These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

[PCJE] VaYerah: Being Human

Posted on November 8, 2014 by Binyamin Cohen

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Night Seder Chevrutas Binyamin Cohen and David Wallach
join together to reflect on this week's parshah.

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בְּרֵאשִׁית  י”ח:י”ז

וַיהוָה, אָמָר: הַמְכַסֶּה אֲנִי מֵאַבְרָהָם, אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי עֹשֶׂה

‘God said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am going to do?”’ (Gen. 18:17)

This week’s parshah is packed with stories of the lives of Abraham and Sarah. We enter the parshah with a childless (by Sarah), recently-circumcised Abraham, and leave it with him just having almost sacrificed Sarah’s son. In between, Abraham greets some visitors, is promised a child from Sarah, argues against and witnesses God’s destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, pretends his wife is his sister (again), and exiles his oldest son and his mother. Throughout the book of Bereshit, the stories of our Patriarchs teach one main thing: values by which to live our lives. While the many stories of our parshah teach many different things, the overall message of our parshah is one of humanity of all people.

How do we see this in the stories of Abraham? We meet him this parshah waiting at the entrance to his tent, waiting to pounce on any travelers who happen by. Despite his recent circumcision, he is still committed to his ethos. He greets and serves the angels, who promise him and his wife the thing the desire above all others. He then defends human life at all cost, arguing with the very Creator of the Universe. He is forced into a difficult situation, and tries to protect his wife in a way he knows (thinks?) works. He expels Ishmael and Hagar which, while painful for him, he knows ultimately is best for the peace of his wife and the peace of his household. Finally, he goes to sacrifice his son, something that flies in the face of humanity; but Abraham recognizes the insignificance of his humanity in the face of a direct Divine command.

God says, how can I hide what I am going to do from Abraham? God is going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, vibrant cities full of people. How can He deny Abraham a chance to be quintessentially human? Sodom and Gomorrah are inhumane, wholly lacking in morals. God takes Abraham into his counsel, allows him to privy to the decision, in order to allow Abraham to be human, and in order to teach Abraham and his descendants a valuable lesson.

God’s stated purpose for Abraham is that he should “become a great and mighty nation” (Gen. 18:18), and that Abraham “command his children and his household after him” (18:19). Abraham is supposed to be the founder of tradition, the modeller of our values. By letting him argue for Sodom and Gomorrah, God teaches Abraham that decisions and actions have long-term consequences. God clearly knows from the start that there are no righteous people in Sodom, yet he lets Abraham argue for their lives. God shows him that he has thought through this decision, and even though Abraham knows that God thinks things through, Abraham needs to see the process. If he is to be the role model for a “great and mighty nation”, he must know the burden of leadership, of decision-making. He most know that the Almighty understands the repercussions of all his actions, and he must teach “his children and his household” that if God thinks through his actions, how much more so must we?

In our daily lives, we do a lot of things. Many or even most of those things don’t “change the world”. But we are each our own world. All our actions affect us, and affect those that come after us, even in minor ways. Like in the famous story of Choni the Circle-Drawer, who saw a man planting a carob tree for his grandchildren, our actions add up. Even the little things, that we take for granted, have a net effect. And most importantly, the outcomes of our actions are often not seen in the moment of their execution. We must be prepared and willing to look past ourselves and see what effect we can have, not only for ourselves but for those who proceed us.

We may not think that small things have an impact, but they add up, and they can become the character that defines us. We need to be careful that the trees we plant for our grandchildren are carob trees, and not thistles. We must think through our actions, understand what they do us on a small scale, and how that affect the big scale. Like Abraham, and even like God, we must not deny ourselves our humanity by not letting ourselves be part of the decision making process. How can we hide what we are about to do from ourselves?


Based on Nechama Leibowitz’s commentary on Bereshit, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah commentary, and the JPS Torah Commentary, by Nahum Sarna.