or even paying much attention to one another. During that first journey down to Egypt, just before he asked her to lie about their relationship, Abraham said an odd thing to Sarah:
Now, I just realized what a beautiful woman you are. (Gen. 12:11)
הִנֵּה-נָא יָדַעְתִּי, כִּי אִשָּׁה יְפַת-מַרְאֶה אָתְּ
It is, in one respect, a lovely moment. A man telling his wife how beautiful she is. But what does he mean, he “just now realized” that she was beautiful? Had he never known this before, in all their years of marriage? Rashi notices this unusual phrasing and explains:
Until now, he had not recognized this in her, because of their great modesty.
עַד עַכְשָׁיו לֹא הִכִּיר בָּהּ מִתּוֹךְ צְנִיעוּת שֶׁבִּשְׁנֵיהֶם
Well, that’s impressive – they were very modest. But is this noble religious virtue really supposed to keep a married couple from being attracted to one another? Or is there something sterile in their interaction, and does it indicate a growing distance between the two of them?
And then, of course, there was the issue of children. The moment we meet Sarah, we are told she, “was barren, and had no child,” as if this fact defined her. Abraham, meanwhile, is told his offspring will be like the dust of the earth, or the stars of the sky – too many to count. Yet he knows that he and Sarah are already too old to conceive, and he cries out to God in frustration, “I shall die childless!”
Sarah, too, was painfully aware of the absence. For years, they had tried, but now it seemed too late. Sarah had become so desperate, finally, that she arrived at what must have been a difficult solution. She said one day to Abraham:
Look, the Lord has kept me from bearing children. Consort with my maidservant; and perhaps I shall be built up through her. (Gen. 16:2)
הִנֵּה-נָא עֲצָרַנִי ה מִלֶּדֶת–בֹּא-נָא אֶל-שִׁפְחָתִי, אוּלַי אִבָּנֶה מִמֶּנָּה
How terrible this must have been for Sarah, to propose that her husband sleep with another woman. How humiliated she must have felt, despite having suggested it, when her maidservant Hagar so quickly conceived. Tensions began to run high in the camp, as Abraham and Hagar now had a separate bond, and Sarah suspected Hagar of relishing in her new status as the mother of the family. No wonder, then, when anger finally erupts between Abraham and Sarah, and she blames him for not safeguarding her dignity:
The wrong done me is your fault! I myself put my maidservant in your bosom; and now that she sees she is pregnant, I am lowered in her eyes. May the Lord render judgment between you and me! (Gen. 16:5)
חֲמָסִי עָלֶיךָ–אָנֹכִי נָתַתִּי שִׁפְחָתִי בְּחֵיקֶךָ, וַתֵּרֶא כִּי הָרָתָה וָאֵקַל בְּעֵינֶיהָ; יִשְׁפֹּט ה, בֵּינִי וּבֵינֶיךָ
Abraham, unable or unwilling to engage with Sarah’s anger and pain, seems to simply detach from the conflict, offering weakly:
Your maid is in your hands. Do what you think is right. (Gen. 16:6)
הִנֵּה שִׁפְחָתֵךְ בְּיָדֵךְ–עֲשִׂי-לָהּ, הַטּוֹב בְּעֵינָיִךְ
This is the low point for Abraham and Sarah. They have been quietly struggling for years, but now, for the first time, they are openly in crisis. Sarah must feel disrespected and cast aside by the husband for whom she has been willing to sacrifice everything. Abraham must feel that Sarah is being terribly unfair, first telling him to “consort with her maidservant,” so that Sarah be “built up” through their union – and then blaming him when that union produces the desired outcome.
There they are, the two of them out there in the hot desert, with only each other for support, and all the love between them has seems to have evaporated.
It is at this point that they receive a visit from three angels. At least, Rashi tells us that the “three men” who appear at the entrance of Abraham’s tent are, in fact, angels. And there are three, Rashi explains, because they are there to perform three tasks:
One, to announce to Sarah [that she will give birth to a boy], one to overturn the city of Sodom, and one to heal Abraham [who has just been circumcised at the age of ninety-nine.]
אֶחָד לְבַשֵׂר אֶת שָׂרָה וְאֶחָד לַהֲפֹךְ אֶת סְדוֹם וְאֶחָד לְרַפְּאוֹת אֶת אַבְרָהָם
That first news is particularly exciting for Abraham and Sarah. This is what they have been waiting for, all these years – a child. And this child will come, it seems, through a miracle, for Sarah is already ninety years old. Finally, their prayers have been answered! Perhaps this will heal the wounds between them and bring them back together as a unit.
Will a happy ending be that simple? Can the birth of a child solve all their problems?
Perhaps not. For one thread in rabbinic tradition suggests that these angels may have been attempting to do more for Abraham and Sarah than just perform a biological miracle. Before they announce that the child will be born, they ask Abraham a seemingly straightforward question:
They said to him, “Where is Sarah, your wife?” (Gen. 18:9)
וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו, אַיֵּה שָׂרָה אִשְׁתֶּךָ
But Rashi has a theological difficulty with the question. If they are angels, sent on a mission from God to talk to Sarah, don’t they know where she is?
Their question, however, may have been about more than location. For the rabbis notice that in the traditional text, above the words “They said to him,” (אליו) there are three extra dots. And if we read only the letters connected to those dots, we would form the words, “Where is he?” (איו – aiyo) So, in a remarkable piece of midrashic interpretation, the rabbis say:
They were also asking Sarah, “Where is Abraham?” (Genesis Rabbah 48:15)
שֶׁאַף לְשָׂרָה שָׁאֲלוּ אַיּוֹ אַבְרָהָם
That is, in the same breath, the angels are asking Abraham where Sarah is and asking Sarah where Abraham is. And, just as when God asks Adam and Eve, “Where are you?” (איכה – ayekah), God knows exactly where they are, but is asking instead, “What have you done? And can you account for yourselves?” – so too, here, the angels are not asking Abraham and Sarah to locate one another physically, but asking “Do you, each of you, know where you stand in relationship to one another? Do you know where your partner is at – in her mind, or in his heart? Can you two account for one another?”
If that sounds a like an overly modern reading of the midrash, listen to the 16th century Rabbi Ephraim Lunschitz, the Kli Yakar, attempt to explain the same question:
Certainly [the rabbis did not mean the question] “Where is he?” literally, because Abraham was standing right there. Therefore, my heart tells me that the questions “Where is she?” and “Where is he?” were not spatial questions, meant to determine where she or he actually was. Rather they were questions about their “levels.” Not where he or she were, but what levels and heights they had reached, in terms of the good deeds through which they would merit to have a child together.
ועל זה קשה ודאי איך שאלו לשרה איו והלא אברהם היה עומד עליהם.ע”כ לבי אומר, ששאלת איה ואיו אינה שאלה מקומית לומר איפה הוא או היא, אלא שאלת המדריגות, כי לשון מקום מורה על המדריגה ולא שאלו כלל באיזה מקום הוא או היא, אלא שאלו על מקום מדריגתם ומעלתם בענין מעשיהם הטובים אשר בעבורם יזכו שניהם לבן
In other words, they were being asked to describe one another, and even to praise one another. Do you know who your partner is? Do you admire what they have done in the world? Is this a person with whom you can imagine having a child?
After all these years, after all the great challenges along this journey, and the pain that had pushed them apart, Abraham and Sarah must remember what brought them together in the first place. What values do they share? What do they love about one another?
“Do you know where your wife is, Abraham?”
He may not have understood the depth of the question, for he responds, simply:
There, inside the tent. (Gen. 18:9)
But then, remember – where did these angels find Abraham?
He was sitting at the opening of the tent. (Gen. 18:1)
וְהוּא יֹשֵׁב פֶּתַח-הָאֹהֶל
Go inside, Abraham, they are quietly urging. Go in to her. Find your wife again.
If you do this, says the angel:
I will return to you, at a time of life, and behold, a son will be born to Sarah your wife… (Gen. 18:10)
יֹּאמֶר, שׁוֹב אָשׁוּב אֵלֶיךָ כָּעֵת חַיָּה, וְהִנֵּה-בֵן, לְשָׂרָה אִשְׁתֶּךָ
And then, the second half of the verse reveals:
Sarah was listening at the opening of the tent, and he was just behind it.
וְשָׂרָה שֹׁמַעַת פֶּתַח הָאֹהֶל, וְהוּא אַחֲרָיו
Go in to her, Abraham. She is waiting for you.
