Weekly Torah: Vayera

Who is a Stranger? (5777/2016)

In Biblical Hebrew, Hagar’s name means the “stranger,” “foreigner,” “immigrant,” or “transient.” When her employer, Sarah, banishes her from the household, many readers scold her mistress Sarah for rejecting the stranger. But Sarah never criticizes Hagar’s foreignness.

Only the narrator makes a big deal of Hagar’s foreignness. And only to show how quickly it can fade. In describing Hagar’s encounter with the angel of God, the narrator contrasts the root ger (immigrant, transient) with the root shuv (dwell, settle). We see Hagar’s own process of moving from foreigner to settler.

“She settled (teshev) across [from her son]…she settled down (teshev) across…the angel of God called to the transient (Hagar)…saying ‘what’s bothering you, transient (Hagar)?…the youth grew up and settled (vayeshev) in the wilderness…he settled (vayeshev) in the wilderness of Paran” (Gen 21:16-21).

Perhaps: Hagar knows that transience is not safe for her or for her son. The lack of security bothers her. After losing her place in Sarah’s household, Hagar determines to put down roots. Her decision is fulfilled in the next generation, as her son is settled and accepted.

How long does it take to shed foreignness? Ideally, says Torah, a mere two generations. You plan, let go of fear, learn a trade, find an open space; your children become a useful part of the scene.

But today – this week, this month – this common human process has become a magnet for grievances. All social problems will be solved, people imagine, if foreigners disappear. But who is a foreigner? In the frenzy, third-generation settlers reject second-generation settlers. Fourth-generation settlers reject thousand-generation, now Indigenous, people. The angriest among us cannot even tell who is who. Reason – and revelation – would suggest a different way of solving problems.


QuestionsBinding Questions (2015/5776)

The story of Akedat Yitzchak — the Binding of Isaac– does not make sense (Gen. 22:1-19). God has fulfilled a promise; Abraham has satisfied a lifelong yearning. Abraham is now a father. Yet God asks Abraham to harm the child, and Abraham prepares to comply.

As a teaching story, it’s designed to twist our hearts. To push us into self-reflection as we cry out with questions, moving from the story’s characters to ourselves. Who is God? Who is Abraham? Who are we?

Who is God? What sort of spiritual forces move us? When do we feel we hear God’s voice? When we are loved? When we yearn for peace? When we feel guided by ethical principles? When a powerful, creative, boundary-breaking impulse overwhelms us? What sort of divine guidance do we hope for?

Who is Abraham? Who are our spiritual role models? Do we place some people on pedestals, expecting perfection? Do we imagine individuals so resilient that nothing can wound their souls? Do we have compassion for one another’s odd frailties? Do we understand that the most scarred among us might be the greatest channels of spiritual healing?

Who are we? How do we evaluate ourselves? Do we trust that our hearts and minds are prepared for life’s challenges? Or do we wonder: what would we do if we were really tested? If so, do we run towards or away from those tests?

Life is filled with tests – tests of values, mission, character. In real life, absolute values cannot be lived absolutely. Sometimes we orient our whole lives along a path, and the road suddenly closes. What qualities of thought and feeling will guide us?


condiments - assortedThe Condiments Mitzvah (2013/5774)

Each year, before Passover, I take a critical look at my refrigerator. Especially at the shelf on the inside of the door, which has accumulated jars of relish, mustard, ketchup, marinade, salsa and horseradish. What a sign of wasteful affluence, I think. Today, however, I have changed my mind.

To feed his guests, Torah says, “Avraham took a bull, tender and good” (Genesis 18:7). Our Talmudic sages ask: Why does Torah add two adjectives to the noun “bull”? Rav says: Avraham took three bulls. Rav Hanan bar Rava says: Avraham fed his guests three tongues with mustard (Bava Metzia 86b).

Though I imagine Avraham’s New York Style Deli at Mamre, another Talmudic passage explains the symbolic significance of the meal. Rav Chisda says: The priestly portions of meat are to be eaten roasted with mustard. An editorial voice adds: Torah describes priests as anointed. Kings, who are anointed, eat roast meat with mustard (Chullin 132b).

Still, I’m not the only modern American reader to embrace the deli interpretation. Rabbi Yissocher Frand asks: If we would not expect to find pickle relish in the refrigerator of a great contemporary spiritual leader, why did Avraham Avinu have mustard in his refrigerator? Rabbi Avraham Pam, z”l answers: Avraham is a giant of kindness. Although he does not need mustard, the average guest coming down the road does want mustard. Avraham feels that he must be prepared for that guest (torah.org).

Rabbi YY Jacobson adds his own midrash based on Hasidic sources: The guest angels were looking for a man of celestial vision, but instead they found someone running around with deli meat and mustard. They then realized that the authentic majesty of human holiness lies in everyday acts (theyeshiva.net).

Such as – I now know – keeping a refrigerator shelf filled with condiments.


Hearing the VOICE (2013/5774)

Sarah is upset. She wants Hagar and Hagar’s son Yishmael out of the household. Avraham resists, upset on behalf of his son Yishmael. But God says, “Whatever Sarah tells you, listen to her VOICE” (Bereisheet/Genesis 21:12).  Avraham banishes Hagar and Yishmael, provisioning them without Sarah’s input, with only bread and water.

