Lessons for 2017, from an ancient time

D’var Torah
Rabi David Benjamin Fainsilber
November 3, 2017 // 15 Cheshvan 5778
Lessons for 2017, from an ancient time

This week’s Torah portion Vayera
offers a deeply rich, even provocative landscape of narratives
in the tradition of our opening book of the Torah, Bereisheet.
Each story is a chasm into an ancient land
with equally ancient customs.
Each story, too, acts as a mirror into our own lives
in the United States of America, chapter 2017.
Out of each story, each twist and turn in the plot line,
what lessons might we take into our own selves?
What lessons most resonate with our own individual lives
and with our society’s needs today?

Perhaps it is the lesson of taking care of those
who are struck with illness or more.
Our Torah portion opens with three strangers, messengers of G-d,
coming to visit Abraham and Sarah.
At the end of last week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha,
Abraham had just circumcised himself, his son Ishmael,
and the other males of his household.
He is sitting recuperating from the operation
when these three angelic visitors come to visit.
The Talmud explains that this act
was G-d “making clear the importance
of the mitzvah of Bikkur Cholim, of visiting the sick.” (Talmud)

The act of calling a friend or community member who is sick,
of bringing over some warm soup,
nourishes the body as much as the soul.
So too, what might we do to help
after this week’s windstorm
that left thousands of Vermonters without electricity,
many spending days without warm water,
many losing hundreds of dollars of food from lack of refrigeration.
We can learn from G-d’s ways by offering our support directly.
Or when millions have been devastated
by hurricanes, earthquakes and wild fires this season,
can we find the resources to lend a hand;
and can we aim to halt the tides of a changing climate
that already affect us all?

Or perhaps we might learn
from Abraham and Sarah’s incredible hospitality to these strangers.
In our Torah portion it says that despite his condition,
when Abraham “saw (the) three men standing near him,
as soon as he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent
to greet them and, bowing to the ground, he said:
‘My lords, if it please you, do not go on past your servant.
Let a little water be brought; bathe your feet and recline under the tree.'”
And so Abraham and Sarah and Ishmael
fed them the choicest of foods,
and gave them rest from the weariness of their walk.

The great philosopher Franz Rosenzweig said:
“The story opens by saying that G-d appeared to Abraham, (Gen. 18:1)
but when Abraham applies the vision to his own world
he suddenly sees three men standing before him (Gen. 18:2).
Abraham is the religious man par excellence
for he sees G-d in the human situation.”
Might we open ourselves to seeing the divinity in each human,
to the vision that all peoples are part of the same human family,
and we are meant to be hospitable to all?
We could learn from our ancestors,
being open and inviting to more strangers and community members
in our own homes and our society,
as we recognize that they too are a part of us.

Or perhaps the lesson we seek for ourselves and our society
comes from the story of Sodom and Gemorrah?
These were societies based solely on corruption,
whole cities founded on the belief
that rape and murder are legitimate acts,
able to justify their wickedness at every step.
“Then Hashem said: ‘The outrage of Sodom and Gomorrah is so great,
and their sin so grave!'” (Gen. 18:20)
We too might wake up to the corruption
that is around us here today too;
to the murder and rape that continues everyday.

Or perhaps we might draw from the lesson of Abraham
who sought compassion by arguing against G-d
to not destroy these centres of life
if there were innocent people who lived there.
We are reminded again this week
that Abraham is meant to be a blessing for all peoples,
to work towards tzedakah and mishpat,
righteousness, generosity, and justice. (Gen. 18:19)
Would G-d save the city if there were 50 innocent people,
or perhaps 45, or 40, or as low as 10 people?
Drawing on his daring act of standing up to G-d,
might we stand up for what is right and just,
to be heirs to the promise that we too might be a blessing for others?
Will we stand up for the innocent among us?
To take in the tired, poor,
the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free”,
to take in those living under terrible conditions
— who are somehow painted as corrupt themselves —
yet they are the victims of the systems of oppression that alienate them?

Or we might also learn some lesson
from Abraham and Sarah’s encounter with Avimelech,
when Abraham claimed that Sarah was his sister;
where Avimelech took Sarah into his palace,
yet was visited by G-d in a dream,
told not to sleep with her least he sin.
And so we learn that “Avimelech summoned Abraham
and said to him: ‘What have you done to us?
What wrong have I done that you should bring
so great a guilt upon me and my kingdom?
You have done to me things that ought not to be done.'” (Gen. 20:9)
We too, like Avimelech, can listen to G-d,
and to see that something was not right.
We too might call out injustice against those most impacted,
to keep our homes and palaces clean from deception and falsehood.

And then at the end of our parashah,
we come to the most terrifying story, the Akeidah,
when Abraham took his son Isaac to be sacrificed on top of Mount Moriah.
Here we question the very man
who offered his hospitality to the strangers,
who questioned G-d’s plan to destroy Sodom and Gemorrah.
Here we question the very G-d
who visited the sick at the beginning of the parashah,
the G-d we are meant to emulate,
Who asked of Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son.
We end with a lesson that even those we revere are not perfect,
even Abraham is not perfect,
that even our conceptions of G-d must evolve over time.
We might learn that we are meant to question
even the very righteous among our leaders.

So may we heed the call to learn from the stories of our past,
to learn from our mistakes and to grow further,
to visit the sick and to be aware of the ills of our society,
to offer our radical hospitality,
to question authority for the sake of the innocent,
to free ourselves of lies and deception,
and above all, to be a blessing for all people,
and pursue righteousness, generosity, and justice. (Gen. 18:19)
Kein Yehi Ratzon, may it be so.