Thursday, October 24, 2013

Vayera: Virtue & the occasional miss

Based on a drash given at Congregation Kol Ami, Elmira, NY, on October 18, 2013.

Parashat Vayera really contains too much good material for one drash. We find

  • Abraham and Sarah's welcoming the m'lachim who announce that Sarah will bear a son. From this we learn the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, welcoming guests. (Dare one ask whether, if Abraham and Sarah had been less hospitable, they would have received the joyous news?)
  • The destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah, where Abraham pleads with God for the lives of the people if even as few as ten righteous persons can be found. This episode is sometimes cited to explain how Noah was righteous only "in his time"--instructed to build the ark and save his family plus exemplars of all the land animals, he complies, but apparently gives no thought to the lives of other humans or animals.
  • A repetition of Abraham's passing Sarah off as his sister--to save his own skin at her expense (if God didn't intervene).
  • The expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael, where Abraham once again pleads for the life of the boy (his son), and God tells him to do what Sarah wants. Strangely, the rabbis of old did not use this as a proof text to show that husbands should obey their wives, but we've had women rabbis only since 1972.
  • The akedah, the binding of Isaac, where Abraham, who argued for the lives of the righteous in Sodom, unquestioningly sets about killing his other son, the one he loves more.

And that's not even everything.

Traditional commentators cited most of these passages as the sources for various mitzvot that we should learn. They drew a different lesson from the Gerar episode, where Abraham says that Sarah is his sister. It's patently discreditable, and unlike the others, contains nothing that we should emulate (not even blind obedience as in the akedah, a test that many of us today would say that Abraham failed).

For the episodes that don't reflect credit on Abraham, the traditional interpretation is to emphasize the truthfulness of the Torah: it shows us the bad as long with the good. While we are supposed to emulate the examples of the patriarchs, we're also supposed to use some judgment in choosing which ones to emulate.

We can also draw a slightly different lesson from this parashah. While Abraham's virtue is a pervasive thread in this parashah and in others, I would say that the lesson from the not-so-virtuous episodes is to show us that, since even an exemplar of heroic virtue wasn't perfect, we shouldn't be too hard on ourselves when we aren't, as long as we keep trying to do better. This is in the same line as seeing Yom Kippur as predominantly forward-looking: what are we going to do now, regardless of what we did before?

I used to work for a shul in Los Angeles that considered advertising on cable television, right among the car dealers offering financing for customers with bad credit, the hucksters selling supplements of dubious safety and efficacy, and the dentists offering cheap extractions. I wondered what exactly the synagogue would advertise: two days of Rosh Hashanah for the price of one?

The plan wasn't pursued, but only because the congregation's service area was split between two cable companies, and it was too expensive to advertise on both.

My neighborhood in Los Angeles, however, had a church that advertised on cable TV, with a wonderful ad. The pastor looked into the camera and said (as best I can remember)
Our church is for people just like you.
None of us is perfect, but we all try to help one another lead better lives.
Come and meet us this Sunday.

Can any Jewish congregation in America say that? If I found one, I would move there and join it.

As far as I can see, we all feel pressure to pretend that our lives are already perfect, to keep up appearances. From my years as a synagogue administrator, I know that, while some members who experience financial reverses will seek to adjust their contributions, most drop their memberships and disappear. If we're having personal difficulties or one of our children is, we try to keep others thinking that everything is just dandy.

This also affects how we welcome strangers, or mostly don't welcome strangers. I have felt fully welcomed in many congregations outside the United States, even in Canada, but rarely when I visit another synagogue in the U.S. I'm not sure what is going on--maybe it's just clannishness, or we choose ushers who are exceptionally shy.

But what I often see, especially when the stranger is a new resident and therefore a prospective member, is that instead of asking what our congregation could do for the stranger, we think about what the stranger could do for us. Would s/he join and pay dues? How much? Will the person attend services and help to make a minyan? Is s/he likely to be an enthusiastic volunteer?

Why don't we think more about how the congregation could help the newcomer? I'm not thinking merely of tangible forms of help, but also of spiritual sustenance, of becoming part of a community and developing relationships. Really, it's no wonder that Jews stay away in droves.