From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on Leonard Cohen and Parsha Vayeira
From American Jewish World Service
Parashat Vayera 5776
By Jimmy Taber
October 31, 2015
(Reprised from October 23, 2010)
This week, in Parashat Vayera, Avimelech, king of Gerar, faces a grave threat to himself and his household. Avraham enters the town and repeats his prior ill-fated decision to present Sarah as his sister instead of his wife upon arriving in a foreign land. Unaware that Sarah is married, Avimelech takes her for himself. To Avimelech’s great surprise, God confronts him in a dream, threatening to kill him unless he returns Sarah to Avraham. Following an animated exchange Avimelech concedes, but only after God once again threatens death and this time extends the potential sentence to “all that is yours.” Avimelech returns Sarah to Avraham and he and the women of his household are healed from the infertility that had been inflicted upon them as punishment for seizing Sarah.1
Although the Torah’s narrative presents a direct dialogue between Avimelech and God, the midrash reveals a difficult decision-making process in which Avimelech finds himself caught between competing voices:
In the morning, when the king awoke, in agony and terror, he called all his servants and told his dream in their ears. One of their number said: “O lord and king! Restore this woman unto the man, for he is her husband . . .” There were some among his servants who spake: “Be not afraid of dreams! What dreams make known to man is but falsehood.”2
The response of the group of servants implies that dreams were not a universally accepted medium for communicating with the Divine. Thus Avimelech is faced with a difficult choice. He can listen to the lone voice encouraging him to believe that his dream was, in fact, a communication from God and take action by returning Sarah. Or he can listen to the near consensus of his servants who dismiss the validity of his dream and choose to preserve the status quo, avoiding action by maintaining willful ignorance. Ultimately, Avimelech heeds God’s warning and restores Sarah to Avraham, thus alleviating the suffering of the women in his household.3
Avimelech’s struggle parallels one of the most difficult challenges we face today in the pursuit of global social justice. How do we identify which voices are speaking the truth—and how do we respond when those truths implicate our own actions? What responsibility do we take on when, like Avimelech, we hear the dissenting voice of truth urging us to change the decisions we’ve made?
Every day we make personal choices that have global consequences. What food do we buy? What clothes do we wear? These choices are guided by many factors, including convenience, style and price. Yet how many of us think deeply about the impact our consumption has on those at the point of production? We may be familiar with the profound negative impacts free trade has on developing nations, but how great of an effort do we make to buy locally grown foods? We may have heard of the sweatshops across the globe that feed the Global North’s demand for cheap goods, but does this knowledge influence us to purchase fair trade products? How closely do we listen to the voices that inform us of the full impact of our decisions? And to what extent do we choose to incorporate positive changes into our own lives?
It is easy to feel that the power to make an impact in these areas is held solely by larger forces far beyond our control. Governments and international institutions like the World Bank and United Nations create environmental regulations and determine trade policy. Large corporations are responsible for much of the direct exploitation of workers worldwide and dominate the conversation in our country surrounding consumption. But the truth is these actors do not hold all the power. As citizens of a democracy, our political voices can affect the policies of our own government, and as consumers our decisions about what we buy can influence the way in which goods are produced. In fact, we have a moral obligation to pursue change through ethical consumption and advocacy for just trade policies. Change must take place within our personal sphere before it can extend to our greater community.
The story of Avimelech can provide us with inspiration to listen to unpopular voices that oppose the status quo in our own lives. Even when the dominant voices try to invalidate those who speak truth to power, we have a responsibility to listen to the voices of truth and act accordingly. Only through courageous action can we transform the way our personal consumption impacts those beyond our immediate sphere. We are not powerless. We have the ability and the responsibility to change the way we live, and thus create a more just world for everyone.
From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
The Binding of Isaac (Vayera 5775)
“Take your son, your only son, the one you love—Isaac—and go to the land of Moriah. Offer him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.” Thus begins one of the most famous episodes in the Torah, but also one of the most morally problematic.
The conventional reading of this passage is that Abraham was being asked to show that his love for God was supreme. He would show this by being willing to sacrifice the son for whom he had spent a lifetime waiting.
Why did God need to “test” Abraham, given that He knows the human heart better than we know it ourselves? Maimonides answers that God did not need Abraham to prove his love for Him. Rather the test was meant to establish for all time how far the fear and love of God must go.
On this principle there was little argument. The story is about the awe and love of God. Kierkegaard wrote a book about it, Fear and Trembling, and made the point that ethics is universal. It consists of general rules. But the love of God is particular. It is an I-Thou personal relationship. What Abraham underwent during the trial was, says Kierkegaard, a “teleological suspension of the ethical,” that is, a willingness to let the I-Thou love of God overrule the universal principles that bind humans to one another.
Rav Soloveitchik explained the episode in terms of his own well-known characterisation of the religious life as a dialectic between victory and defeat, majesty and humility, man-the-creative-master and man-the-obedient-servant. There are times when “God tells man to withdraw from whatever man desires the most.” We must experience defeat as well as victory. Thus the binding of Isaac was not a once-only episode but rather a paradigm for the religious life as a whole. Wherever we have passionate desire – eating, drinking, physical relationship – there the Torah places limits on the satisfaction of desire. Precisely because we pride ourselves on the power of reason, the Torah includes chukkim, statutes, that are impenetrable to reason.
These are the conventional readings and they represent the mainstream of tradition. However, since there are “seventy faces to the Torah,” I want to argue for a different interpretation. The reason I do so is that one test of the validity of an interpretation is whether it coheres with the rest of the Torah, Tanakh and Judaism as a whole. There are four problems with the conventional reading:
We know from Tanakh and independent evidence that the willingness to offer up your child as a sacrifice was not rare in the ancient world. It was commonplace. Tanakh mentions that Mesha king of Moab did so. So did Jepthah, the least admirable leader in the book of Judges. Two of Tanakh’s most wicked kings, Ahaz and Manasseh, introduced the practice into Judah, for which they were condemned. There is archeological evidence – the bones of thousands of young children –– that child sacrifice was widespread in Carthage and other Phoenician sites. It was a pagan practice.
Child sacrifice is regarded with horror throughout Tanakh. Micah asks rhetorically, “Shall I give my firstborn for my sin, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” and replies, “He has shown you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” How could Abraham serve as a role model if what he was prepared to do is what his descendants were commanded not to do?
Specifically, Abraham was chosen to be a role model as a father. God says of him, “For I have chosen him so that he will instruct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just.” How could he serve as a model father if he was willing to sacrifice his child? To the contrary, he should have said to God: “If you want me to prove to You how much I love You, then take me as a sacrifice, not my child.”
As Jews – indeed as humans – we must reject Kierkegaard’s principle of the “teleological suspension of the ethical.” This is an idea that gives carte blanche to a religious fanatic to commit crimes in the name of God. It is the logic of the Inquisition and the suicide bomber. It is not the logic of Judaism rightly understood. God does not ask us to be unethical. We may not always understand ethics from God’s perspective but we believe that “He is the Rock, His works are perfect; all His ways are just” (Deut. 32: 4).
To understand the binding of Isaac we have to realise that much of the Torah, Genesis in particular, is a polemic against worldviews the Torah considers pagan, inhuman and wrong. One institution to which Genesis is opposed is the ancient family as described by Fustel de Coulanges in The Ancient City (1864) and recently restated by Larry Siedentop in Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism.
Before the emergence of the first cities and civilizations, the fundamental social and religious unit was the family. As Coulanges puts it, in ancient times there was an intrinsic connection between three things: the domestic religion, the family and the right of property. Each family had its own gods, among them the spirits of dead ancestors, from whom it sought protection and to whom it offered sacrifices. The authority of the head of the family, the paterfamilias, was absolute. He had power of life and death over his wife and children. Authority invariably passed, on the death of the father, to his firstborn son. Meanwhile, as long as the father lived, children had the status of property rather than persons in their own right. This idea persisted even beyond the biblical era in the Roman law principle of patria potestas.
The Torah is opposed to every element of this worldview. As anthropologist Mary Douglas notes, one of the most striking features of the Torah is that it includes no sacrifices to dead ancestors. Seeking the spirits of the dead is explicitly forbidden.
Equally noteworthy is the fact that in the early narratives succession does not pass to the firstborn: not to Ishmael but Isaac, not to Esau but Jacob, not to the tribe of Reuben but to Levi (priesthood) and Judah (kingship), not to Aaron but to Moses.
