Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Torah Readings for Saturday, November 19, 2016 Va-yayra “Appeared” “And God appeared to him Bereshit

Torah Readings for Saturday, November 19, 2016
Va-yayra (“Appeared” i.e., “And God appeared to him…”)
18:1-22:24 Bereshit (Genesis)
Va-yayra is the fourth sedrah in Bereshit (Genesis).  The sedrah takes its name from the first Hebrew word in the first sentence of the portion.  “And God appeared (Va-yayra) to him by the terebinths of Mamre, while he was sitting in the door of the tent in the heat of the day.”  Va-yayra is also the second of three weekly portions featuring the life of Abraham.  Two of the chapters in this sedrah provide the readings for Rosh Hashanah.  Chapter 21, featuring the birth of Isaac is read on the first day of the New Year.  Chapter 22, featuring the Binding of Isaac, is read on the second day of the New Year.  Reform Jews read Chapter 22 on Rosh Hashanah.
18:1-8 Visit from the Strangers
Abraham is visited by three strangers whom he does not know are angels.  Since he is recuperating from his circumcision, this visit is interpreted as teaching us the importance of visiting the sick.  Abraham rushing out to meet the strangers instead of waiting for them to come to his tent is considered the standard for hospitality.  Do not wait for guests to ask; anticipate their needs and make them feel welcome.  Abraham also shows the importance of sharing in domestic chores.  Instead of acting like the stereotypical husband who brings home three surprise guests for his wife to feed, Abraham takes an active part in the preparation.  (Yes, this is interpretation.  But interpretation is what helps to make the Torah relevant to each generation.)
18:9-16 Promise of Isaac’s birth
The angels repeat God’s previous promise about the birth of Isaac.  Sarah laughs and then denies that she was laughing.  Why was Sarah laughing?  Did she lie?  And if she did lie, what does this say about the character of the first matriarch?
18:16-33 Impending destruction of Sodom
The opening verses of this section provide us with a glimpse of God’s view of Abraham and Abraham’s mission.  This is followed by Abraham’s debate with God about sparing the city.  Here Abraham is displaying another Jewish view of the world.  The world is supposed to be a just place.  Nobody is immune from acting justly, not even God.  Compare this with the view of other ancient civilizations.  Even Rome, which was noted for its law codes, was not exempt from rule by caprice rather than by just laws.  A “thumbs-up” or a “thumbs-down” from the Emperor and man either lived or died.
Some say that ten is the required number for the minyan because ten was the minimum number of righteous people that were necessary to save Sodom.  God hears Abraham out and Abraham returns the courtesy by accepting God’s judgment once the argument has been made.  This is an excellent lesson in human relations regardless of the venue.
19:1-28 Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah
The entire chapter is taken up with the events leading up to the destruction, the destruction itself and the events following the destruction.  The narrative is pretty straightforward.  Just a couple of comments.  First, on the subject of hospitality, compare Abraham’s treatment of these guests with that of the people of Sodom and that of Lot in particular.  Second, look at Lot’s offer of his daughters to placate the crowd and then compare it to his drunken sexual interlude after the destruction for a lesson on the subject of character and people learning from their past.  Lot and his daughters may have left Sodom.  Sodom had not left Lot and his daughters.
20:1-17 Abraham’s journey to Gerar
This story sounds an awful lot like the journey to Egypt.  The one difference is that Abraham establishes a relationship with Abimelech as we can see starting with verse 22 in the next chapter.  Just because something begins poorly, does not mean that it has to end that way.
21:1-8 The Birth of Isaac
Finally, after all of the promises about numerous offspring and the false start with Ishmael, Abraham has the son who will be his heir.  The theme of the difficult or unexpected birth is repeated later in the Bible.  From Abraham’s point of view, Isaac is a gift from God.  God keeps his promises.  God is a just God.  For those of you who remember the Rosh Hashanah comments, you know where this line of reasoning is going.
21:9-20 Hagar and Ishmael
At one level, Abraham looks like the classic hen-pecked husband and Sarah looks like the nagging wife.  As long as Ishmael is around, he is a threat to her son’s inheritance.  So she nags Abraham until he finally gives in and sends Hagar and Ishmael packing.  This may not be the classic view, but a teacher I had posed it to us in rather graphic terms.  He said that Abraham’s acquiesce was a sign of his humanity.  It was one thing to stand up to God.  It was quite another to stand up to your wife.
