D'var Torah - Vayera

Vayera, the Mission Statement of the Jewish People, a demand that our people, our community, and our Federation “Follow the way of God by doing Justice and Righteousness.”

Who are we? Why are we here? And what does God demand of us?

Last Shabbat, we read the Torah portion called Vayera. It is my favorite Torah reading, and it is the perfect Torah reading for this troubled time. It contains what I believe to be the mission statement of the Jewish people, revealing our role in history and making a demand of us that clarifies our values and the path we must take. We have inscribed it on the wall of our building.

Vayera says of Abraham and Sarah:

“I have loved them because they will teach their children and grandchildren to follow the way of God by doing justice and righteousness.”

God promises that Abraham and Sarah will become “a great and mighty nation and that all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in them.”

Vayera is a focused demand that we love and protect the stranger, the poor, and the vulnerable.

It reminds us that we are the children of Abraham and Sarah, “Compassionate ones and the children of compassionate ones.”

It tells us that Abraham leaves a conversation with God to welcome poor strangers to remind us that, “the deed of hospitality is greater than the welcoming of the Divine Presence.”

It tells us that the sin of Sodom was greed, hatred for and abuse of strangers.

It demands that we stand with Abraham, “the compassionate one” to avoid the fate of Sodom.

The story of Sodom is revealed in a midrash quoted by Nechama Leibowitz:

The leaders of Sodom said: Since gold and silver flows from our land, what need have we of travelers? We do not require any visitors since they only come to diminish our substance. Come and let us cause the foot of the traveler to be forgotten from our land.

The people of Sodom were literally forbidden to welcome strangers and were required by law to treat them with hostility. In a related Midrash, she shares:

They issued a proclamation in Sodom, saying: Everyone who strengthens the hand of the poor and the needy with a loaf of bread shall be burnt by fire! Pelotit the daughter of Lot was wedded to one of the magnates of Sodom.

She saw a certain very poor man in the street of the city and her soul was grieved on the account. (Pelotit was raised in the household of Abraham and Sarah, to love and honor the stranger.)  What did she do? Every day when she went out to draw water she put in her pitcher all kinds of provisions from her house and she sustained that poor man. The men of Sodom said: How does this poor man live? When they ascertained the facts they brought her forth to be burnt by fire. She said: Sovereign of all worlds! Maintain my right and my cause at the hands of the men of Sodom! And her cry ascended before the throne of glory. In that hour the Holy One blessed be He said: “I will go down and see whether they have done altogether according to her cry which is come unto me” – and if the men of Sodom have done according to the cry of that young woman I will turn her foundation upwards and the surface downward...

God tells Abraham, “I have heard the scream of Sodom” and shares his plans for the city. Abraham stands before God and asks how he can destroy the city if there are righteous people intermingled with the evil people there. God rejects him, telling Abraham that, while there may be those who are righteous, they are not counted as such in God’s eye because they do not exert their influence on others. They do not act. Abraham’s final plea, “Shall not the judge of the whole world do justice?” is a stirring statement of Abraham’s concern, not just for his own family, or his own people, or his own relationship with God, but with justice for all the people of the world.

Vayera teaches us that we must stand for righteousness in the context of our community, just as Abraham stood on one side for justice and the stranger, while Sodom stood on the other. Acceptance and love of the stranger are deeply embedded in our culture and intertwined with our identity. Indeed, CJP’s origins are in service of the immigrant community. We are the children and grandchildren of immigrants, and we remember what it is to be strangers and what it is to be unwelcome. Kindness and hospitality are values we commit to individually, expect of our community, and value in our nation.

At the recent General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America Rabbi Jonathan Sacks spoke of Abraham and, later, Moses, who left their native lands and tried to create a world of “justice, compassion, and healing.” Insisting that “the politics of anger comes from fear,” he asserted that the Jewish people are “uniquely poised to show the world the gift of hope.”

“When the world is divided, let us be united as Jews,” he said. “Where there is despair, bring hope. Where there is hurt, bring healing. Where there is division, be united.”

Barry Shrage