Vayera: Rabbi Abraham
Torah Reading: Gen. 18.1-22.24. Haftara II Kings 4.1-37 (Sephardi ritual: II Kings 4.1-23).
G-d’s Covenant with Abraham, marked by the sign of circumcision, brought Abraham to an entirely new level, making him worthy of fathering Isaac, the descendants of whose son Jacob have been the guardians of G-d’s Torah and a “light to the nations” throughout history. While the Covenant is a unique bond between G-d and the Children of Israel, it is of significance for the entire world, and our parshah, which shows Abraham recovering from his circumcision and the ensuing events, is replete with teachings that apply to all humanity.
The simple, beautiful narrative of Abraham’s hospitality to seeming wayfarers with which the parshah begins is in counterpoint with the later accounts of the “hospitality” of the Sodomites and of Avimelech king of Gerar.
Hospitality — treating strangers and visitors kindly — is one of the foundations of a civilized world and a defining trait of true Bney Adam. For man’s existential situation on this earth is that he himself is but a stranger subject to the mercy of G-d. As Abraham says before G-d, the BAAL HABAYIT (“Owner of the House”) in our parshah: “I am dust and ashes” (Gen. 18:27). Abraham says to the children of Ches (Gen. 23:4): “I am a stranger and a resident with you.” I. with you. we are all in the same situation! Essentially we are all visitors on G-d’s earth, and He provides for all of us.
Through the simple human act of showing hospitality to strangers and visitors even under difficult circumstances (Abraham was in the wilderness — we are not talking about “entertaining” friends for dinner) man imitates his Maker, the Owner of the House. Man himself becomes the “host”, providing his guests not only with their physical needs but also with spiritual nourishment. Abraham gave his visitors the waters of spirituality with which to “wash their feet” of false ideas. He brought them in to “rest under the tree” — the Tree of Life. These are the ways of peace. When we sit down to talk peacefully with visitors and strangers about Torah and the purpose of life, this brings the Divine Presence to dwell with us. Pursuing such ways of peace made Abraham worthy of miracles — the miracle of the birth of Isaac, a worthy successor.
THE WAY OF G-D
G-d Himself testifies of Abraham that “he will instruct his sons and his house after him and they will guard the way of HaShem to practice righteousness and justice.” (Gen. 18:19). The sign of the covenant is inscribed upon man’s organ of procreation in order to teach him that he must elevate his sexual power above the pursuit of selfish gratification. He is to dedicate his strength to the breeding and raising of future generations who will be G-d’s torch-bearers in the world, practicing righteousness and justice. The purpose of the commandment to procreate, which was given to Adam, is to fill the world with sons and daughters who are true Bney Adam having TZURAT ADAM, the “essential form” of Adam not merely physically but spiritually. Only when the world will be filled with people who possess this form will it be possible to say that the world is truly civilized. (Likutey Moharan II:7).
It was because of Abraham’s merit that G-d revealed to him the imminent destruction of Sodom, leading to Abraham’s bold effort to save the place through prayer. Abraham clearly saw himself as the Baal HaBayis — “house-owner” — of the whole of the land he had been promised by G-d. Abraham took responsibility for the land and its problems, including it’s moral problems (such as the degenerate civilization of Sodom). Abraham hoped there might be enough Tzaddikim to save Sodom. The boldness of his prayers contain a lesson for all of us to be bold and persistent in our prayers. Yet we must also accept that not all our prayers can be answered in the way we might think we want them answered. In the case of Sodom, the Defense (Abraham) could not prevail, and the Accuser went to destroy the place. Yet the Defender’s prayers did accomplish something: the salvage of Abraham’s nephew Lot and his family from the catastrophe that befell Sodom.
THE DESTRUCTION OF SODOM
Abraham’s virtue as guardian of G-d’s Covenant shines out in contrast to the wickedness of his generation in a “civilization” run amok. Those who are familiar with the stark, eerie desert mountain landscape of the YAM HAMELACH (“Salt” or “Dead Sea”) area with its unique climate and colors may try to imagine it as the setting for one of the most sophisticated “civilizations” that ever was. For prior to the raining down of G-d’s anger on Sodom and the neighboring towns in the form of fire and brimstone, that same area was once luxuriantly fertile “like G-d’s garden” (Gen. 13:10). The desolate desert areas around the Yam HaMelach are gaunt, testimony to the fact that unless man repents, sin leads to destruction. Human immorality can destroy not only man himself but the very physical environment around him. (The same lesson is implicit later on in our Parshah in the illness that afflicted Avimelech and his household when he kidnapped Sarah.)
The destruction of the civilization of Sodom was an historical and ecological disaster that was deeply etched into the consciousness of antiquity. Numerous passages in the book of Job and elsewhere in the Bible contain allusions to the immorality and subsequent destruction of Sodom. The Midrash is rich in tales of Eliezer’s encounters with the inhabitants of Sodom and of their ways. Eliezer as the son of Nimrod was, like the inhabitants of Sodom, descended from Ham, except that Eliezer submitted himself to the slavery decreed upon the children of Ham by attaching himself to Abraham. The inhabitants of Sodom, on the other hand, were so enslaved to human perversity that there was no remedy except to destroy them.
