So much happens in sidra Va’yera that it is almost impossible to focus in on it, yet could it be that this rich multiplicity of stories is designed to catch our attention by its very unusual amount of action? Right from the first sentence we are being shown more than one reality, and this is captured in the name of the sidra – Va’yera – meaning “and he appeared”.
The narrative begins with God deciding to appear to Abraham, but as soon as we are privy to that information the perspective changes, and through Abraham’s eyes we see three ordinary men travelling in the desert, and requiring hospitality.
Are they divine messengers? Angels? Ordinary people who somehow will carry out a special function?
And where are they? Standing right over him or at a distance which forces him to run over to them to offer this hospitality?
The confusion carries on right through the narratives here. One verse begins with the three speaking, the next has one (human) voice, the one after is clearly described as the speech of God. Sarah, on hearing the news, laughs inside, yet God hears her… Always a multiplicity of perspectives are woven into the story telling, a little like seeing an event through a variety of cameras, in real time and in flashback, from one angle and then another.
Why is the bible telling these stories in this way, sometimes slowing down the motion so we get almost every footstep of the journey to Mt Moriah and the verbatim conversation between father and son, sometimes speeding up so between Hagar leaving her son at a distance so she could weep, and the angel hearing the voice of the boy, there is barely a blink of the eye?
The Torah readings for Rosh Hashanah are both taken from this sidra – the first day’s text being the story of the abandonment of Hagar and Ishmael at the insistence of the frightened and jealous Sarah; while on the second day we read of Abraham taking of her own son Isaac up Mt Moriah in a terrifying ceremony apparently done at the insistence of God, after which we find that Isaac never speaks to either parent again. What messages are being conveyed in these choices of torah reading? Why are both taken from Vayera?
Could it be that we are being reminded of the many perspectives involved in understanding an event, that sometimes things are hidden and sometimes they are not; sometimes we understand and sometimes we simply don’t; sometimes people do things for the best intentions and get the worst outcome, and sometimes we do things not with good intentions but because we are afraid or territorial or jealous or determined to second guess God.
Could the rabbis who chose these two contiguous chapters have done so to remind us not only of the close relationship we have with Ishmael, but also of the fact that our perspective is not the only one that is important in the story of who inherits the Covenant God made with Abraham. Indeed that God promises Abraham that he should follow Sarah’s demand because “of the son of the bondwoman I will make a nation, because he is your seed.”(21:13)
The more that we read this sidra, the more the puzzlement grows. What is the sin of Sodom? Why does Lot behave as he does when the visitors come? What do Abraham and Sarah see and understand when the three strangers visit them? Why is God telling Abraham of his intentions with regard to Sodom and allowing Abraham to bargain him out of the plan – but only insofar as God allows. Why does God ‘test’ Abraham with the threatened sacrifice of his remaining son, and does Abraham pass the test or does he fail it?
There are so many perspectives given in this sidra, yet we still cannot encompass what is going on – only become aware of the multiplicity of viewpoints, and the complexity of relationships. Maybe that is the lesson in itself – as we form a view of our world and our role in it, we shouldn’t let ourselves look for simple answers, but always be aware of the many threads in the weave, each holding a truth of its own. And each action we take – be it the frankly terrifying decisions that Abraham makes for his sons, or the tragic actions of Lot’s daughters – each action has a consequence and leads to yet more complexity. On Rosh Hashanah it is important we come face to face with our own history and with the multiplicity of perspectives and lenses through which to view it. The rest of the year we shouldn’t lose the lesson – religion isn’t a matter of good versus bad, there isn’t a battle between the forces of light and those of dark, but in each of us there is a complex mixture of views and perspectives, and the choices that emerge from how we value those views will dictate whether our future will be one of resolution and peace or of continuing struggle. We tell ourselves a story about what is happening in the world or in our lives on a daily, even hourly basis. We should remember in our story telling that ours isn’t the only way to tell the story.