The principle to which the entire story of Isaac, from birth to binding, is opposed is the idea that a child is the property of the father. First, Isaac’s birth is miraculous. Sarah is already post-menopausal when she conceives. In this respect the Isaac story is parallel to that of the birth of Samuel to Hannah, like Sarah also unable naturally to conceive. That is why, when he is born Hannah says, “I prayed for this child, and the Lord has granted me what I asked of him. So now I give him to the Lord. For his whole life he will be given over to the Lord.” This passage is the key to understanding the message from heaven telling Abraham to stop: “Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from Me your son, your only son” (the statement appears twice, in Gen. 22: 12 and 16). The test was not whether Abraham would sacrifice his son but whether he would give him over to God.
The same principle recurs in the book of Exodus. First, Moses’ survival is semi-miraculous since he was born at a time when Pharaoh had decreed that every male Israelite child should be killed. Secondly, during the tenth plague, when every firstborn Egyptian child died, the Israelite firstborn were miraculously saved. “Consecrate to me every firstborn male. The first offspring of every womb among the Israelites belongs to Me, whether human or animal.” The firstborn were originally designated to serve God as priests, but lost this role after the sin of the golden calf. Nonetheless, a memory of this original role still persists in the ceremony of pidyon ha-ben, redemption of a firstborn son.
What God was doing when he asked Abraham to offer up his son was not requesting a child sacrifice but something quite different. He wanted Abraham to renounce ownership of his son. He wanted to establish as a non-negotiable principle of Jewish law that children are not the property of their parents.
That is why three of the four matriarchs found themselves unable to conceive other than by a miracle. The Torah wants us to know that the children they bore were the children of God rather than the natural outcome of a biological process. Eventually, the entire nation of Israel would be called the children of God. A related idea is conveyed by the fact that God chose as his spokesperson Moses who was “not a man of words.” He was a stammerer. Moses became God’s spokesman because people knew that the words he spoke were not his own but those placed in his mouth by God.
The clearest evidence for this interpretation is given at the birth of the very first human child. When she first gives birth, Eve says: “With the help of the Lord I have acquired [kaniti] a man.” That child, whose name comes from the verb “to acquire,” was Cain who became the first murderer. If you seek to own your children, your children may rebel into violence.
If the analysis of Fustel de Colanges and Larry Siedentop is correct, it follows that something fundamental was at stake. As long as parents believed they owned their children, the concept of the individual could not yet be born. The fundamental unit was the family. The Torah represents the birth of the individual as the central figure in the moral life. Because children – all children – belong to God, parenthood is not ownership but guardianship. As soon as they reach the age of maturity (traditionally, twelve for girls, thirteen for boys) children become independent moral agents with their own dignity and freedom.
Sigmund Freud famously had something to say about this too. He held that a fundamental driver of human identity is the Oedipus Complex, the conflict between fathers and sons as exemplified in Aeschylus’ tragedy. By creating moral space between fathers and sons, Judaism offers a non-tragic resolution to this tension. If Freud had taken his psychology from the Torah rather than from Greek myth, he might have arrived at a more hopeful view of the human condition.
Why then did God say to Abraham about Isaac: “Offer him up as a burnt offering”? So as to make clear to all future generations that the reason Jews condemn child sacrifice is not because they lack the courage to do so. Abraham is the proof that they do not lack the courage. The reason they do not do so is because God is the God of life, not death. In Judaism, as the laws of purity and the rite of the Red Heifer show, death is not sacred. Death defiles.
The Torah is revolutionary not only in relation to society but also in relation to the family. To be sure, the Torah’s revolution was not fully completed in the course of the biblical age. Slavery had not yet been abolished. The rights of women had not yet been fully actualised. But the birth of the individual – the integrity of each of us as a moral agent in our own right – was one of the great moral revolutions in history.
 Guide for the Perplexed 3: 24.
 Søren Kierkegaard. Fear and Trembling, and the Sickness Unto Death. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1954.
 Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “Majesty and Humility,” Tradition 17:2, Spring. 1978, pp. 25–37.
 This is a large subject in its own right, that I hope to be able to address elsewhere.
 Fustel De Coulanges, The Ancient City: A Study on the Religion, Laws, and Institutions of Greece and Rome. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1956.
 Larry Siedentop, Inventing the Individual. London: Penguin, 2014.
 Mary Douglas, Leviticus as Literature. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999.
 It is perhaps no accident that the figure who most famously taught the idea of “the child’s right to respect” was Janusz Korczak, creator of the famous orphanage in Warsaw, who perished together with the orphans in Treblinka. See Tomek Bogacki, The Champion of Children: The Story of Janusz Korczak (2009).
 He argued, in Totem and Taboo, that the Oedipus complex was central to religion also.
From Brian Yosef Schachter-Brooks
In The World, Not of the World- Parshat Veyeira
There is an aphorism often heard in spiritual circles-
“Be in the world, but not of the world.”
What does this mean exactly?
There are at least two questions that come to mind about this phrase. First, what does it mean to “be in the world”? Aren’t we always already in the world? Second, what does it mean to not be “of the world”? Aren’t all of us of this world? What other world would be “of”?
To understand, let’s look at what our activities ordinarily consist of. Usually we spend our waking hours acting on the world or being acted on. We do things bring about some result. And yet, if our actions are to be sensitive and responsive to the beings around us, there needs to also be an element of just being with the world, not only acting upon it. There needs to be awareness and receptivity. This is the act of being in the world; it doesn’t mean merely existing, it means doing the activity of being with- of being present, aware, and open.
With this receptivity, however, there can be the fear of getting trapped by that which we are open to. Did you ever walk the longer route in order to avoid being seen by somebody? Often we will ignore or avoid people and situations because we fear some negative experience. But there is another way. You don’t have to shut down or hide; you can remain fully open to whatever comes, but also not cling to it. Let things come and let things go. Open yourself, let things come, and then return to openness- let things go. This is being “not of the world”, in the sense that you don’t let things in the world define who you are. You can become intimately involved with whatever comes along and then totally let go of it, let it pass on its way.
This week’s Parshat Vayera begins with a story of Avraham sitting at the opening of his tent in the heat of the day in the Plains of Mamre. Rather than shut himself up in the shade of his tent, he goes and sits at the entrance, looking to see who will come along. Three strangers appear, and he runs to them and bows before them. He invites them to come, rest, wash, eat- “v’sa’adu libkhem- and sustain your hearts”- and then “akhar ta’avoru- afterward, pass on”. He doesn’t only invite them in, he also invites them to leave.
The “tent” is like our sense of self, which can be closed off or open to what is now emerging in this moment. Even in the “heat”, meaning times of difficulty and suffering, you can welcome what this moment brings. Avraham’s tent sits in the vast “plains”- our little self sits in the vastness of this moment. Eternity is stretched out before us. There is infinite potential and infinite uncertainty. And yet, we need not fear what comes. We need not contract into our “tent”. We can be the supreme host like Sarah and Avraham, who epitomized hospitality, welcoming and offering our attention to whatever this moment brings. And then, let it pass on and return our attention to the vast openness. Things and beings and situations come and go, even our “tent” will eventually go, but the vastness remains.
This is the secret of the enigmatic first verse of the parshah- “Veyeira eilav Hashem b’eilonei Mamre- and the Divine appeared to him in the Plains of Mamre.” It says the Divine appears, but then Avraham looks up and sees three strangers approaching. What happened to the appearance of the Divine? But that’s the point: when we are open to the fullness of this moment, there can be the recognition that every appearance is an appearance of G-d. Everything emerges from the vastness and eventually returns there.
So welcome what is, right now. There is only one G-d, and This is It!
From the Maqam Project
Rabbi James Stone Goodman and the Epichorus.
From Rabbi Jill Hammer
This was also posted under Rosh Hashanah
The Concubine’s Daughter
Parashat Ha-Shavua פרשת השבוע
By: Reb Mimi Feigelson, Mashpiah Ruchanit
The Art of Accountability
Torah Reading: Genesis 18:1 – 22:24
Haftarah Reading: II Kings 4:1-37 (Ashkenazic)
II Kings 4:1-23 (Sephardic)
I had put it on record, earlier this week, while learning with my students at Zeigler that I have no problem with the Akeida, the binding of Yitzchak. I believe that this is the sole reason that the recording of the session was mistakenly erased… I said that if I God told me to do something, then I would do it. I quoted the Talmud when it says that prophecy only resides in a place of joy and the fact that Avraham could hear the angel tell him to not harm Yitzchak, but rather offer the ram as an offering, was proof that Avraham was in a state of joy. What would have happened if, God forbid, Avraham’s heart would’ve been locked into sadness and therefore not been able to hear the angel?!
