Open Eyes – Parshat Vayera 5780


“And God opened her eyes.” Each day in our morning blessings, we recite “Pokeach Ivrim.” Thank you God for opening the eyes of the blind. I often reflect on this verse with our young daveners in Kiddush Club. “What does it mean to open your eyes?” I’ll ask. The answers usually include thoughtful responses like “so we can see beauty” or “so we can see who needs help.” One particular week, Sammy, an inquisitive first-grader asked, “What about Helen Keller? Would she say this prayer?” And we all paused.

This week we read from Parshat Vayera. This sacred section of text denotes the birth of our Israelite nation as Abraham and Sarah are finally able to procreate. Their journey through infertility was undoubtedly arduous and painful, including Sarah resorting to having a child through her maidservant simply so her husband Abraham could fulfill the mitzvah. 

So much of this Torah portion gets the spotlight (the birth of Isaac, Sodom and Gomorrah, the binding of Isaac) that we seldom talk about the fate of Sarah’s handmaid Hagar and her (and Abraham’s) son Ishmael. At Sarah’s request (and God’s assurance), Abraham casts Hagar and Ishmael out into the wilderness. There Hagar and Ishmael are, crying out in the middle of the desert for help and for water, and when God hears them and attends to their needs, it is by “opening her eyes.” Our commentary asks, does the well appear miraculously, in answer to the prayer of a deeply distressed mother, or had it been there all along and somehow in her distress, Hagar failed to see it? 

How often in life are we paralyzed by the sheer magnitude of what might need to be done? How often do we perceive ourselves as stuck somewhere, even if the answer is in front of us? Sometimes when a situation seems hopeless or beyond our control, hiding or closing our eyes is the first response. But what if we could train ourselves to let God open our eyes in those moments?

My conversation with first-grader Sammy on that Saturday morning turned to how Helen Keller was able to rise up, overcome the challenges she faced, and persevere. She opened her eyes, even if figuratively, and became an incredible inspiration and example of the strength of the human spirit. May we go into Shabbat, and soon into this new secular year, with open eyes and renewed spirit.

Sugar Coated – Parshat Vayera 5779


For some reason keeping comments to myself doesn’t come naturally to me. Do I have a filter? Yes. Do I use it as often as I should? That depends on who you ask. Throughout my life I’ve had to work hard to say the right thing at the right time, or at least keep the snarky and inappropriate thoughts silent. My tone of voice and sometimes biting remarks were a source of great strife as I made my way through my teenage years and young adulthood. Even now I constantly check myself to see if what I’m about to say out loud will be harmful to others, or if there’s a better or nicer way I could say it, or if it really needs to be said at all. I have to use extreme care and caution in picking my words so that the conversation remains productive and not destructive. The old saying, “If you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all” is a rule with which I struggle daily.

I know I’m not alone in my cautious selecting of words and tone. In fact, throughout the Torah we receive warnings of the problems that arise when we either don’t choose our words carefully or use our words to destroy. In this week’s parshah, Vayera, we learn this lesson as well. Here’s the recap: Abraham and Sarah contemplate the son that will be born to them in their old age; Sodom and Gomorrah fall as Abraham bargains with God to save Lot’s life; and Isaac is born, causing a rift in Abraham’s house with Ishmael. Abraham moves forward in making a deal with King Avimelech, and we end with the Akeidah, the test of Abraham as God asks that he offer up his son, Isaac.

When Sarah learns of her pregnancy, her first reaction is to laugh, responding, “Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment with my husband so old?” She’s telling God there’s no way she can be pregnant because her husband is so old. However, when God recounts the experience to Abraham, God changes her reaction and asks, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?’” Remember, Sarah called Abraham old, not herself, but God changes the harshness of Sarah’s reaction to cushion the blow for Abraham.

This verse is used as the proof text in the Talmud in Tractate Ketubot, where we learn that one is not obligated to tell the whole truth if it will hurt someone’s feelings. Part of being human and engaging in human relationships is the ability to discern what is necessary to share and what might be best “softened” for others. It’s not that we have a free pass to lie, but we do have the obligation to think of other people first and make sure our words and actions come from a place of respect.

