Thursday, October 25, 2007

Parashat Vayera

By Deanna Neil

Verse Per Verse
When looking for your new housing in New York City or wherever you may be, make sure that your neighbors aren't sadistic and make sure that they fear/ awe God.
We're still in Genesis. Abraham just hacked off his foreskin at the end of the last chapter as a sign of covenant. So, we've got a lot to learn in terms of morality and how to operate as a family and as a people. It's just the beginning.

The JPS translation calls this section "Community Development", which is interesting. My first instinct was to call it "Lessons in Incest: How to make your daughter your lover and your sister your wife", but sexual mores are only one of the many issues addressed in this section. The actual Hebrew title of this section is called "VaYera" which means, "and he appeared."
Similar in root, the chapter ends with Abraham naming the location of Isaac's non-slaughter "Adonai Yir'eh" which means "God will see." "On God's Mountain, he will be seen." The word Vayera is also close in root to Vayar, which means fear/awe. So, what exactly are we supposed to see? What exactly are we supposed to fear? And how does this help our community to develop?

The most interesting element of this section of the Torah is why it is all placed together. Why tell the story of Abraham and Sarah with the strange interjection of Sodom and Gomorrah right in the middle? It is because even as far back as Genesis, Jews had to figure out how to operate as outsiders within a community. Even if you don't say "Jews", moral individuals had to figure out how to work within the greater community.

Here we have two parallels-- Lot living in the world of Sodom and Abraham living in the world of Abimelech and the Philistines. Lot was saved, but he could not live in the Sadistic world Sodom. Why? No matter how much you try to separate yourself you are still influenced by your community. For example, Lot's wife was killed because she absorbed a touch of sadism--she wanted to watch the city being destroyed. A lesson to all of us who want to watch public hangings or to join in gang rapes where we are voyeurs of sadistic behavior. How many times do we turn and look at destruction instead of turning away? (I could even potentially argue that Lot's daughters adopted some of this sadistic behavior by seducing their own father, but God didn't seem to punish them for this. Furthermore, Lot had offered their virgin bodies to a violent mob of horny sadists back in Sodom. It seems only fair that they end up raping him.)

Tangent on gay sex: And as far as the argument against homosexuality goes, it's not so bad that the Sodomites were trying to rape men, they were trying to rape angels! How much more sacrilegious and less God-fearing can you get?
And I don't buy the Sodomites being burned to death for their lack of hospitality either. My argument is that it is the sadism that led to their destruction--their lust for raping strangers, whether they were men or women.

Let's move on from this point, though, and return to Abraham and Sarah.

Abraham figures out how to live with Abimelech and the Philistines, who turned out to be moral. Abraham migrated to the land of Gerar. Abimelech was king of Gerar. Abraham lied when traveling and told people that Sarah was his sister, and not his wife. Abraham said this because he felt the one thing that was missing in Gerar was a fear of God. (Again, note the spelling of the Hebrew word, "Yirat" from the similar root to vayerah again, harking back to the chapter title.) Abraham thought he would be killed because of his wife. (Why, remains unclear. Is she so beautiful that men would kill for her? But I thought she was old and infertile? This is confusing; if you have
an answer, please let me know).

Here we see that the other main difference between the Sodomites and the Philistines is that the Sodomites did not fear God. The two Sodomite men to whom Lot's daughters were betrothed thought that Lot's warnings were a joke.
They burned. Now, Sarah also laughed at the angel who told her that she would have a child. But when called out on it, she lied out of fear (ki yareyah--that same root again) and said she did not laugh. She was smiled upon. Lot's wife, on the other hand, did not fear enough, and she turned into a pillar of salt.
As it turned out, Abraham was wrong. Abimelech and the philistines did fear God. Abimelech had a dream where God told him that Sarah was married and he would die if he did not heed the dream. Abimelech woke up in the morning (Vayashkem--the same word used for when Abraham awoke to sacrifice Isaac and for when he banished Hagar and Ishmael), and he whispered to his servants about his terrible dream. They were afraid (Vayireu--the same root of fear again). They did fear God and they respected Abraham. Abimelech even established a pact with Abraham around Beer-Sheba, and Abraham stayed in the land peacefully for a long while. This is a better environment to live in over Sodom.

So, in sum, your neighbors can influence you. Chose wisely where you live-make sure your community is not full of sadists or full of people who have no awe, no fear of God (Whether I agree with this or not is another thing, but this is what I think the Bible is saying). There is, of course, a bunch of interfamilial complexities that occur in this section as well, with the banishment of Hagar and family hierarchy. I'll let you explore that on your own.

One more important note that comes out of this chapter-just because you fear God doesn't mean that you can't argue with him or his angels. This is the "seeing" part of Vayerah-seeing from God's mountain. Moral arguments with God are good ones. If Abraham hadn't bartered with God, then Lot wouldn't have been saved at all. Lot argued with an angel, saying that he couldn't make it all the way to the hills without succumbing to his evil, so the angel let him go to a nearby town. And of course, the biggest community defying moral move of all, Abraham doesn't sacrifice his first born son.

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