Shabbat VaYera: Seeing Behind the Veil

Parashat VaYera begins and ends with ways of seeing the UnSeeable, that is, G*d. The Torah shows us that there are many ways to see. The first opens the parashah and names it:

 

וירא אליו ה באלוני ממרא

VaYera elav HaShem b’eylonei Mamre

HaShem appeared to (literally, “was seen by”) Abraham at the oak grove at Mamre. (Gen.18.1)

 

This “seeing”, what religion calls revelation, develops a certain specific type of experience of the holy, signified by the very next verse. Notice that the verb is the same; it is only the conjugation that changes, from “was seen” to “saw”:

וירא והנה שלושה אנשים

VaYar v’hineh shloshah anashim

He saw three people

Generations of commentators puzzled over this juxtaposition. Rashbam (Shlomo ben Meir, Rashi’s grandson) suggested that HaShem appeared to Abraham not directly but via three angels disguised to look like human beings, that conveyed HaShem’s message. This goes well with our received tradition that we are not able to see HaShem and live.

 

Another interpretation: when he “saw” HaShem, what he was actually seeing was the reflection of the divine image in the three strangers who appeared to him. This explanation goes well with the following story, in which he goes out of his way to welcome the people, making them lunch and giving them a safe place to rest on their journey.

 

Which one is correct? both are, and neither. According to Jewish tradition, every verse has seventy possible interpretations.

 

What else is seen in this parashah? The other end of this parashah describes the Akedah, the “binding of Isaac” during which the father nearly sacrifices the son. Oceans of ink have been applied to realms of paper in interpretive struggle with this story, all with unsatisfying results; even when we manage to make some kind of logical sense of the story, it is still horrifying.

 

Seen through the lens of seeing and being seen, however, it is instructive to note the occurrence of the same verb and to try to understand what might be expressed, or hinted at, from that perspective:

וירא והנה איל אחר נאחז בסבך בקרניו

VaYar v’hineh ayil akhar ne’ekhaz basvakh b’karnarv

He saw a ram caught in the thicket by its horns (Gen.22.13)

And thus at the fateful moment Abraham, apparently not content to leave an altar unused even when he heard the voice of HaShem told him to lay off his son, saw a ram that he could offer up in place of the human being.

 

The end of the Akedah is not often remarked upon, since we’re all too busy reeling from the main event. But note the parallel to the beginning of the parashah:

בהר ה יראה

B’har HaShem Yera’eh

At HaShem’s mountain it shall be seen (Gen.22.14)

At the beginning and at the end of this parashah we have instances of VaYar and VaYera, to see and to be seen. Once at an oak grove, where seeing prompted one human being to offer another water, and more, in the harsh desert environment; and once atop a mountain, where the seeing once again forestalled death.

 

What is it that ”shall be seen”? Is there something about “seeing G*d” that in some way helps us find our way from death toward life? In this parashah, at least, it seems so.

 

If to see G*d is to see – to understand, perhaps – life itself, then what can it possibly mean that “no one can see Me and live”?  This is what HaShem will tell Moshe, down the road. Jewish mystical speculation offers one thought: that although we long to discover the very heart of existence, it will forever be a mystery to us – and we court our own end when we seek to look behind the veil.

 

Humility is key to seeing, then. You can’t see it all. But oh, what you will see, when you get a glimpse through the veil of the holy in this life.

 

 

 

Shabbat VaYera: Sodom and Gomorrah

Our parashah this week is VaYera, “he saw”, referring to Abraham, and his ability to see the Image of G*d in a stranger.  

Our reading, from the second year of the Triennial Cycle, brings us to one of the most infamous passages in the entire Torah, perhaps the entire Bible: the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, or S’dom v’Amora as they are called in Hebrew. It’s an example of how a text that had one meaning was interpreted into a different meaning by a different culture and possibly a third entirely different meaning by yet another, vastly influential culture – perhaps an ancient example of the “fake news” we are hearing about in our day, right now.

Here’s the story: two men, messengers of G*d in disguise as simple travelers, arrive in Sodom toward evening. Abraham’s nephew Lot is sitting in the gate and, seeing two strangers, invites them home with him – a normal act of hospitality in the ancient (and modern) Middle East. It is also precisely the same act that his uncle had just performed with these same travelers the previous day.

But Sodom is not a normal place, and that night a gang of thugs shows up, beating on Lot’s door, demanding that he bring out the strangers. Their intent was not friendly, and Lot refuses to transgress the vital mitzvah of guaranteeing the safety of one’s guests. The messengers of G*d, angels as it turns out, strike everyone blind and rescue Lot and his family from the mob. It doesn’t turn out well for Sodom.

What was the sin of Sodom?

In ancient Jewish writings, the Rabbis only ask a question to settle the answer, so we can glean from this that they already were not so sure what caused G*d to doom the entire city. Working from the evidence of the text, they teach that the sin of Sodom (and Gomorrah, the sister city down the street) was lack of hospitality – the failure to welcome and guarantee the safety of strangers.

“Behold this was the sin of Sodom…She and her daughters had pride, excess bread, and peaceful serenity, but she did not strengthen the hand of the poor and the needy” (Ezekiel 16:49)

Rabbi Yuval Cherlow explains that “the people of Sodom insisted on preserving their high quality of living to such an extent that they established a principle not to let the poor and homeless reside in their city. Consequently when a destitute person would come seeking help, they would revoke his right to any welfare–public or private! By doing this they figured they would preserve an elite upper class community who would monopolize the profits that the bountiful land offers without having to distribute any revenues to a “lower class” of people.” 

