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Torah Sparks

PARASHAT VAYERA
October 27, 2007 – 15 Heshvan 5768

Annual: Genesis 18:1 - 22:24 (Etz Hayim, p. 99; Hertz p. 63)
Triennial Cycle: Genesis 18:1 – 18:33 (Etz Hayim, p. 99; Hertz p. 63)
Haftarah: II Kings 4:1 – 37 (Etz Hayim, p. 124; Hertz p. 76)

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

Abraham welcomes three wayfarers to his tent, unaware that they are angels. They tell him that Sarah will bear a son. Sarah overhears and laughs in disbelief. God tells Abraham that He has decided to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham challenges God – “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?” Abraham then bargains with God, Who promises not to destroy the cities if 50, 45, 40, 30, 20, even 10 righteous people can be found there. Two angels arrive in Sodom and are greeted by Lot. The angels urge Lot and his family to flee. They leave, but Lot’s wife disobeys the instruction not to look back and is turned into a pillar of salt. After the destruction, Lot’s daughters, believing that no one else is left alive, trick their father into incestuous unions and each bears a son, the founders of the nations of Ammon and Moab. Abraham and Sarah travel to Gerar, where Abraham tells its king Abimelech that Sarah is his sister. God again protects Sarah and Abimelech sends them away from his kingdom. God fulfills the promise, and Abraham and Sarah’s son Isaac is born. At Sarah’s insistence, Abraham sends away Ishmael and his mother Hagar. God promises Hagar that Ishmael will become a great nation. Abraham and Abimelech make a covenant of peace at Be’er-sheva. The parashah concludes with the Akedah, the story of the binding and near-sacrifice of Isaac.

1. To Serve God and Man

Looking up, he saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and, bowing to the ground, he said, “My lords [adonai], if it please you, do not go on past your servant. (Beresheit 18:2-3)

  1. To the chief one of them he spoke and he called them all “lords” [adonai]... And in this context adonai is not sacred. Another interpretation: Adonai is holy and Abraham was saying to the Holy One to wait for him until he would run and bring in the guests. (Rashi [Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, 1040-1105, France])
  2. Rabbi Judah said in the name of Rav: Hospitality to guests is greater than welcoming the Divine Presence, for Abraham pleaded with God, “My Lord, if it please you, do not go on past your servant.” (Shabbat 127a)
  3. Rabbi Judah said in the name of Rav: Hospitality to guests is greater than welcoming the Divine Presence. How do we know that hospitality to guests is greater? Couldn’t the two be of equal importance? The law, though, is that a person is forbidden to run past a synagogue unless he is doing so to perform a greater commandment than that of prayer in the synagogue. Now here, where Abraham was speaking to God, the place he was in was obviously holy, yet we are told that Abraham ran to greet the three men. That is only permissible if the commandment of hospitality is greater than that of speaking to God. (Various sources cited by Rabbi Aharon Greenberg, Itturei Torah)
  4. What if there should be 50 innocent within the city (18:24). The author of Tiferet Shlomo says that the emphasis is on the words “within the city,” namely those people who are engaged in commerce within the city. Unfortunately, there are people who are extremely pious in the synagogue but completely unscrupulous in the marketplace, and consider other people’s money as fair game. Thus Abraham sought “50 innocent within the city,” 50 people who were righteous even in their business dealings. (Rabbi Y. Pachanowski)

Sparks for Discussion

What picture comes to mind when you think of a religious or observant Jew? A man with a beard, wrapped in tallit and tefillin, praying in shul? A woman with her hair covered, lighting Shabbat candles? But what if that man leaves the shul and goes to his business, where he pays his workers “off the books” to avoid payroll taxes? What if that woman routinely goes to the market and gossips about her neighbors? Can a good Jew keep the ritual commandments and ignore the ethical ones? Can a good Jew keep the ethical commandments and ignore the ritual ones? What does it mean to be a good Jew? How do we balance our duties to God and our duties to other people?

2. Life is Not Fair

Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly? (Beresheit 18:25)

  1. [The vocalization of the word Judge] denotes the interrogative: Shall not He who is Judge not dispense true justice? (Rashi [Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, 1040-1105, France])
  2. [This can also be read as a declarative sentence.] Rabbi Levi commented: “The Judge of all the earth shall not deal justly.” If You want the world to endure, there can be no absolutely strict judgment. If You want absolutely strict judgment, the world cannot endure. You are trying to grasp the rope at both ends. You want the world and You want absolutely strict justice. Unless you relent a little, the world cannot endure. (Beresheit Rabbah 49:6)
  3. A parable of a king who had cups made of delicate glass. The king said: If I pour hot water into them, they will [expand and] burst; if cold water, they will contract [and break]. What did he do? He mixed hot and cold water and poured it into them, and so they remained unbroken. Likewise, the Holy One said: If I create the world with the attribute of mercy alone, its sins will be too many; if with justice alone, how could the world be expected to endure? So I will create it with both justice and mercy and may it endure! (Beresheit Rabbah 12:15)

Sparks for Discussion

When misfortune strikes – serious illness, financial setbacks, the loss of property or loved ones – many people cry, “It’s not fair! I don’t deserve this!” But is it really fairness they are seeking? After all, when they experience good fortune, how many people cry, “It’s not fair! I don’t deserve this!” Imagine living in a world of strict justice, one in which every transgression is met with sure and immediate punishment. (And, if you like, one in which every good deed is immediately rewarded.) Could human beings still be said to have free will in such a world? Would we still be recognizably human? What does it mean that we live in a world in which bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people? Would we be better off if life were truly fair?


 
 
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