Toward Shabbat – Parsha Vayera

This week’s Parsha is filled with so many rich stories and moral lessons and quandaries that we could possibly study them for the rest of the week. This includes Hashem ‘lying’ to Abraham as the Lord reports Sarah’s reaction when she is told that she would be giving birth. G-d says to Abraham that Sarah laughed and said, “How can it be that I will give birth I AM so old?” She actually said, “How can that be my HUSBAND is so old.” Rather than hurting Avraham’s feelings, the Lord lies as it were. We also read about Lot’s wife wistfully looking back at the destruction of Sodom because she was so attached to the material life in Sodom and thus she was turned into a pillar of salt; And Lot’s daughters trying to save humanity through incest which results in the birth of Amon and Moab parents of Ruth and David; the sending away of Hagar and Yishmael- the ‘others’; the wounding of Yishmael, and, of course, the numinous, perplexing, enigmatic, profound trial of the Akedah (the sacrifice of Isaac), perhaps the most terrifying and mystifying tale in all of Scripture.

Today let us briefly focus on three other stories in our parsha. First, the story of Abraham and his three visitors. Our Sages say that: ‘Hospitality to visitors is even greater than residing in Hashem’s Presence.’ (Shabbat 17A). The verse says (18:1) that G-d visited Abraham on the third day after his Brit (circumcision)-the most painful day in his recuperation to comfort him. Avraham was waiting in the scorching sun to be ready to receive any guests that might pass his way. He had set up his house so that he had entrances on all four sides to make it easy for his guests to enter. Initially G-d created an extremely hot day to discourage travelers and protect Abraham from his natural inclination to invite them in to his home. But as Abraham’s spiritual pain of not being able to feed visitors became greater than his physical pain (since he was a man of Chesed), Hashem’s initial act of protecting him from strangers (by making it a hot day) was rescinded.

From afar Abraham then saw a group of wayfarers (or some say angels). He RAN to greet them. He entreated them repeatedly to stay with him, relax, and enjoy a sumptuous meal. When they agreed he RAN home and hurried to prepare a meal along with Sarah. The Torah stresses at every step, that Avraham hurried and even RAN to perform this mitzvah. He was not deterred by the heat, pain, or even the fact that he was inviting a group of strangers into his home. For when one has a sense of PURPOSE, severe physical pain can be overcome. When one doesn’t have a clear inner purpose, everything is ‘painful.’

As we are the children of Abraham and Sarah it behooves all of us to carry on their legacy of Chesed, to invite those who need a meal to our homes; to share with others our blessings and friendship. It is a mitzvah and potential opportunity to uplift our world with Chesed. Let us put on our running shoes like Abraham and manifest a character of kindness and humility. This will give us a sense of purpose, a sense of meaning as we follow the uplifting mandates of our tradition.

The next story that I would like to share is the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, (Bereishit, Ch. 18:20-Ch.19). Why did G-d tell Avraham that G-d was going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah where his nephew Lot and family lived? Why did G-d want to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah in the first place? The Rabbis say, because the inhabitants of these cities were so wicked and showed no indication for improvement. The fact that there were not even ten righteous people there proves this, and the only solution (for the ultimate good) was its destruction. The people of Sodom had not become depraved because of poverty or want. On the contrary, it was the possession of material goods that corrupted them; it made them greedy- so they said: ‘Why should we share what we have with strangers? It will only make us have less and everyone will come for a handout! The fewer guests we have here the more there will be for us.’ They behaved toward visitors in a way that would distance them and pressured their community to follow these norms. Remember that in ancient times there were no inns, hotels, or restaurants, only the inhabitants of the city could invite strangers into their homes, so this norm was the height of cruelty, and it corrupted the morality of the whole region. As far as they were concerned, if a person did not succeed, this was a sign that the Creator did not like him or her, ‘blaming the victim,’ or that s/he did not try hard enough. This is contrary to the Jewish way which strengthens trust in others and society through deeds of kindness. Abraham recognized this and therefore helped all in need. (He not only gave spontaneously with an open heart, but he also gave what the other person needed and not just what he thought they should need, thus building the other’s trust and self-esteem). The way of Sodom leads to an eventual loss of all possessions because people won’t help you because you have not helped them. Avraham, whose thoughts were always turned toward giving, became richer.

The Midrash says that the Sodomites issued a proclamation saying: “Anyone who strengthens the hand of the poor with a loaf of bread shall be burnt by fire! Pelotit, the daughter of Lot, saw a very poor man in the street and her heart was grieved, so every day when she went out to draw water, she hid provisions in her pitcher and sustained the poor man. When she was caught, they brought her out to be burned by fire. She cried out to G-d, and her cry ascended to the Throne of Glory, and Hashem went down to observe and declared that they will be destroyed if that is the truth!” In Sodom they raised this social norm to a legality!

So, it was not the sin of sexual debauchery, but social iniquity that they were punished for. As the Ramban says, ‘The Sodomites intended to prevent the entry of all strangers, because of the fertility of their land. They didn’t want to share their bounty with others. They accepted Lot on account of his wealth or out of respect to Abraham. So, according to our Sages they were notorious for every kind of evil. But their fate was sealed for their persistence in not supporting the poor and needy. No other nation could be compared to Sodom for their cruelty.’ As the Mishna in Mishna 13 says), ” If one says, what’s mine is yours, and what is yours is mine is an unlearned person. If one says what is mine is yours, and what is yours is yours is a pious person. If one says what is yours is mine, and what is mine is mine is a wicked person. And if one says, WHAT IS MINE IS MINE AND WHAT IS YOURS IS YOURS IS CHARACTERISTIC OF SODOM.”

I think this is very relevant to our behavior today. The Torah teaches that we are responsible for all members of our society. We cannot close our eyes to inequities, and just care about our own welfare. We are charged to follow the Chesed of Avraham and support such a policy as a society. On a practical level, if we do ignore the poor, and opt to just protect our own wealth, we create potential strife, anger, and a less than happy society. If we have wealth, we should be joyous and show our gratitude to G-d, by sharing our part with others so they can also benefit from the blessings of our plenty. Following the behavior of the Sodomites, who chose greed and were filled with fear of losing their wealth through sharing, will only lead to destruction and wrath.

Finally, a third idea is found in chapter 18, verse 24 which says,” Would you not spare the city if there are fifty Righteous/Tzadikim Within the MIDST of the city (B’toch Ha’ir)?” Our Sages make the profound point that a ‘righteous person’ must dwell IN THE MIDST of the city to be called a ‘Tzadik.’ A righteous person must always care for the welfare of his surroundings, and not just be righteous for him/herself, privately and not publicly. One must act on one’s convictions even in a hostile environment. This is true righteousness. The fundamental charge to our leaders is to be aware and care for the place in which we live. We cannot turn a blind eye, and just do the commandments for our own salvation. We are all interdependent and hence responsible to be awake to that which calls upon us to uplift our social fabric. Even if there are 50 ‘righteous persons’ if they are not WITHIN the city, they are not ‘righteous.’

May we all be blessed to share with others, to care for others IN THE MIDST of our cities and not be guilty of the character of Sodom! We will all then be blessed with a more joyous and abundant world, worthy of the blessings of the Messianic era.

Have a Great Shabbat! Blessings and Love,
Rabbi Mel