Vayera – how does God appear in the world – and how do we manage God’s appearance in the world?

At the end of last week’s sidra, Abraham, Ishmael and all of the men in his household were circumcised as a sign of the covenant between God and Abraham. Abraham’s implicit trust in God has led him to leave his homeland, together with his wife and household. He has made covenants with God, each time with the promise/blessing that he will have descendants and land.

They left Haran and arrived in Canaan and within six verses we have another divine encounter: “Abram passed through the land to the place of Shechem, untilעַ֖ד אֵל֣וֹן מוֹרֶ֑ה – the oak trees of Moreh, while the Canaanite was still in the land.     

And God appeared to Abram  וַיֵּרָ֤א יְהוָֹה֙ אֶל־   אַבְרָ֔ם   and said “to your seed I will give this land” and he built there an altar to God who had appeared to him  הַנִּרְאֶ֥ה אֵלָֽיו

After this Abram went to the mountain to the east of Beit El and encamped there, and built an altar to God and called on God’s name, before moving onwards to the south.

The nature of Abraham’s “call”, his acceptance of God and his willingness to do as commanded has sometimes meant that Abraham is seen as the ultimate “man of faith”. After all he is willing to remove himself from homeland and family, to travel to an unknown destination, to offer both his sons to God’s desires and his existential aloneness is mitigated by the covenant with God. Yet Abraham is also held up to us as a role model – he is the first Ivri, one who crosses boundaries; he is Avraham Avinu – our father and founder; he is the embodiment of the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, modelling openness and welcoming hospitality to all.

We are not privy to the origins of Abraham’s extraordinary faith – the first we know is that God tells him to go and he goes. But early in parashat Lech Lecha God appears to Abram by some oak trees, and now here in parashat Vayera we have the same thing.  Sitting at the opening of his tent in the heat of the day, Abraham is sheltering and looking outwards. He is, once again, by some oak trees וַיֵּרָ֤א אֵלָיו֙ יְהֹוָ֔ה בְּאֵֽלֹנֵ֖י מַמְרֵ֑א this time those of Mamre, when God appears to him. The same language, the same setting, with only minor differences. Abraham has a revelation, once more seeing God amongst the trees.

There is debate among the traditional commentators whether Abraham has one or two revelations at this point. Is the introductory verse telling us that God appears to Abraham just that, a sort of headline for what is to follow, as Maimonides posited? Or is it a revelation in and of itself as Rashi and others thought, and in that case, just what can be learned from it? For Abraham sees not God, but three ‘men’, and his response is not to build an altar or set out a ritual covenant, but to rush out to welcome them in, and to provide a meal for them. And the next verse gives us even more room for ambiguity, for when Abraham speaks he says:

וַיֹּאמַ֑ר אֲדֹנָ֗י אִם־נָ֨א מָצָ֤אתִי חֵן֙ בְּעֵינֶ֔יךָ אַל־נָ֥א תַֽעֲבֹ֖ר מֵעַ֥ל עַבְדֶּֽךָ

“Adonai (either “God” or “My lords”) If I have found favour in your sight, please do not pass by your servant”

Is he speaking to the men to invite them in for a rest, a wash and a meal? Or is he speaking to God and saying “wait please, while I offer hospitality to these men, and then I will have time to pay attention to you”?

I must say, I used to love the first interpretation the most: – the idea that we know that God was in these men but Abraham did not, yet still he responded to their needs with honour and dignity. From this it is easy to understand the importance of seeing past the surface of the people we meet, to draw the lesson that everyone has a spark of God within them, everyone is made b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, and so we have a duty to relate to them, to care for them. The three men, hot and dusty and hungry and thirsty would have been a drain on the resources of their host, but Abraham did not hesitate to give them food and drink and comfort.

I still love that interpretation of the text, but I have come to appreciate the second one more. What if God reveals himself to Abraham, but immediately after this there is a pressing need to care for human beings, and Abraham finds himself saying to God – “can you wait please, there is something more important to do than listen to you right now?”

The something more important is, of course, the hachnasat orchim, the welcoming of the stranger and carer for the traveller that Abraham is so famous for. And the spiritual high, the encounter with the divine is of  lesser importance than the practical obligation to behave well towards others.