Clearly, I can hear you challenge me on so many levels to what I have just suggested. Though I haven’t ever been asked to raise my child as an offering to God, I have been challenged, as I believe many of you also have been challenged, to surrender parts of my life that seem inseparable to my being and existence, in the service of God.
I have asked myself in the past what was it about Avraham that could open a door to such a request; and what was it about him that was able to say “He’neini / I am here”? This is his response both when God calls out to him to take Yitzchak (Breishit/Genesis 22:1) and when the angel calls out to him to put down his hand that carried the knife over Yitzchak (Breishit/Genesis 22:1). I am more familiar with Adam’s answer, when God calls out to him after eating from the fruit of the tree of knowledge – an answer that looks for excuses and others to blame for our shortcomings (Breishit/Genesis 3:10,12). I am much less at home with the immediate response of presence and accountability.
I return to my question: what is it about Avraham that had the ability to say “He’neini”; where did he draw his strength from?
I believe that one facet of my answer lays in the teaching of Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev (1740-1809) on a pasuk (verse) earlier on in our torah portion: “And God said: shall I hide from Avraham that thing which I intend to do?” (Breishit/Genesis 18:17). I don’t know about you, but I can be pretty sure about myself – if I lived in the time of Avraham and Sara and God was going to turn Sedom and Amora over, I don’t believe S/He would feel compelled to share this information with me. I don’t think that God would deposit such knowledge in my hands. So what was it about Avraham that God felt accountable to him?
Reb Levi Yitzchak invites us into Avraham’s mind and soul, sharing what he believes to be Avrhams thoughts, feelings and therefore, actions. Reb Levi Yitzchak suggests that Avraham, as standing in the presence of God, thinks to himself: “Who am I to stand in the presence of God? Who am I to receive the gift and bounty that I have received from God?” Therefore, the only way he could stand in God’s presence was to be not alone, never alone. Reb Levi Yitzchak offers that Avraham Avinu (our patriarch), with every one of his deeds, carried all of us in his heart and soul. He would give charity with all of us in his mind. He would pray with all of us standing beside him.
I have been taught that in the indigenous traditions, tribal decisions are made based on the welfare of seven generations forward. What will the outcome be, not for our children or grandchildren, but rather far into the future, seven generations into the future? Reb Levi Yitzchak takes this teaching even further – he says that Avraham Avinu saw each and every one of us till the end of generations. When he was praying, we were praying. When he was hosting guests, we were hosting guests. When he was observing Shabbat, we were observing Shabbat!
Based on the Talmud (Yoma 28b), Reb Levi Yitzchak will propose, that we can never feel foreign to a mitzvah, commandment – for we have performed all of them when Avraham performed them! At best we can say that we don’t remember how to do it, but we can never say that we don’t know how to do it… We can never say, “I’ve never done this in my life.”
In this manner Avraham never stood alone in the presence of God. We were there with him. And it is precisely this orientation that made him accountable in God’s eyes. Avraham’s accountability to all future generations, to each and every one of us, allotted him to be the one that God felt compelled to be accountable to!
Thus I begin to find my answer to my earlier question. Avraham draws his strength to say “He’neini” from the precise reality in which God is accountable to him! It is as if by virtue of God having to say to Avraham “He’neini” that Avraham, in return, can say to God “He’nei’ni”!
It is here that we are left with the challenge of asking ourselves, “What would it mean to me to walk in God’s world as a child of Avraham? Who are those that I carry in my heart and being with every step that I take? How far into the future do I look and feel accountable to? How does this impact the way I stand in God’s world? What would holding my heart open to hear the voice of God demand of me?”
As bringing to closure a week where many lives and homes were rattled and devastated by the aftermath of “Sandy”, may we stand in prayer and support, may they not feel that they are standing alone. And may we merit, as we stand together, to hear God’s voice call out to us, leading us to the next step of healing our world and planet.
From Rabbi Mishael Zion
Sandy and the Flooded Home: Heroic Avraham and Average Lot
From Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
Rabbi Ronnie Cohen
Petah Ha’Ohel: The Portal
Torah Reading: Genesis 18:1 – 22:24
Haftarah Reading: II Kings 4:1-37
VAYEIRA EILAV ADONAI B’EILONEI MAMREI V’HU YOSHEIV PETAH-HA’OHEL K’HOM HAYOM
[The Lord appeared to him (Abraham) by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot.
(Genesis 18:1 – NJPS Translation)]
Midrash teaches that Abraham often sat at the entrance to his tent, the better to observe from afar weary travelers in need of hospitality…
In our day it is the rabbi who sits at the entrance to the tent of Jewish community…
These are the opening words of At the Entrance of the Tent: A Rabbinic Guide to Conversion by Rabbi Jonathan Lubliner, published by the Rabbinical Assembly this last January (2011). It is a wonderful work, filled with sensitivity and practical suggestions for rabbis who toil in the holy fields of guiding and accepting Jews by Choice. But that’s not what I want to talk about today. I want to focus, instead, on Rabbi Lubliner’s choice of a title for the book, which comes from the first line of this week’s parshah, as quoted above.
The phrase petah ha’ohel, “the entrance of the tent” occurs-in its various grammatical permutations-60 times in the Hebrew Bible, mostly in the Torah, the Five Books of Moses. The first three times, it is in our story: Abraham sitting at the entrance of his tent (Genesis 18:1); Abraham running from the entrance of his tent to greet the three strangers (18:2); and Sarah overhearing from the entrance of the tent the unbelievable announcement that the strangers make to Abraham about her, Sarah, giving birth to a child at this time next year (18:10).
This phrase-petah ha’ohel is more than simply the entrance of a tent: it is the portal, the threshold, the point of contact between two worlds. When applied to a personal house, it marks the border between private and public space; when applied to the sanctuary, it marks the line of demarcation between the sacred and the profane.
When Sarah overhears the annunciation in our parshah, she is using petah ha’ohel as an information portal. She is staying, as befits a woman of her time and culture, within the confines of her tent, in her private domain. And yet, she is at the threshold, and is able to overhear the conversation that is taking place outside the tent, in public.
According to Rashi (the 11th century French rabbi and biblical exegete) and Midrash Aggadah (a medieval exegetical commentary on the Bible), it was the Israelites’ scrupulous observance of the sanctity of petah ha’ohel, this private-public threshold, that is responsible for the passage we are supposed to quote every time we enter a synagogue. Balak, king of the Moabites, was afraid of the Israelites who were coming to his territory after having vanquished the Amorites. So he sent for the prophet Bilaam to curse the Israelites. Bilaam, who was constrained to prophesy only in the manner that God directed, was unable to curse the Israelites from either of the first two vantage points to which Balak took him. Finally, at the third spot, Bilaam could see the entire encampment of the Israelites, and he was so impressed that he said, “Ma Tovu Ohalekha, Ya’akov” (“How goodly are thy tents, Jacob…”-Numbers 24:5), the prayer that is to be uttered upon entering the synagogue. Rashi’s commentary on the verse, quoting the Midrash, is that what so impressed Bilaam in the camp is that the petah ha’ohel, the entrance to each individual tent, was not facing any other, thus preserving each family’s privacy.
We see the same function of petah ha’ohel in the story of Deborah the Prophetess (in chapters 4 and 5 of Judges). Deborah and her general, Barak, lead the forces of the Israelites against the army of Sisera, the general of King Jabin of Canaan. The Israelites are successful, with God’s help, and Sisera has to flee the battleground on foot to save his life. He takes refuge in the tent of Yael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, because there was a treaty between the Kenites and King Jabin. Yael invites him in, feeds him, and has him lie down. He tells her to stand in petah ha’ohel (Judges 4:20), the interface of private and public space, to keep, as it were, the outside world out. Unfortunately, he didn’t realize that his fate awaited him from within the private domain of Yael’s tent, as she kills him in his sleep.
But by far, the most common use of the phrase petah ha’ohel is in regard to the ohel mo’ed, the tent of meeting, which was the locus of the divine indwelling among the Israelites. In Exodus 29, the consecration of Aaron and his sons as priests, and all of the sacrifices attendant thereto, is to take place in front of the entire community at petah ohel mo’ed, precisely because petah ha’ohel is the interface between the divine and the human, between the sacred and the profane. It is at petah ha’ohel that amud he’anan, the pillar of cloud (the manifestation of God’s presence), would meet with Moses (Exodus 33:10).
