Parshat Vayera

Torah Reading for Week of November 1-7, 2020
“In Search of Safe Spaces”
By Rabbi Mindie Snyder, ’15
The views expressed in this drash are those of the author. We welcome Torah insights and teachings from all viewpoints, and encourage dialogue to strengthen the diversity of our academy.
Previously published on in 2018.
Psycho-spiritual whiplash can be the consequence of any attempt to cognitively, emotionally, or spiritually digest too much of Parshat Vayera at one time. This parsha is loaded with behavioral extremes that would make any modern soap opera appear mild in comparison.
Vayera is bookended by our biblical patriarch, Abraham, following “Orders from Headquarters”. After circumcising himself, cementing his Covenant with God, Abraham activates the Commandment to welcome the stranger. This is our cue to understand something about Judaism’s moral hierarchy. How we treat another is more important than any personal spiritual experience. Furthermore, the openness of Abraham and Sarah’s tent reflects an expansive field of trust.
Many years later, Abraham is remarkably compliant with God’s directives. Prioritizing his relationship with God, Abraham plans to ritually sacrifice his treasured son, Isaac. In contrast to the earlier story, the field of trust between father and son narrows. Isaac receives no nourishment from the open tent. Instead, he is exposed to the elements and Divine whim. This story continues to defy our ability to comprehend it- even though we know Abraham was being tested by God and Isaac survived the near death encounter. Dayenu- it would have been enough to stop at either story, but in between, the reader discovers a series of unrelenting dramas: Sarah learns she will miraculously have a son. Abraham pleads with God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah, but is not particularly successful. Lot’s wife turns into a pillar of salt as she looks backward toward the destruction of her world. Lot and his daughters survive. Their offspring establish Moab and Ammon. Sarah, now Abraham’s “sister,” is desired by the king of Gerar. Isaac is born. Hagar and Ishmael are banished from Abraham’s tribe, but they survive due to an angelic intervention.
These stories emphasize how the human journey, with all its surprises and challenges, enables learning, growth and opportunities. You can say that God sets us up to evolve through change. Rabbi David Wolpe, when discussing Bereishit, noted that without our ancestors’ wanderings there would be no Torah. Furthermore, without Torah, B’nai Yisrael would cease to exist.
To travel is to take a journey into yourself.
Danny Kaye
In our fast paced world, where being in flux appears normal, we can crave predictably safe spaces. These are the kind of places that radiate warmth with people we can trust, where we are protected from storms of any kind. However, reality bites: there is no 100% guarantee that trusted people and environments won’t falter somehow. Safe isn’t always safe. Safety can require adaptations. In Torah, even God doesn’t always show up the same way every time.
How many of us have been in a place that was safe before, but at a particular time was no longer the same? How many of us have experienced someone saying one thing and doing another, misrepresenting their intentions, or using us to satisfy a particular agenda, exploiting us without our knowledge or consent? Can we reliably discern who, or what, is safe? How can we be sure that the person we trusted won’t lead us down a harmful path, like what Abraham did to Isaac? Of course, we cannot always be sure, but we are Commanded to live out our days, not squander them by clutching onto fear.
L’chaim! In this new year, whatever befalls us, we can have courage. We can have insight. We can be flexible. We can be confident. We can be generous. We can welcome the stranger with open arms. We can look forward, not backward, having faith that the establishment of a better world and the sweetest blessings await.