November 2017, Parshat Veyera

Dear friends,

This week’s Parsha, Parshat Vayera, is one of my favorites particularly because its principal character is Avraham. For many, Avraham is cool because he retains the title of first monotheist and thus the spiritual father of all Jews, Christians, and Muslims alive today. Roughly speaking that is some 4 billion people, give or take.

For us there is yet another level of reverence and love. Avraham was the First Jew…the first of our tribe, the first captain and the first team. For me, the fascination lies in the stories we are told about Avraham.

Consider the opening scene of this Parsha: Avraham is 99 years old and is sitting at the entrance of the tent in the heat of day. According to tradition this is directly immediately after when Avraham circumcises himself. We are told this was the third day after circumcision. Thankfully I have no personal memory I can refer to; I’m not one of those annoying people who can remember their birth.

The third day is indeed when one is most vulnerable. At least in minds of Shimon and Levi with their infamous massacre of the city of Shechem, which is why they attacked precisely then: ‘They attacked them on the third day when they were most in pain’. That’s a direct translation. This takes the notion of unarmed civilians to a whole new level. Unarmed and very recently circumcised!

At any rate Avraham is sitting hurting in the sun when Vayera (meaning ‘and he appeared’), God appears. Avraham had spotted three dusty, disheveled smelly travellers appearing on the sandy horizon. He tells God to hold His thought while he organises a few things.

He yells out to the lad to bring a healthy fat animal to slaughter. He runs to the kitchen and gets them to organize milk, cheese, bread and cakes. Sounds like Avraham owned a milk bar and lived on-site. If so, Avraham is the first recorded milk bar owner and is the economic father of all future migrants, which of course he was himself.

As soon as the strangers arrive, Avraham gives them water to drink and wash up. In the desert, water is the most precious commodity, yet he insisted on their comfort. The he proceeds to feed them a lavish feast.

Here we have a really old man who has just undergone surgery in a very tender spot, stretching himself way beyond any call of duty both physically and financially. You’d think by the effort that these were his closest mates. Yet they were not. They were absolute strangers who were very dirty and exhausted. There were no animals carrying them or accompanying them – highflyers they certainly weren’t. And yet for these needy strangers Avraham extended himself in such a phenomenal way, in a manner usually reserved for royalty.

And the best part is, he interrupted his conversation with God to attend to these people! Actually, the best part is that God was not offended. The rabbis in fact used this episode to instruct us that hachnasat orchim – welcoming of strangers – takes precedence to talking with God.

It therefore boggles my mind that today so many religious people of all types who see Avraham as their spiritual father don’t see it a contradiction to be in support of tightening borders, cutting aid, and generally making traumatised strangers suffer as much they can so as to send a message that refugees are not welcome and not our problem.

Were this story the only one we knew of Avraham, dayenu – it would suffice.

Yet the next story resonates, for me, even more. When Avraham is finally done with hosting he goes back to talking with God. God shares with Avraham His intention to destroy the two cities of Sedom and Amora.

Avraham’s reaction holds eternal relevance. Avraham asks: hashofet kol haaretz lo yaase mishpat – will the judge of the entire world not do justice!?!

It is the eternal cry because it is at the heart of our uproarious protest of moral indignance aimed at the most reviled of creatures, hypocrites. No one excites passionate disgust as much as a stern judge who jails people for drink driving who is then caught drunk as a sailor.

This aversion to double standards is at the heart of morality at its most basic. The only common denominator between all moral codes is that they apply equally to all.

It is this entertaining scene where Avraham challenges God in the most astonishing way that resonates greatly with me. Avraham does not respond to God saying ‘You’re God so You must know what You’re doing’. He becomes incensed, indignant, and lectures God! He haggles like a true middle-easterner up to the very end.

It’s not merely anti-authoritarianism that attracts me to Avraham, though that helps. It is the not accepting authority when it collides with his moral sensibilities. Rather than suppressing his sense of right, just because the authority said so, he enters a full-scale debate, which at the end reveals that he was too quick to judge God. God had, in fact, not planned to kill innocents after all. Avraham’s premise was mistaken and in hindsight very judgmental of God, but he doesn’t get told off for it. Rather, the Torah sees it important to tell us the story at such great lengths.

Why? To teach us because God is true and your moral sensibilities feel true, they cannot be in conflict with one another.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Shneur