In the Mishkan (the tabernacle), the altar was situated at petah ohel mo’ed, so that perforce, every sacrifice, every offering, was conducted at this threshold; every time the blood of an animal was spilled out at the base of the altar, it was poured out at this portal, this divine-human interchange (see, for example, Leviticus 4:7). Thus, for example, when the Nazir completes his voluntary period of abstinence (from wine, cutting his hair, and exposure to the dead), he brings his sacrifice to petah ha’ohel (Numbers 6:13). The confrontation between Moses and Korah also takes place at petah ohel mo’ed (Numbers 16:18), because it is a rebellion not against Moses, but against the Divine.
Finally, after the conquest of Canaan under Joshua, the division of the land among the various tribes and clans is effected by lottery in Shiloh, at petah ohel mo’ed (Joshua 19:51), because it is God’s hand that is directing this allocation, and therefore it is done at the threshold of the sacred and profane, the divine and the human.
Our parshah is the very first time that the phrase petah ha’ohel is introduced to us, and it is fitting that it is introduced here. For Abraham and Sarah, the founders of this enterprise called the Jewish People, truly lived at petah ha’ohel. Through the stories about them in the Bible and in Midrash, their personal story, their private lives have become public; their ordinary, humdrum daily existence has become holy. And their efforts to reach out through this portal, through petah ha’ohel, to bring others to the knowledge of the true God, effectively bridged that interface. May we each of us merit to live our lives at petah ha’ohel, at the edge of the sacred, the divine.
From Rabbi James Stone Goodman
Can’t Leave the Story [on Vayera]
November 11, 2011
God appears and then everything that transpires, the whole serpentine story, is God-ambiguous, somewhat difficult though the sequence resolves with the same root-words it began. The stories, the silences, the talk, the absence of talk, the visiting, the blessing, the laugh of Sarah, the argument with God, the flight of Lot, the trickiness of Abraham, the remembering of Sarah, the circumcising of Isaac, the alienation of Hagar and Ishmael, the terrible trek to the mountain of God, all of it a revelation, a vision, an appearance of Godliness. Somehow.
In the blessings, God. In the mess, God too. This is so much life as we know it. Up and down, light and dark, holy and not-yet-holy, silent and loud, somehow all infused in some hidden way with vision.
I am writing this to remind myself when I will need it: through the losses, in the mess, the God-lines, in all of it, the holy and the not-yet-holy, through the whole story, there is vision. God appears and – the entire sidrah – all of it, revelational, every part, it’s all over God, a vision.
Walk away from the Torah for a second. Take a ride on the moon you just rolled across the sky and look at the whole story from without, as it were, take a God’s-eye view, as the Chassidim say, the long look.
The serpentine story line of Vayera, the blessings, the curses, the deceit, the alienation, the resistance, the argument, the righteous, the wicked, the sneaking off, the return, the resolutions, the black fire, the white fire, the spoken, the not spoken, the blessings, the mess – it’s all God. The whole story, all over, Godliness.
God appeared, appeared in a whole bunch of difficult stories. It’s all a vision of Godliness. Abraham, Isaac, Ishmael, Hagar, Sarah, Avimelekh, the people of S’dom, the good, the bad, they can’t leave the story. The story is God – all God, all over.
A vision of prophecy or in a dream — Rambam, The Guide of the Perplexed, II:42.
An opening of eyes – Ramban in his Commentary on the Torah.
From Rav Kook
VaYeira: The Salt of Sodom
The Torah vividly contrasts the kindness and hospitality of Abraham’s household with the cruelty and greed of the citizens of Sodom. When visitors arrived at Lot’s home, the entire city, young and old, surrounded the house with the intention of molesting his guests. Lot’s attempts to appease the rioters only aggravated their anger.
Washing after Meals
The Talmud makes an interesting connection between the evil city of Sodom and the ritual of washing hands at meals. The Sages decreed that one should wash hands before and after eating bread, as a form of ritual purification, similar to partial immersion in a mikveh (ritual bath). The rabbinical decree to wash hands before meals is based on the purification the kohanim underwent before eating their terumah offerings.
The Talmud in Chulin 105b, however, gives a rather odd rationale for mayim acharonim, washing hands after the meal. The Sages explained that this washing removes the salt of Sodom, a dangerous salt that can blind the eyes. What is this Sodomite salt? What does it have to do with purification? How can it blind one’s eyes?
The Selfishness of the Sodomites
In order to answer to these questions, we must first understand the root source of Sodom’s immorality. The people of Sodom were obsessed with fulfilling their physical desires. They concentrated on self-gratification to such a degree that no time remained for kindness towards others. They expended all of their efforts chasing after material pleasures, and no energy was left for helping the stranger.
Purifying the Soul When Feeding the Body
A certain spiritual peril lurks in any meal that we eat. Our involvement in gastronomic pleasures inevitably increases the value we assign to such activities, and decreases the importance of spiritual activities, efforts that truly perfect us. As a preventative measure, the Sages decreed that we should wash our hands before eating. Performing his ritual impresses upon us the imagery that we are like the priests, eating holy bread baked from terumah offerings. The physical meal we are about to partake suddenly takes on a spiritual dimension.
Despite this preparation, our involvement in the physical act of eating will reduce our sense of holiness to some degree. To counteract this negative influence, we wash our hands after the meal. With this ritual cleansing, we wash away the salt of Sodom, the residue of selfish preoccupation in sensual pleasures. This dangerous salt, which can blind our eyes to the needs of others, is rendered harmless through the purifying ritual of mayim acharonim.
(Gold from the Land of Israel pp. 44-45. Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. I, p. 21)
Copyright © 2006 by Chanan Morrison
From Rabbi James Stone Goodman 2010
Blessing from Vayera*
I will bless you and increase you as the earth
as the sands of the seashore as the sea,
the algae and the horseflies.
I will make you as great as the horseflies, as the algae,
look up now to the sky, you will be as great as the stars
as the darkness too, you will be as great as the darkness,
as great as the sand and the sea and the stars,
the mud and the dark and the green,
the sticky stuff on the surf,
the “the” and the “and”
the early rains and the later rains
the mud the mud the green the sand the dark.
“And G*d appeared to Abraham,” (Genesis 18:1)
and said nothing –
From Rabbi Simon Jacobson
Vayeira: To See the Divine
The Extrordinary Within the Ordinary
Watch a beautiful sunset. Listen to a stirring symphony. Smell a delicate fragrance. Taste a delectable wine. Touch the soft cheek of a child. Those are our five senses at work – taking in and experiencing the aesthetics of our universe. But what else enters through our sensory doors? How stimulated – overstimulated – are we by the multitude of sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touches inundating our daily interactions? And what impact does it have on us? Are we products, perhaps even victims, of the forces seducing our senses? Take television: Does anyone know the far-reaching effects that visual stimulation has on our psyches? How much is it desensitizing us to “see,” “hear” and experience the more sublime aspects of our lives – the invisible and ethereal?
So when we observe the world around us, the people, events and experiences of our lives, what should we be looking for? When we are seeking a loving relationship – or standing before a person we love – how do we assure that we are looking at the important things that matter, and not at superficial externals? And how do we attain such perspective when we are swamped with the endless flow of information assaulting our senses, numbing and distorting our priorities?
This week’s Torah portion contains a fascinating answer to these questions.
The chapter opens with the words “And G-d appeared to Abraham.” What did Abraham see? What does it mean to “see” the Divine?
When we look at any particular object what do we see? First we see the physical features of the object – its shape, color, size and position. We may also notice its functions and the benefits they serve. With more focus, we can discern subtle elements and other aspects that may not have been ostensibly noticeable. Upon further study we develop a “deeper look” at the object and learn its unique composition of elements and molecules, and its biological and chemical makeup. Further down and in we discover its atomic structure, which in turn is comprised of sub-atomic particles. How far down the “rabbit hole” can we go?
Left to our own mortal resources we can only go that far. But with help from an unexpected place we can actually come to perceive – to see – the essence of the object, and even beyond that.
When the Kotzker Rebbe was a young child he was once asked: “Where is G-d?” To which he replied: “Wherever you let Him in?”
To see the Divine is to see the Essence of all reality, and to recognize that this Essence is beyond all reality. “He is the space of the universe, but the universe is not His space.” In some ways it means to see the forest from the trees; the roots from the symptoms; the causes from the effects.
Abraham did two critical things to reach a point that he was able to see the Divine, to the point that “G-d appeared to him.” Firstly, he left his comfort zones (see last week’s The Greatest Journey Ever Taken) and embarked on a lifelong journey away from his subjective inclinations toward transcendence. Secondly, Abraham dedicated his life – and passed on his legacy to his children and generations to come – to focus not on the means, but on the end: To look beyond the seductive distractions of surface life and see what lies within; to search for the essence of things, rather than react to their symptoms. To seek out the purpose of existence and turn that purpose into the driving force of our decisions, rather than allow our existential needs and concerns to determine the course of our lives. Notwithstanding the conventions of the time, not conforming to the pressures around him, not enticed by the sights and sound of the universe, Abraham looked beyond and within them for a higher presence. This higher awareness then translates into action – to living a life of virtue, righteousness and justice.
