D’var Torah: Rabbi Michael Swarttz (Vayerah)

The Good and the Bad of Vayerah

Vayerah is a very rich parashah. It moves swiftly from one narrative to the next. There are elements that are consistent with our modern sensibilities, but there are others that are troubling, to say the least.

Among the positives: Abraham and Sarah are the paradigms for hachnasat orchim (hospitality) when they welcome the three strangers/messengers to their tent. Abraham, the very first “Jew,” as it were, bargains, or argues, with God to spare the innocent when God wants to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. In this he is the model for the rich Jewish tradition of arguing with God. The birth of Isaac, a fulfillment of God’s promise to Sarah that she would have a child.

On the other hand, Vayerah is filled with violence, and not just the obvious violence of the aforementioned destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the implicit violence of Akedat Yitzhak, the binding of Isaac. Additionally, as Judith Plaskow highlights in her commentary in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, there are numerous incidents of violence against women:

  • Lot’s offering his daughters to the people of Sodom in an effort to spare the men —“Do with them as you please.”
  • Abraham’s seeking to pass off Sarah as his sister in order to protect himself. Sarah’s potential rape by Avimelech, king of Gerar, is averted by a divinely sent dream. This is the second “wife-sister” incident with Abraham; it occurs once again with Isaac and Rebecca.
  • Violence against Hagar in expelling her and Ishmael from the household in order to assure Isaacs inheritance. Sadly in this case Sarah is the initiator here, with Abraham being the willing enforcer.

We always need to be careful in judging and evaluating biblical texts in light of our contemporary values and sensibilities. Obviously it was a very different world, and the status of women was radically different than today, at least in our Western world. Still, these narratives are extremely troubling to us, and it is striking to see so many examples chronicled in one parashah.

Plaskow asserts, “This Torah portion makes clear that our ancestors are by no means always models of ethical behavior that edify and inspire us. On the contrary, often the Torah holds up a mirror to the ugliest aspects of human nature and society. It provides us with opportunities to look honestly at ourselves…, to reflect on destructive patterns of human relating, and to ask how we might address and change them.”

Speaking of progressive change, Martin Luther King, Jr., famously said, “[T]he arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” [King was apparently quoting Reverend Theodor Parker.] Sadly, in our supposedly enlightened era, violence against women, particularly by powerful men abusing their power, continues unabated.   Famous examples abound, notably Bill Cosby, Bill O’Reilly, Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump, as do countless #MeToo’s.

From Vayerah to our own time. King’s moral arc moves excruciatingly slowly. We cannot complete the task, but neither are we free to desist from the work of bringing justice and dignity to women and to all of the vulnerable in our midst. May each of us do our part to move that moral arc in the right direction.

Michael Swarttz, alumni parent, is the rabbi of Beth Tikvah Synagogue of Westborough, the Jewish Chaplain at the Phillips Academy in Andover, and the Coordinator of the Harold Cotton Leadership Center of the Jewish Federation of Central Mass. 

 

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