You may have heard that the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was homosexuality, because that’s what another (very influential) culture interpreted down the historical line. But the sin depicted in the Torah is one of violence against the stranger, including but not limited to the sexual violence of rape. By the time we get to the false idea that it’s a text that tells us that gay love is a sin, it’s already part of a deadly game of telephone which has distorted the original meaning in a frightening way: this interpretation moves it out of the moral realm of daily action and into a much narrower definition that implicates a minority, rather than all of us.

Understanding the deeper truth does not erase millennia of falsely caused hatred, horrific in its effects. But perhaps in this way also, learning can help us see the light of a deeper truth more clearly. Let that light flood your own dark places with its promise that, some day, the darkness of every intolerance will be lifted. 

There is a teaching in the Jewish collection of ancient wisdom called Tanhuma in which it is pointed out that the eye has both a dark part, the pupil, and a white part – and it is out of the dark part that we see light.

I invite you to consider how you might increase the light when you kindle your Shabbat candles this evening: perhaps you will join me in adding one extra candle, for the duration. You can begin now, in the wake of the election, to encourage yourself to fight against the darkness of your own fear; you can begin at the inauguration as a sign to yourself and everyone else that you are committed to bringing light to bear against whatever darkness may come. Whatever you do, never doubt your ability to lift up light.

And help us lift a light this Sunday, November 20, on National Transgender Remembrance Day; it memorializes trans individuals who have died because of anti-transgender discrimination and victimization. To learn more go HERE.

Hazak v’nit’hazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other!

Shabbat VaYera: How Are Jews To Be in the World?

How are Jews meant to be in the world? The answer suggested by Jewish ethics is that with every step and with every word, we are to seek the presence of G-d. That does not mean that we are to treat the world as a game of hide-and-seek, but rather that we are to consider the impact of every word and act. Will this thing that I am about to say, that I am burning to say, bring the Presence more fully into being? Will this act that I plan to undertake bring more wholeness into my life and that of my family, my friends, my companions in community?

This week we are given a clear message about the intersection of ethical behavior and the Presence of G-d, as our ancestors struggled to understand it.

We have arrived, this week, at the parashat hashavua called VaYera, “[G-d] appeared”. In this first verse and throughout this long parashah, G-d appears several times to different people, in different guises. 

First, to Abraham in the guise of three travelers (or maybe only one of them, the text is obscure).

18.1: “God appeared to him by the scrub oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day”

Second, to Sarah in the guise of an accuser, “outing” her private laughter:

18.15 “Sarah denied it, saying ‘I didn’t laugh’, because she was afraid. But G-d said, ‘you did too laugh’.”

Third, to Abraham in the guise of a king taking counsel with a trusted advisor:

18.17: “Shall I hide from Abraham that which I am doing?”

Fourth, to Avimelekh, king of Gerar, who adds Sarah to his harem after Abraham says that she is his sister (long story):

20.3: “You are going to die, because you have taken a woman who is another man’s wife.”

Fifth, to Abraham, as a friend counsels a man having trouble at home:

21.12: “In all that Sarah tells you, do as she says.”

Sixth, to Hagar as a savior:

21.19: “G-d opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water.”

Seventh, and finally, as – well, we don’t really know for sure:

22.1: “After all these things, G-d tested Abraham.”

These appearances all have in common an invitation to consider the meaning and ethical impact of one’s acts. The first is the classic story of Jewish hospitality. The second and fourth have to do with honesty, and the third with refraining from hypocrisy. The fifth touches on a Jewish category called shalom bayit, “keeping peace at home”. In the sixth, Hagar is challenged not to give up as long as life remains. 

The seventh appearance of G-d in this parashah introduces the story of the Akedah, the “binding” and near sacrifice of Isaac, Abraham’s son and heir. For millennia, Jewish commentators, teachers and scholars have all tried to explain this incident and make it comprehensible. How could G-d command Abraham to “go to the land of Moriah, and take your son, your only one, whom you love, and offer him up as a burnt offering to Me on one of the mountains that I will show you there.” (Gen. 22.2) As has been said by many long before now, this makes no sense. It is also horrifying, of course.

One of the more compelling answers to this question is the one which notes that G-d “tested” Abraham. Pointing out that G-d did not allow the sacrifice to be completed, it has been suggested that the answer is quite simple: Abraham failed the test. The test was knowing when the voice that you are sure is G-d’s is not.

If the idea of “hearing G-d’s voice” is really just another way to say “I feel absolutely certain”, then the true test is knowing when that truth of which you are already certain is no longer true.

Each of the appearances in this parashah ask the protagonist to make a difficult ethical choice. Contrary to what we might assume, the appearance is not a reward for doing the right thing, the appearance is in the quandary itself. 

G-d is present in our difficulties as the strength and vision that allows us to find our way through them. The Divine Presence is not, according to this particular Torah insight, the property of the one who makes the right choice. It is with all of us who realize that before us lies a struggle to discern the ethical path. It is in the seeing, not in someone’s temporary and partial definition of success. It is clearly NOT the property of one who says s/he speaks in the name of G-d, or the secular god of ethics, and then speaks a hurtful, cold, word, or does a cruel act. It is no accident that G-d never again appears to Abraham after this incident.

May the sense of a divine supportive Presence be with you as you do your best to discern the ethical and moral choices of your life, and choose your acts in response.