22:1-19 Binding of Isaac
If repetition is a sign of significance, this episode is a seminal event in the history of the Jewish people.  These verses from Bereshit are recited every day of the year in the opening part of Shacharit, the Morning Service.  In addition, all Jews hear these words yet again on either the First or Second Day of Rosh Hashanah.  There is a copious compendium of material on the Binding of Isaac.  There are whole graduate courses devoted to this topic.  So do not expect this short guide to even scratch the surface.  I would suggest that you read the text in its entirety in whatever edition of the Bible or Chumash with which you are comfortable.  The Stone, Plaut, Hertz, Etz Hayim and others all have interesting commentaries which I will not attempt to paraphrase.  I also recommend Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s treatment of this in his book Biblical Literacy.  It is quite readable and stimulating regardless of one’s level of knowledge.  As with so much else in the Torah, the text is spare and invites interpretation.  Those who call this the Sacrifice of Isaac as opposed to the Binding of Isaac are in error.  Isaac is not sacrificed.  Some Christians tie this story to the Crucifixion.  In fact, it is the opposite of the Crucifixion and provides one of the definitive differences between the two religions.  In Judaism, God rejects the death of a child as a sacrifice.  The road to salvation is through faith in God and observing the Commandments.  In Christianity, the deity demands the death of His child as the key to man’s salvation.  The role of Isaac in all of this is quite interesting.  If you do the math, Isaac is 37.  His father is over 100.  Surely he could have resisted.  But he didn’t.  How did Abraham get Isaac on the Altar?  The text does not say.  This is one of the many unknowns that have puzzled readers down through the ages.  You might remember that further on in Bereshit, Isaac’s poor eyesight causes him, in part, to bless Jacob instead of Esau.  There is a commentary that Isaac’s poor eyesight stems from the Akedah; his vision was supposedly dimmed so that he would not see the knife coming down.  Here is another way to look at the Akedah, which you may or may not have heard before.  Think of it is the second act of a two-act drama.  In chapter 21, we read about the birth of Isaac.  In chapter 22, we read about his brush with death.  Is it possible that Abraham obeys God in chapter 22 because, as described in chapter 21, he saw that God provides blessings (the birth of Isaac) and he believed in the ultimate goodness and justice of God?  Is it possible that Abraham understood that we must accept the will of God whether it is the birth of a son or the binding of a son?  When God promised Abraham an heir (Isaac), Abraham trusted him.  Possibly when he went up the mountain with Isaac he believed that God had a purpose and that purpose was something other than the death of this heir.  After all, when it came time to deal with Ishmael, God told him to listen to Sarah.  Listening to Sarah meant that Isaac was the chosen successor.  Surely God would not have lied to Abraham and Sarah.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks takes this to another level when he reminds of the fact that through Abraham, God was establishing the framework of society that was the opposite of the idolatrous one which was the norm of his time.  In ancient society, as long as the father lived, children “had the status of being his property” over which he had complete control up to and including life and death.  “What God was doing when he asked Abraham to offer up his son was not requesting a child sacrifice but something quite different.  He wanted Abraham to renounce ownership of his son.  He wanted to establish a non-negotiable principle of Jewish law that children are not the property of their parents.”  Parents are responsible for “raising” their children, but they are to raise them in such a way that they can be free agents able to make the choices that God knows will confront them throughout their lives.
22:20-24 Abraham’s distant family
“And it came to pass…that Abraham was told….”  Thus begins what I think are some of the most poignant verses in the Torah.  Abraham is told about the children born to his kinsman far away.  Yes, Abraham went to Canaan to fulfill his divine mission.  But he paid a cost in human terms.  He was cut off from his family; from all who had loved him.  A passing stranger told him he had nieces, he had nephews - he had a family to whom he had become a stranger.
