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Torah Sparks

October 23, 2010 - 15 Heshvan 5771

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 Joseph Prouser
Baldwin, NY

Torah Reading Summary

In the guise of three angelic visitors, God appears to Abraham at his tent. The divine messengers, who are greeted with eager hospitality, foretell that a son, Isaac, is to be born to Abraham and Sarah. Sarah laughs at the prospect of fertility. Subsequently, God tells Abraham about his intention to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, along with the morally corrupt people who live in those cities. Abraham unsuccessfully intercedes with God, citing the injustice to any righteous citizens. Not even ten worthy people can be identified, however. The corruption of Sodom seems confirmed when the men of that city, with apparently salacious motives, surround Lot's house, demanding, to no avail, that he surrender his two remaining angelic guests to them. Lot and his family are spared, escaping the destruction of the cities, though Lot's wife is turned into a pillar of salt when, contrary to God's instructions, she gazes back at the desolation. Lot's sons-in-law, refusing to accompany him, meet their demise together with the rest of Sodom. Seeking refuge in a cave, Lot's daughters induce their father's intoxication. Their subsequent incestuous unions produce Ammon and Moab, progenitors of Israel's morally suspect historic foes. After immigrating to Gerar, Sarah is taken by Abimelech and ultimately restored to Abraham, in a literary reprise of the previous parsha's wife-sister motif. Isaac is born as promised; he is circumcised and eventually weaned. At Sarah's behest, Abraham banishes Hagar and Ishmael. Mother and son survive their wilderness exile, fortified by angelic guidance and a divine promise that Ishmael, too, will found a nation. Abraham makes a covenant with Abimelech. God tests Abraham, commanding him to offer his beloved son, Isaac, as a sacrifice. Compliantly and all but silently taking his son to Mount Moriah, Abraham places him atop an altar, but an angel stays his hand as he raises the sacrificial knife. Abraham's reverence for God, and God's covenantal promise of blessing to Abraham, both are confirmed with renewed vigor.

Theme #1: Hubris or Humility?

“Here I venture to speak to my Lord, yet I am but dust and ashes.” (Genesis 18:27)

Derash: Study

  1. “We should each carry two notes in our pockets. One should read: ‘The world was created for my sake.' The other should say: ‘I am but dust and ashes.' But we must know which of the notes to use - each in the appropriate circumstance and at the correct time. Many err and use one when the opposite is required.” (Rabbi Bunam of Przysucha)
  2. “He was conscious now of a glad sense that all that constitutes the happiness of life, comfort, wealth, even life itself, were all dust and ashes.” (Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace)
  3. “Rabbi Chaim Ha-Kohen Rapaport was a fierce opponent of Hassidism, which originated in his time. Consequently, there was animosity between him and the Baal Shem Tov [the founder of Hassidism], a sharp division. Once, according to legend, Rabbi Chaim was sitting alone in his bet midrash studying Torah, and another man came in. Rabbi Chaim asked him: ‘Who are you, sir - and what?' The stranger replied: ‘I am but dust and ashes.' The guest in turn asked Rabbi Chaim: ‘Who are you, sir - and what?' Rabbi Chaim responded in kind: ‘I, too, am but dust and ashes.' The guest retorted: ‘Why should there be controversy between mere dust and ashes?' Rabbi Chaim understood that his guest was the Baal Shem Tov himself.” (Shabbat Shabbaton)
  4. “Ezekiel describes the particular transgression of Sodom and Gomorrah in declaring, ‘Only this was the sin of your sister Sodom: arrogance! She and her daughters had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility; yet she did not support the poor and the needy' (Ezek. 16:49). Not only did the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah pervert justice in their midst, but it was a perversion rooted in haughtiness. How much more does the evil of Sodom become tragically evident juxtaposed to the graciousness of our ancestor Abraham?” (Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz)
  5. “When God comes to Abraham to inform him that the city of Sodom is to be destroyed for its wickedness, Abraham responds aggressively by shaming God into agreeing to spare the city if fifty righteous can be found within it…. Then, with a bargaining style that would be the envy of any used-car buyer, teenager or trial lawyer, he lowers the number to forty-five, to thirty, to twenty, to ten...” (Rabbi Joshua Heller)

Questions for Discussion

Notwithstanding his protestations of abject humility, in what ways is Abraham demonstrating a pronounced audacity in his negotiation with God?

Is Abraham simply the wrong intercessor for the doomed city? Does his demonstrated hospitality, generosity, faith, and (at least putative) humility reflect poorly on the inhabitants of Sodom, making them, as Rabbi Berkowitz suggests, seem all the more undeserving in contrast? Was his decision to challenge God thus ill-considered? Self-aggrandizing? Counterproductive?

