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November 15, 2019
17 Cheshvan 5780

Parashat Vayera
Genesis 18:1 - 22:24

Dear Friends,

How do we respond to what lies before us, to what we see, to what we believe? This week’s Torah portion provides some answers in its many episodes.

Parshat Vayera is all about seeing and not seeing that which is right in front of us. It begins with Abraham sitting in front of his tent in God’s presence and having three figures appear seemingly out of nowhere. Followed by hospitality on Abraham and Sarah’s part, the strangers leave a parting gift of prophecy to this old couple, telling them that in one year they will have a long awaited child. As she reflects on what she believes her body is capable of producing at her age, Sarah laughs at this amazing possibility.

This scene is followed by another kind of seeing -- the seeing that comes from looking forward to the consequences of actions. In this case, God intends to destroy the evil cities of Sodom and Gomorrah., information that God shares with Abraham. Abraham is moved to argue with God about the upcoming destruction, ending with God promising that if there are ten good souls, the cities will not be destroyed.

Clearly there are not ten good souls, as Lot, Abraham’s nephew, is told to get his family out of Sodom to escape the upcoming destruction. And we are left with the image of Lot’s wife looking back at her city going up in flames. Even though she was told not to look back, she does, and is turned into a pillar of salt. Sometimes, we simply need to go forward and not look back. We often view those who are unable to look forward as being frozen in the past.

Then we move to the story that quickly follows the birth of Isaac, where Ishmael and Hagar (Sarah’s handmaid) are cast out of Abraham’s home. We are told it is because sixteen-year-old Ishmael has behaved in a way that Sarah does not approve with young Isaac. The Hebrew word that is used leaves us with a wealth of possibilities, ranging from sexual impropriety to roughhousing to simply playing with Isaac. Whatever Sarah sees, she does not approve, and Hagar and Ishmael leave.

The meager provisions that Abraham provides soon run out and we are told that Hagar places Ishmael under a shrub and keeps herself at a distance so as not to see him suffer. But God hears the boy’s cries and asks Hagar what ails her and tells her that Ishmael’s voice has been heard and to remember previous promises made to her on behalf of her son. We are told that her eyes are opened and she sees a well of water. Once more, we are confronted with an act of vision. Hagar goes from not seeing to seeing. Sometimes, when we are filled with fear and foreboding, we are unable to see the opportunities -- the possibilities that lie right in front of us. We are frozen. Here, unlike Lot’s wife, Hagar is given the opportunity to begin anew and we are told that Ishmael will be the father of multitudes, the forbearer of a great nation.

The final episode of this parsha is filled with metaphors alluding to what is seen and what is hidden. This scene is the (almost) sacrifice of Isaac on Mount Moriah. The name Moriah can be translated as a place of vision or seeing, or as awful or awesome. As the words for awe and vision are closely connected, we may ask -- is this a place where Abraham regains or loses his ability to see or imagine the consequences as he appears to go along with God’s request to sacrifice Isaac?

The thread of vision that runs throughout this Torah portion across its disparate parts come to teach us something of deep import. From Sarah, we learn that allowing our imaginations to run wild and see and hope for what we have always wanted is not a bad thing even if it makes us laugh. From Lot’s wife, we are reminded that looking to the past and being unable to go forward may ossify us. From Hagar, we learn that even when we are beset by fear of the worst thing imaginable, we cannot stop looking for other options and other ways to go forward. After all, unlike Hagar, we won’t be having a conversation with the Divine reminding us to open our eyes and look around.

And finally, what do we learn when we reach the mountaintop, the place of vision, the place that fills us with awe and trembling? What do we see when we come to the end of our journey faced with the most difficult of choices? In this Torah portion, there is a ram caught in a thicket, providing another way. But there are consequences. Abraham and Isaac do not descend the mountain together. Each has had a different vision.

What we see and how we respond to any given crisis or crossroad is a result of the experiences that have led us to that moment. But what our tradition comes to teach us in every instance is to go beyond the obvious, to push ourselves just a little further, so we can see what lies beyond the horizon, giving us hope to continue the journey.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Linda Shriner-Cahn

Sat, September 19 2020 1 Tishrei 5781