Elizabeth Stern

Shabbat shalom!  Today’s Torah reading, Vayyera, is a sweeping one that encompasses Abraham’s bargaining with God about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the story of Lot and his family, the encounter with King Abimelech, the visitation of the angels to Abraham’s tent to tell him that his wife will give birth to a son, the birth of Isaac, the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael, and the binding of Isaac.  In its honesty it shows us the wrinkles in our patriarchs’ characters – for example, Abraham’s cowardice in telling Abimelech that Sarah is his sister – as well as their outstanding qualities.

Unable to deal with all of these topics, I am going to concentrate on just two, one) Abraham’s argument with God, and two) God’s care for all his creations as illustrated in today’s reading by His rescue of Hagar and Ishmael and His promise to make Ishmael a great nation and His demand that His people provide equal care to all as carried out by both Abraham and Lot in their treatment of their visitors.  

Before I go there I want to tell you that Ted and I recently attended several excellent lectures by Daniel Leger at Congregation Dor Hadash on Jewish ethics.  Much of his material was taken from two volumes of A Code of Jewish Ethics (a third volume is in the making) by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, upon which I am going to draw heavily.

Abraham’s Bargaining with God

God is willing to listen to man, what an amazing idea!  “Wilt thou indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?  ….That be far from Thee….Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justly? (Gen.  XVIII: 25) Abraham questions God, and God hears Abraham’s argument and shows his justice by agreeing to save Sodom and Gomorrah if only ten good citizens can be found. We see not only the exquisite character of Abraham but also the willingness of God to pardon.  So too at a later date during the sojourn in the desert when Moses takes up the case of the Hebrews after they have created the golden calf God relents as well.  Last but not least Jonah argues with God about the fate of the citizens of Nineveh, and God deigns to explain himself.

So, if man can dare to argue with God, how much more so can – and should –man argue with secular rulers when he deems that they are doing wrong.  No wonder that Jews have been in the forefront of so many social upheavals such as the Russian revolution, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Save Darfur Coalition among others.  Love and care for one’s country does not mean that one cannot criticize it.   On the contrary, one must do so.

Abraham’s and Lot’s Treatment of strangers

When the men (who turn out to be angels) come to Abraham’s and Lot’s tent and house respectively, they are treated with utmost deference and care.  Lot even offers up two of his virgin daughters to the rowdies who come to harm Lot’s guests rather than open his door and allow his guests to be harmed.  In other words in keeping with God’s care for all his children, good treatment of strangers is an integral part of human decency.

God loves all humankind and his care extends to all his creations, not just to the Jews.  As Rabbi Telushkin points out, all humans are descended from Adam and Eve, and because they are created in God’s image, all human life has special value.  We have seen in today’s reading how God protects Hagar and Ishmael.  So too when Jonah complains about the death of a plant that shaded him, God responds “You cared about the plant …which appeared overnight. …and should I not care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than  a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left? (X: 11)

Thus as the Biblical commands stipulate, God demands that same care for the “Other” on the part of the Jews as well.  Of the many Biblical commands regarding the treatment of non-Jews I have chosen just two: “You shall not wrong a stranger [the Hebrew word ger, that is, the non-Jew] or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus XXII: 2, 20), and “The stranger who resides with you shall be as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself.” (Leviticus XiX: 34). The reminder of the Hebrews’ servitude in Egypt requires that we learn from our own suffering not to inflict it on others. Unfortunately as Telushkin points out, too often we do just the opposite, seemingly forgetting from where we have come.  Interestingly whereas in English the word “strangers” is related to “strange,” and thereby implies that they are not one of us (which makes it easier to look upon them as less than human or enemies), the word “ger,” on the other hand, derives from a root meaning to dwell among and thus brings them closer to us if not indeed citizens. (Telushkin, A Code of Jewish Ethics, Vol. II, pp. 267-8).

I would like to give you one more quotation, this one from Isaiah that again shows God’s love for all his creations.  Prophesizing a more peaceful future world he says “…In that day Israel shall be a third partner with Egypt and Assyria as a blessing on earth: for the Lord of Hosts will bless them, saying “Blessed be my people Egypt, my handiwork Assyria, and my very own Israel. (XIX; 23-25)’”

That day can’t come soon enough!

When I decided to speak today, I wondered how I could connect this Sidrah to our Kiddush celebration.  It occurred to me that although Ted is not quite as old as Abraham was when the angels brought him the news that Sarah would bear a son, he, and I as well, are certainly up there.  And lastly, the Parshah says “Sarah laughed,” I dare say first with incredulity but then again with joy.  While I confess to you that I am not pregnant, I too am laughing with joy, first of all because we have reached our sixtieth anniversary but also because after a year of illness I have been restored to health.  I am delighted to invite you all to share our happy occasion.   Shabbat shalom!