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Torah Sparks

PARASHAT VAYERA
November 19, 2005 - 17 Heshvan 5766

Annual: Genesis 18:1 - 22:24 (Etz Hayim, p. 99; Hertz p. 63)
Triennial Cycle: Genesis 19:1 - 20:18 (Etz Hayim, p. 104; Hertz p. 66)
Haftarah: II Kings 4:1 - 37 (Etz Hayim, p. 124; Hertz p. 76)

Prepared by Rabbi Michael Gold
Congregation Beth Torah, Tamarac, FL

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Paul Drazen, Director

Summary

God appears to Abraham, who is recovering in his tent after his circumcision. Abraham then sees three men standing nearby and invites them in, washing their feet and preparing an entire meal for them. The men predict that at this season next year, Sarah will give birth to a son. Sarah laughs, unable to imagine that a couple their age can ever give birth to a child. (When the child is born he will be named Isaac, from the Hebrew root for "laughter.")

God reveals to Abraham God's plan to destroy the evil cities of Sodom and Gemorrah. Abraham argues with God -- would God be willing to save the cities for the sake of 50 righteous people, he asks. Abraham continues to bargain with God, finally convincing God to save the cities for the sake of 10 righteous people. Unfortunately, not even 10 righteous people can be found there.

Angels enter the city to rescue Lot and his family, and a band of wicked men immediately gather against them. Lot brings the men into his house and protects them. Only Lot, his wife, and their two unmarried daughters are able to flee before God destroys the cities with sulfurous fire. Lot's wife looks back and turns into a pillar of salt. Lot's daughters, fearing they were the last people left on earth, make their father drunk and become impregnated by him.

Finally Abraham and Sarah give birth to a son, Isaac. Sarah worries about Hagar's son, Ishmael, and tells Abraham to send them away. Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael into the desert with a small amount of bread and water. God hears Hagar's cries and opens her eyes to a well of water. God was with the boy, who grew up to be a bowman.

God puts Abraham to a final test to prove his faithfulness. (According to rabbinic tradition, this is the last of 10 tests.) Is Abraham prepared to go to a mountain and offer Isaac as a whole offering? After three days of travel, Abraham and Isaac arrive at the mountain where Abraham binds Isaac to the altar. At the last minute, God substitutes a ram, knowing that Abraham has passed the test. Abraham returns to his tent in Beer Sheva.

Issue #1 - The Sin of Sodom

"The Lord said, because the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their sin is very grave; I will go down now, and see whether they have done altogether according to her cry, which has come to me; and if not, I will know." (Genesis 18:20-21)

Discussion

  1. What was so evil about Sodom and Gemorrah that God would destroy them? Is there a hint in the behavior of the men of the city, who tried to attack the visitors in Lot's house? The rabbinic tradition said that visitors (outsiders) were not welcome in Sodom. Why not?
  2. The Talmud teaches, "One who says, 'What is mine is mine, what is yours is yours,' this is a mediocre person. Some say this is the way of Sodom." (Avot 5:14) In Sodom, people did not steal from others ("what is yours is yours"). But in Sodom, people also did not share with others ("what is mine is mine"). Selfishness ruled, and people would not share their wealth with others. The people there thought in terms of scarcity (there is only a limited amount of wealth, and if I share with you I will have less).
  3. The Talmud developed this idea. One long section considers the selfishness of Sodom. Among the stories in that section, one tells of a poor man who came into town. A young woman was kind to him and shared her money with him. When the people heard this, they attacked and tortured her (Sanhedrin 109b). Helping the poor would set a bad precedent for the community; beggars and poor people would move into town. The Torah teaches that "God heard her cry" (Genesis 18:21), the cry of a generous young woman attacked by her wicked neighbors. Another story tells how the people would give a poor person marked coins. No merchant would accept those coins, so the poor person could not buy food and eventually would starve. Of whom were the people of Sodom scared? Why did they try to keep the poor, travelers, and beggars out of their town?
  4. Is the way of Sodom similar to modern cities that try to keep the homeless out? Are there ways that the self-absorbed nature of Sodom can be seen playing itself out in our world?
  5. We all have a little Sodom in us as we think that "what is mine is mine, and I do not wish to share it." How can we overcome our own scarcity complex?

Issue #2 - The Binding of Isaac

"And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife; and they went both of them together... "And Abraham said, 'My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering,' so they went both of them together" (Genesis 22:6, 8)

Discussion

  1. In this very sparse story, the Torah twice mentions "and they went both of the together." What is the Torah trying to tell us? Was there a particularly warm relationship between the father and the son? How will the akedah, the binding of Isaac, affect that relationship?
  2. At the end of the story, the Torah says, "So Abraham returned to his young men, and they rose up and went together to Beersheba; and Abraham lived at Beersheba" (Genesis 22:19). Abraham returned alone. Where was Isaac?
  3. Is it possible that there was an estrangement between father and son? Could they have gone their separate ways after the binding? In the Torah, they never see each other again. The next time Isaac appears next to his father is for Abraham's funeral.
  4. I wrote in my book God, Love, Sex, and Family, "I want to suggest a radical reinterpretation of the Akeda story. I believe Abraham failed God's test. My interpretation may run counter to the classical religious understanding of the story, but there are hints of this explication in certain Hasidic commentaries. For example, one commentary claims that God's true commandment was for Abraham not to sacrifice Isaac. (see Kiddushat Halevi). - Perhaps Abraham failed the test, and that is the reason why Abraham not only does not speak to his son again." Is this explanation a possibility?

 
 
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