Thursday, November 5, 2009

Torah in Brief: Vayeira, Part I

This week's Torah portion, Vayeira, contains some of the most well-known stories in the Bible. The portion opens with G-d visiting Abraham before three angels disguised as humans arrive to inform him that Sarah will give birth to a son in one year. Afterward, G-d informs Abraham that he intends to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah and Abraham pleads with the Supernal Judge to do justice, sparing the cities for the sake of any righteous people within them. The Bible continues with the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot's wife turns to a pillar of salt, Lot's folly, Abimelech's abduction and release of Sarah, the birth of Isaac, the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael, a covenant between Abraham and Abimelech, and finally the binding of Isaac.

Each of these stories is rich in lessons for us, but I won't be able to give each its due. There are many perplexing occurances as well which require detailed explanation. Feel free to ask me anything about the sections I've glossed over as well as those I discuss below.

Psalm 128:1 says, "Blessed is the one who fears the L-rd, who walks in His ways." Yet how can we possibly follow His ways? Isaiah 55:8 states: "your ways are not My ways"! The sages teach us that we must emulate G-d's acts of kindness. For example, we must clothe the naked just as G-d clothed Adam and Eve after He expelled them from the Garden of Eden, and we must bury the dead just as G-d buried Moses.

In the opening verses of Vayeira, G-d appears to Abraham. Rashi explains that this was the third day after his circumcision, and G-d had come to comfort him, serving as a model for us to visit the sick. Just then, three travelers arrive at Abraham's tent, which was open on all four sides so that travelers approaching from any direction would feel welcome. Abraham took leave from G-d to greet the guests, demonstrating that "the mitzvah of housing travelers is greater than greeting the Divine Presence."

Not knowing that these guests were really angels who don't require food, Abraham set about making a great feast for them. It was Abraham's practice to feed guests, then teach them how to pray to G-d in thanksgiving. As we've discussed previously, anything our patriarch's did was a portent for future generations. Just as Abraham served his guests bread and meat, G-d fed the Israelites manna and quail in the desert. Just as Abraham sent a servant to serve them water, G-d sent Moses to bring forth water from a rock. And just as Abraham escorted his guests as they left, G-d escorted the Israelites through the desert as a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.

One angel had come to inform Abraham and Sarah that she would bear a child. The other two went to Sodom. G-d informed Abraham of that He intended to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah "for their sin is very grave" (Gen. 18:20) and Abraham vigorously protested. "Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice?" (Gen. 18:25) However, only Lot's family was worthy of being saved.

When the two incognito angels arrived in Sodom, Lot offered to take them into his home. Soon, a large mob of Sodomite arrive, demanding that Lot send out his guests "that we may know them" ("know" in the biblical sense). Lot protests, heroically risking his own life... then he does something perplexing and horrific: he offers the mob his own virgin daughters instead. Fortunately, the crowd rejects this offer and as they break down the door, the angels strike them with blindness. In the Tanchuma, G-d rebukes Lot for this sin, which directly leads to a second sin with his daughters.

After Lot escapes with his family, the fire and brimstone rain down upon Sodom and Gomorrah, utterly destroying them. Against the command of the angels who saved them, Lot's wife looks back at the destruction of the cities and turns into a pillar of salt. According to some commentaries, she was pining to return to the wicked cities. Alone in a cave after the destruction, Lot's daughters mistakenly believe they are alone in the world, just as Noah's family after the Flood. In a striking parallel to Noah's being disgraced after falling into a drunken stupor, Lot's daughters give their father wine until he is utterly inebriated, then they sleep with him and conceive. The older daughter calls her son Moab (meaning "from my father") and the younger daughter gives birth to Ammon; the two sons lead tribes bearing their names which dwell in Canaan until the era of kings.

In Part II, we'll pick up with the abduction of Sarah and the birth of Isaac!

by: Yehoshua Jason Bedrick

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