Parashat Vayera: A Dead Sea Story

Image: The Dead Sea (Photo by Matthijs van der Ham from Pixabay)

Once upon a time, in the middle of the wilderness, there was a beautiful green valley.  The valley was green because a river flowed through the valley, from the mountains in the North to a lake in the South.   It was the most fertile place for miles around; food and flowers grew there, and the river and lake were full of fish.   It was no surprise that many people wanted to live in that place.  Anyone who passed by would take a look at it, and say, wow, I want to live there

The people in those towns in the valley knew it was a wonderful place, and they wanted to take care of it. They thought that they would keep it beautiful and happy by outlawing anyone who wasn’t beautiful or happy.  They especially didn’t want poor people to stick around, and so they passed a law saying that it was a crime to give any help to poor people.  They didn’t like strangers, either – so it was the custom in the town to be mean to strangers, so they wouldn’t stay around for long. 

When a poor person or a stranger left the valley, they’d look at each other and nod and say, see, we know how to keep this place nice.

A family came traveling through the valley, a man and his nephew and their wives and households.  They were not poor people, in fact they were very well to do, and they were going to settle down.  The nephew and his wife looked at the valley, and the town, and said, this is a beautiful place – we want to live here!  The uncle and his wife looked at it, and said, well, yes, but the people are not very friendly.  So the party split up, and the nephew, Lot, and his household moved to the valley.  Abram, his uncle, continued traveling, but they stayed in touch. 

Now that I’ve mentioned their names, maybe you recognize the story.  Abram was Abraham our ancestor, and Lot was his nephew the shlmiel.  (A shlmiel is a Yiddish word for a hapless fool, a mediocre sort of guy who can’t ever seem to make a wise choice.)  Lot saw the beautiful rich valley, and he chose to live in Sodom.  The Torah only tells us a little bit about Sodom, that it was a sinful place, but there is midrash that tells the rest of the story, about the law against helping poor people, and the culture of cruelty to strangers.  In the Torah story, God is so angry at the meanness in Sodom and Gemorrah, that God blasts the place with fire.  Abraham tries to bargain with God about it, but in the end, even Abraham cannot save the cities because there are so few good people in them.  Lot has to flee in the night, and loses his wife when she makes the mistake of looking back.

If you visit that valley today – which you can do! – you will not see a beautiful green valley.  You’ll see one of the most desolate places in the entire world, the desert valley around the Dead Sea.  Nothing grows.  The sand and rocks are full of salts that will burn your feet if you walk barefoot.  The water in the Dead Sea is so poisonous that if you swallow even a single mouthful of it you’d have to be rushed to a hospital.  It is so salty that any tiny cut will burn like fire when the water touches it. 

Now you may be asking yourself:  did God really blast a green valley and kill everyone in it because they were mean to poor people and strangers?   Or was the Dead Sea just such a mysterious and dreadful place that our ancestors felt the need to come up with a story about the poisoned land?

My answer to that is that I wasn’t there, and I don’t know, and what’s more, I don’t think it matters.  What I do know is that the story of Sodom and Gemorrah is a powerful story about Jewish values.    It teaches us that hospitality is not a frill, but a core value, a mitzvah.  It teaches us that tzedakah is not just charity, it means justice.  It teaches us that a city that mistreats the weak, a city like Sodom, is a doomed city.

If Sodom is a giant lesson in what NOT to do, the Torah also gives us an example of the way we as Jews are called to live.  Abraham Avinu, Abraham our ancestor, was no fool: he was an astute businessman.  But he did not confuse being “smart” with being cruel.  He ran to greet strangers, to offer them hospitality.  The sages tell us that he and Sarah had a huge tent with open sides, where they welcomed many souls. 

Nothing lives in the Dead Sea.  There are no descendants of Sodom; it only survives as the name of an evil place.  Yet the memory of Abraham is still green, as green as the Torah says the valley was before the sins of Sodom.  Let us, the children of Abraham, keep his memory green, by acting as he did, with kindness and with generosity to all in need.

“The Place That I Will Show You”

Image: Arial view of the Temple Mount in 2007. (Andrew Shiva / Wikipedia, via Wikimedia Commons)

Parashat Vayera is dense with rich narrative.  The portion is packed with famous stories: Abraham’s hospitality, Sarah’s laughter, Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot’s Wife, the birth of Isaac, Sarah’s treatment of Hagar, and the binding of Isaac. We may think we know the stories, but every year there is something to surprise us.

One item caught my eye this year. After Abraham “lifts up his eyes” at the behest of the heavenly voice, he names the place Adonai yireh, “God will see.” Rashi informs us that:

Its real meaning is as the Targum renders it: The Lord will choose and select for Himself this place to make His Shechinah reside in it and for sacrifices to be offered there.

At the beginning of the Abraham narrative, God tells Abraham to go to a place that God would show him. At the beginning of the Binding of Isaac, again, God says “Go to the place I will show you.” Then, when Abraham has finally reached that place, the high point of his story, literally the “high place” of the narrative, Abraham names the place  “God will see.” This marks the centrality of this spot for Abraham’s descendants. This is the mount where the Temple will be built. This is the spot towards which we face for prayer even today.

