Tag Archives: genesis

Vayeira: We Reflect God, and God Reflects Us

This week’s Torah portion, Vayeira, holds many well known and central stories of the Jewish people. The angels visiting Avraham and Sarah, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the Binding of Yitzhak, are all in this one division of Genesis. Literal tomes have been written on each segment of each of the stories that comprise this portion. Usually, we talk about what we can learn from the behaviors of the characters in these stories. Avraham and Sarah’s hospitality for the angels, Avraham’s bravery in arguing for the lives of those in Sodom and Gomorrah, the many difficulties of the binding of Yitzhak – much ink has been spilled using these stories as examples for our own behavior.

Our sages of the past saw that these stories all have a very strong theme in common: God’s relationship to humankind. The human characters interact directly with divine beings, be they angels or God. This is a real rarity in the narratives of the Tanakh, and I’d imagine it was for this reason that our classical interpreters of the text focused on this so intently. Rashi, arguably the most important interpreter of Jewish sacred text, who lived in the first and second century of the second millennium CE in France, focused his interpretation of the story of Avraham’s hospitality towards the strangers (who turn out to be angels of God) on the way that God and the angels reacted to this behavior. His conclusions are quite striking.

In this story, three strangers are walking through the desert when Avraham spots them, runs over to them, and invites them to his tent to relax and eat. Lo and behold, these three strangers turn out to be messengers of God. According to Rashi, the angels and God saw Avraham’s behavior, and their immediate response was to mimic it. In Rashi’s understanding, God later mimics Avraham’s sending of water to them via a messenger, when God sends water via a miracle to the Israelites in the desert much later in the Exodus story.

If we assume that the writers of these texts were trying to reveal a truth about our place in the world and our relationship to God through a story, and that Rashi was also attempting to accomplish the same, we can come away with a very interesting and complex understanding of our relationship to the divine. Most conceptions of the divine are extraordinarily hierarchical. Divinity is above, and we are below. We are at the mercy of God or gods, mere mortals living out small lives. If, instead, we see the relationship carrying some mutuality, as it is apparent that Rashi did, the hierarchy gets turned on its Rashi isn’t just pointing out some similarities between Avraham’s hospitality and God’s. In his interpretation, Rashi is showing us something much more intrinsic to our relationship to the divine. Not only are we reliant upon the divine for what we need (for example, during this visit to Avraham, the angels announce the miraculous pregnancy of Sarah, and the imminent arrival of the new baby Yitzhak), but the divine reflects our own actions back to us. Avraham, consistently cited by those who came after him as the lifeline to God, affected the continuity of his offspring, and ultimately the successful formation of the people of Israel, by displaying his magnanimity to the angels. God reflected this behavior back to the Israelites by gifting them with water in their time of need, while wandering the desert during the formative stage of the newly free Israelite people.

Instead of looking at this text as a mythological narrative simply attempting to explain the roots of chosenness of the Jewish people, which this miraculous birth is so often cited as, maybe we should try to apply these lessons in our own lives. Throughout our liturgy and our history, and actually throughout the rest of the Tanakh from this point on, it has been the tradition to invoke God’s special relationship with Avraham whenever seeking something from God. Traditionally, the deeply troubling story of the binding of Yitzhak is even recited during Jewish morning worship as a way to attempt to convince God of our worth, based entirely on Avraham’s unflinching willingness to sacrifice his son to God. Maybe, instead of just citing Avraham’s deeds as rationale for our own worth, we should instead look at what the story is trying to tell us about his deeds, and why they are special at all.

Rashi’s interpretation of the story hints to us that human actions of kindness reverberate throughout time. By citing this one instance of Avraham’s kindness as the impetus behind God having provided the Israelites, the many generations later grandchildren of Avraham, with the miraculous water that sustained them in the desert, Rashi is telling us that our own acts are similarly important. Were it not for Avraham’s kindness, the Israelites never would have made it into the Promised Land, and we wouldn’t be here to discuss the outcomes. God’s reflection of Avraham’s behavior was the linchpin on which the Israelites’ future hung. By using this example to pattern our own behavior, by viewing our actions as reverberating throughout history as the mutual relationship between us and God, forged initially by Avraham and renewed by every one of us, we can be guided by our tradition towards lives of great meaning. Each action we take can be viewed as having endless consequences based on the value of our works. Rashi and our Torah beseech us to view Avraham not only as the pillar of righteousness that our tradition rests upon, but also as the exemplar for us all to follow to build our own lives into similar pillars of righteousness for the generations to come.