Using Abraham as a model in our own search for God, religious truth, and personal meaning, what are the implications of his stated humility for our relationships with other Jewish (and non-Jewish) groups, with whom we may have pointed differences and sharp disagreements?

To what extent does the story of Rabbi Chaim and the Baal Shem Tov thus accurately interpret Abraham's statement and provide guidance for twenty-first century Jews?

How has the needed balance between humility and audacity, famously framed by Rabbi Bunam, shifted with the times? Is a characteristic shrinking self-abnegation, at times an ideal and at times in Jewish history an unavoidable if unsavory survival technique, still in the best interests of the Jewish people? Of the Jewish state? Of the individual practitioner of Jewish tradition?

What might account for the broad currency of the phrase “dust and ashes,” which appears in the Bible only here and in the book of Job?

Theme #2: In-laws and Outlaws

“He seemed to his sons-in-law as one who jests.” (Genesis 19:14)

Derash: Study

  1. “They had already seen miraculous events with their own eyes, the great wonder whereby all the men of the city, young and old, were stricken with blinding light and were helpless to find the entrance. By all accounts, they should have at least allowed for the possibility that God's anger had indeed been aroused against them, as Lot had insisted. Rather, they, too, were stricken with a blinding light - a spiritual blindness: they did not pay attention, they did not know how to discern the true significance of what they saw. They, too, were helpless to find their way.” (Shem Mi-Shmuel)
  2. “His sons-in-law said to Lot: ‘You are a world-class fool! The city is filled with harps, lyres, and celebrations, and you say Sodom is to be destroyed!'” (Midrash Ha- Gadol)
  3. “The fault lies not in their disbelief but in their lack of seriousness, which reveals their insensitivity to the enormity of the moral evil about them.” (Nahum Sarna, JPS Commentary)
  4. “The angels' intercession serves to bring out the latent weaknessin Lot's character. He is undecided, flustered, ineffectual. His own sons-in-law refuse to take him seriously. He hesitates to turn his back on his possessions, and has to be led to safety by the hand, like a child - an ironic sidelight on a man who a moment earlier tried to protect his celestial guests. Lot's irresoluteness makes him incoherent. Small wonder that his deliverance is finally achieved without a moment to spare.” (E. A. Speiser, Anchor Bible Commentary)
  5. “Humor is based on a modicum of truth. Have you ever heard a joke about a father-in-law?” (Dick Clark)

Questions for Discussion

Why didn't his sons-in-law take Lot at his word? Was he an unlikely or unworthy prophet? Were they simply spiritually unprepared to hear the truth? Was Lot, as Speiser writes, truly so equivocal and weak that the response from his sons-in-law was inevitable, perhaps even understandable? Was it the message or the messenger they found laughable? If the latter, were they still morally culpable?

According to Midrash Ha-Gadol, the sons-in-law concluded that the level of social activity and entertaining diversions (so, too, perhaps, commerce, trade, and opportunity) evident in Sodom precluded the possibility of its imminent destruction. What are the elements of a society (or city or congregation) that safeguard it from decline, destruction and dissolution? What is the difference between communal activity and communal sustainability?

Lot's daughters (who subsequently act in an outrageously proactive and aggressive manner) are silent throughout this exchange. Did they believe their father or simply accompany him out of filial duty? Might they have changed their skeptical husbands' minds, and therefore their fates? What made them worthy of deliverance from the destruction of Sodom?

Lot's unheeded message to his sons-in-law (as, too, their ultimate demise) implies a transcendent moral code. They should have recognized the evil in Sodom even if they were raised and steeped in that culture and therefore they should have understood the moral correctness in Lot's prophetic warning. What moral absolutes do we recognize? What are our obligations to identify moral error if we are to avoid the path of moral relativism?

Halachah L'Maaseh

None of the 613 mitzvot is prescribed in parshat Vayera. Abraham's gracious treatment of his angelic visitors (despite the fact, according to Rashi, that the patriarch assumed them to be Arabian idol-worshipers), is, however, often cited as the paradigm for hachnasat orchim - the mitzvah of hospitality to guests. On Abraham's comportment is based the rabbinic dictum (Shabbat 127a) that “The mitzvah of welcoming guests is greater even than greeting the Divine Presence.”

Historical Note

We read in parahat Vayera of Abraham's protracted conversation with God, his prayerful intercession on behalf of the people of Sodom, on October 23, 2010: the 250th anniversary of the first Jewish prayer books produced in America - printed on October 23, 1760.

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