Vayera (Genesis 18-23)

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GOOD MORNING!! I have often wondered about something that has been highlighted during the present US election. I’m going to ask it about the US, but it’s equally true in the UK and other countries with a two-party system. Why is it that you rarely see blowouts in elections? It’s almost always small margins that decide them. It’s never 75% Trump and 25% Biden. In terms of popular vote, only three US presidents in the last 100 years have achieved 60% (and one of those was Nixon!!) Why is the country so 50/50 in its division? I was chatting to my son about this and he gave me a great answer. Whilst each party certainly has its own agenda, those agendas are more nuanced than at first glance. Democrats might raise taxes – but there is a threshold they cannot go beyond, or they will not get re-elected. Republicans might reduce government supported healthcare – but again, only to a degree. Both parties agree on most tax issues and most healthcare issues. They seem further away because it is the differences that are highlighted, not the very broad areas of agreement. It was an encouraging answer for me because, at a time of such seeming division in the US, it’s good to remember that the two sides are closer than they might seem and, God willing, whatever way this election goes, both sides would do well to remember that.

torah portion

Three strangers visit Abraham. He is not aware that they are angels, but treats them as one would royalty nevertheless – for every human being is indeed a child of the King of Kings. What could be more regal than that? The ‘men’ head off to Sodom and Gemorrah which they promptly destroy – having first saved Lot, Abraham’s nephew. Lot and his two daughters have a bit too much of a good time together and both become pregnant. Isaac is born to Abraham and Sara and Abraham passes the greatest test of his life – that of being willing to sacrifice his son and all of his dreams in order to listen to God.

davar torah

When Abraham welcomes strangers to his tent, it is an act of incredible humility and incredible kindness. You see that he is eager to give to them, desperate almost. This is the Jewish ideal – kindness towards others should not be a fulfilment of an obligation but an act that one genuinely desires.

I often look in the mirror in this regard and find myself lacking; especially when I compare myself to my wife. 

For me, most of the time, kindness is an obligation. Now, that is most certainly better than nothing, but it is not what giving is about.

Abraham begs, yes begs, that the three strangers come and partake of his food. He bows down to them and refers to himself as their ‘servant’, he runs to go and get food for them. He runs. I ask myself, how often do I run to do kindness for others? How often am I genuinely eager to put myself out for other human beings? If I’m late to watch the football, I might run. If I’m going to buy something that’s important to me, I might run. But, somehow, if I’m doing something for others, which I do regularly, it feels like an obligation. It feels like almost a burden – something I must do because it’s right, because it’s what a caring person does, because it’s what God expects of me.

This was not Abraham, Torah’s role model for kindness. The portion begins three days after his circumcision and God, we are told, had made it a boiling hot day so that no one would be travelling and hence Abraham would not need to bother himself for guests. Abraham, however, sat at the entrance of his tent eagerly hoping that people would come nevertheless. That’s a genuine desire to give.  

It’s a lofty ideal, but that’s the Torah’s role – to give us lofty ideals to aspire to. Otherwise, we are likely to get comfortable in our own mediocrity. 

Torah teaches that we are here in this world, a world where our default is taking, in order to give. But it requires us to rebel against our human nature – or rather to find, and nurture, a deeper and holier part of our nature. Abraham is the prototype for this. He found that care inside of himself and he cultivated it. It was a lifetime’s work, but he developed into a person who enjoyed giving, who genuinely wanted to give from the depths of his heart. Far from being a burden, or merely the right thing to do, giving was the joy of being like God, of being Godly. He was on the look out for giving. He ran to give. He cared about every human being in a way that he would care about his own children. 

As I say, on a personal level, I’m a long way from there. But minimally, I feel that Torah wants me to have it as a goal – and I very much do. Even if sometimes kindness feels like a burden, I wish it were not. Even if I don’t often find myself running to give, I wish that I did. Even if my life is not entirely given over to making a contribution to the lives of others and the greater good of humanity, I strive towards the day that it will be. With Abraham as a role model, I hope that I cannot go too far wrong. 

 Shabbat Shalom 

Rabbi Shaul Rosenblatt

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