Lest we forget, there is more to the reading than just the Akedah.  It ends with mention of the birth of Bethuel, the father of Rebecca, the future wife of Isaac.  For many of us, Jewish holidays mean family gatherings, whether immediate or extended.  Therefore there is an element of poignancy to the final verses “It came to pass after these things, that Abraham was told:  Behold, Milcah too has borne children to Nahor, your brother…” (22:20).  Since the commentaries are silent on this sentence we can only guess as to whom told Abraham about his brother’s family.  Did he hear it from a passing caravan?  Did some fellow shepherd hear of it and pass it along by word of mouth?  We shall never know.  What we do know is that the price of being a Patriarch was the loss of a family connection.  My son saved.  My brother lost.  As we have said, being Jewish is not always the easy way.
There are none at this time from the list of 613.
Customs and Ceremonies
While there are no commandments in this sedrah, the narrative does give rise to several customs, ceremonies and/or practices, some of which have taken on the weight of mitzvoth.  These include:
  • Visiting the Sick;
  • Practicing pro-active hospitality;
  • Counting ten for the minyan;
  • Blowing the shofar;
  • Remembering the importance of humility;
  • The Torah readings for Rosh Hashanah.
Table Talk Questions
1.      Why did the Lord send three angels?  According to Rashi, each angel had a specific role.  The first angel was sent to cheer up Abraham while he was healing.  The second angel was sent to destroy Sodom.  The third angel was sent to tell Sarah that she would give birth to a son in one year.
2.      Where do we see evidence of the humility of Abraham?  When Abraham intercedes on behalf of the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah, he says of himself, “…although I am nothing but dust and ashes” (18:27).  The man who had reached a level where he could talk to God saw himself as dust and ashes.
3.      Why did the angel command Lot and his family not to look back as the cities were being destroyed?  According to the Talmud, this is a reminder that we are forbidden to take pleasure while others are being punished.  This concept is repeated in the Midrash about God forbidding the Israelites from taking pleasure when the Egyptians drown in the Sea of Reeds.
Noah was a righteous Man in his Generation
This opening line from the sedrah No’ach (Noah) that we read a couple of weeks ago is one that philosophers and rabbis love to play with.  Why does it say “in his Generation?”  The answer may be found in this week’s sedrah when we compare the behavior of Noah with that of Abraham.  God tells Noah that the earth has become corrupt and lawless; that He is going to destroy the world; and that Noah should build an ark of certain specific dimensions so he can save his family and designated animals.  How does Noah respond?  “Noah did so; just as God commanded him, so he did.”  No questions, no appeals, no nothing.  He just went straight ahead and did what God told him to do.  But when God tells Abraham that he is going to wipe out Sodom and Gomorrah, two sink holes of iniquity that probably deserved wiping out if any place did, what does Abraham do?  He challenges God.  “Shall not the judge of all the earth deal justly?”  This is pretty gutsy stuff.  Abraham knows God has a temper and He has the power.  After all, He made the flood and He is about to wipe out two major metropolitan areas.  How did Abraham know God wouldn’t zap him when he came up with the line about just judges?  He didn’t.  But at the same time, he was willing to risk everything, including the wrath of God for the sake of justice and equity.  Noah was a righteous man in his time, because in his time he was the only person who obeyed God.  Abraham was a righteous man for all times because he not only obeyed God; he was willing to challenge the Ultimate authority when the world was not ordered to His will.
Please do not bypass your servant
These words from the opening lines of this week’s portion have given rise to many dictums and stories about the importance of real hospitality.  For example:  In a town beyond the Carpathian mountains lived a wealthy merchant with a lovely daughter.  By the by, she married a young scholar and the couple lived with the merchant.  The young scholar noticed that whenever guests would come to the house, the wealthy merchant personally waited on them, even to the point of making up their beds for the night.  One day, as the merchant was preparing a room for a large number of unexpected lodgers the scholar asked his father-in-law why he didn’t just pay one of the peasants in town to do this seemingly menial work.  The merchant replied with two questions.  First, why should I give up the honor of the mitzvah of hospitality to anybody?  Secondly, why should I have to pay somebody who would be enjoying what should have been my mitzvah in the first place?  With that, the young scholar realized that his father-in-law was not just a wealthy merchant, and loving father, but a Tzaddik in the truest sense of the word.
