D’var Torah: Vayeira

On Nov. 9, I led Shabbat services at Temple Concord for the first time. Here’s the d’var Torah I wrote for the occasion:

When I agreed to lead tonight’s service, I did not check this week’s Torah portion first. If I had, I would have seen that Vayeira is one of the most action-packed parashot of the year!

I’m going to give you a quick summary with help from a website that promises the parsha in a nutshell. Please forgive me if it reads like a soap opera synopsis.

Adonai appears to Abraham three days after the first Jew’s circumcision at age 99.

Abraham rushes off to prepare a meal for three guests who appear in the desert heat. One of the three — who are angels disguised as men — announces that, in a year, the barren Sarah will have a baby. Sarah laughs.

Abraham pleads with God to spare the wicked city of Sodom.

Two of the three disguised angels arrive in the doomed city, where Abraham’s nephew, Lot, extends his hospitality to them. The two guests reveal that they have come to overturn the place, and to save Lot and his family. Lot’s wife turns into a pillar of salt when she looks back at the burning city as they flee.

Sarah gives birth to a son, who is named Isaac.

Hagar and Ishmael are banished from Abraham’s home and wander in the desert. God hears the dying boy’s cry and saves his life by showing his mother a well.

God tests Abraham’s devotion by commanding him to sacrifice Isaac. Isaac is bound and placed on the altar, and Abraham raises the knife to slaughter his son. A voice from heaven calls to stop him; a ram is offered in Isaac’s place.

Next on As the Torah Turns: Abraham receives the news of the birth of a daughter to his nephew.

Stay tuned, folks: The baby is named Rebecca!

***

There are dozens of lessons worth discussing here, numerous opportunities to apply the Torah’s wisdom to our lives. There are also numerous moments that might make us question God’s intentions, Abraham’s parenting and Sarah’s heart. I will leave most of these for another time, and a more learned speaker.

The portion offers the very first example of bikur cholim, and establishes the imperative to visit the sick just as God visited Abraham. Another lesson of this portion, one I’d like to underline this evening, is the idea of hospitality. In Abraham’s story, you can see that he found it more important to welcome guests than to receive the divine presence.

I would suggest that this week, with the devastation of Hurricane Sandy so very close to us, that visiting the sick and offering hospitality to those in need are among the most urgent demands on our time and resources as Jews and as human beings.

Our community has endured the pain of natural disaster and understands the suffering, dislocation and frustration of those in New York City, New Jersey and elsewhere who are struggling to recover and rebuild. We know the stress and strain of going more than a week without electricity, of seeing our homes ruined by water and wind.

We also know how long the road back to “normal” life will be for many of those hit hardest by the storm.

The Union for Reform Judaism has established a Hurricane Relief Fund and is accepting donations online. You can donate money to the Red Cross in any number of ways, even by text!

And there’s now an urgent need for blood donors, too. The Johnson City Blood Donation Center is open nearly every day, Davis College just down the street has a drive on Monday and you can even go to a blood drive at the mall next weekend. There are ways to help, even if we can’t write a big check. I always say that giving blood is one of my favorite kinds of community service because I get to lie down for a bit and then eat something sweet!

***

Some are determined to find a message in the wreckage. It’s a test, some say. An opportunity to prove our strength and virtue. Others may see a punishment for wickedness, a storm sent by a vengeful God, the same one who destroyed Sodom.

My views of the natural world are incompatible with these notions. And I do not believe in God the Micromanager, that Adonai is somehow responsible for the minutiae of daily life, preserving one family in safety while sending terror to another.

I do believe that our faith can give us the strength and the courage to do exceptional things, to overcome incredible challenges. That God can hear our cry for help just as Ishmael’s cry was heard. What comes our way may not be a well sent by God, but a reservoir of goodwill from another person — or even the revelation that we have had the inner resources to prevail all along.

***

I’d like to share with you this prayer, adapted from Rabbi Jack Riemer’s New Prayers for the High Holy Days and posted this week on the URJ website. It’s titled “We Cannot Pray to You.”

We cannot pray to You, O God,
to banish war,
for You have filled the world
with paths to peace,
if only we would take them.

We cannot pray to You
to end starvation,
for there is food enough for all,
if only we would share it.

We cannot merely pray
for prejudice to cease,
for we might see
the good in all
that lies before our eyes,
if only we would use them.

We cannot merely pray
“Root out despair,”
for the spark of hope
already waits within the human heart,
for us to fan it into flame.

We must not ask of You, O God,
to take the task that You
have given us.
We cannot shirk,
we cannot flee away,
Avoiding obligation for ever.

Therefore we pray, O God,
for wisdom and will, for courage
to do and to become,
not only to look on
with helpless yearning
as though we had no strength.

For Your sake and ours
speedily and soon, let it be:
that our land may be safe,
that our lives may be blessed.

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