Weekly Torah Commentary – Vayeira November 3, 2017

Torah reading:  Genesis 18:1 – 22:24

Haftorah reading: 2 Kings 4: 1-37

This week’s Torah reading has a profound message for us right now in November 2017.  Across the world we see turmoil and chaos increasing at an alarming rate. Scandals, hate speech, racism and other factors consume the news media and become the topic of heated – sometimes vicious – exchanges on social media.

Abrahamintercedes

While we may admire Abraham’s hospitality in this week’s reading, I think there is something else that displays a high degree of spirituality and maturity in the Patriarch. The brilliance of Abraham’s character is seen in his intercession with the Lord for the sparing of the righteous in Sodom.

The Lord and the two angels made their way down toward Sodom, escorted part way by Abraham. It would seem that the Lord turned to the two angels as He asked, almost rhetorically,

… Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, since Abraham will surely become a great and mighty nation, and in him all the nations of the earth will be blessed? For I have chosen him, in order that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; in order that the Lord may bring upon Abraham what He has spoken about him” (Genesis 18:17b-19) .

The intimacy of the relationship between God and Abraham served as the motivation for God’s disclosure of His purposes for Sodom. Further, the Abrahamic Covenant provided the foundation on which that relationship was based. In verse 19 the necessity for Abraham’s faith to be communicated and continued by his offspring is stressed.

In contrast to the faithfulness of Abraham’s descendants is the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah.

And the Lord said, ‘The outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah is indeed great, and their sin is exceedingly grave. I will go down now, and see if they have done entirely according to its outcry, which has come to Me; and if not, I will know’ (Genesis 18:20-21).

Verses 20 and 21 dramatically portray the sin of Sodom and the righteous response of a holy God to it. The sin of the city is so great that it virtually cries out to heaven for retribution. God’s personal interest and focused attention is depicted as ‘going down’ to deal with it. God is not ‘going down’ to learn the facts, but to take personal interest in them and to invade the situation. So it is that Abraham discerned that God was about to destroy the city, although it was not stated specifically.

The two angels went on toward Sodom, leaving the LORD and Abraham alone, overlooking the city (19:27,28). While speaking reverently, Abraham manifested a boldness with God never seen before.

And Abraham came near and said, ‘Wilt Thou indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; wilt Thou indeed sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from Thee to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous and the wicked are treated alike. Far be it from Thee! Shall not the judge of all the earth deal justly?’ (Genesis 18:23-25).

Abraham’s appeal is based on the justice of God.  He recognizes the evil in the city but his thoughts turn to the possibility of righteous people in the midst of it. Certainly he was concerned for his nephew, Lot and Lot’s family, but at the same time, Abraham also understood God’s mercy and his appeal may well expose his hope that if the city were spared because of the few righteous, perhaps the wicked might yet come to faith in God.

Abraham boldly asserts that it is against God’s nature to treat the righteous and the wicked in the same way.  Therefore, if a sufficient number of righteous could be found in Sodom, there is every reason for God to spare the city from destruction.

The LORD entertains Abraham’s plea and the bargaining begins.  How many righteous will it take?

God agreed to spare the city if 50 righteous could be found (verse 26). Abraham must have doubted that such a number could be found, and so he began to plead for a lower figure.

And Abraham answered and said, ‘Now behold, I have ventured to speak to the Lord, although I am but dust and ashes. Suppose the fifty righteous are lacking five, wilt Thou destroy the whole city because of five?’ And He said, ‘I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there’ (Genesis 18:27-28).

From here, Abraham was encouraged to attempt to further reduce the minimum number of righteous required to spare Sodom. First it was 40, then 30, then 20, and finally 10. We almost sigh with relief here, for one might fear that God would lose His patience with Abraham. Personally, I believe the heart of God was warmed by Abraham’s compassion and zeal. This was no selfish petition, but intercession for others.

Why, then, did Abraham stop with ten? Why would he not have gone on to five or even one? Some may think that he did not dare to press God farther. Perhaps so, but I do not believe that Abraham would have ceased until he were confident that Lot and his family were safe from the wrath of God.

As we know from chapter 19 Abraham’s hopes exceeded reality. This would have resulted in tragedy were it not for a great divine truth: God’s grace always exceeds our expectations.

In the final analysis there were only three righteous in Sodom, Lot and his two daughters. Some might well question the righteousness of the daughters from their actions in the next chapter. However, God did comply with Abraham’s petition. While He did not spare the city of Sodom, He did spare Lot and his daughters.

In Tune with Torah this week = in our day, nation after nation across the world is in turmoil.  Scandals, riots, violence and chaos are regular items in the daily media.  In the midst of a broken society, what are the children of Abraham to do?

Abraham, our father, is our example.

You will notice that Abraham did not spend precious time denouncing the wickedness of  Sodom.  It was obvious enough and needed no further commentary.  Abraham turned to the only One who held out any hope for a remedy.

Never underestimate the power of prayer.

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary – Noah October 15, 2015

Genesis 6:9-11:32

These are the generations of Noah. Noah was a good and just man. He was a pure man in his generation. [Genesis 6:9]

The story of Noah and the flood is well known, yet Noah, the man, arouses our curiosity. The Bible says he was righteous “in his generation.” Does that mean that compared to an immoral and self-serving generation, Noah looked pretty good? Or was he indeed a noble soul?

To answer that question, let’s take a look at his contemporaries.

And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born to them, that the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were pretty; and they took as wives all those whom they chose … The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence. And God looked upon the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its way upon the earth. And God said to Noah, ‘The end of all flesh has come before me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth.’ [Genesis 6:1-2, 11-12]

Noah’s society is one of corruption and thievery. Immorality is rampant. Men do as they please without regard for their neighbor’s welfare. Hmm, sound familiar?

