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Dvar Torah on Parshat Vayeira

Parashat Hashavua Vayeira 2001 / 5762 -

29.10.2001 by
This week's portion of the week opens with the well-known scene, often depicted in Jewish illuminated manuscripts and church art, of Abraham, recuperating from his recent circumcision, sitting in the opening of his tent. According to the Rabbinic understanding (inferred, clearly, from his subsequent behavior), Abraham was sitting in the doorway, watching for passers-by to whom he could extend his hospitality. Soon enough, three strangers pass by, and Abraham invites them in and wines and dines them. The entertaining is alfresco - a barbecue quickly prepared by Abraham and 'the boy' (possibly his son Ishmael), served under a shady tree. Sarah remains in the tent, taking Abraham's instructions as to what to bake, but not participating in the meal itself. The three strangers, it turns out, are actually angels, on a mission from God. One of them has a prediction to make. He begins by asking Abraham the whereabouts of Sarah, his wife. "She's in the tent", he says. The angel then predicts that, within the year, she will give birth to a son. Sarah, in the doorway of the tent, out of the sight of the angels, laughs at the absurdity of a 90 year old woman giving birth. When challenged as to why she laughed, Sarah, fearfully, denies it, but God, who is also intermittently present in the story, insists that she did. Later in the parsha, two of the angels move on to Sodom, in order to destroy the city. But first, they must save Lot, Abraham's nephew, who had chosen, back in parshat Lech Lecha, to separate from Abraham and live in the evil city, and his family. As they enter Sodom, Lot, sitting at the gateway to the city, apparently also looking for potential guests, invites them to come and eat at his home, and spend the night there. Once at home he alone prepares food for them, but, before they go to bed, the house is besieged by the entire population of Sodom. They call to Lot and demand that he send the two strangers out of the house to them, so that they may "know them". Lot goes out of the house, closing the door behind him, and negotiates with the townspeople, offering them his two virgin daughters, to do with as they will, as long as they do no harm to the men who have come under the protection of his roof.The Sodomites, however, refuse Lot's offer, berating him as a newcomer to town who has no right to tell them what to do, and start to break down the door. The two guests reach outside, and pull Lot back into the house, saving him from the mob, and lock the door. They then smite the men outside the door with some form of blindness, making it impossible for them to find the door and break in. The angels then lead Lot, his wife, and daughters safely out of the city, which is then destroyed by God. On the way, Lot's wife disobeys their instructions, looks back at the burning city, and is turned into a pillar of salt. Subsequently, Lot's daughters, under the impression that the entire world has been destroyed, get Lot drunk, sleep with him, conceive and give birth. The parallels between these two stories are interesting. Abraham's and Lot's hospitality is central to both, although Abraham's is a family affair (well, Sarah isn't invited to the meal, but she does do the baking), whereas Lot's wife and daughters seem to take no part in it. Another theme that appears in both stories is the importance of the doorway in each - in fact, the words 'petach' (opening), 'ohel' (tent), 'delet' (door) and 'sha'ar' (gate) appear here more than in any other portion in the book of Genesis - Abraham sits in the doorway of his tent, on the lookout for guests to invite into his home. Sarah stands in the doorway of the tent, from where she takes Abraham's order for dessert and overhears the prophecy of the angel. Lot, sitting at his city's gate, invited the two angels into his home, and his negotiations with the Sodomites prominently feature the opening and closing of his door, and the entering and exiting of the house. Also, both stories end, ultimately, with a birth; Isaac to Sarah and Abraham, as predicted, and Moav and Ben Ami to Lot and his daughters. The fate of the women in the two stories also makes an interesting contrast - Sarah's modesty is apparently rewarded by the birth of Isaac, whereas Lot's wife, absent from the entire story until the very end (maybe she was out), turns into a pillar of salt (how barren can you get?) and his daughters, after being offered to the Sodomites by Lot, conceive incestuously and give birth to their own brothers. It would seem that issues of interior/exterior, private/public, and, by extension, us/them are central to these stories. To me, the imagery of doorway/opening/gate points to the question of how to deal with the other, with those outside of ourselves and our immediate circle. The message seems to be that negotiating that space between the public and the private, between ourselves and the rest of the world, is a challenge, which needs to be met correctly and appropriately. In the Abraham and Sarah story, the tent seems to be the inner sanctum of Abraham and Sarah. Abraham is fastidious about the tent. The guests are never really invited in, but eat outdoors, while Sarah, modestly, bashfully, remains in the tent all the time. Of course, one could minimize the importance of this by hypothesizing that it was simply more comfortable for a relatively large group, on a hot day, to cook and eat outside, but, nevertheless, we do come away with the impression of the tent as being a private, inner place, from which Abraham ventures out, but into which he invites no one. The Rabbis, of course, notice the