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Parashat Vayera

November 6, 2020
19 Cheshvan 5781
Parashat Vayera
Genesis 18:1 - 17:27

Dear Friends,

Over 80 years ago, an organized pogrom happened across the sea; attention was briefly paid and then life continued as though it was but a blip. After all, it affected only a small percentage of the population, despite the fact that over 250 houses of worship were set ablaze, store windows were smashed, and men taken into custody in an act of government sanctioned terror.

One might think we would never let something like this ever happen again, but it keeps happening -- never exactly the same, but again and again. Our human capacity for hate and fear of the other that leads to acts of violence seems to be part of who and what we are as Homo sapiens. It breaks my heart over and over again. The verse from Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” rings in my head: When will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?

Maybe we need to relearn this lesson over and over again. In every generation, our capacity for cruelty is revealed and in every generation our task remains the same. We must first fight this capacity within ourselves, and then go out to combat it in others. It is our actions that matter.

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayera, there are a multitude of ways in which we can learn to be our best selves even after we get it wrong at first blush. The story that stands out for me at this moment is the story of Abraham arguing for the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. After he argues on their behalf, we learn how truly terrible the city is -- a place where strangers are not only unwelcome, but also fair game for sexual abuse. Luckily, the strangers in question have powers and are more than able to defend themselves (Genesis 18:17-19:11).

We could make a case that Abraham knew about the character of the people in those cities; after all, he fought alongside them in battle and had to deal with the rapacious desires of the king of Sodom in the aftermath of their victory. Yet, even knowing what he knew, he still took a stand on their behalf. What did he see? What did he know that he dared to confront God’s wishes? 

We recently heard the story of Jonah at Yom Kippur and how the people of Nineveh repented. Maybe our task is to always believe in the possibility for change and renewal. Could it be that the possibility was what Abraham hoped for? After all, he was the one who taught us about hospitality towards strangers, not through his words but through his actions: from washing the feet of his dusty guests to feeding them a sumptuous meal.

Maybe this possibility is why, embedded in our morning prayers beyond being grateful for the ability to awaken each morning, we are reminded of our responsibility toward others -- the widow, the orphan, the sick, and the stranger in our midst. Even as we are grateful for the blessing of our lives, we are enjoined to live in a community, caring for others beyond ourselves. Maybe, maybe if we remind ourselves each day and share that message of responsibility communal with others, we can put out the fires that rage today.

On this Friday, when I think of my mother telling her story of Kristallnacht to generations of Hebrew School students, I am filled with light and hope. L’dor v’dor: from generation to generation, we tell our stories, not to dwell on the pain, but on how it is possible to go on and bring light into the world. Our job is to continue doing the work, not to complete it.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Linda Shrienr-Cahn

Tue, April 13 2021 1 Iyyar 5781