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Vayera: Eyes Wide Open

"Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”" (Bereshit/Genesis 18:25)

Continuing the trend of parshiyot in Genesis being utterly packed with content, in Vayera ("and he appeared"), three mysterious strangers visit Abraham, Abraham gets all up in the face of the creator of the universe about destroying the Cities of the Plain because there might be innocent people there, two mysterious strangers visit Lot, Lot... sort of mildly protests that perhaps a small village near Sodom shouldn't be destroyed because he would like to live somewhere not that far from where he was before, his wife gets salty over the whole thing, his daughters get him drunk and get pregnant by him, Abraham passes Sarah off as his sister again to avoid being endangered by a king who turns out to seem like a pretty nice guy, Isaac is born, Hagar gets kicked out, there's some arguing over wells, and last--but not least--we get the Akedah/binding of Isaac.

Rembrandt, Abraham's Sacrifice
Rembrandt, Abraham's Sacrifice

There's so much to talk about here that yet again it's hard to pick a few points for a blog entry. The ones that stick out to me the most at this particular moment are the following:

  • Much is made of Abraham's radical hospitality to the messengers/angels, which is great. It's paired, however, with an act of tragic inhospitality--casting out a dependent slave and her young child. Abraham is willing to argue--with a being of infinite power, no less--for the sake of cities he doesn't even live in, but is apparently unwilling to argue with his wife for the sake of the mother of one of his children. It's another example of how the Torah eschews the nearly universal human tradition of making founders/important ancestors/leaders out to be paragons and heroes, and instead shows complex pictures of flawed human beings who founded the Jewish people, and, in many cases, noble humans who didn't.

  • At the same time, it's hard to overstate the strength of character and unerring moral instinct that Abraham demonstrates in arguing on behalf of the presumption of innocence for strangers. The fact that he's ultimately factually incorrect doesn't negate the fact that he recognized the potential injustice of blaming every member of a group for the actions of a few. The truth of the matter, however, points to something we're just starting to quantify in social science--the tipping point at which the presence of good people can't influence a toxic community for the better, and instead can only have negative effects on the good members. At what point is it time to acknowledge that we can't change a group and just need to get out?

  • Let's put this one to rest right now: the sin of Sodom wasn't homosexuality, but inhospitality. Midrash makes this especially clear, describing how when visitors came to Sodom, the Sodomites would require that they exchange their money for local coinage onto which the exchanger had etched his or her name. Then everyone would refuse to sell the visitor food. When they died of starvation, the Sodomites would each come and collect the coins with their name from the bodies. A young woman--the last innocent in Sodom other than Lot and his family--couldn't stand the cruelty and snuck some visitors food in the bottom of her water pitcher. When her neighbors found out, they smeared her body with honey and bound her to the roof so that hornets would sting her to death. It was her cries that brought down divine retribution upon the city.

  • This parsha is full of strong female personalities. Sarah's response to divine revelation is to laugh, and yet it's not descent from Abraham, Isaac (as opposed to Ishmael), and Jacob (as opposed to Esau) that's the determining factor in membership in the people of Israel, it's descent from Sarah (as opposed to Hagar), Isaac, and Jacob. Hagar, for her part, is one of the few women who gets direct divine conversation in Genesis, the others being Eve and Rebekah.

Join us at 9:00 am this Saturday for coffee, donuts, and what's always a lively discussion.

Other lenses

Want to know what other Jewish thinkers are saying about this parsha?

Wikipedia has an incredible treasure trove of geekery about the weekly portion, laying out everything from the number of Hebrew letters in the parsha to summaries of classical commentaries. Prepare to go down a very deep rabbithole.

Sefaria is an amazing free resource--an ever-growing library of Jewish texts in both Hebrew and English. In addition to the Hebrew text and translation, it provides the text of most of the classical commentaries (not all of which have been translated... yet). The parsha is one of the first links on the main page.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, does a podcast called Ten Minutes of Torah--perfect for when you're time-constrained. The Union for Reform Judaism has a whole page of resources for the parsha, ranging from beginner's guides to pieces on the contemporary relevance of the portion. The Women of Reform Judaism site has a glorious archive of the entire text of The Torah: A Women's Commentary divided up by parsha.

My Jewish Learning has a summary of the portion, the parsha itself and the haftorah, and commentary.

For a Reconstructionist take, visit Reconstructing Judaism's weekly learning page.

T'ruah, the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, has a weekly d'var that looks at the parsha as a starting point for contemporary political issues.

The World Union for Progressive Judaism has a parsha commentary archive.

Keshet's Torah Queeries page provides commentary from an LGBTQ perspective (search on the portion name).

The Jewish Theological Society (the Conservative Branch seminary) provides weekly commentary at JTS Torah Online.

Yeshivat Maharat, the first Orthodox yeshiva to ordain women, has a collection of Divrei Torah written by women and organized by parsha, on its site.

Limmud, a 35-year-old grassroots Jewish learning event that started in the UK and has become an international phenomenon, maintains an archive of commentaries.

Liberal Judaism's Thought for the Week provides concise but thoughtful analysis of the portion.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi Emeritus of England, engages in profound commentary on the weekly portion in Covenant & Conversation.

InterfaithFamily puts out an animated Torahlog including contemporary reactions, poetry, folk music, and Jewish scholarship on the parsha.

The Jewish Renewal movement's site maintains an archive of commentary. Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, the Velveteen Rabbi--an author and Jewish Renewal rabbi--does commentary on her site.

The #parshachat hashtag on Twitter marks a constantly-running social media conversation on the parsha.

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