way the area of the house and the area outside the house are negotiated, and find praiseworthy reasons for Abraham's and Sarah's strategy for dealing with this space. In addition to Sarah's modesty in remaining alone indoors, they also indicate that Abraham feared that his guests were idol worshippers, which also made it inappropriate for him to simply invite them into his home. The tent also functions as the apparent limit of Sarah's world. When the angels ask "where is Sarah, your wife?" Abraham does NOT bring her out and introduce her, nor bring them in to meet her, but simply tells them that she is in the tent. She therefore overhears the momentous news that she will conceive and give birth, rather than being told it directly. Although the Rabbi's see her remaining in the tent as an example of her praiseworthy modesty, we can only wonder whether, had she been an active participant in the conversation with the angel, treated as an equal in that exchange, she may have been somewhat less cynical about his message. Here, it would seem, is the downside in Abraham's strategy of having Sarah less open to interaction with the 'other' - she is not able to fully and appropriately experience a positive interaction when it is presented to her. This failure is crucial to the stories of Sarah's being taken by Pharaoh and Avimelech the King of Grar, which, respectively, precede and follow our story. Abraham, in both those stories, is not that successful in his attempts to present Sarah to/hide Sarah from the rest of the world. So, if we were to summarize the imagery of doorway, home, and interior and exterior space, we could say that for Abraham, Sarah, and the rest of his family, the home is a private space, from which one sallies forth into the world to do good. Others, whom we seek to help and who seek to help us, are brought close to, but do not completely enter, our private, inner space. The message seems to be a nuanced, complex one, in which Abraham is certainly outgoing, hospitable, and friendly to every passing stranger, and yet retains an inner, private self, that he is unwilling to share with these same people. The area just outside the tent under the tree functions as a kind of meeting place for the private and the public; a way for Abraham to somehow balance his need for a private space, and his desire to interact positively with others. In the Lot story, the angels are brought directly into the house, which, in fact, becomes a kind of fortress, under attack by the other citizens, angered, apparently, by Lot's show of hospitality. Here we have a very different house - the house as fortress. Lot MUST invite the people in; if left outside, the men of Sodom will attack them. One could point to the urban setting of the story - the CITY of Sodom - as explaining much of Lot's behavior. The ways of the city are cruel. The people of Sodom can only deal with the 'other' violently, aggressively, angrily. Whereas Abraham, out in the countryside, simply sits in the doorway of his tent in order to reach out to the world as it passes by, Lot must go to the very gates of the city to reach out to people - in the city itself, this is impossible. Once he has done so, he must safeguard them from the evils of the city in his fortress-home. The absence of Lot's family in this part of the story may indicate that Lot was completely alone, not only in his opposition to the corruption of Sodom, but also without any real allies at home - alienated from his fellow citizens, and alienated from his family, who, it would seem, have to a large degree assimilated the ways of Sodom. His wife's ambivalence about leaving the city - the looking back - longingly? - would seem to indicate this. Her loyalty is to the city, with all of it's cruelty, and not to her husband and family. The drunken seduction of Lot by his daughters, although understandable (they really did think they were the last people alive) may also indicate, in its depravity, where the girls' allegiances really were, or, at least, how strong was the effect of the city on them. In the Sodom story, the doorway of Lot's house is the clear demarcation between good and evil, safe and endangered, welcoming and threatening. Abraham's tent has a 'petach' - opening - to the outside world, a threshold which he can successfully cross. Lot's door in Sodom must be locked. Lot, by choosing to leave Abraham's camp and settle in the city of Sodom, placed himself in a situation that necessitated his creating in his house a kind of anti-Sodom in the very heart of Sodom. The fate of his wife, and his ultimate interaction with his daughters, would seem to indicate that he failed.I think that these stories have a lot to tell us about the difficulties inherent in crossing the threshold between me and you, us and them. They imply that, as in the case of Abraham and Sarah, we can position ourselves in such a way so as to make possible a successful interaction with the outside world, but even then it must be done carefully, thoughtfully, and within certain limits, which have their cost. Or, as in the case of Lot, we can choose poorly, and place ourselves in a position where we are all alone, forced to be at odds with our surroundings, making it difficult, if not impossible, to ever reach out and interact successfully, even if, like Lot, we would like to. And then, of course, there is the negative model of the people of Sodom, who reject the possibility of positive interaction with the 'other', and, in a kind of perverse debasement of the most intense and intimate interaction possible with someone outside of ourselves, seek to rape and abuse every stranger that passes by. Shabbat Shalom,Shimon

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