Who Chose Whom
Beginning with last week’s sedrah, Lech Lecha, we repeatedly ask the question, “Who chose whom?”  Did God choose Abraham or did Abraham choose God?  This week’s reading provides a partial answer.  In speaking of His plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah God asks, “Shall I hide from Abraham that which I am doing;” (18:17).  God answers his question (18:19); because He has “known” Abraham He must tell him.  When God says, “I have known him” it is in the sense of “I have loved him.”  As the commentators point out, when you love somebody you draw them close and let them “know you.”  Modernists would call this intimacy.  In other words God chose to let Abraham know that he was loved by God by letting him learn the ways of God.  Further on, we will find statements where God asks, “Have I not chosen thee from among all people and tongues…” thus reinforcing the concept that God chose Abraham and his descendants.  If you think this is the final word, think again.  When the Israelites are at Mt. Sinai, they make a conscious decision to choose God when they accept His commandments.  And as we shall see, they make that choice for all future generations.  So did the Jews choose God or did God choose the Jews?  Is the world run by predestination or free will?  Matzoth are called the “bread over which people talk” because we are supposed to discuss and study at the Seder.  Maybe we should consider our sacred texts as “the books over which people talk” since we need to keep mining them for ever more complex answers to ever more complex, yet eternal questions.
The commandment concerning circumcision is found in last week’s reading (17:10).  But in this week’s reading, we see Isaac as the first to be circumcised on the eighth day (21:8).  Throughout history there have been repeated attacks on this practice by those who have and who have not read the text.  The ancient Greeks saw it as an act of desecration.  They worshipped the human body and cutting it in this manner was a barbaric act.  Since many of their athletic contests were conducted in the nude the sign of the covenant was obvious and unacceptable.  In fact Jews who wanted to be accepted by the Greeks (Chanukah is not that far away) actually endured epispasm, a rather dangerous and painful procedure to remove the mark of the brit.  That they would go through so much pain and trauma to remove the sign of the covenant seems a little odd since another set of critics attack circumcision because of the pain and the trauma it causes the baby.  If you accept the false notion about the pain and trauma of circumcision, when you combine the arguments of these critics they end up saying that pain and trauma connected with creating Jewish identity is unacceptable, but pain and trauma connected with denying Jewish identity is acceptable.  The really honest critics of circumcision as commanded in the Torah are the ones who cite it as barrier to Jews being accepted by everybody else.  They are correct; the brit is a tangible sign that Jews are different.  That is why Jews are commanded to do this.  When performing the most basic of bodily functions Jewish males are reminded of their special responsibility and role as Jews.  When Jewish men and women engage in the most intimate of relationships they are reminded that they are not animals, but human beings whom God loves.  And this means we must love each other.  One last word; for those modernists who contend that circumcision is a trauma which develops latent tendencies for violence, at the Spanish Inquisition, the Russian Pogroms or the European Death Factories, was it the perpetrators of the violence or the victims who had experienced the brit milah?
Circumcision versus Brit Milah
Although we tend to use the terms interchangeably, there is a difference between “Circumcision” and “Brit Milah.”  Circumcision is actually the name of a surgical procedure that can be performed on any male.  “Brit Milah” means Covenant of Circumcision and is a religious act.  The actual procedure is the same in both cases but the ceremony and the significance are entirely different.  One is an optional medical activity.  The other is a religious commandment that is, for males, the gateway into the House of Israel.  A Rose by another name may still be a rose, but a circumcision without the b’rit is well….I think you have the message by now.
Abraham, Sarah and Hagar - An Eighty Year Old View
Eighty years ago, in November of 1936, Louise Field reviewed Abraham:  Recent Discoveries and Hebrew Origins by Sir Leonard Woolley, the British archaeologist best known for his excavations at “Ur of the Chaldees” which provided the following explanation of the story we read in this week’s portion as seen through the lens of Mesopotamian culture that produced the first Patriarch.
