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Parashat Vayera

November 11, 2022
18 Cheshvan 5783
Genesis 18:1 - 22:24

Dear Friends,

Coming to this week’s Torah portion and the observance of Kristallnacht, I am struck by how strongly I am enveloped by my parents and what they said and how they behaved. They were the embodiment of hospitality and, although they lived very much in the present, they shared the experiences of their past so that we, the next generation, would not faced with the same situations again.

This week’s Torah portion, Vayera (and the Divine appeared…), Genesis 18:1 - 22:24, has the Divine appearing over and over again in what may be interpreted as many guises. But this year, it is the first and the last interactions that resonate for me.

The first appearance of the Divine comes at the very beginning of the Torah portion as Abraham is sitting outside his tent recovering from his circumcision at an advanced age. Out of nowhere, three figures appear. Abraham’s response is to actively greet them and make them comfortable. He even goes so far as to wash their feet. He feeds them, provides them with gracious hospitality, and goes out of his way, despite his condition, to make them welcome.

This quality of making people welcome and going out of one’s way to do so is a strong trait in my family, going beyond my parents and including my aunt and uncle. In a family that has known deprivation and severe loss, the ability to be generous and giving is one to be valued. In this portion, Abraham and Sarah are exemplars of audacious hospitality. It Is a quality that we are being asked to embody day after day as we see people in need of homes and shelter. How do we express it? What do we do?

By the end of the Torah portion, the family has experienced multiple traumas, with more to come, including the almost-sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham, the loss of direct communication with God by Abraham, and the imminent death of Sarah far from Abraham. The wounds only begin to heal with the coming of the stranger, Rebecca. What does that have to do with Kristallnacht?

Like the Akedah, the almost sacrifice of Isaac, Kristallnacht was a moment of trauma that we all still carry as we cannot quite comprehend it. It was the beginning of the Shoah, a time when so -called civilized people took pleasure in tearing apart others who had been their neighbors just days earlier. Our capacity for going along unthinkingly and without questioning is something we need to guard against.

We humans are capable of bringing our best selves forward, particularly if we see a need. But it is the other side to willingly obey without question that is the struggle. Do we take the time to ask why? Do we take the time to consider the consequences of our actions and inactions?

We just finished an election and many more participated then was expected, not only by casting votes, but by talking to neighbors, having conversations and donating money. I believe we would all like to be like Abraham when he greets his surprise guests. I also believe that we should ask, why is it necessary to follow without question?

Could it be that this is a lesson for all time? Kristallnacht is a potent reminder that following blindly leads to trauma and destruction. Maybe the way to avert, or at the very least, heal some of the trauma is to welcome in the stranger and through these acts of chesed, of lovingkindness, all have the potential for being healed.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Linda Shriner-Cahn

Tue, October 3 2023 18 Tishrei 5784