I like the idea that Abraham is less the paradigmatic man of perfect faith in the sense of his doing everything God tells him almost entirely without protest, and more the practical human being who responds viscerally to visceral need. I wonder if this instinctive act to help the travellers in the desert is the same instinct that causes him to later challenge God when the second revelation happens – the information that the whole of the city of Sdom will be destroyed, the righteous alongside the corrupt.  And I wonder what happened to that instinct after this episode.

For it seems to me that Abraham somehow loses his religious edge as he becomes a more patriarchal figure, and he becomes institutionally religious rather than instinctively so. No longer does he tell God to wait, nor does he argue with God when God asks the unaskable. He concurs. It is a terrible and repeated mistake, and by accepting God’s decrees he appears to lose his relationships with both his sons, with Hagar and with Sarah.

Abraham is indeed a role model for us, but maybe that should be modelling not uncritical religious faith and practise, but challenging it and inserting ourselves into the narratives. It would, I recognise, take some faith to ask God to wait while we do more important things in the world, but I have the feeling it would not be unwelcome.

Whenever I read the narratives of Abraham and Sarah, I am frustrated and made uncomfortable both by what is explicit in the text – the treatment of Hagar and Ishmael excluded from the family, the treatment of Sarah when she is bargained for Abraham’s freedom and of Isaac bound as a sacrifice to a demanding and testing God etc; and also by what is not explicit in the text – how does God talk to Abraham, what does Abraham see and experience…. I mistrust the certainty that seems built in to the narratives, the pain that is ignored – and I wonder how these stories can be a model for us – how can we recognise God’s presence in the world?

Abraham meets God twice by oak trees – large trees that cast shadows with canopies that play with the light coming through them. In each case the appearance of God could be understood to be just that – an appearance, or a vision, or a revelation. Abraham’s response in the first instance is to build an altar to mark the spot, but then to move some distance away and build a second altar from which to call on God. In the second instance no altar is necessary, no calling on God’s name and hoping for encounter – Abraham knows now what is important, he has his priorities straight – taking care of people in need trumps any vision or revelation, it outranks a personal encounter with divinity, all of that can wait – the work we do in the world to make it better is the critical work of being human and in the image of God.

I am not suggesting that prayer or contemplation or listening out for God’s voice in the world are not important – far from it. Any way in which we can ground ourselves in the relationship we have with the creator is important, it will nourish us and develop us and challenge us to be our best selves. But to make that the goal is to miss the point. Religion and ritual exist in order to keep us aware of what is important, though often they appear to exists only in order to perpetuate their own structures. Once a religion becomes an institution its focus changes to survival and regular challenges and reformations are needed to stop it crystallising.  The institutions may talk the talk but they walk the walk less readily.

So the idea of Abraham, the patriarch and founder of monotheistic religion, asking God to please wait while he gets on with caring for travellers is an important idea to keep hold of. We serve God best when we serve God’s creation, we cannot do God’s work if we turn our backs on God’s creatures in order to have a more spiritual focus.

 

 

Va’yera: the multiplicity of ways our world appears to us, the many lenses through which we choose to view it (or not)

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.

Blind-Men-and-The-Elephant

Parashat Vayera: Is anything too hard for God?

Parashat Vayera 2013     “Is anything too hard for God?”

The narrative tells of an encounter in the desert between three travelling men and Abraham, who welcomes them into his tent and gives them hospitality. At the end of the story we read the following conversation: (Genesis 18) “And they said to him, “Where is Sarah your wife?” and he said “There, in the tent” and He said “I will certainly return to you when the season comes around, and behold, Sarah your wife will have a son.” And Sarah heard from the doorway of the tent which was behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, well stricken in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. And Sarah laughed within herself saying, “After I have grown old shall I have pleasure? My husband being old also?” And God said to Abraham “Why did Sarah laugh, saying “Shall I really bear a child, who am old?” “Ha’yipalei mei’Adonai davar?”  (Which is generally translated as “Is anything too hard for God?) At the set time I will return to you when the season comes round, and Sarah shall have a son”.

