Parashat Vayera

Saturday November 7, 2020
Congregation Netivot Shalom, Berkeley CA
Samuel Crane, Bar Mitzvah

Shabbat shalom.

Parashat Vayera is a very complicated Parsha, with many pivotal moments. The most important moments that I would like to explore include the following 4 tests that Abraham and Sara undergo. In the first test, three angels come to Abraham looking like strangers and tell him that Sara will have a child. In the second test, Abraham bargains with God for the lives of the wicked people of Sodom and Gomorrah, convincing God to let them live if there are at least 10 righteous people. In the third test, Abraham and Sara come to the house of Abimelech, and Abraham says that Sara is his sister. The last test is the Akedah; in this test, God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, and Abraham almost does, but an angel stops him. Then God tells Abraham that his children will be as many as the stars in the sky and the grains of sand on the shore.

At Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham argues with God. At other points, he does not challenge God, like when God asks him to sacrifice Isaac. Why is it that in certain instances, Abraham does challenge God, and in others, he does not and instead has faith in God? He is not the only person who shifts between having faith and questioning God; Sara also has her moments, like when she laughs at the idea that she could have a child at such an old age. Yet, she also has faith in God to protect her when she is taken in by Abimelech.

In the Akedah, when Abraham does not challenge God, he has faith in God to protect his son, because how can your children be a great nation if you do not have any children? In this test, Abraham has blind faith in God, he follows God blindly into something that most people would never even think of doing.

After Abraham comes back down from the mountain, God never speaks to him again. One view is that because of this, Abraham did not pass the test. I disagree though because on the mountain, after Abraham sacrificed a ram instead of Isaac, God spoke proudly to Abraham, as God restated the brit for the last time. As it says in Genesis chapter twenty two verse fifteen, “The angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, ‘By Myself, I swear, the LORD declares: Because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your favored one, I will bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore; and your descendants shall seize the gates of their foes. All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants because you have obeyed My command.’” This shows that Abraham did pass the test, because why would God restate his promise to Abraham if he had failed? Rabbi Amy Kalmanofsky says something similar: “Abraham passed God’s litmus test of faith. . . He must fail as a man in order to become a man of faith.” In summary, this test forces Abraham to be willing to throw away all he has lived for, including his son, and therefore fail as a man and a father, just to be faithful to God. This is similar to when God told Abraham to leave his native land, and everything that he knew, to go to Canaan, and he listened to God because he had faith in God. The only difference this time, when it comes to his son Isaac, is that he has to give up something worth more than all the gold he brought with him on his journey to Canaan.

The most prominent moment where Abraham challenges God is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. In that story, God tells Abraham that he is going to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah; then Abraham challenges God, convincing God not to destroy the two cities if there are 50 righteous people there: then 45, 40, 30, 20, and finally 10 righteous people. One possible reason he challenges God is that he has faith that there are good people in Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham is fighting for social justice, he is fighting for those people’s rights. This reminds me of how the Declaration of Independence states that it is self-evident that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights. As Jews we could interpret this, saying that God has blessed us with certain rights that cannot be taken away, even by God. That is why Abraham challenges God because he thinks that these people have the right to live and that God should not take that away from them. Also, if God does not like how these people are behaving, then why doesn’t God just change them; I mean, God says in Genesis chapter eighteen verse fourteen, “Is anything too wondrous for the Lord?” The events of Sodom and Gomorrah are really when Abraham proved himself to God, by showing that he wasn’t only a man of faith, but he could also see when justice was needed. Rabbi Sidney Schwarz writes that “According to God’s covenant with Abraham, every Jew is called upon not simply to believe in the values of righteousness and justice, but to act on them: motivated by moral responsibility, to advocate–as Abraham did–on behalf of the vulnerable of all nations” (Judaism and Justice). This quote argues that it is part of our job as Jews to advocate for social justice.

What confuses me with this Parsha is why Abraham does not argue with God to save his sons, but he is willing to challenge God to save strangers; why is this? These events would be considered two of the ten tests of Abraham, which is how God decided that Abraham was the right person to be the father of a great nation.

Something else that I notice is that Sara also seems to challenge God or have faith in God at different moments. For example, she challenges God by laughing in disbelief that she could have a child at her old age. At the same time, Sara has faith in God to protect her from Abimelech, when she is taken by Abimelech into his household. In contrast, Abraham has completely forgotten about God’s protection, when he risks Sara to keep himself safe by pretending that they are siblings.

