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Vayera – Go to Uncertainty Be a Blessing

10/26/2021 04:49:28 PM


Rabbi Nat Ezray


Judaism begins with a journey into the unknown. The first Jews, Abraham and Sarah leave everything that is familiar – their homeland, their families of origin, their native culture, their habits of mind – and journey to a new and unknown land. Think about the implication to us of a religion rooted in journey into the unknown. We too are called to embrace uncertainty and go on our own unique journey.

Journeying to one’s own truth is not always as easy as it sounds. In her book The Wisdom of Not Knowing, Estelle Frankel writes: “Venturing into the unknown, as we know, is risky, and there are many forces, both internal and external, that will try to stop us in our tracks when we defy the status quo or break with convention.”

The power of our tradition beginning with a journey into uncertainty is that we are called to really listen to our inner voice and internal wisdom; in Frankel’s words “the delicate whisperings of the divine soul within that continually urge us to become who we are meant to be.” Abraham and Sarah’s message to us is to listen to our inner voice; for “every step we take into the unknown creates new ground upon which our lives may unfold.” It is the gate that unlocks wisdom and courage.

Abraham and Sarah’s story gives guidance, direction, and a mindset to successfully navigate uncertainty. In last week’s portion, Abraham and Sarah are told that journey should be seen through the lens of the blessing: Veh'yay b'rachabe a blessing. (p. 70, Genesis 14:2) Journey into unknown is rooted in an ethic of chesed, lovingkindness. When our journeys emanate from being a blessing with every fiber of our being we come to our best selves.

This week’s portion, Vayera, brings example after example of being a blessing. Look at the very beginning. God is visiting Abraham and Abraham notices three strangers passing by the tent. (p. 99) Abraham breaks away from a moment of communion with God in order to welcome the strangers into his and Sarah’s home. The Rabbis look at this and teach that hospitality is greater than welcoming the Divine Presence (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 127a)! Jewish tradition imagines that Abraham and Sarah opened their tent on all sides so that they could welcome any stranger who might pass by. Look at the language in this section (p. 100); it is verb after verb; he runs, he greets, he bows.  He pleads with them not to pass by. He rushes to bring them water and to feed them. As we embark on a journey to follow our inner calling–we too do so in the context of being a blessing. The impact ripples. As Abraham and Sarah create a new society and religion–it is based on love and generosity.

As we follow the example of Abraham and Sarah, we too discover the transforming impact of opening our hearts and homes to others. We discover that as we encounter the stranger–the person we don’t know from a different background, we open ourselves to new ideas and experiences. We open ourselves up to the possibility of change and evolution and imagine alternatives to the status quo. The story intentionally contrasts Abraham and Sarah’s openness to strangers with the people of Sodom and Gemorrah who persecute, threaten, and reject strangers in the next story. 

In our origin story there is scene after scene of Abraham acting on the imperative to be a blessing. When his nephew Lot is kidnapped, Abraham goes and rescues him. When there is dispute over land, Abraham teaches that blessing means compromise and seeking peace. This ethic of being a blessing–and knowing what that means in every situation we encounter–becomes the lens through which we view the world.  

          Did you hear about the fires in Israel this August? As California was burning–so too was Israel. It was one of the biggest wildfires in Israel’s history–thousands of acres burned–in many ways parallel to what we experienced. 2,000 people evacuated their homes and Ali Salam, the mayor of the predominantly Arab city of Nazareth asked residents to open their homes to Jewish families fleeing the fire. He shared that he did this not only because he believes in coexistence and want us to live together–but because he saw their humanity and suffering and wanted the families to have peace and feel at home. Michal Ben Yehuda, an ultra-Orthodox Jew who fled her home in the religious town of Kiryat Ye’arim talked about what it meant to be welcomed in Nazareth. She arrived anxious and exhausted–unsure whether her house would survive the blaze. She recounted: “From the moment we got here, we received from all the residents, restaurants, and people such warm and touching treatment; it is not taken for granted.  We are very moved about what is happening here.” To which Mayor Salam said, “No need to say thank you. You are one of us, we are together and we will continue together; we are family and we will continue as family.” When a journey is defined by chesed, we see what might be. Potential and possibility unlock. Peace will only emerge from face-to-face contact and finding the humanity in one another.

          As we explore Abraham’s journey to uncertainty-his essence amidst the commandment to be a blessing, there is another detail in the story which guides us as we search for our inner voice. Abraham’s journey is defined by asking questions. Questions have the power to open previously locked doors and to reveal the inner meaning of things.  In this week’s portion Abraham continually questions and challenges God. When God consults Abraham about plans to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham asks hard questions (Genesis 18:23, 25, p. 103), “Will you kill the righteous along with the wicked? Shall not the judge of all the land be just?” Abraham’s questions–even more than God’s answers resonate with us as we go on our personal journey. From this origin story comes a tradition of asking questions. We question everything–from the ways of the divine to why we recline at the Seder. It is through questions that we discover who we are meant to be, allow relationships to deepen, and create the foundation to grow in unexpected ways.  

Abraham’s stories teach us to find our authentic truths, to be a blessing and ask questions to lead us on our journey. We also learn from moments in the story where Abraham behaves in ways that are clearly not a blessing. Like Abraham and Sarah, we too are imperfect and it is as we confront our mistakes and our heroes’ flaws–we come closer to the blessing we are called to become.

I realize I was pulled to the book The Wisdom of Not Knowing because not knowing is very difficult for me. Especially during the pandemic, the ongoing uncertainty has caused anxiety and worry. As I have revisited Abraham and Sarah’s journey with you, it is with the hope that we can take from their courage and walk together into uncertainty defined as Abraham and Sarah were by their deepest core values. Being a blessing and opening our hearts to the unexpected ripples that emerge give us strength, wisdom, and purpose. May we each define every day what it means to be a blessing as we find the courage to navigate the uncertainty in our life.

Tue, May 30 2023 10 Sivan 5783