The inhabitants of Sodom enjoyed a fabulous, green watered spa in what is the world’s lowest point. They turned “G-d’s garden” into a center devoted purely to the worship of self to the exclusion of all others. This finds its ultimate expression in sodomy, which was the sin of Ham when he uncovered his father’s nakedness (see Rashi on Gen. 9:22). Sodomy is an extreme violation of the Covenant, whcih decrees that human sexuality is to be elevated to serve as the bond that brings husband and wife together in procreating and raising holy souls. Instead of this, sodomy degrades and abuses man’s highest creative power, his seed, throwing it into the very gutter, the part of the body designed to expel poisonous waste and filth. Sodomy degrades both the passive partner, who is subjugated and used, and the active partner, who is turned into a selfish, lustful animal.
Gang-rape of two apparent visiting strangers was the Sodomites idea of a “gay” evening. [“Gay” sex was also one of the things to which Ishmael later tried to submit Isaac — see Rashi on Gen. 21:9 — the other two being idolatry and murder.]
That Lot had chosen to live in a place with such moral standards and that he had, moreover, been appointed by them to be their judge (Rashi, Gen. 19:1) testifies to the weak flaw in the character of this classic waverer dressed up in the guise of liberalism. Lot’s father Haran had wavered between Abraham and Nimrod when the latter threw Abraham into the fiery furnace. Only when Abraham emerged unscathed did Haran agree to be thrown in — and died. The mountain of Abraham’s virtue seemed to Lot so high that it appeared unattainable. Lot preferred the less spiritually demanding, more materially indulgent surroundings of Sodom. Yet even in Sodom, a spark of Lot’s inherited moral decency remained: even he could not stand it when the locals demanded to rape his very guests — though he was prepared to throw them his own virgin daughters instead.
The Sodomites typify methodical human nastiness in the guise of rights and laws. MIDAS SODOM — characteristically Sodomite traits — are typified in many places in the Talmud, such as in the concept of refusing a person some benefit even when one has nothing to loose, or “mine is mine and yours is yours” (Avos 5:10). The Sodomites rebelled against the law of G-d, making up their own merciless laws, rebelling against any effort to reform them, as when they reminded Lot that he was a stranger: “Shall someone come to dwell and make judgements?” (Gen. 19:9). Sodom was the very opposite of the civilization that Abraham sought to create, where residents invite strangers in and sit together to talk peace. In Sodom unwary strangers were grabbed and lynched. There was no remedy for the Sodomites except to overthrow and destroy their entire civilization.
The mystery of the story of Sodom is that out of the wreckage was salvaged Mashiach. For Lot the waverer was made up of two sides: the side that wanted to do good and the side that wavered. Lot’s daughters did not waver. When they believed that the entire world was destroyed, they took responsibility to repopulate it even if it meant doing the unspeakable. Out of this holy intention was born the nation of Moab, from whom emerged the holy spark of the soul of one who did not waver for a moment. This was Ruth, who never wavered in her devotion to Naomi and her G-d, and whose great grandson was King David, Melech HaMashiach. Ruth became the archetypal Ger, the “visitor” who takes shelter under the Tree of Life.
THE KIDNAPPING OF SARAH
Sin need not lead to destruction — if the sinner repents and makes amends. Like the behavior of the Sodomites, Avimelech’s behavior in kidnapping a visiting woman he presumed to be single also fell far short of the standards of hospitality and treatment of strangers G-d wants in the world. There was no fear of G-d in Gerar — it was a place where if they had thought Abraham was Sarah’s husband, they would have killed him to get her. However, unlike the Sodomites, Avimelech was willing to accept rebuke. The story of Avimelech’s dream teaches that people of all nations may be worthy of dreams and visions from G-d. As Elijah the Prophet stated: “I testify that anyone, Israelite or gentile, freeman or slave, man or woman can attain holy spirit” (Tanna devei Eliyahu). We must be willing to hear and heed the voice of G-d’s rebuke, and to see the hand of G-d in the things that afflict us in this world, just as Avimelech learned that the mysterious disease afflicting his entire household was caused by immorality.
Abraham’s prayer for Avimelech’s healing is the first recorded prayer for healing in the Torah, teaching us the power of altruistic prayer to bring healing and rectification (Likutey Moharan II:1, see Wings of the Sun.)
The reward for Abraham’s acceptance of the Covenant was the miraculous birth of a son born in purity — a worthy successor. Abraham’s uniqueness lay in his originality: he rebelled against his childhood homeland culture to become a Baal Teshuvah. On the other hand, Isaac’s uniqueness, as the second generation, one “born into” the faith, lay in his willingness to submit to a discipline imposed upon him from childhood without rebelling. Only through such submission can the faith survive and be transmitted from generation to generation.
Rashi (Gen. 21:10) tells us that Ishmael contested Isaac’s inheritance from Abraham, claiming priority as the firstborn. The descendants of Ishmael dispute Isaac’s inheritance until today, claiming that the heritage of Abraham is theirs. Thus the concept of submission, which is central to the faith of Abraham, has a prominent place in Islam. According to the Moslems, Abraham’s binding of his son — the archetypal case of submission to G-d — was performed on Ishmael on a mountain in Arabia. In this way a tradition that is little more than 1300 years old mirrors a far more ancient tradition that has been preserved faithfully in writing and by word of mouth from generation to generation for over three thousand five hundred years.
The mountain where Abraham and Isaac performed the supreme act of submission, each in his own way, is none other than Mount Moriah, the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
The Torah testifies in our parshah that this is the mountain where G-d will be seen and revealed (Gen. 22:14).