When the water runs out, Hagar “raises her VOICE and cries.” (21:16). “God hears the VOICE of the youth” (21:17). An angel calls to Hagar, saying, “Don’t be afraid Hagar, because God has listened to the VOICE of the youth” (21:17). God opens Hagar’s eyes, and she sees a well of water (21:19).

How should we interpret the recurring motif of the VOICE?

Using the classical midrashic interpretive technique of connecting verses (semichut parshiyot), we might connect Sarah’s voice with the angel’s voice. Perhaps Sarah herself is the angel, hiding at the edges of the scene, making sure Hagar and Yishmael are safe, despite Avraham’s meager provisions.

Or we could use another classical midrashic technique of borrowing a gateway verse (petichta) from elsewhere in the Tanakh to open us onto new insight. When Job meets God and is freed from his suffering, he says, “Before I heard about you through hearing; but now I see you with my eyes” (Job 42:5). Job received hints of God’s presence through hearsay, but his true spiritual experience of receiving strength came when he saw God differently.  Perhaps Hagar, too, found her inner well of strength when she saw differently.

What do you know about God through hearsay? What do you know through personal experience? Whose VOICE gets you through hard times? Whose VOICE is with you when you celebrate?


The Ability to Self-Correct (5771/2010)

What makes Sodom such a sinful city?  Torah tells us that the people would gather into a mob to abuse visiting strangers.  Our Sages add that only the wealthy were welcome as guests in Sodom. The poor were abused, humiliated, expelled or killed.

Midrash Pirkei d’ Rabbi Eliezer (3rd century) teaches that under the laws of Sodom, sharing wealth with the transient poor was a criminal squandering of the city’s wealth. Worse, this law reflected the majority view, as not even ten righteous people lived in the city. Thus, Sodom did not have the resources to fix its moral problems.

Like Sodom, Canada also prefers its strangers to be wealthy. Immigrants must possess a certain amount of property (or at least the power to earn it) in order to become residents. But, unlike Sodom, we balance these policies with our moral resources: social critics, groups that support the poor, and advocates for individual immigrants in difficult circumstances.  We have the ability to judge and correct ourselves.

Torah teaches in many places that a commitment to care for immigrants and the poor is essential. Countries that fail to care fall apart when inequality and rage become too great. But it’s important to recognize that the Torah does not require perfection. Instead, it reminds us to use deliberation, legal systems and personal example in a constant social process of moral improvement.

Inspired by Rabbi Steven Pik-Nathan


Akedat Yitzchak: Reading Between the Lines (5770/2009)

“God said: please take your son, your only one, whom you love, Yitzchak…and offer him there for a burnt offering. (Bereisheet/Genesis 22:2)

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105) comments on this disturbing verse:

The term ‘please’ shows that God is not commanding Avraham, but is making a request. What is the nature of the request? God is saying, “I request of you to withstand this test for my sake, so that people won’t be able to say that your life experiences were not substantial.

Why does God take so long to tell Avraham clearly whom he should offer? Because hidden in the text is a dialogue between God and Avraham. God says, “Take your son.” Avraham says, “I have two sons.” God says, “Your only son.” Avraham says, “Each one is his mother’s only son.” God says, “The one you love.” Avraham says, “I love them both.” God says, “Yitzchak.”

Why did God tell Avraham to offer his son, rather than to ritually slaughter him? Because the Holy One of Blessing did not wish for Avraham to slaughter him, only bring him up the mountain and offer him. How do we know this? Because after Avraham brought Yitzchak up, God said, “Bring him back down.”

Rashi’s point: We should follow the example of Avraham, our spiritual parent. We should all recognize that God acts in partnership with us; that God invites us to question and discuss everything religious; and that, though we may suffer at times in our lives, God’s loving presence is always available to help bring us back.


Hagar, Sarah, and Hope (5767/2006)

In Torah, Sarah and Hagar have a troubled relationship. They live as family, but Sarah is mistress of the house and Hagar is her legal property. Hagar gives birth to Avraham’s first son Yishmael, but the family birthright is destined for Sarah’s son Yitzchak. The two women take turns “lording it” over one another emotionally. Their sons, however, seem to have a fine relationship: playing, fulfilling family responsibilities, encouraging their children to marry one another.

Over the centuries, however, theologians used the figures of Sarah and Hagar to describe conflicts between the women’s descendents. In early Christian writings, Paul uses Sarah and Hagar to argue that Christianity is the true development of Judaism. Hagar, the slave, whose son is born of the flesh, represents Jews who cling to the old revelation. But Sarah, the free woman, whose son is born through the divine word, represents the Christians, whose children receive the true inheritance. Medieval rabbis fought back intellectually, insisting that Sarah represented the Jews and Hagar represented the Christians. They highlighted Christianity’s debt to Judaism by teaching that Hagar chose to become a slave to Sarah.

In our time, Sarah and Hagar have come to represent Jews and Muslims. Influenced by medieval interpretations of Torah, we imagine that we have inherited current tensions from Biblical times. Perhaps we can find hope rather than fatalism in the text of the Torah. Perhaps we can remember that, according to Torah, the sons of Sarah and Hagar were close, and that they did not carry on their mothers’ conflict.

Image: motherwouldknow.com

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