“For the famous story of the treatment accorded Hagar, the Egyptian, and her son Ishmael, which seems so out of keeping not only with Abraham’s character but with the customs of the Semitic tribesmen as we know them, becomes comprehensible if we accept the theory that Abraham, brought up at Ur under the influence of the laws collected in the famous code of Hammurabi, obeyed those laws in his maturity.  Hagar was Sarah’s slave: and the Babylonian code, which was that of Ur also, declared that if a wife proved barren, she might provide her husband with a concubine from among her maids.  But the Sumerian could possess only one legitimate wife, and that wife did not lose her rights even through childlessness.  Should the maid having borne a child ‘make herself equal with her mistress’ the wife could ‘put a mark upon her and count her among the maid servants.’  This as Sir Leonard remarks, was ‘exactly the procedure’ in Hagar’s case.  When Sarah first complained against her.  Abraham replied:  ‘Thy maid is in thy hand:  do to her that which is good in thine eyes.’  That was the law, as it had been taught to him in Ur, and only in a divine command, or what he believed to be, could induce him to break it, as break it he certainly did when after the birth of Isaac he sent Hagar and Ishmael out into the wilderness in direct contradiction to the law which protected not only the real wife but even the concubine and her offspring.  For in the very ancient world, the world of Egypt, Samaria and Babylonia women had many personal property rights they have received on the last’ two centuries.”
Why Lot?
There is a lot of discussion about why God chose to save Noah.  There is a lot of discussion about why God chose Abraham.  But there appears to be little or no discussion about God’s decision to save Lot.  There are some who assume that the decision revolved around Lot’s relationship to Abraham, but neither God nor Abraham raised the issue when they were bargaining over the fate of the two cities.  To paraphrase an earlier text, Lot was a righteous man in his town.  But that sure is not saying much.  Lot had chosen to live in Sodom despite its well-known reputation so that is a bit of a stretch.  Besides which, Lot appeared to be in no great hurry to be saved.  “And when the morning arose, then the angels hastened Lot, saying ‘arise, take thy wife and they two daughters that are here; lest thou be swept away in the iniquity of the city.’  But he lingered; and the men laid hold upon his hand…And they brought him forth, and set him without the city.” (19:15-16).   In other words, despite all of the warnings, the angels had to forcibly take Lot and his family out of the city.  To make this even more confusing, from a point of morality and justice, Lot and his family do not seem to have improved from the experience.  In a world when we are perplexed with how a Just God let the innocent perish in the European Night, the decision to save Lot becomes all the more perplexing.  I am sure that there is a Midrash explaining all of this, but I have not found it.
Etiological Explanations
Professor James Kugel explains that some of the events described in this week’s reading had an etiological meaning for the ancient Israelites i.e., the stories provided the Israelites with reasons why their customs were different from the other people among whom they lived.  For example, the Israelites practiced animal sacrifice but were specifically forbidden from sacrificing their children - a practice followed by other ancient peoples.  The story of the Binding of Isaac provides that rational.  “The tale of Abraham and Sarah in Egypt may have been designed more to account for Abraham’s fortune and to celebrate a certain craftiness than to praise his piety.”  The story of Lot might have been used to explain everything from peculiar rock formations to why some of Israel’s neighbors spoke similar languages but were implacable enemies.
Sarah’s Laughter
Here is another view of Sarah’s alleged laughter when she heard that she was to bear a child and then her attempt to cover her apparent folly.  “And Sarah laughed within herself, saying:  'After I am waxed old shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?'”  “And the Lord said unto Abraham:  'Wherefore did Sarah laugh, saying:  Shall I of a surety bear a child, who am old?  Is any thing too hard for the Lord?  At the set time I will return unto thee, when the season cometh round, and Sarah shall have a son.'  Then Sarah denied, saying: 'I laughed not'; for she was afraid.  And He said:  'Nay; but thou didst laugh.'”  It says that Sarah laughed “in herself” which could mean she did not laugh out loud, but, as they say “chuckled to herself” which could be construed as two different acts.  When she said she did not laugh, she meant she did not laugh out loud.  Furthermore, if she had laughed silently to herself she would certainly have been “afraid” since she had concept of the all-knowing, all powerful, all present deity.
Why We Study/How We Should Teach
A group of visitors came to spend Shabbat Va-yayra with a rabbi in a town beyond the Carpathian Mountains.  While they were eating their meal, the rabbi called in his five year old son who was reputed to be a prodigy when it came to Torah and Halachah.  “Run along, my boy, and prepare a novel interpretation of the laws of hospitality” which are contained in this week’s Torah reading.  “When the child returned a little while later, his father asked:  ‘Well have you thought something original?’  The boy replied that he had, and the guests quickly finished their meal filled with the anticipation of hearing some novel interpretation of Jewish law.  As soon as the meal was over, the father said to them:  ‘Let us come along together and see what he has to show us.’  Sure enough, as they entered another room his original interpretation of the laws of hospitality caught them pleasantly by surprise:  for each of them the boy had made up a bed for the night, with pillows and quilts all neatly in place.”  The father smiled with delight for his son knew that we learn so that we may do and that the best way to teach the laws of hospitality is to be hospitable.  (Based on the teachings of Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin of blessed memory.)
