This week's Parsha, Parshat Vayera, begins with G-d paying a visit to Avraham three days after his circumcision. The visit ends abruptly when three guests arrive at Avraham’s tent in the desert. We soon learn that these three men are angels, one who notifies Avraham that his wife Sarah is soon to have a child. Sarah laughs at this news, considering she is no longer fertile due to her old age. G-d then tells Avraham of His intention to destroy the evil cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to which Avraham protests, insisting there could be good people there. Two of the angels then go to Sodom to save Avraham's nephew, Lot.
BIG NEWS! Against all odds, Sarah gives birth to a boy named Yitzhak (“he laughs”). Congratulations to the happy parents! Well, not really. The Parsha ends with the climactic Akiedah or “Binding” of Yitzhak where G-d commands Avraham to sacrifice Yitzhak. G-d does this to test Avraham’s faith. Seeing his faith when he was about to sacrifice his son, an angel from heaven provides a ram for sacrifice instead on the site of the future temple.
That is a lot to take in. Lots of information there. This Parsha truly does have some great stories. But many moral rules throughout the text are overlooked. Vayera calls on the Jewish people to serve others and do what is morally right. For example, when G-d visits Avraham after his circumcision, G-d fulfilled the Mitzvah of Bikur Cholim or visiting the sick.* One verse later, Avraham quickly leaves G-d’s presence to welcome travelers approaching his tent. In the Talmud, it is stated that “hospitality to wayfarers is greater than welcoming the divine presence.”** This is meant to teach us that G-d does not want us to focus on G-d so much to the point where we forget to help our fellow. Another principle displayed in Vayera is that one must stand up for their morals. When G-d tells Avraham that He plans to wipe out Sodom and Gemorah, Avraham challenges G-d! Avraham demands that if humans must follow moral behavior, then so does G-d! Avraham asks G-d to find 10 good people in the cities before the destruction. There is a Midrash (an early Rabbinic interpretation) stating that G-d already knew that 10 good people could not be found in Sodom, but G-d was happy that Avraham was standing up for the people of his time unlike Noach and the flood.^ Through this example, we are taught that regardless of the expected outcome, we should always stand up for what is right.
After Avraham proves his faith by almost sacrificing his son, an angel sent from heaven delivers a special message for Avraham. The angel states that “I [the angel] will bestow my blessing upon you, and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands of the seashore; and your descendants shall seize the gates of their foes.” Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in his Torah commentary takes the phrase “seize the gates of your foes” not to mean that the Israelites will capture towns but gates refers to the areas in towns where people would go to talk about important matters. That is to say that the blessing is saying that our ideas and morals will prevail.
If we look at western civilization, it has been shaped by the Torah. Shabbat was the first weekend, insisting workers needed a break. Bikur Cholim commands us to visit those in need of healing. We must leave the corners of our fields so that those less fortunate can partake, the original welfare system. The commandment to have a fair justice system. The idea that justice should be at the front of our society. The first religious text to say women too could be heirs to their fathers’ estates. The idea that we must never forget those in need among us.
This blessing from the Parsha that our morals will shine is not something that happens without work. We must actively engage in Gemilut Chasadim or deeds of kindness and Tikkun Olam, repair of the world. By actively pursuing these morals wherever we find ourselves we can truly be a light unto the nations of the world.
So let’s visit the sick—virtually. Call up someone who may not be in good health, see how they’re doing. Let’s be hospitable. Treat the stranger and those in need kindly. Let’s stand UP for what is right.
Dani Koplin and Mateo Levin
*BT Sotah 14a
**BT Shabbat 127a
^Midrash Tanhuma 8
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