Forth Light Weekly Sedra
The story of Abraham and Sarah is in the main contained in two parshiot of the Torah, Lech L’cha which we read last week and this week’s Parshah, Vayera. These two readings highlight two different aspects of their lives. In what we read last week Abraham is concerned mainly for his own family and their future. His interactions with others, whether Pharaoh or the kings, are prompted by their impact on him or his relatives. This week, however, we encounter a very different story. From the beginning of the Parshah, Abraham is concerned with others, personally entertaining wayfarers with a sumptuous meal. Next we see him standing up for the people of Sodom, threatened with destruction by G-d. He prays for Avimelech and his family and then agrees to a treaty with him. In contrast to the more inward looking Abraham we saw last week, we encounter an expansive, outgoing character concerned with the welfare of those around him, even the sinners of Sodom. How do we understand these two aspects of Abraham’s character and what lessons may we Jews draw from this today? If we look at last week’s Parshah we can see that Abraham was seeking to establish himself. His main concern was ensuring the security and future of his family and mission. At the end of the Parshah, after being promised the Land and having Ishmael, he is promised another son who will carry on his legacy. With the future now seemingly secure, he has the space to look outwards and interact expansively and positively with the world around him.
But only because he had first secured his own physical and spiritual future was he able to help others. This perspective of Abraham’s life offers an important lesson for his descendants. Judaism is both universalistic and particularistic, inward and outward looking. Achieving the correct balance between these two orientations has been a constant challenge throughout Jewish history. Abraham’s experience gives us a pointer. Before one can help others one must first be secure yourself. Both physically and spiritually a Jewish people whose position is precarious will not only look after themselves but end up failing others. In order to be a light unto the nations, we first must strengthen the light within us. Thus as Jews it is not a betrayal of our universal mission to campaign on issues of ant-Semitism or the security of Israel but the prerequisite for it. Jewish schools are not an impediment to Jewish ethical and moral influence on the wider society but are the necessary foundation to enable it to occur. Ignorant, insecure Jews cannot be a light to others.The same is true for the individual. There are those who the moment they obtain a bit of Jewish learning immediately want to teach others. This a mistake. You first need to build up your own base of learning and then, when you have a mature understanding, convey that to others. Seeking to teach others on the basis of a few shiurim or books read will not help your pupils but only confuse them. Thus, while it may seem unusual at first sight, the division of Abraham’s life into an interior and exterior phase is actually the correct way of proceeding and one we should emulate.
After Abraham returns from defeating the four kings who had captured Lot, he is greeted by the king of Sodom, whose property and people he has also rescued. The king of Sodom offers him the spoils but Abraham refuses to accept anything from the Sodomite. However, while refusing to take anything for himself, he makes an exception in respect of his neighbours and allies Aner and Eshkol and their followers who had assisted him in his expedition. From this we learn an important principle. Abraham was entitled to take a share of the property of Sodom he had rescued by his efforts, but wanting to be independent and not at all associated with the wicked Sodomites, refused. Yet he did not extend this principled refusal to his allies. He had no right to inflict his heightened religious sensibilities on others, and left to them the choice whether to accept the reward. This principle applies to religious life in general. People may have certain religious sensibilities but that does not mean that they have the right to inconvenience, far less endanger, the lives of others. Your personal religious needs do not trump others’ rights and treating others with respect and taking account of their sensibilities is also an important religious value. Furthermore, insisting on the maintenance of your particular religious strictures to the detriment of others may often create a hilul hashem or profanation of G-d’s name, a cardinal religious transgression that far outweighs other religious sensibilities. An obvious example is the behaviour of certain people who for reasons of modesty do not wish to look at or sit next to women. This reluctance is often also a product of a sheltered upbringing where they are generally prevented from coming in contact with non-familial women. When faced with having to do so, such as on a plane or bus, how should they behave? According to the example set by Abraham, they should if they want look down, read a book or close their eyes for the duration of the encounter. That can be respected by others as conforming to their personal heightened sense of modesty. What they should not do is inconvenience everyone else by demanding other people move so they do not have to sit next to a woman. That is not being religious but being selfish and not in accordance with the values of the Torah or of Abraham. If they are unable to deal with the world outside their religious community then they should not leave it. If they do leave it, they should show the basic respect the Torah demands we show to others and not use religious observance as an excuse for doing otherwise. In other words they should learn from the sensitive and respectful behaviour of Abraham.
Humanity corrupts their way on the earth and G-d decides to destroy them. Noach, a righteous man in a wicked world, is chosen to be saved and builds an ark which outlasts the Divinely dispatched flood. These are the basic outlines of the story which sees Noach as separate and distinct from his generation. Yet an interesting Jewish tradition, with practical halakhic consequences, tells a different story. It is well known that children should mourn for their parents for twelve months but only say kaddish after them for eleven months. Less well known is that the basis of this time period derives from the story of the flood. By a careful reading of the verses, it can be deduced that the duration of the flood was a full year of twelve months. Now, in Jewish thought all punishment, including that of hereafter, is regarded as rehabilitative, thus having a fixed duration. Reasoning that there were few generations more wicked that that of the flood, who were annihilated by G-d for their behaviour, the Rabbis decided that the maximum duration of punishment in the hereafter is twelve months. However, since we do not generally regard our parents or relatives as completely wicked, we only say the kaddish on their behalf for eleven months, for surely by then they will have received any possible chastisement they deserved. Except this analogy is not so simple. The generation of the flood did not actually suffer for twelve months but surely perished in the first forty days of intensive rainfall. Those who did suffer for a year, until the waters receded, were Noach and his family cooped up in the Ark with a load of animals. So it is from the travails of Noach that we learn the twelve month limit of posthumous punishment. This indicates that Noach was meant to be chastised in some way, even while he was being saved. In other words, Noach’s conduct was not totally without reproach. This idea chimes with the opinion of those commentators who see Noach’s acquiescence in G-d’s plan as not a sign of righteousness but rather is reprehensible. Unlike Abraham or Moses, when told of G-d’s destructive intent, he is silent. For doing nothing, therefore, he was forced to suffer for a year in the Ark and endure a lifetime afterwards in a ruined and empty world, echoing with the silent screams of the perished multitudes. The lesson for us is clear. We learn the limit of punishment of the wicked not only from those who acted wrongly but from those who failed to act. Wickedness can exist not only in activity and speech but also in inactivity and silence. Noach was so unable to live with himself that he sought escape in the oblivion of inebriation. If we today are silent in face of the destruction that threatens our planet, how will we live with ourselves?