Noah was apparently upright in his morals and did not partake in the evil actions of those around him. But neither does the Bible say he was performing all sorts of good deeds. We could suggest that Noah is an island, neither hurting others, nor helping them. This is the greatness of Noah – but also the tragedy of Noah.

Noah, as a righteous man in his generation, had responsibilities toward his fellow citizens. Noah did not intercede for his generation, nor did he defend them to God. He was detached. By contrast, when God informed Abraham that He was going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham cried out for mercy; he pleaded with God to spare the city if there were even ten righteous within it. Also Moses interceded for the children of Israel repeatedly. But there is no evidence that Noah, aware of the coming flood, spoke even one word of prayer on behalf of his contemporaries.

Noah accepts the decree of God. If the people are guilty, in his mind there is no argument. So Noah toils for 120 years building the ark, yet in all that time, not one person was brought under the influence of this great religious personality. When he is finished building, he boards the ark with his family and the designated animals, leaving everyone else to perish.

Even after he leaves the ark, Noah’s spiritual stumbling continues. He and his family are the only human beings alive – surrounded by utter devastation. How does Noah cope with all this?

He plants a vineyard and then gets drunk on the wine. Is it that Noah cannot cope with the enormity of the destruction that he has witnessed? Does he perhaps feel that his own passivity towards his peers led to the destruction of an entire civilization? What thoughts whirled about in his mind – after the flood?

Noah lived for some 300 years after the flood, fathered children, watched countless generations come and go. Does he change his ways? Do we find him more involved, more concerned, more invested in those around him?

And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech … And they said one to another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar. And they said, “Come, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach to heaven … And the Lord said, “Behold, the people are one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do; and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have schemed to do.” [Genesis 11:1-6]

Noah was still alive at this time. A world of people gathered to challenge the Almighty.

Noah was tragically silent – again.

He will be remembered as a man who knew how to stay calm in the presence of incredible social pressures; a man who knew how to stand alone; but a man whose very ‘aloneness’ kept him from being a force for good within his generations.

But someone else is alive by now. Abraham was forty eight years old at the time of the destruction of the Tower of Babel and the dispersion of the peoples. Abraham saw and learned. Abraham would also have to stand alone but in a very different way. In next week’s Torah portion, we’ll be introduced to the other man who stood alone but in doing so changed the entire world.

In Tune with Torah this week = standing alone against the tide can be a great thing – or a mediocre thing. It depends on what moves the heart. Do we stand alone with a “could-care-less” about what others will have to suffer in this hour? Or like Abraham, do we stand for God – sometimes alone – but always with the welfare of our fellow man close to our heart?

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary – Ki Tisa March 6, 2015

Exodus 30:11-34:35

This week’s Torah reading gives us a poignant study in contrasts.  As Moses stands before the God of Israel on top of the mountain, about to receive the Torah in the most spiritual, stratospheric experience of his life, at the foot of the same mountain, the children of Israel fall into rank rebellion and deplorable behavior: they erect a golden calf, an idol.

If it happened today, news media would capture on a split screen for all to see: the severe disparity between what is happening above and what is happening below. Perhaps in such a presentation, the message would arrest our attention to a life changing degree.

What we are looking it is a demonstration of the worst infidelity imaginable. Consider the general reaction when we hear that a husband takes up a mistress while his wife is pregnant with their first child; or a wife is carrying on with a lover while her husband is negotiating a mortgage for the home of her dreams.  What we watch in this week’s Torah portion is the heartbreaking contrast between commitment and infidelity, utter selflessness versus rank selfishness, eternal perspective versus immediate gratification.

How could such a thing happen? What about all the miracles they had so recently experienced?

Consider a key principle that is too often forgotten: Sin happens when we forget about eternity; when we lose our consciousness that life is about much more than what we see, hear and touch in this physical world. Sin is enabled when we allow this earthly life to cloud the reality of heaven, of the world to come, of the blessings God has already poured into our life, of the sobering reality of accountability for everyone of our words and actions.  When our life has ‘descended’ to the valley of physicality in which we no longer ‘look to the mountain’, we succumb to the identical sin of the children of Israel.  We build our own golden calfs – they take the form of the love of money or jealousies or abiding hatred towards someone else, or immorality.  The list could go on.

When Moses disappeared into the cloud on top of Mount Sinai, the proverbial ‘when the cat’s away, the mouse will play’ took over.  Their leader was not there to rebuke them and they did what their untamed nature dictated.

However, even as they sin, an incredible scene unfolds on the mountaintop. Hearing from God that the people have rebelled, Moses assumes the role of defense attorney for an impossibly guilt client.  His defense of the children of Israel stuns us.  We would except him to be disgusted and revolted. Yet with brave conviction, he pleads their case before God. Moses is convinced that within these rebels, there is potential for greatness. Moses argues with God that there will yet be a day when they have a powerful and intimate relationship with Him.

God hears his prayer.

Thus we learn: At the very moment that the children of Israel had turned away from God and sinned, what was simultaneously happening on the mountaintop would save them from destruction.  Moses interceded; God heard; the sinners are forgiven and then turned back to their God.  The people have forgotten and rejected the God of Israel but the God of Israel has not forgotten or rejected the former slaves He is now shaping into a nation for His purposes. Their memory may be short, but His is not; their faith in Him may be sorely limited but His faith in their potential is unlimited.

If we, for one moment, reflected on this split-screen scene when tempted to sin, perhaps the absurdity of living this life without the consciousness of eternity would keep us from failing.  There is no such thing as being ‘so heavenly minded you’re not earthly good’ as some have claimed.  To be truly heavenly minded is to live each day keenly aware that this life is, as it says in Pirchei Avot, “a lobby for the world to come.” Therefore, it behooves us to keep our destination in mind while making the journey.

Shabbat Shalom