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 — Ki Tetzei August 15, 2013

Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19

The theme of relationships – how to build them, how to keep them intact, and how to heal them in the event that they are damaged – is a pervading theme of this week’s Torah portion. In one particular verse, a very strict limitation is placed upon interpersonal relationships. The Torah explains the prohibition in a clear statement of rationale:

An Ammonite or Moavite shall not enter into the Congregation of God; to their tenth generation shall they not enter into the Congregation of God forever; Because they did not meet you with bread and with water on the way, when you came out of Egypt; and because they hired against you Bil’am the son of Beor of Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse you. Nevertheless the Almighty, your God, would not listen to Bil’am; but the Almighty, your God, turned the curse into a blessing to you, because the Almighty your God loved you. You shall not seek their peace nor their prosperity all your days forever. (Deuteronomy 23:4-7)

Amon and Moav were raised in a strange family unit: they were both the products of incest. Their mothers were sisters who got their father drunk, and seduced him in his stupor. (Gen. 19:30-38)

Lot, Avraham’s nephew, saw his world crumble around him. His first tragic mistake was taking leave of Avraham: He should have learned enough from his uncle to achieve a reconciliation between the shepherds of his flocks and Avraham’s shepherds. Avraham in his wisdom realized that there was only one solution for the conflict, and suggested a parting of the ways. (Gen. 13:7-9) Lot travels eastward to Sodom.

There is something terribly wrong with a person who would leave the tent of Avraham and choose a place like Sodom. Sodom
‘looked good’for he was motivated by aspirations of wealth and power. But it didn’t take long for Sodom to be destroyed, his home and possessions along with it. Even his wife was lost. He escaped with only the clothes on his back and his two daughters. These daughters each present Lot with sons, Moav and Amon.

These sons enter the world with a stigma: Their father/grandfather has made countless bad decisions, and their mothers instigated incest with their own father. They are emotionally damaged men: hurt, angry, full of resentment. Yet the Torah teaches a remarkable lesson: These nations are forbidden to the Jewish people; descendents of Amon and Moav are not to be accepted as converts to Judaism. But why? Not because they are genetically inferior but “because they did not meet you with bread and with water on the way, when you came out of Egypt; and because they hired against you Bil’am the son of Beor of Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse you.

The second half of the verse is understandable: They conspired to curse the Jews, reason enough for maintaining a healthy distance. But that’s not the main reason. Rather, it is their failure to greet us in the desert with food and drink that illustrates their lack of character.

Note: Lot grew up in Avraham’s tent. Despite Lot’s possible feelings of abandonment, despite Moav and Amon’s feelings of rejection, despite the dysfunctional family that produced Moav and Amon, they should have known better, and behaved as any relative of Avraham knew was the proper way to deal with others – certainly with relatives.

They are expected to behave as Avraham would have, to greet travelers with food and drink. In this instance, the Torah is unforgiving. We are not meant to summon up “understanding” or “empathy” for those who are products of a dysfunctional home, children born of twisted relationships, the products of incest who may have suffered ridicule, who could have blamed their parents for all their problems. The Torah underscores the power of a positive education and example to overcome negative feelings of resentment and anger. Despite their origins and upbringing, the descendents of Lot had the ability to choose kindness. They were endowed with free will.

The lesson for all of us is unavoidable: Human beings – children and adults -are often tempted to blame others for their own shortcomings, but the Torah does not allow us to place the blame with our upbringing, our parents or ancestors, or other situations beyond our control. Every human being has Free Will; this means that, along with any negative experiences, there are positive lessons to be learned from the challenges in our past.

The responsible individual must choose to reject the negative and distill positive lessons from any given experience. Cycles of abuse and pain can and must be broken, as the case of Amon and Moav illustrates: Even many generations down the line, we have the right to expect moral behavior on the part of Lot’s descendents. Despite Lot’s many failings, despite the challenging background, God has expectations of those raised in the Tent of Avraham. Amon and Moav, as descendents of Lot, had so many positive lessons to learn. They were punished for choosing to focus on their own feelings and their own anger. For their choices, and not for their history, they are forever banned from the Congregation of God.

Each and every one of us, emotional scars and personal failures notwithstanding, is called upon by the laws of the Torah to make a similar choice. We are reminded, through the unlikely example of Amon and Moav, that we are all descendents of someone who grew up in the tents of Avraham and Sarah, Yitzchak and Rivka, Ya’akov, Rachel and Leah. There is greatness within our collective memory, and therefore within our abilities and our selves. Focusing on anger and failure can easily develop into self-fulfilling, negative prophesies, leading to fractured homes and decimated communities. Alternatively, we can each make the conscious choice to learn positive lessons from our negative experiences, and raise ourselves as individuals and families to the higher moral ground prepared for us by our ancestors.

In Tune with Torah this week = renewing our determination to choose rightly despite any negative influences.