November 3, 2023 / 19 Cheshvan 5784 Vayera

This week’s Torah portion, Vayera, contains 3 familiar and iconic narratives, the story of Isaac’s birth, the destruction of the morally depraved Sodom and Gomorrah—of a cosmic magnitude parallel to the flood in parshat Noach a few weeks ago—and the near sacrifice of Isaac by his father, Abraham, on Mt. Moriah.  Between the last two narratives, is another sad soap opera, that reverberates to this day.  You may remember that Sarah, in her barren state, encourages Abraham to produce an heir with their maid, Hagar, in Sarah’s name.  Hagar’s son, Ishmael, becomes an irritant to Sarah, who promptly pleads to her husband after she herself gives birth, with “Cast out this handmaid and her son, for the son shall not share the inheritance with our son, Isaac.”  God miraculously saves Hagar and Ishmael in the desert and declares that Ishmael will be the father of a great nation, but not the Jewish one.  Uncharacteristic for the trajectory of messages in Judaism, this week’s reading, Genesis, chapters 18 -22, goes from uplifting to dismal.  The beginning of the parsha finds Abraham sitting by the open flaps of his tent in the heat of the day as he graciously welcomes three strangers, whom we know to be angels, who, in turn, predicted that aged Sarah would birthe a son within the year.  The visiting messenger-angels left, and Abraham escorted them on their way to Sodom, where God decided to reveal to Abraham the evil of Sodom and its sister city, Gomorrah, and God’s plan for their full destruction.  Abraham argued with God, asking, “Will you ruin the righteous along with the wicked? Perhaps there are fifty righteous in the city. To kill the righteous along with the wicked such that the righteous should be like the wicked–to do such a thing, I know would be a profanation to You, God. Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice?”

And God said, “If there be 50 righteous, I will forgive the city because of them.”

Abraham continued, “How about if there were only forty-five righteous? Or 40? Or 30? Or 20? Or 10?”

God responded to each. “I shall not destroy the whole city if there are forty, or thirty, or twenty or even ten righteous people.”

In the end, Abraham’s relative, Lot, and his family, were saved, but no one else survived.

To offer a word of Torah, that speaks to living a moral, just, and fulfilling life is paralyzing for me at this moment in time.  None of the dozens, yes dozens, of past Divrei Torah for this week’s parsha, that I have read from my brilliant colleagues were able to inspire me for a grand gesture, even a very tiny gesture towards bringing comfort and hope to each of us.  That comfort and hope, I believe, is being accomplished by our being together, leaning on each other literally and figuratively, and sharing our thoughts and feelings in our safe space together. 

However uncanny the similarities in this week’s parsha, I do not think that the Torah was predicting what would happen in October, 2023.  Still, from a clinical perspective, the parallels are illuminating.  Gaza City is not Sodom and Gomorrah, but maybe Hamas is.  Our Talmudic and Midrashic sages expose a world of corruption in Sodom alone.  We read that the Sodomites abused and dehumanized each other, their animals, and also their natural  environment.  ‘All humankind was corrupted’ is not written in the text, but rather ‘All flesh was corrupted.’ Thus, the sages conclude this means all flesh, both human and animal. Moreover, Rabbi Luliyani son of Tavrin said in the name of Rabbi Isaac, ‘Even the land became corrupt as they would sow wheat and the land would sprout degenerate wheat.’  Food scarcity, disproportionate distribution of food supplies to the orphan, the stranger, and the poor assuredly resulted in more poverty, suffering, and economic chaos.  I cannot help but be reminded of the snowballing economic disaster following Israel’s unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005.  Immediately following the exodus of all the Israelis who had settled there and engaged in developing the local economy, Hamas razed their homes and destroyed the many greenhouses that were previously owned and managed by the Israeli residents….greenhouses representing the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip and the lucrative flower export business.  American Jewish philanthropists are known to have bought the abandoned greenhouses right after the Israeli residents moved out for over $300,000 to transfer them directly to the Palestinians as a gesture of support, to no avail.  I sense that Hamas in 2005 was intentionally undermining their own survival by destroying natural resources and denying their citizens opportunities for any upward mobility.  Gaza’s multi-million dollar export flower industry all but dissolved, along with industry, social services, and education.

Moreover, in 2007 Hamas fighters wrested power from officials of the Palestinian Authority whom they imprisoned, executed, or expelled, and took over rule in Gaza.  Immediately after, Egypt and Israel, with US and European backing, instituted a blockade of goods going in and out of Gaza.  The incoming international financial aid, at that time, for humanitarian needs to make up for the blockade of goods, according to what I have read and learned (and here, I defer to the historians and first-hand observers) was mainly diverted to Hamas arms stockpiles.  Again, a direct assault on the health and welfare of the people, most assuredly leading to frustration, anger, and vulnerability among Gaza Palestinians, ruled by an iron fist and poised to vent their powerlessness on Israel.  In Sodom and Gomorrah, sexual immorality was the outward manifestation of an uncivil society.  Today, immorality has reached the heights of conscience-less murder.

Whatever the measure of lawlessness, of Hamas (ironically the Hebrew word for lawlessness) of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham complains directly to God that God’s justice must be erring on the side of destroying the innocents along with the guilty.  The text says that even 10 innocents could not be found in either of these two biblical cities.  What did God want to do and what can we do with this sad state of humanity, that causes such wanton destruction to others and implodes internally as well?

Reform theologian, Rabbi Eugene Borowitz of blessed memory understands that God isn’t angry with Abraham for calling into question either God’s proposed actions or God’s sense of justice. Indeed, by God agreeing to spare the people if only 10 among them are righteous, it seems that the intimate, covenantal relationship that God previously established. . . . already has made Abraham a permanent human “covenant-partner.”  Like Abraham here, rather than the Abraham of blind faith and obeisance to God in the story of the binding of Isaac, somehow we Jews continue to remain in that covenantal relationship with God, one that will surely outlast the infamous October 7 massacre and subsequent response by Israel called  Operation Swords of Iron.

Uncertainty is the only certainty at this moment. That said, Elie Wiesel reminds us, history repeats itself when it comes to the story of the Jewish people.  We can sink into its repetition with complacency or with wounded paralysis when it comes to our would-be detractors and haters.  Or, like Abraham, we can struggle by all means possible—to render inoperative the immorality of Sodom and Gomorrah, then and now.  May all our sacred endeavors come to pass.

Kein yihiye ratzon!