Lot’s Daughters
We don’t know their names, but we do know the names of their sons.  The older daughter named her son Moab.  ”He is the father of the Moabites today” (19:37).  The younger daughter named her son Ben-ammi.  “He is the father of the Ammonites of today” (19:38).  The Moabites and the Ammonites were ancient people who had a variety of interactions with the Israelites which are mentioned in The Torah and Prophets.  At one time they each occupied kingdoms east of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea in what is the modern nation of Jordan.  By describing the offspring as being the father of these two nations, it is obvious that the author of the story lived long after the event occurred.  By tracing the origins of these two nations to a drunken incestuous event, the writers are casting aspersions (to put it mildly) on these people.  Strangely enough, King David had Moabite blood in him.  Ruth, his famous ancestor, was a Moabite woman which means one of the books of the Bible is named for, and tells the story of, one who descended from the product of a drunken orgy.  Speaking of drink, this is the second time that we have seen wine consumed in quantities that lead to folly.  This is not the last time that we will see the unwise consumption of alcohol lead to a bad end.  Aaron’s two sons are killed, according to some, because they were drunk when they entered the Tabernacle.  In fact, there is a Biblical prohibition concerning the High Priest consuming alcohol before performing his duties.
Haftarah (Ashkenazim)
4:1-37 Second Kings
Haftarah (Sephardim, Chabad Chassidim, Jews of Frankfurt am Main)
4:1-27 Second Kings
This is one of those weeks where how much you will read depends upon what synagogue you attend.  The haftarah describes episodes in the life of the prophet Elisha.
The Book/The Man:  Second Kings is the last book in the section referred to as the Early Prophets.  Originally there was only one book of Kings.  The translators of the Septuagint were the ones who divided it into two books in the third century, B.C.E.  Jews did not finally accept this division until 1518 when Daniel Bomberg incorporated it in his edition of the TaNaCh.  Second Kings begins with a narrative about Elijah and the Israelite King Ahaziah (approx. 896 B.C.E.).  The text describes several major events including the destruction of the Northern Kingdom and the Babylonian Exile (586 B.C.E.).  The text ends with the death of Gedaliah, the governor of Judea after the destruction of Jerusalem, and King Jehoiachin’s liberation from prison by his Babylonian captors (approx. 549 B.C.E.).  Second Kings continues the message of First Kings stressing the importance of the Temple, Prophecy and the House of David.  Elisha literally received the mantle of prophecy from Elijah.  He is credited with performing even more miracles than his illustrious predecessor; seventeen in all, two of which appear in this haftarah.  He was active starting in the reign of King Ahaziah (approx. 897 B.C.E.) and ending with his death his death (approx. 838 B.C.E.) during the reign of King Joash.  Elisha appears to have been a more sociable figure than Elijah had been.  He was probably popular with King Jehu and his descendants since he prophesied Jehu’s accession to the throne of the Kingdom of Israel.  According to tradition, Jonah was a contemporary of Elisha having been sent to prophecy in Nineveh somewhere between 862 and 862 B.C.E.
The Message:  The reading describes a series of miraculous events related to the prophet Elisha.  The first two revolve around providing oil and income for a widow so she can support her children.  The second two revolve around a barren woman giving birth and the resuscitation of a seemingly deceased child.  In reading these and other stories related to Elisha (and his master Elijah for that matter) remember that the early prophets sometimes were a blend of the masters of mystical powers as well as early harbingers of the later preachers who dealt only with issues of morality, ethics and social justice.
Theme-Link:  The prophetic portion parallels three of the themes found in the Torah Reading.  First is the importance of hospitality (2 Kings 4:8-10).  Second is the birth of a child to the infertile, aged couple (2 Kings 4:14-17).  Third is the divine intervention in sparing a child’s life (2 Kings 4:18-37).
Copyright; November, 2016; Mitchell A. Levin