God will show Abraham the place, then Abraham sees it.

Abraham lifts up his eyes, and “God will see.”

What does God show us, and what do we see?

Is our seeing entwined with God seeing?

Let’s see what our online darshanim have to say about Parashat Vayera:

Mother of Two – Rabbi Eve Posen

How Does God Appear in the World? – Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

The Rush of Resilience; Loving More than Yourself– Rabbi David Evon Markus

Harnessing Holiness – Rabbi Nina J. Mizrahi

The Story of Isaac, in memory of Leonard Cohen z”l – Rabbi Dan Fink

The Miracle of a Child – Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

The Care of Visitors – Rabbi Ruth Adar

Shabbat Shalom! – Vayera

Image: A ram in a thicket. Photo by dennisflarsen via pixabay.com

Parashat Vayera is dense with rich narrative.  The portion is packed with famous stories: Abraham’s hospitality, Sarah’s laughter, Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot’s Wife, the birth of Isaac, Sarah’s treatment of Hagar, and the binding of Isaac. We may think we know the stories, but every year there is something to surprise us.

Let’s see what our darshanim have to say about Parashat Vayera:

The Green-Eyed Monster – Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Lot: a cautionary tale of superficial success and the victimisation of the powerless – Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

Hurry! – Rabbi Jordan Parr

Harnessing Holiness – Rabbi Nina J. Mizrahi

The Story of Isaac, in memory of Leonard Cohen z”l – Rabbi Dan Fink

The Miracle of a Child – Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

The Care of Visitors – Rabbi Ruth Adar

 

 

To Welcome the Stranger

Image: Modern day Bedouin offer us a window into the past. Photo by hbieser on pixabay.com

This article by Rabbi Stephen Fuchs is beautiful, and it is made even more so because it is offered in honor of my friend and teacher, Rabbi Ferenc Raj. Rabbi Raj made me welcome years ago when I was a stranger with a “funny accent” in the Bay Area of California. In the process he taught me by example much about what it means to follow in the tradition of Abraham our father.

Rabbi Fuchs, thank you so much for this wonderful and timely teaching!

Finding Ourselves In Biblical Narratives

Thoughts shared at Kirchengemeinde, Schulensee, Germany, October 9, 2016

(In Honor of Rabbi (Dr.) Ferenć Raj, who has exemplified these ideals throughout his distinguished career)

We Jews are incredibly proud of our Torah! But we never claim that Torah was history’s first Code of Law. There are several that came before. The Code of Hammurabi was the most famous.

But we do claim that Torah was the first code to grant equal protection under the law to the non-citizen. “You shall not oppress the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

It may surprise you to know that this idea, so beautifully read for us this morning, does not appear just once in our Torah nor even twice.

The Torah emphasizes this crucial revolution in human thinking no fewer than 36 times. No other commandment appears so frequently.

We find the roots of this commandment in the…

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Why the Horror Stories in Torah?

Image: Aert de Gelder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Once an Intro student asked me, “Rabbi, some of the stories in the Torah are awful! Can’t we just scissor some of them out?”

After I recovered from the mental image of someone taking scissors to the Torah, I agreed that some of the stories there are truly horrible. Parashat Vayera has some real doozies:

  • Lot offers his virgin daughters to a mob bent upon rape. (Genesis 19)
  • The destruction by fire of two entire cities. (Genesis 19)
  • Abraham tells the King of Egypt that his wife Sarah is his sister, thereby saying, “If you want her, fine by me!” (Genesis 20)
  • Jealous of the servant Hagar’s son by Abraham, Sarah demands that Abraham toss mother and son out to die in the desert. (Genesis 21)
  • Abraham believes that God has told him to go make a human sacrifice of Sarah’s only son. He takes Isaac up to Mt. Moriah and is stopped at the last minute before the kill by another vision.  (Genesis 21)

These stories are ghastly, no doubt about it. It is tempting to turn away from them, or to do what some traditional and modern commentators have done, and try to explain why they are really OK.

There’s another way to engage with these narratives, though: that is to tackle them as the dreadful stories that they are. Biblical scholar Phyllis Trible has done exactly that in her groundbreaking book Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical NarrativeAs the title suggests, she doesn’t try to sugarcoat the horror stories in the Bible; instead, she demands of them “What can we learn here?”

Every generation of Jews encounters these stories anew, and sees new things in them. If you find them off-putting, join the club. While I learned them at a young age and initially simply accepted them, I now think about these cruelties in a different light. Maybe Sodom deserved destruction, but Lot’s daughters? Isaac? Ishmael? Hagar? Sarah? These are brutal stories, and they should raise serious questions within our souls.

The stories aren’t there to say, “Offer your daughters to rape mobs!” They are there to get us to ask, “Why did Lot do such a horrible thing? Did he have other alternatives?” “Should people who hear voices always just go do what the voices tell them, or should they talk with someone – their wife, their rabbi?” They may serve to remind us that Ishmael’s descendants are our cousins, and that my 21st century family is not the first to be dysfunctional.

Those questions are Torah at work upon us. Torah is not merely the words in the scroll; it is also those words at work on our hearts.

Happy studying!