Parshat Vayera, Genesis 18:1-22:24
Natick, my beloved suburban New England town, has for the second time this year been in the news because of bigotry. In August, a lesbian couple’s rainbow flag was stolen and their house egged. Last week, in an act of hate apparently inspired or emboldened by the election results, a Natick resident sent a series of racist and expletive-filled notes to a white neighbor, warning him not to continue to host Latino or black friends within the neighborhood. Along with hundreds of other towns that have experienced harassment or intimidation in the past few days, our community has been shaken. In figuring out how to respond to this incident and to the recent election and its aftermath, I want turn to this week’s Torah portion, Vayera, and to a passage from the Talmud about which characteristics distinguish the children of Abraham.
Before destroying the evil cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, God decides to bring Abraham into the decision-making process, saying, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do…? For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to guard the way of God by doing what is just and right…” (Genesis 18:18-19) The Talmud (in Yevamot 79a) expands on what it means to do what is just and right. As Rabbi Harold Kushner translates: “The descendants of Abraham are characterized by three traits: a capacity for kindness (harachamanim), a sense of shame (habayshanim), and a commitment to doing what is right (gomlei chasadim).” The passage in the Talmud concludes, “All who display these three qualities are worthy of being a part of the nation.’” I would argue that these qualities would also serve us well in these times as Americans.
On the first quality, kindness or compassion, the Talmudic passage quotes Deuteronomy 13:18-19, which talks about God being compassionate and human beings following God’s example, Like Abraham’s compassion towards the people of Sodom in pleading their case before God, we too must find our way to compassion and kindness across our many differences. We must be kind to our neighbors, our friends, our family, and our community. We must be kind to ourselves, remembering to take care of our own well-being and allowing ourselves to return to some degree of normalcy. We must be kind to strangers, as Abraham and Sarah famously were. We must be kind to those whose views differ from our own and work to repair relationships that may have frayed with those across the aisle.
Regarding the second quality, the capacity for shame, or humility, the passage quotes Exodus 20:17, which says, right after the receiving of the Ten Commandments, that God’s awe should be on our faces so that we don’t go astray. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner teaches a complicated midrash by the Hasidic rebbes Menachem Mendel of Rymanov and Naftali Tsvi Horowitz of Ropczyce, which concludes that the main revelation from Sinai is that we need to be able to see God’s image in every other person’s face. In our Torah portion, when defending Sodom to God, Abraham is humble as he marvels that he dares argue with God, “I who am but dust and ashes.” The quality of humility reminds us not to be certain of our own righteousness or of others’ lack thereof. Humility reminds us that we need to see all people, including those with whom we passionately disagree, as holy, made in the image of God.
For the third quality, the commitment to doing what is right (literally “doing deeds of loving-kindness”, but Rabbi Kushner’s translation better captures Abraham’s advocacy), the Talmud’s prooftext is Abraham defending Sodom. Rabbi Natan Tzvi Finkel said that Abraham should have rejoiced at the downfall of evil Sodom, but he pleaded for them anyway, as it was his way to try to help everyone. If Abraham went out of his way to give a town of cruel people the benefit of the doubt, how much more so should we stand up for those who may be unfairly maligned or whose rights may be at risk, be they LGBTQ people, Latino immigrants, African Americans, women, Muslims, or Jews. The rash of bigoted harassment and intimidation around the nation, from Muslim women assaulted for wearing a hijab, to Mexican kids made fun of and threatened at school, to swastikas scrawled on buildings, makes it imperative that we are not only compassionate to each other, but like Abraham, take risks in order to defend each other.
Commentators note that when Abraham talks about how many righteous people are in Sodom, the word tsadikim (righteous people) is missing a yud, and interpret from this that in trying to be righteous, one doesn’t have to be perfect. To be righteous in Sodom, a city filled with sin, a person would have had to work really hard, and necessarily imperfectly. In our flawed world, rather than hesitating to act because of our imperfections, we should be inspired to make a difference in whatever ways we can. When Abraham asks God, “What if there are 50 righteous people within the city?” (Genesis 18:24), the commentators note that the phrase “within the city” means that these (hypothetical) tsadikim are not in the study halls theorizing, but doing painstaking, practical, relationship-building work, bit by bit, to make a difference and to change the character of their city. We learn from this that we can no longer afford to follow politics like a fair-weather sports fan, but rather, need to become the sort of politically active citizens that call our representatives, support the causes we believe in, and even run for office.
Over the last couple of months, our community in Natick and beyond has come together to rally around the couple whose rainbow flag was stolen—in response, neighbors and houses of worship have proudly raised a sea of rainbow flags. Over the last few days, the police, school community, active citizens, and interfaith clergy have come together to respond to the latest iteration of bigotry. There is much work to be done locally and nationally, to support and guide our new government, to repair communities, to champion the vulnerable, and to suppress the emboldened voices of hate. We need to roll up our sleeves and work “within the city” for change and healing, being paralyzed neither by the enormity of the tasks nor by our imperfections and limits. In these turbulent times, may we find the courage to follow Abraham’s example, to be compassionate, humble, and willing to stand up for justice.
Ken Richmond has been the Cantor and Family Educator of Temple Israel of Natick since 2006, and serves as adjunct faculty at Hebrew College‘s School of Jewish Music. He graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary’s cantorial school in 2004 as a Wexner Graduate Fellow, and was a member of the Mahzor Committee for the Lev Shalem Mahzor. He plays klezmer music with his wife, Rabbi Shira Shazeer (HC ‘10), and they are raising their boys with Yiddish as their first language. He has lots of Shabbat, holiday, and other music posted on Temple Israel’s website.