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The Good and the Bad of Vayerah

Rabbi Mike

     A cousin of mine once pointed out to me why, in his very uninformed opinion, many synagogues are struggling to day for membership and attendance.  “What we need is more current events, more commentary on contemporary issues.  No one cares about the ancient texts such as the Bible.”  Others argue that what is needed is authenticity, an encounter and relationship with those very texts that my cousin thinks are passé.  In other words, do people want timeliness or timelessness?  I think both sides are valid, and I think that part of the challenge of rabbis and Jewish educators is to engage our congregants and our students with our sacred texts while exploring how they speak to our situation today.  At times it is easier said than done.  Often the connection is obvious to me; other times not so much.

     In the Torah portion from last week (Lech L’cha) and this week’s portion (Vayerah) the connections are manifold.  This week we turn our attention to Vayerah, which is a very rich parashah. It deals with the latter part of Abraham’s life, moving swiftly from one narrative to the next.  There are some very positive elements in the portion, as others that are troubling to our modern sensibilities, to say the least. 

     Among the positives:  Abraham and Sarah are the paradigms for hachnasat orchim (hospitality) when they welcome the three stranger/messengers to their tent.  Abraham, the very first “Jew,” as it were, bargains, or argues, with God to spare the innocent when God wants to destroy of Sodom and Gomorrah.  In this he is the model for the rich Jewish tradition of arguing with God. The birth of Isaac, a fulfillment of God’s promise to Sarah that she would have a child. 

On the other hand, Vayerah is filled with violence, and not just the obvious violence of the aforementioned destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the implicit violence of Akedat Yitzhak, the binding of Isaac.  Additionally, as Judith Plaskow highlights in her commentary in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, there are numerous incidents of violence against women:

·        Lot’s offering his daughters to the people of Sodom in an effort to spare the men ---“Do with them as you please.”  

·        Abraham’s seeking to pass off Sarah as his sister in order to protect himself.  Sarah’s potential rape by Avimelech, king of Gerar, is averted by a divinely sent dream.  This is the second “wife-sister” incident with Abraham; it occurs once again with Isaac and Rebecca.

·        Violence against Hagar in expelling her and Ishmael from the household in order to assure Isaacs inheritance. Sadly in this case Sarah is the initiator here, with Abraham being the willing enforcer.

·        Certainly in the account of the Akedah, or the “binding of Isaac,” Abraham’s taking Isaac to the mountain to sacrifice him according God’s command without saying a word to Sarah was a complete failure of spousal trust, a complete disregard for her love for her son, and hence a form of emotional abuse. 

     In our time when sexual abuse and sexual harassment are very much in the news, the connection between the timeless Torah and the timeliness of our day is readily apparent.  Sadly, in our supposedly enlightened era, violence against women, particularly by powerful men abusing their power, continues unabated.   Famous examples abound--Bill Cosby, Bill O’Reilly, Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump,to name but a few--as well as the abusers of countless “#MeToo’s.”

We always need to be careful in judging and evaluating biblical texts in light of our contemporary values and sensibilities.  Obviously it was a very different world, and the status of women was radically different than today’s Western world.  Still, these narratives are extremely troubling to us, and it is striking to see so many examples of abuse in one parashah, as well as the similarities between then and now—the timeless and the timely.

     Plaskow asserts, “This Torah portion makes clear that our ancestors are by no means always models of ethical behavior that edify and inspire us. On the contrary, often the Torah holds up a mirror to the ugliest aspects of human nature and society. It provides us with opportunities to look honestly at ourselves…, to reflect on destructive patterns of human relating, and to ask how we might address and change them.”

     Speaking of progressive change, Martin Luther King, Jr., famously said, “[T]he arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” [King was apparently quoting Reverend Theodor Parker.]  From Vayerah to our own time.  King’s moral arc moves excruciatingly slowly.  We cannot complete the task, but neither are we free to desist from the work of bringing justice and dignity to women and to all of the vulnerable in our midst.  May each of us do our part to move that moral arc in the right direction.

Fri, December 15 2017 27 Kislev 5778