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Parashat Vayera

November 3, 2023
19 Cheshvan 5784

Genesis 18:1 - 22:24


Dear Friends,

As I sat outside in the cold looking across the river and enjoying the vision of the leaves changing color, for a short time all seemed right with the world. It was a true moment of blessing and gratitude.

This week’s epic Torah portion Vayera, "and the Divine appeared" (Genesis 18:1 - 22:24), has the Divine appearing over and over again in many guises. The portion begins in a similar fashion with Abraham looking out into the distance. We are not told what he is feeling, but if we fill in the details, we can imagine that it was a moment of gratitude and blessing. But it was just a moment before the action begins. Three strangers seem to appear out of nowhere and Abraham and Sarah’s graciousness as hosts springs into action. The guests have their feet washed and a lavish meal is offered. Then more happens. These two aged individuals are told they will have a child, which leads to laughter (a story for a different time). Then God decides to let Abraham in on his plans for Sodom and Gomorrah. When reading the text, it feels like everything is happening at breakneck speed -- transition after transition after transition.

It is how many of us are feeling right now. We barely catch our breath before something else enters our field of vision. We ask ourselves: where can we find a sense of equilibrium at this moment? how do we regain our sense of security? Seen from this vantage point, Abraham’s ability to negotiate with God for the lives of the people in Sodom and Gomorrah is exemplary. He has just been told that he will father a child in his and his wife’s old age and he puts that news aside to think of others. Due to the way I usually engage with the text, I read it slowly episode by episode, but by changing the tempo of my exploration, new insights appear.

But how are we to make use of them at this moment of darkness, this narrow place over which we seem to have little or no power. In our story we are told that the protagonist is quite old and yet he has the inner resources to take on a number of different challenges both mental and physical. The question that I am left with is how did he access his inner strength to be gracious, reflective and caring in rapid succession.

What was it in Abraham that gave him the inner strength? If we say that it was his relationship with God, it is of little help to us, as few of us have the kind of relationship with the Divine that Abraham is described as having. What else could it be? When we learn about Abraham and Sarah, we are told over and over again that their radical hospitality should serve as a model to future generations. We ask the rabbis: what it is it about the process of welcoming strangers that has the capacity to strengthen us? What is it about caring about others that has the capacity to elevate us?

In these past weeks, the most heartening news that I have received from Israel is the way in which people are there for one another. No matter what account you read of what is happening within the country, you cannot escape the fact that the people are there for one another, stretching themselves in so many ways, all the while experiencing deep pain. I suggest that the ability to aid one another, especially without a strong governmental infrastructure, is a way of assuaging the pain of the moment. It is also a powerful reminder that we can only do what we can in a particular moment. We are living in a time when things are happening quickly all around us and the challenge is not to lose our humanity in the process.

On October 13th, a wedding took place in Israel. It was not as grand as originally planned. It was held in the backyard, few were invited, and the hope was that the three sons would be able to get leave to be present at their sister’s wedding. It was be simple. Instead, people showed up with food, flowers, and musical instruments. A wedding planned to be small and music free wound up bringing the family together for a moment of joy in the midst of pain, when both blessing and gratitude were in the air.

Oh, did I forget to mention? Abraham was sitting outside his tent recovering from his circumcision, or so the rabbis tell us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Linda Shriner-Cahn

Wed, May 22 2024 14 Iyyar 5784