Once Abraham demonstrated his commitment, once he “paid the price” and did his part piercing through the outer layers and peering deep inside for the deeper reality, then the Higher and Inner Reality reciprocates, “and G-d appeared to him,” revealing the essential forces that shape all of existence, far beyond those that Abraham could ever discover on his own accord.
The great 13th century sage, Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman), also known as Nachmanides, states a critical axiom – one that would change the landscape of Jewish education were it only emphasized in our schools:
“Know this fundamental principle: All the journeys and events that happened with the Patriarchs [Abraham, Isaac and Jacob] come to teach us about the future…they were shown what would happen to their descendants. For this reason the Torah documents in detail the experiences that transpired with the Patriarchs. No one should think that these are superfluous details; they actually pave the way and map out all the future events that would transpire with their children throughout history. There is nothing that happened to Abraham that would later not occur with his children (Ramban, Lech Lecho 12:6).
How do we apply this principle to the opening of this week’s Torah portion: “And G-d appeared to him,” to Abraham?
Indeed, a well known story suggests that Abraham’s Divine revelation was unique to him alone. When the Rebbe Rashab was a young boy, he went to his grandfather, the Tzemach Tzedek, to receive a blessing in connection with his birthday (Cheshvan 20). When he entered his grandfather’s room, he began to cry. His grandfather asked him why he was crying and he explained that in cheder (school), he had learned that G-d had revealed Himself to Abraham and he was upset, why G-d did not reveal Himself to him. The Tzemach Tzedek replied: “When a righteous Jew at the age of 99 decides to circumcise himself, he is worthy that G-d reveal Himself to him.” The Rebbe Rashab was satisfied with this answer, and stopped crying.
And yet, the Rebbe Rashab did cry, and according to Nachmanides, there is nothing that happened to Abraham that would later not occur with his children, Abraham’s Divine revelation in some way can and will happen to his children.
Abraham paved the way for us to have a similar experience: To see the inner forces that shape our outer realities.
But in order to see your life in this special way, you too have to commit to the same two things that Abraham committed to: One, you must travel away from your own subjective trappings and remove the immediate pressures that block you from seeing what lies within. This includes controlling the flow of images, sounds, tastes, touches and smells, which enter your being and clutter your life. Two, you need to focus on the inner forces and the purpose of it all, ensuring that the means that lead you there are not confused with the end goal. Too often we get so consumed with the tools – earning a living, shopping, preparing – that we are left with no time, energy and space for the purpose of all these tools. Sometimes we may even forget that there is a purpose, like embarking on a journey and then forgetting the destination.
This commitment to the higher goal, as opposed to the means, in turn manifests in a life driven by virtue and selflessness, rather than instant gratification and immediate needs.
Once you demonstrate your commitment to this approach, new doors will open up from within. And then – and only then – will you begin to see the extraordinary in the ordinary. Every detail of your life begins to burst with enormous energy. You learn to savor every sight, every sound, every taste, every touch, every smell.
You can look at a wild flower and see a flower, or you can see, as Blake put it, Heaven. You can listen to a bird sing and hear a song, or hear the music of angels. You can gently caress the finger of your beloved and touch a finger, or you can touch eternity.
A new perspective emerges in your life, teaching you how to bridge the visible and the invisible, the sensory and the supra-sensory – how to use your senses to reach beyond your senses and experience new dimensions.
And above all, your new vision allows you to release fresh energy from every experience you encounter: In a life driven by self-interest every situation is numbed and deadened by “what’s in it for me?” In stark contrast, a life driven by seeing the Divine opens your eyes, ears, taste, touch and smell to experience yourself and others in unprecedented ways. You learn to see new things, and see old things in new ways.
Every situation then becomes an opportunity to generate innovative power to help others and improve the world – directing every detail of your life toward the sublime, revealing the Divine purpose in everything, fulfilling the very objective of existence.
Torah Reading for Week of November 1-7, 2009
“Seeing G-d in Ourselves and Others”
by Rabbi Anne BrenerAJR, CA Professor of Ritual and Human Development
Va-yera, the parasha that begins with G-d appearing to Abraham (va-yera alav YHVH) is rich throughout, but I linger on the iconic images in the first lines, which could be used as cover art for manuals for our Caring Communities, Bikkur Cholim (visiting the sick) Associations, and Chevri Kadisha (burial societies). Sitting at the opening of his tent, in the heat of the desert day, while recovering from his circumcision, Abraham saw G-d, in the form of the three men standing nearby. Abraham rushed to welcome them and offer hospitality. They, in turn, provided comfort for his convalescence.
This mutual generosity provided the Rabbis of the Talmud with illustrations for the prescribed human behavior of “walking in G-d’s way,” which they understood to mean that we are to walk after G-d’s attributes- to act in imitation of G-d. Abraham’s bounteous welcome and the reassuring visit of the men to the recovering patriarch became role models for fulfilling this injunction. Their reciprocal kindness emphasizes that the benefits of compassion extend in two directions- enhancing the experiences of both caregivers and the recipients of care.
Each morning, we begin our day by affirming in full voice the practices of a caring community. Our liturgy reminds us of the rewards of these activities, as well as others, such as “rejoicing with bride and groom,” “attending the house of study,” and “honoring parents,” that are enumerated each morning as we begin our Morning Prayer service. We recite these directions for holy behavior along with the promise that these deeds will earn us points both “in this world and in the world-to-come.”
I will leave the rewards in the “world-to-come” for future exploration. I am most interested in the rewards we get in this world. Having been lucky enough to visit Caring Communities throughout the world, I have observed that the ones that are most successful are the ones that emphasize both the caring and the community. Their success is measured, not just by the gallons of chicken soup served or number of hospital beds visited, but also by the longevity of the participation of the volunteers, the strength of their relationships with each other, and the sense of personal satisfaction and growth that those volunteers receive from their involvement with the community. The rewards of community and individual fulfillment are the “this word” bonuses promised by the liturgy.
I have come to believe that the people who provide the most comfort to others have two qualities in common: altruistic self-interest and an ability to see, like Abraham, G-d’s presence in others. The paradoxical phrase “altruistic self-interest” has many implications. It suggests that those who serve others do so, not just “to help the unfortunates” or “to give something back,” but also because they recognize that in helping others they learn about themselves and have an opportunity to grow beyond their comfort zone. They know that comforting a mourner may remind them of unfinished grief issues in their own lives or that visiting a sick person might expose them to their own fears of vulnerability. But they know, as well, that confronting these issues will make them deeper, stronger people, more able to serve others and more at peace with what it means to be human. Our sages say that “he who thinks of death improves himself” and that more wisdom can be attained in a house of mourning than a house of revelry. Those who best serve others cultivate their hearts of wisdom and find companionship when they return to their caring committees to speak of what they have witnessed in others and what it has taught them about themselves. They de-brief together. They study together. They pray together. And, together, they do the soul work that will offer them strength when they face life’s challenges.
These successful caregivers know that, as the Talmud tells us, the round things served in a house of Shiva, are not just emblematic of the cycle of life. They also remind us that “Like the pea, sorrow rolls. Today’s mourner is tomorrow’s comforter and today’s comforter is tomorrow’s mourner.” There is no condescension in service to those in need. There is a recognition that, as Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav said, “all the world is a narrow bridge.” And our greatest gift to each other- and to ourselves- is to provide- and find- companionship on that narrow bridge.
I learned about the second quality, the ability to see G-d in others, when I began my career as a psychotherapist, twenty-five years ago. I attended a lecture given by Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D author of Kitchen Table Wisdom and other wonderful books. She revealed that when she first met with a patient, she silently said to herself, “The G-d in me, salutes the G-d in you.” This became my own practice, as I imagined Abraham reciting this phrase to himself as the three mysterious beings approached and he ran to serve them, propelled by his understanding that he was welcoming The Holy One. I imagine the beings themselves recognizing the Holiness that lived within Abraham as he approached and bid them welcome. The G-d in Abraham embraced the G-d in the visitors – uniting sparks of Holiness and lighting up the place at the opening of the tent, as they constituted the first Caring Community. Eager to serve G-d, Abraham saw the presence of G-d in the weary travelers, who reciprocated by seeing the same in the suffering Abraham. This mutual experience of healing is what we seek when we constitute organizations to perform those mitzvot detailed in the morning liturgy which reach out to people in need of community support. These people could be brides, mourners, or any others who face the challenges that come in times when lives are changing.