If God tested Abraham to see if he was the right person to father a great nation, it is also possible that God might have tested Sara to see whether she was the right person to be the mother of a great nation. I believe that Sara was also tested, and had a separate relationship with God that was not through Abraham. Specifically, we see her talking with God about her laughter after hearing that she will have a child. In genesis chapter eighteen verse fifteen, it states, “Sarah lied, saying, ‘I did not laugh,’ for she was frightened. But God replied, ‘You did laugh.’” This quote shows that Sara is blessed with the gift of being able to speak to God, and therefore is a prophet, just like Abraham.

During these tests, God is testing Abraham and Sara’s ability to have faith in something, but also their ability to challenge that something when needed. I believe that this is part of what it means to be a Jew, being able to find that place between having faith in God and challenging God. That is why I think that during these four tests, Abraham and Sara are becoming Jews, like how Jacob becomes a Jew when he wrestles with God. Similarly, you truly become a Jew once you are a Bnei Mitzvah. You are given more privileges, but also more responsibilities; you are truly accepted into the community. Another part of being a Jew is grappling with what being Jewish means, because just like in the Torah, we are always on the move, and we are ever-changing. Jews and other religious communities adapt to their time because each generation is faced with new challenges.

One thing that I wonder about is how Abraham and Sara would react to our current situation during COVID-19; would they follow the rules even amidst the chaos? How would they respond to all the fires and the protests, would they be Democratic or Republican, and would they be the same kinds of Jews today that they were back then? Likewise, in an article from the Jerusalem Post, Barry Leff wonders, “Would the rabbis of the Talmud be out on the streets – and in the tents – with the protesters? Or would they be defending the government and the status quo?” (What does the Torah say about social justice?) Even today, we have modern prophets who help lead us through tough times. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is being remembered: “as a prophet for justice who persevered against long odds to become an American icon” (Ruth Bader Ginsburg remembered as prophet for justice). Another modern-day prophet is John Lewis. Jon Meacham writes that “He sees Lewis as a contemporary saint… because his heart always stayed true and open and at peace” (John Lewis a ‘contemporary prophet’ in new biography). From these quotes, you can see that Ruth Bader Ginsburg and John Lewis could be considered the Abraham and Sara of today. Furthermore, our modern-day prophets inspire the people around them to act in a similar way and to fight for what they think is right.

To me, being Jewish is a very complicated story with many opinions and questions. This is what the point of a drash is, to explain parts of Jewish history through your own opinions and wonderings. In a sense, this is what Abraham and Sara were tested on, this is part of what makes you a Jew. Throughout my life, I have been taught to question everything around me. How do we follow ancient Jewish laws today, and how do we adapt them to our time? I have gone to three Jewish day schools, and the one thing that I have never been told to do is believe in God. If God is one of the central parts of Jewish religion, then why is it that we don’t have to believe in God?

Struggling with what it means to be Jewish is to struggle with what it means to be human. In school, we ask many big theoretical questions about life and death, and what it means to be human. Another place where I have been taught to question and argue is at home with my parents, sister, and grandparents. In my family, arguing is essential, and in almost every conversation, there is an underlying argument that allows us to interact. On the flip side, there are certain instances where I am forced to accept things for what they are and accept what is our reality. In our current moment, all of us in this congregation and in the world need to see what is our reality with COVID-19, and accept that things are not normal. For example, I have to have my Bar-Mitzvah over zoom, and some close family members of mine are not able to come in person.

What you should take away from this drash is that in life, you need the ability to trust something and to have faith that all will turn out well, but you also need to be able to challenge that something when necessary. If Abraham and Sara never challenged God, it would have been like God was controlling them, and Abraham and Sara would have done whatever God wanted them to do. On the other hand, if Abraham and Sara never had faith in God, then God would have lost faith in them, and Abraham and Sara would not have become the people that they ended up becoming. Part of becoming your own person in life is being able to have faith in what you believe in, not what your parents believe in, or what the majority of people believe in. Sometimes it is necessary to challenge the popular belief because sometimes there are some things that others overlook. Sometimes we have to question our reality and break the barriers that constrain us. This is what Abraham and Sara were forced to do throughout this Parsha. Our ability to have faith in something or to stand up for something defines who we are.
Shabbat shalom.