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Everything Is Amazing and Nobody is Happy

This week’s Torah portion is easily one of the most famous. Everyone knows the general

outline – God tells Noah that he’s going to destroy the world which has become corrupted

beyond redemption, and Noah needs to build an ark to save himself, his family, and all of

the animals of the world. When learning this story, from a young age on, we’re taught to

identify with Noah, the most righteous of his generation. So what was so wrong with this

generation that a guy like Noah, who didn’t even bother to warn his fellow humans of the

impending doom, was the most righteous?

 

One of the explanations our ancient sages gave us in the Talmud was that this generation

had become haughty because of the goodness that God showered upon them (Sanhedrin,

108b). Citing the book of Job to describe these wicked people the Talmudic baraita goes

on to say that they enjoyed so much abundance and such great wealth that they came

to believe that they didn’t need God for anything at all. This wicked generation enjoyed

extremely long lives in which they were never lacking in food or pleasures, music was

always readily at hand, and their children danced.

 

A few years ago, one of my favorite comedians, Louis C.K., was on Conan O’Brien’s

talk show and pointed out some pretty clear truths about today’s generation. The general

theme of his interview was that, today, everything is amazing and nobody is happy. His

most clear elucidation of this theme is the fact that people complain about their cellphone

reception not being strong enough to surf the internet, without considering the fact that

the signal has to go all the way up to outer space and back. Similarly, a few generations

ago, it would have been inconceivable to have a piece of equipment like a modern day

smartphone be available for nearly everyone.

 

I’ll be the first to admit that I complain about these things; with modern conveniences

come modern inconveniences. I also must admit that in comparison to the early rabbis of

around 1800 years ago who wrote the baraita quoted above, my life has so far matched

their description of the generation of the flood to a tee. I have certainly been quite lucky

in my life, but I would also say that the majority of my friends in the Jewish world

have had similar luck. If we are like Louis C.K. says and absurdly taking the wonders

of our world for granted, are we then mirroring the generation of the flood? Are we

similarly devoid of thanks to God, losing our ability to see the wonders in what is now

our everyday life? In short, should someone start building an ark?

 

Well, I think an ark might be a bit much, but there’s another clear alternative: Let’s be

more thankful. But thankful to whom? The second problem of the generation of the Flood

according to the baraita, that of casting God off, is another struggle that we face today.

One of the greatest issues in Modern Judaism is with the conception of God. We are so

often confronted with ideas and conceptions of God that are inherently contradictory

to a modern, scientific mindset that it is sometimes quite difficult to conceive of fully

believing in a God. It is especially difficult to believe in one that has the power to flood

the entire earth, but needs a human being to build an ark to save a remnant of inhabitants.

This is not a reason to dismiss the whole concept of a higher power, though, but instead

a challenge to the conception we have of our rational sensibilities to fully understand

our reality. The critique of thanklessness found in both the Talmud and Louis C.K. is a

similar challenge. Although we may have cast aside the idea of a man in the sky pulling

strings and deciding upon punishment and reward, at the very least we can marvel at the

wonders of nature, human ingenuity, and sheer beauty in the world around us. If just that

spark of wonder can be fanned, thankfulness for these phenomena will surely follow.

Luckily our tradition has a built in mechanism for reminding us of the wonders of our

life. The Jewish practice of reciting blessings is designed specifically to orient us towards

acknowledgment of the wondrous goings on around us. The morning prayer sequence in

particular (shaharit) is designed to start our day by thanking God for returning our souls

to a working body, along with giving us all of the things we need, from sight to physical

flexibility to consciousness, to go about our day.

 

It seems unlikely that we are heading towards another great destruction akin to that of

the story of Noah. Even if we don’t actually face a doom that necessitates an ark, we can

certainly take something away from the commentary of our rabbinic tradition. If mere

haughty thanklessness in a time of great plenty was thought of as enough to warrant utter

destruction, we ought to take this into account. In fact, if we read Noah’s collection of all

of the creatures of creation as an acknowledgment of the many various wonders of the

world, instead of as a literal gathering of the species onto a boat, we even find the answer

to the problem right in the story. Acknowledging the wonders of our daily life, and our

lack of control or full understanding of these wonders, is something we can all benefit

from. It brings a sense of awe to the everyday that can enrich even the most banal of

moments when utilized correctly. If this is the way that Noah became the most righteous

in his generation, let us all strive for such righteousness!

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