Then Sarah denied saying “I laughed not” for she was afraid. And God said “No, but you did laugh” (Gen 18:9-15)

This announcement of the forthcoming birth of Isaac is, in biblical terms, a long and complicated piece. We begin with the placing of Abraham and Sarah, he outside, serving the three men/angels who are visiting, she inside the tent and hidden. Suddenly the person speaking changes from the plural to the singular, presumably from the men/angels to God, and the person being spoken to is no longer defined. From the three men/angels speaking to Abraham since the beginning of the sidra, we have God saying, with no room for doubt, that Sarah will produce a son. There is no response from Abraham to this, indeed we are not told that God is speaking to him or even that he hears the remark, but there is a response from Sarah. She hears, and her response is to laugh and to question in rather earthy terms both her and her husband’s ability to produce a child. But in between God’s statement and Sarah’s response the Torah interjects. We are told that both Abraham and Sarah are old, and specifically that Sarah is post menopausal.

Now God speaks, asking Abraham why Sarah had laughed, and quite kindly translating her doubt about both her and Abraham’s potency into a questioning only of herself. And then God speaks again, with a rhetorical question whose answer can only be in the negative, a technique found repeatedly within this sidra….”Ha’yipalei mei’Adonai davar? Is anything too hard for God?”

This question is then followed by a repetition that Sarah shall give birth, and the whole scene is concluded with a conversation between Sarah and God – she denies laughing and Torah tells us it is because she is afraid. God tells her, quite kindly I always feel, that her denial is untrue. She did laugh.  There is so much in this one interaction, but I should like to focus on God’s question “Ha’yipalei mei’Adonai davar?” 

It is a difficult question to translate and yet so critical to much theological thought. The root of the verb yipalei, peh.lamed.alef, is not really about something being too hard, more about being ‘hidden’, or ‘covered’, ‘beyond’, or even ‘separate’, although one commentator suggests that one could read it as ‘great’, so the question could be read as “is anything beyond God?” or “is anything hidden from God?” or “is anything separate or covered from God?” Or even “is anything greater than God?”

Rather like the meaning of this verbal root, the question asked by God is difficult, hard to unravel. For the God we have speaking here in Vayera is the same God who must ask themself only a few verses after this event whether to hide what is to be done to Sodom from Abraham, the same God to whom Abraham asks “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?…Shall not the Judge of the earth deal justly?”, the God who is losing the negotiation to save Sodom and walks away from Abraham. This God of the Hebrew bible is not yet the all powerful being for whom nothing is too difficult, but the Creator of all, the unifier of all, who is coming to terms with exactly what has been created, for made in the image of the Creator it is complex, adaptive, learning, curious; not something to be easily known.

The Talmud tells us that “everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven” (Berachot 33b) – in other words human beings have freedom of will, and the freedom also to impact upon God, and so while I am happy to live with the understanding that God is unknowable, that we cannot encompass what God is, or what God can do, I do so on the understanding also that God responds and reacts to us, self-limits divine action with regard to strict justice in order for us to continue in the world, limits what is possible for God in order to be in relationship with us.

For us to have freedom of will, for us to make choices in our lives, then God has to cede power. It seems a reasonable exchange in order to have a relationship with us.

So back to the question – is anything hidden from God? Well probably not, if we believe in the Creator of all, then it is reasonable to consider that nothing is covered up and beyond the gaze of God. Is anything too hard for God – well, again, probably not, for the same reasons as above. But is anything impossible for God? This is where I part company from what is sometimes taught as traditional Judaism – given the relationship within which we operate, given the freedom of will given to us as to the choices we make, and the ceding of power from God in order to make the relationship between Creator and Creation, then God makes some things impossible for God, a willing and loving self-limitation, and it means that as a consequence we have to take up the slack.

If God cannot dictate good in the world, only teach and hope that we will bring it about, then we should stop blaming God for everything that goes wrong and live as best we can in our imperfect world, doing what we can to perfect it.

There is a view attributed to the 4th Century BCE Athenian Agathon, that God cannot change the past, what is done is done; But I would add to that view it is also not for God to create the present or the future. That is in our hands to do and is not for God.

