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Dan Has Questions About Responses and Possibilities: Parshat Vayera

11/10/2022 08:04:56 AM


Dan Leemon

This week's Parshah Vayera, continues the story of our ancestors Abraham and Sarah. Vayera means "and he appeared", and the parshah begins with God appearing to Abraham to see how he's doing. Abraham is sitting outside his tent on a warm day, and sees three strangers, whom he rushes to greet, offering them water, food, and a chance to rest and wash their feet. One of the men tells them that they will have a son a year later. We talked last week about not know too much about Abraham and why he was chosen by God to be the first of the Jewish people. One of the students hoped that it was because he was kind - and this appears to be the case.

If you suddenly showed at Abraham and Sarah's tent, what kindness would you want them to show you?

- And what might you be able to do in return?

God then tells Abraham that the people in the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (S'dom and Amorah in Hebrew) have become evil, and God has decided to destroy the cities. Abraham questions God, saying "and will you destroy the righteous along with the wicked people?" And they begin a bargaining session: God agrees that if there are 50 righteous people in the cities, then the cities will be spared. Abraham continues negotiating and God ultimately agrees that the cities will be spared if there are only 10 righteous people there.

How has God's attitude toward people improved from the story of Noah and the ark?

- If God is so powerful, was Abraham right to argue? What does this tell you about Abraham?

- Why does God agree to compromise with Abraham? What might God be trying to show Abraham - or those of us who read this story?

- If you could argue with God about something, what would it be?

Unfortunately, there aren't even 10 righteous people in the cities. But Lot, Abraham's nephew, lives there with his family. Two angels go to warn Lot that the cities are about to be destroyed. Lot welcomes them hospitably, as Abraham did, but Lot is reluctant to leave despite the warning. He eventually leaves, and the angels warn him to hurry and not to look back. Unfortunately, Lot's wife looks back as the cities are being consumed by fire, and she turns into a pillar of salt. (Fun fact: There's a pillar of salt near the Dead Sea that's nicknamed "Lot's Wife".)

Have you ever had to leave something behind that you loved - moving out of a home, or having to get rid of something you treasured? How did it feel? Was it better to do it quickly, or to linger?

Toward the end of the parshah - after a few more adventures of Lot, Abraham, and Sarah - we have two rather troubling episodes. First: Abraham is 100 years old, and Sarah is 90, and, as God had promised, Sarah has a child, who is named "Isaac" (in Hebrew, "Yitzchak", from the Hebrew root word for laughter - because Sarah laughed at the idea of having a child at her age). Now you'll recall that, back when Sarah was sure she would never have children, she encouraged Abraham to have a child with her maid, Hagar, and that child was named "Ishmael." And you may also recall that there has been conflict between Sarah and Hagar, which surfaces again here. Sarah decides she does not want Ishmael and Hagar in the household. The Torah isn't clear as to why - there's some indication that Ishmael misbehaved and was a bad influence, and also the implication that Sarah just doesn't want Ishmael to inherit anything from Abraham. Abraham is very upset by this, but God assures him that he should do as Sarah wishes and send Hagar and Ishmael away, telling Abraham that Ishmael will become the ancestor of another great people. Abraham reluctantly agrees and sends them away. Hagar finds herself in the desert with Ishmael, who is soon dying of thirst. Hagar leaves him, as she cannot watch him die. But God "lifts up Hagar's eyes" and shows her a well nearby, and promises her that Ishmael will be the father of a great nation. And so Hagar and Ishmael survive an move on. 

What do you think of how Abraham handled this situation? Would you have done something different if you were he?

Here is the second, and even more troubling, story: God calls Abraham's name and Abraham replies "Hineni" - a Hebrew word which literally means, "here I am", but which we interpret to mean "I am here, paying attention, and ready to do what you need me to do". God tells Abraham to take Isaac up to a nearby hilltop and kill him as a sacrifice to God. The Torah tells us that God is "trying" Abraham - that this is some kind of test. They go up to the mountain. Isaac sees that they are preparing to make a sacrifice to God, but that there is no animal to sacrifice. Isaac calls out "father" to Abraham, to ask him what they are going to sacrifice, and Abraham replies "Hineni", just as he did when God called his name.

What do you think Abraham might have been feeling (responding "hineni" to both God and Isaac)?

- Why do you think Abraham did not question God as he did about Sodom and Gomorrah and about casting out Hagar and Ishmael?

Abraham is all ready to sacrifice Isaac when an angel calls to him from heaven and Abraham again responds, "Hineni". The angel stops him from killing Isaac, saying "I see that you truly fear God because you were willing to do this." God "lifts up Abraham's eyes" and Abraham sees a ram, caught by its horns in a tree, and sacrifices the animal instead.

What do you think of this "test"? Did Abraham pass it, or fail it?

- What do you make of Abraham's persistent response of "Hineni" - to God, to Isaac, to the angel ("I am here, paying attention, ready to do what you need me to do")? What does it tell you about Abraham?

- Is it good to "fear" God?

- Think about the rest of the Torah - how we are saved from slavery in Egypt, all the commandments we are given to do good deeds and be good people? What other verbs besides "fear" describe how we might feel about God?

Two concepts recur in this parshah. The first, as mentioned, is the word "Hineni". The second is the idea that people in difficult situations are not seeing the possibilities around them - Hagar doesn't see the well, Abraham doesn't see the ram.

- Do you ever respond "Hineni" or its equivalent in English? When is it good to respond "Here I am, ready willing, and able? Are there times when you should respond more cautiously?

- Are there times when you get "stuck" in a difficult situation and don't see the possibilities around you? What advice would you give Hagar and Abraham - or yourself - about making sure you consider possibilities that might not be obvious?

With much to contemplate, I wish you a Shabbat Shalom and a week ahead of being responsive and seeing new possibilities. 


Wed, December 7 2022 13 Kislev 5783