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Torah Sparks

Parashat Vayera
November 8, 2014 – 15 Heshvan 5775

Annual (Genesis 18:1 - 22:24): Etz Hayim p. 99; Hertz p. 63
Triennial (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 Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, SC

Visited by three strangers, Abraham shows gracious hospitality. The strangers announce that Sarah will become pregnant. Sarah laughs at the suggestion.

God informs Abraham of plans to destroy Sodom and Amorah. Abraham, knowing that his nephew Lot lives in Sodom, convinces God to spare the cities if 10 righteous men could be found there. That proves impossible, so Lot and his family are rescued from Sodom, narrowly escaping the wrath of their depraved neighbors. Lot's wife turns into a pillar of salt after looking back at the destroyed cities. Thinking that they are the last people on earth, Lot's daughters get their father drunk and causes him to impregnate them with sons.

Abraham and his family meet King Avimelech of Gerar. Sarah is identified as Abraham's sister, and the king captures her; only God's intercession forces Avimelech to release her and the household. Abraham and Avimelech later agree to a truce and establish the city of Be'er Sheva. Abraham and Sarah have a son, Isaac. When Sarah suspects Ishmael of foul play, she banishes Ishmael and Hagar from the house. On the brink of death, Hagar is promised by God that Ishmael will become the father of a great nation.

God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac on Mount Moriah. Just before Abraham kills his son, an angel beckons him to stop, promising him a strong legacy because of his willingness to listen to God. A ram is sacrificed in Isaac's place.

Theme #1: Be Our Guests … Or Not

And they shouted to Lot and said to him, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that we may be intimate with them.” … But they said, “Stand back! The fellow,” they said, “came here as an alien, and already he acts the ruler! Now we will deal worse with you than with them.” And they pressed hard against the person of Lot, and moved forward to break the door. (Genesis 19:5, 9)

The description of the Sodomites' abject depravity can be seen as a prooftext defending God's desire to destroy them. The reason why the Sodomites barred strangers from their city was their fear that those foreigners might eventually displace the natives from positions of authority and leadership. They said to Lot, “Think of what would happen if we were to open our gates to more foreigners. Why, they might take over our entire city.” -- Imrei Shofar

They said, “There is an ancient covenant in the city that no one takes in guests. How do you have the audacity to violate our custom? How dare you tell us what to do -- you, a foreigner, how can you act like our chief judge?” The Sodomites began to throw grappling hooks on the roof, shaking all the rafters. The people in the house fled to the central courtyard. This is alluded to in Lot's statement, “they came under the shadow of my rafters.” Lot could not say, “they are in my house,' since the Sodomites had pulled down his roof, to enforce the local custom. They said, “If you want to take in guests, build yourself a house elsewhere.” Not only that, but they got a battering ram, and began to break down the door.” -- Beresheit Rabbah

The Sodomites represent the negation of chen (grace) as well as the negation of the value most characteristic of Abraham: chesed, or kindness. Thus we find that they undertook to harass any foreigner who entered the city, especially if he came to trade. They entered into a “gentleman's” agreement that if any stranger came to town, they would first sodomize (in the conventional English sense of the world) then rob him. The locals depicted as howling like dogs, such was their lust for wealth won by theft. They cast a particularly malignant eye on traveling merchants. … They went so far as to outlaw generosity of any kind, and this was the immediate cause of their downfall. -- David Klinghoffer, The Discovery of God

Questions for Discussion:

Imrei Shofar's understanding of the Sodomites' view on foreigners sounds a lot like some arguments in debates of United States immigration policies over the last 100 years. Are there any parallels between the Sodomites' understanding of strangers in their society and the modern U.S. situations? Can we learn anything from the Sodomite point of view? Or is it easy to dismiss their xenophobia?

Beresheit Rabbah indicates that the Sodomite distrust extends to Lot and his family, even though he had been living there for years. Can we imagine how and why they accepted Lot into their city in the first place? Should we suspect that the Sodomite view of strangers had become more extreme in the years in which Lot is a resident there? Or is there something particular about God's messengers that disturbs the Sodomites unlike anything else?

Klinghoffer sees the Sodomites as Abraham's ultimate foil -- just as Abraham welcomes strangers with open arms in Genesis 18, the Sodomites are equally eager to push them away in the very next chapter. Do the Sodomites' reactions make Abraham appear to be even more generous and remarkable by contrast? Or should we see Abraham's actions as simply decent, while seeing the Sodomites as particularly nefarious?

Theme #2: Deja Vu All Over Again

Abraham said of Sarah his wife, “She is my sister.” So King Abimelech of Gerar had Sarah brought to him. But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night and said to him, “You are to die because of the woman that you have taken, for she is a married woman.” (Genesis 20:2-3)

History repeats itself in a way: Abraham claims that Sarah is his sister and is saved from the whims of a foreign ruler. Do not believe that even if a man does not fear the Lord he can still be noble and decent in his relationships with his fellow men. Where fear of the Lord is lacking, human qualities cannot exist, and people will commit the grossest murder and inhumanity in order to gratify their lusts. Only faith in the Lord and the fear of Him will keep men from doing evil to their fellow men. -- Malbim

There is in Scripture a rewriting of the episode of Abraham in Egypt. This midrashic rewriting, occasioned by a transition from the simplicity of a folk tale to an awareness of moral and ethical standards, transfers the incident from Egypt to Philistia, and replaces the Pharaoh with King Abimelech. As the story is now related, Sarah's virtue is explicitly kept intact, and Abraham, in representing Sarah as his sister, is not lying, for she is described as his half-sister. -- Samuel Sandmel, The Hebrew Scriptures

Since the word “Elohim” is in the plural construction it cannot mean “God,” but must mean “rulers.” Abraham must therefore be understood to say: “Rulers made me go into exile because I was a God-seeker.” -- Haketav Ve-Hakabbalah

Questions for Discussion:

Malbim declares unequivocally that sincere religious freedom is an essential ingredient for adopting solid values. Are all values entailed in the course of a life of religious faith? Is it possible that there are positive values that are extra-religious? If we are to agree with Malbim's point of view, how can we show respect to those who reject religion outright?

Sandmel understands this story as a more digestible version of the very similar account in Genesis 12 (Abram in Egypt). How do Genesis 12 and 20 compare and contrast? Is the literary purpose of Genesis 20 to show its readers that Abraham has learned from his previous approach to a strikingly similar earlier situation? Which story displays the “real” Abraham?

Haketav Ve-Hakabbalah explains a reason why the word “Elohim” is used in this account. Can we derive any meaning regarding why the word“Elohim” has a plural construction? Does it puncture our impression of a monotheistic God? Or might it teach us that God, in spite of God's great powers, cannot be effective on Earth without cooperation from others, i.e. humanity?

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