Sarah laughed and then denied that laughter when God asked Abraham about it. Traditional texts tell us that she laughed at the news that she, past the age of fertility, would bear a child. But I wonder if her laughter was not something more – God asks Abraham the rhetorical question “Ha’yipalei mei’Adonai davar?” but he does not say it to Sarah. For Sarah may know the answer is not as some may like it to be, and if some things are off-limits for God to intervene in, then the consequences for us are frightening.

The Assaulting of Mrs Lot: Parashat Vayera

I have a particular fondness for the bit part players in bible, and Mrs Lot, whose story is told in Vayera, is someone who deserves more attention than she often gets, and she certainly deserves a more appreciative inquiry into her story.

Poor Mrs Lot, who is given no name in the biblical narrative, and who seems to be chained in marriage to one of the less attractive personalities in Genesis.

Lot is the nephew of Abraham, the man who might have inherited from him, except that his behaviour was such that he ruled himself out of the dynasty. Lot shows himself in biblical narrative to be self centred, greedy, and without much common sense. When he leaves Abraham it is because they cannot reconcile their arguments over shared use of the grazing land, and Abraham says “”Let’s not have any strife between you and me, or between your herdsmen and mine, for we are brothers. Is not the whole land before you? Let’s part company. If you go to the left, I’ll go to the right; if you go to the right, I’ll go to the left.” And Lot’s response?  “Lot looked up and saw that the whole plain of the Jordan was well watered, like the garden of the Eternal…Lot chose for himself the whole plain of the Jordan and set out toward the east. The two men parted company: Abram lived in the land of Canaan, while Lot lived among the cities of the plain and pitched his tents near Sodom.  Now the men of Sodom were wicked and were sinning greatly against the Eternal”.

When the Angels come to Sodom Lot does have the grace to invite them to his home – he clearly understands that they would be in danger alone in the town, but that is his one understandable action.  Mrs Lot is hidden when they come home. She is not involved in the work of hospitality, but her husband prepares the food. The angels do not seem to know she even exists until the following morning.  She does not go to try to persuade her married daughters to leave with them – Lot does, and his sons in law laugh at him. Presumably his reputation as a fool is known, but maybe Mrs Lot would have had a better chance. She is not consulted when her husband offers their two unmarried daughters as a sacrifice to the rampaging townsfolk who are angry that they cannot make sport with the strangers, and it is the angels who take charge after this extraordinary proposition. Her husband does not hurry to save her and the two daughters – again it is the angels who physically take hold of the family and transport them outside of the city walls. And critically nobody ever tells her not to look back when they flee – Lot was told, but he doesn’t seem to feel the need to pass on the information.

Now Mrs Lot had to die in order for her daughters to believe that no human beings were left and that it was their duty to repopulate the world with their father. She is a device in a narrative, not ever fleshed out or understood. The midrash tries to give her some background, but sadly cannot detach itself from protecting Lot and therefore deciding that she is the baddy in the story. They pun on the word ‘salt’ (melach) suggesting that when the poor came to the door to ask for bread (lechem, same three root letters) she refused them as she had no compassion (chemlah – same root letters). But I prefer to think of her as the victim who got away. The domestic abuse she clearly suffers is ended, and her husband becomes a drunken incestuous figure who fathers the two traditional inimical tribes the Moabites and the Ammonites. But she is free, standing tall and glittering with crystals, still there near the Dead Sea, and the Talmud (Berachot 54b) tells us to say two blessings when we see her – the blessing of God who remembers the righteous, and the blessing of God as the true Judge.  The rabbis who discuss this teaching assume the righteous who was remembered must be Lot, and the blessing “Dayan Emet” is to remind us that her death was a punishment, but in the words of Mandy Rice Davies: “they would, wouldn’t they”.

I like to think that she was the righteous one who had been through enough, had lost her home and two children in the cataclysm and was destined to live alone in a strange place with her abusive and foolish husband and her remaining daughters. God released her from that horrific future.

In life she was unnoticed and treated without honour. But in death she stands proud and dazzling, remembered and blessed long after the disappearance of her unlikable husband. Baruch Dayan HaEmet – Mrs Lot received the blessing of the righteous.