When we prepare student clergy as well as laity to do this work, one of the first things we ask of them is to look in to the eyes of others in the room. We ask them to see, as Abraham and his visitors saw, not just the superficial things that make all of us different and can cause us to distance ourselves from those who face challenges, regarding them with condescension and pity in a way that does not lift their spirits and bring healing. We ask them to see instead the spark of G-d that we all share. Our students look at each other and appreciate the presence of Holiness, as it resides in the souls of those who have come to walk in G-d’s ways. Seeing YHVH in others, they also see YHVH in themselves. Va-yera alav YHVH!
From Reb Zalman
The Shechinah can be Seen in the Wayfarer
Tuesday, November 3rd, 2009
The following text by Reb Zalman is for this week’s Torah portion, Shabbos Vayera. [Notes by Gabbai Seth Fishman, BLOG Editor]:
“And He appeared unto him” (Genesis 18:1).
(Shabbos 127a) “Hospitality to wayfarers is more important than an encounter with the Shechinah / in-dwelling of God.”
[NOTE: Avraham interrupted his union with Hashem, (Genesis, 18:1, “Vayera“ / and God appeared), so that he could take care of the visitors who showed up in the meantime (ibid 18:3, “Adonay… please pass not from thy servant.”) The Rabbis took the word Adonay in this context as referring to God. (It is also sometimes translated as referring to the visitors.) The Talmud makes the above conclusion, that one should give precedence, as Avraham did, to an opportunity to fulfill the mitzvah of hachnassat orchim / hospitality to the wayfarers, over a union with God.]
For Abraham came to be a host to the wayfarers amidst that sense of cleaving during the encounter with the Shechinah, for there was a sense that he would see the holy Shechinah in the wayfarers.
[NOTE: As Reb Zalman has spoken in lectures, even greater than the heresy of making God too small is the heresy of making ourselves too small vis-a-vis God. In addition to the good feeling we will have when we perform the mitzvah of hachnassat orchim, we should also remember that the Shechinah is accessible when we do so; in fact she is there in our guests and in all of us.]
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi
from Yishmiru Daat (2009 revision),
“Parashat Vayera Eilav,” pp. 30-31
VIEWS ON THE AKEDAH
November 8, 2009
At our recent Torah Circle (November 7, 2009) one of the more interesting and passionate parts of the discussion was on the Akedah – the binding of Yitzchak. Most people who spoke saw Avraham’s behavior – agreeing to God’s command to offer Yitzchak as a sacrifice, without putting up an argument – as a negative, a situation where he “failed the test.”
I hold with a more traditional view, which was not discussed yesterday, that Avraham acted with the simple faith that everything that comes from God is for the good, even when we don’t understand it.
As a person of faith in 2009 I try to integrate Avraham’s example into my life in a way that is appropriate today. I use my own judgment as best I can to do what I believe is right and avoid what is wrong. But I also believe that as a finite being with finite knowledge, there are limits to what I can know and understand. If something is coming from God, it is for the good, even when I can’t understand it.
We Jews have a custom of what we say when we hear that someone has died. We say, “Baruch Dayan HaEmet.” Blessed is the True Judge (or Judge of Truth). Even if the person passed away “before his/her time,” even if it seems unjust, even if God forbid it was the result of a terrible accident or worse, we still say “Baruch Dayan HaEmet.” I don’t understand or accept what has happened, and my heart is crying out in anguish. Even so, I still bless You, I still believe in Your goodness.
The discussion about the meaning of the Akedah has been going on for thousands of years in many parts of the world, not only in Judaism, but also in Christianity and Islam, with an amazing richness of views. There is a very interesting summary, with lots of references, in Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Binding_of_Isaac). For a Hasidic viewpoint there are discussions by a number of different rabbis at Chabad.org (http://www.chabad.org/search/keyword_cdo/kid/4555/jewish/Binding-of-Isaac.htm).
Here are a few commentaries in the multi-millennial discussion:
• It was not God putting Avraham to the test, it was Avraham putting God to the test. He actually had no intention of sacrificing Yitzchak. This is derived from what he said to his servants: “You stay here with the ass. The boy and I will go up there; we will worship and we will return to you.” Avraham expected to return with Yitzchak. The test was – what would God do?
• According to the Midrash, Sarah died at age 127 and Yitzchak was born when she was 90, so Yitzchak was 37 years old at the time of the Akedah.
• The image of Yitzchak at age 37 and Avraham at 137 walking up the mountain together to the sacrifice gives a distinct frame for the story. Yitzchak had to be physically stronger than Avraham, so the whole thing could not happen with Yitzchak’s understanding and cooperation. Reb Shlomo once shared a midrash about the conversation that the two of them had about doing God’s will, as they were going up the mountain.
• Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk comments that both Avraham and Yitzchak were tested in different ways. Yitzchak was willing to do the mitzvah of Kiddush HaShem, offering one’s life for the sake of doing God’s will. This is obviously huge, but it is not unique, since many Jews throughout history have also made this choice. For Avraham the test – with enormous consequences – was about how to handle the cosmic double message about life and death. What was he to believe, that God would make him a great nation through Yitzchak, or that God wanted Yitachak, still childless, as a sacrifice? Reb Menachem Mendel says that Avraham had to literally set aside his mind and simply believe with pure and simple faith. Easy to say; not so easy to do.
• A question that came up yesterday, and has come up through the generations, is, “Why did Avraham argue with God about Sodom and Gomorrah, but not about Yitzchak?” One response comes from Rabbi Tzvi Friedman of Chabad:
When God informs Avraham about Sodom and Gomorrah, He is giving him a forecast about what He intends to do: “I will descend now and see, whether according to the cry which has come to Me they have done; [I will wreak] destruction [upon them].” Avraham understood that God wanted him to argue.
But when God speaks about Yitachak, He says, “Please take your son…” Avraham understood that this was not something to argue about.
• Christian Biblical commentators see the Akedah as archetype of the way that God works. They see this event as prefiguring God’s plan to have his own Son, Jesus, die on the cross as a substitute for humanity, much like the ram God provided for Abraham.
• In the Wikipedia article it says that Muslims believe that Ishmael is the one whom Avraham was told to sacrifice. They get this from God telling Avraham to sacrifice his “only son,” which could only mean Ishmael when he was young, before Yitzchak was born. Both father and son passed the test of recognizing that “God is the Owner and Giver of all that we have and cherish, including life and offspring.” Avraham and his son submitting to God’s will is celebrated by Muslims on the days of Eid al-Adha Sacrifice festival.
Originally posted by Wendy
Rabbi Jill Hammer
From ” The Jewish Book of Days”
“In Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 30, the well of Hagar is none other than the healing well the Divine made at the dawn of creation. This well later accompanies the Israelites through the desert and becomes known as Miriam’s well. Perhaps this well too comes from the tears of those who grieve.”
Originally posted by Wendy.
This is some of Reb Leah’s commentary about Sarah.
Rabbi Leah Novick
From On the Wings of the Shekinah
“Each of the matriarchs also has her distinctive connection with the Divine Presence. Sarah is portrayed in the aggadic literature as having her own ceremonial tent, where she institutes the candle-lighting ritual for inaugurating the Sabbath , perhaps drawing on much more elaborate temple ceremonies that originated in her native Chaldean background in Ur. In this context, she is the conduit of the light of Shekhinah, which would later be ceremonialized in the temple menorah and throughout history in the eternal light lit over the ark in synagogues, called ner tamid. Because Sarah is merged with the light of the Shekhinah, the sages say, ” her lamp does not go out at night.” In Sarah’s ritual tent, which was sheltered by a cloud of glory, the sages tell us that the candles miraculously stayed lit for a whole week. Sarah is the only woman to have a full chapter in the Torah (Chaye Sarah, Gen. 23 and 24), which chronicles her life and death. Enduring and supernal life is attributed to her because of her intimate connection with Shekhinah, who regulates life and death.
Sarah is praised in the Talmud and the Zohar as the woman who “sees” Shekhinah during the famous annunciation scene when three angelic messsengers come to predict the birth of Isaac. Her handmaiden, Hagar, who cohabits with Abraham, also has direct connection with divinity and encounters an angel at the well of “the God who Sees.” …
Rabbi Shefa Gold
Rabbi Shefa Gold’s “Torah Journeys”
Abraham is visited by three strangers who announce that he and Sarah will
birth a son in their old age. Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed.
THE FIRST WORD OF THE PORTION tells us that God has appeared. As a seeker of direct connection with the Divine, my heart leaps at the idea of this amazing event and I look for that revelation in my own life. We are blessed this week with a vision of God who comes to us in the form of three strangers.
Our attentiveness to these strangers will determine the extent of our blessing. If we are ready with open hearts, our eyes are watching for opportunities to serve, if our humility is intact, and we have the energies and resources to express the natural flow of our generosity – then we will be given hope, and the fulfillment of our deepest desires. This openness to seeing God in the form of “the stranger” is rewarded abundantly.
IN STARK CONTRAST, we are presented with the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, places that represent hatred of the stranger. When God shares with our ancestor the imminent, terrible consequences of this hatred, we are meant to share in the wisdom, to learn from the tragedy.
When inhospitality and meanness rule, and the stranger is not honored, then Divine Presence is unrecognized and inaccessible. When that radiating presence which holds the world together is obscured, everything collapses.
EVEN THOUGH WE WITNESS THIS TRAGEDY, and learn the redemptive truth of how love for the stranger is a requirement for theophany, this same drama must unfold within our very own family. The lesson comes home.
The name Hagar means “the stranger.” She repreesents the stranger in our midst. When we cast Hagar out into the wilderness1, her offspring becomes our enemy. When the stranger is banished, our opportunity for seeing God is squandered. The ability to see God passes instead to the stranger, to Hagar. At the moment of deepest desapir, “God opened her eyes.”2 She is blessed with a vision of God who appears as the living waters of life.
IN RECEIVING THE BLESSING of Vayera, we are both the one who banishes the stranger, and the stranger herself. In finding the compassion to welcome the guest, to open our heart to the one who is different, the best tool we have is our memory of being the stranger ourselves. This memory moves us eventually to a re-integration of those two parts within us, the banisher and the banished.
Much later in the story, Abraham takes another wife named Keturah, which means “spice”. The midrash says that this new wife is Hagar, returning, the-stranger-welcomed-home. She is transformed from being a bitter, desperate stranger to being a source of sweet fragrance.
Welcoming Hagar back into our hearts bestows on us the blessing of seeing God once more.
THE SPIRITUAL CHALLENGE
STANDING AT THE DOOR OF OUR TENT, our first challenge is to remain alert, attentive and open to opportunities for service. We can’t just stand by and watch passively as life ges by; we must run to meet each moment with eagerness and joy.
To take this stance towards life means that I must do whatever it takes to be a clear channel for Divine Love. For me that means giving a lot of attention to self-nurturance – the right food, exercise, rest, meditation, play. The challenge is to love and take care of myself enough to be as effective an instrument I can be in serving others.
The stranger is not always easy to serve. She may be cruel, ungrateful, even unresponsive to your kindness. His manners may offend you. The challenge is to stay true to the spirit of service and to look for the Divine Mystery in every encounter, even if we are not being perceived or received in the way we’d like.
And when we, in our turn, are cast out and treated like a stranger, our challenge is remain steadfast in our search for allies, and to avoid becoming bitter. Eventually, our eyes will be opened to the well of living waters that is ever before us, however obscured.
1 Genesis 21:10
2 Genesis 21:19
Please click on link to website for Guidelines for Practice http://www.rabbishefagold.com/vayera/
Rabbi Arthur Waskow:
When Abraham Sees God in Oak Trees
(Email sent on October 22, 2007)
The Torah portion that is traditionally read in synagogues this coming Shabbat (Gen. 18:1 through 22: 24) is called “Vayeira” from its first word. This word is usually translated “appeared,” but it comes from the root for “see,” and the same root appears in a different form right afterwards.
The second word is “YHWH.” That is usually translated “the Lord,” but since this sacred unpronounceable Name with no vowels can only be “pronounced” by breathing — “Yyyyhhhhwwwwhhhh” – I translate it as “the Breath of Life” or “the Wind/ Breath/ Spirit of the world.”
The first sentence says “YHWH brought-about-being-SEEN to [Abraham] in [b’] the oaks of Mamre.”
Then the story continues: “. . . and he lifted up his eyes and SAW [va’yar] and here! — three people were standing upon him, and he SAW [va’yar] and ran . . .[to bring-them-near and then to feed them].”
First the oak trees themselves and then the three visitors were the visible, see-able presence of God.
How can the Divine Breathing-Spirit of the world become visible in trees? Think about the rustling leaves, quivering as the wind rushes from them, in them, into them. Quivering as the trees breathe out what we breathe in (oxygen), and then breathe in what we breathe out (carbon-dioxide). This is the rhythm of life upon our planet. As we open our eyes to this rush of breath, we see God.
And it was not till Abraham saw God breathing in these oak trees that Abraham was able to see God breathing in human beings.
Then he and Sarah acted to affirm this holiness by feeding God who of course is never visible except in all that is around us — that is, is ALWAYS visible if we open our eyes. Feeding God by feeding human beings — sharing with earthy human beings the abundance of the earth.
And in response, the human beings who were God’s messengers (“angelos” is simply Greek for “messenger”) told Abraham and Sarah that they would, after all, have a child.
Once Abraham had deeply seen the interbreathing of all life as God, he more deeply saw the intertwining of adam and adamah, the earthy humus and the human earthlings, that feeds us all and celebrates the One. Not till he saw God in this body of earth-human interchange could his and Sarah’s bodies intertwine to seed new life.
(Till then, Sarah had been an “akarah” – a “root” without a sprouting. Perhaps it was not she who was barren; perhaps her rootedness needed some new quickening in Abraham, this vision more connected to the earth, to make her root more fruitful.)
So if this story honors the first expression of Eco-Judaism (and maybe eco-Christianity and eco-Islam, all born of Abraham’s vision), we should honor this story by opening our eyes to it.
Look closely at a tree, at grass. Sniff at its leaves, breathing life into it and out of it. Pray not to the tree but to the whispering, rustling Breath that enters it and leaves it.
Promise to sustain it. Act to sustain it.
THE COVENANT OF REVELATION
From “The Holy Beggars’ Gazette” Vol. 2 No. 3 House of Love and Prayer, San Francisco CA, 1973
The Torah says “vayera elav” and G-d revealed Himself to him. Usually it says G-d spoke to Abraham, G-d spoke to Moses. Here it says va’yeira, He revealed. If I meet a friend and I have to tell him something very important we are not real true friends yet. If I just want to see you even if I really have nothing special to tell you, I just love you and I want to see you. Before Abraham entered into the covenant with G-d, G-d spoke to him when He had something to say. After the covenant G-d said, “I really have nothing special to tell you, let’s just look at each other. I want to reveal Myself to you,”
This is very deep. Some people are in contact with G-d, but the only contact is when they have something to tell G-d, or G-d has something to tell them. It is a stock exchange that is going on. It’s the highest, holiest stock there is, but it is still on the level of business. Being in the covenant with G-d means the relationship with G-d has nothing to do with anything in the world. It doesn’t depend on anything.
Sometimes you meet little people who really know there is one G-d. They do everything right and good and sweet, but their knowing of G-d is only that they know exactly what G-d wants of them at four o’clock, at five o’clock at eleven o’clock. They know everything exactly, but G-d never revealed Himself to them. They may know G-d’s will, but not G-d. Wants are just a manifestation of self. There is something beyond wanting. If your deepest depths which are beyond wanting are a vessel for G-d, then G-d reveals Himself. If your relationship to G-d is only to doing His will, which is very holy, then G-d tells you His will.
Being in the covenant with G-d is beyond will, beyond wanting, beyond everything. If you enter a covenant with G-d it means your entire being is turned to G-d and, so to speak, G-d turns to you also.
The Talmud says it was the third day after circumcision and Abraham, being an old man already, was a little bit sick. It is really beautiful how the Midrash says, “Why did G-d come to see him? G-d came to visit the sick.” How do friends visit each other? How do people console each other? People came to visit me when I was sick. They would say, “You think you have back trouble? I had back trouble, and my aunt had back trouble, and you should have seen … This is not consolation. It is even worse if more people are sick. What kind of consolation is that?
G-od said to the prophet Isaiah nachamu, nachamu ami. “Console, console my people.” Could you please console my people with consolation? Do not console My people with other tragedies. How does G-d come to console people? He doesn’t tell them anything. When G-d visits Abraham to visit the sick He doesn’t say anything. He just sits there, He reveals Himself to Abraham, I am here.
Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *
Save my name, email, and website in this browser for the next time I comment.
Notify me of follow-up comments by email.
Notify me of new posts by email.