Mother of Two – Parshat Vayera 5778


It was about a year ago when our lives were turned upside down by the addition of our sweet Matan to our world. Duncan and I had planned for his arrival; we prepared ourselves as best we could for the inevitable changes that would come as we welcomed a second child in our lives. In particular, we tried to make things as easy as possible for Matan’s older sister Shiri by reading books to her about becoming a big sister, role play with baby dolls, play dates with friends’ babies, and anything else we could think of to help create a smooth transition for her from only child to sibling.

As other parents of multiple children already know, this planning went well until the planning became reality. Sprinkled in with the moments of joy and blessing of the new baby came many moments of anxiety and insanity. There were times we all – including Shiri – wanted to run and hide. (Three-year-olds need private space too.) It turns out you can plan all you want, but bringing another child into your home and into your lives is anything but easy.

This week we read Parshat Vayera, in which Abraham and Sarah contemplate the son that will be born to them in their old age; Sodom and Gomorrah fall as Abraham bargains with God to save Lot’s life; and Isaac is born, causing a rift in Abraham’s house with Ishmael. Abraham moves forward in making a deal with King Avimelech, and we end with the Akeidah, the test of Abraham as God asks that he offer up his son, Isaac.

Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, and Isaac have the incredibly difficult task of trying to build a family after what must have been a crazy adjustment period. It could not have been easy to blend this family with one dad, two moms, and now two brothers all trying to figure out how they each fit in. Sarah, the new mother, appears to be at her wits’ end, attempting to protect her new baby when she insists that Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael away.

Now a year into motherhood with a second child, I know that feeling. It is overwhelming to balance an older child and a newborn while dealing with other family members, jobs, and everything else that comes with adulthood. I’m not saying Sarah was right to banish them, but I certainly understand where she was coming from as a mother.

On the face of it, this part of our story might be difficult to digest. It sheds a cold and rather harsh light on Abraham as a father. However, it also reminds us that being a parent means there are countless decisions to make, and not all of them are straightforward. Adjustments are hard, but resilience and adaptability are part of what makes us human. And perhaps no one teaches us that lesson better than our children.

Standing Still – Parshat Vayera 5777


Some moments in life leave you stuck, standing still, unable to move forward (or in any direction for that matter). I felt a literal version of this when it was time to leave the grave after we buried my father. I was stuck. I just stood there. All I could do was stand and cry, thinking about the life we just lost, thinking or praying to God that I would find comfort and that we would be OK. It was my own thoughts and emotions that paralyzed me, froze me to the spot.

Moments like these can happen for a variety of reasons; the question is what do we do with this paralysis?

This week we read Parshat Vayera, where Abraham and Sarah contemplate the son that will be born to them in their old age. We then turn to Sodom and Gomorrah and Abraham’s attempts at saving the cities. This is followed by the birth of Isaac, additional covenants, and God’s final test of Abraham’s faith with the “Binding of Isaac.”

At the beginning of the text, Abraham is sent out to Sodom and Gomorrah. The text reads, “The men went on from there to Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the Lord.” It is from this verse, according to the Babylonian Talmud, that morning prayer became a practice. Rabbinic tradition teaches that Abraham prayed when he rose early to face God. However, this doesn’t strike me as a “rise early to pray” moment. Abraham is standing, about to deliver some devastating news to a community, which to me appears more like a “stuck in his place” moment.

Abraham does regain his composure and then actually has a face-to-face with God in order to try to save the city. But that moment of pause, that moment of being stuck, was perhaps the moment that gave Abraham the presence of mind and the courage to move forward. So often we jump into action or react without thinking things through. Here, Abraham takes a moment right at the start of a situation to reflect.

Parshat Vayera reminds us of this important step in providing for ourselves clarity and confidence. Perhaps our version of standing still or “morning prayer” is that moment each day when we pause, reflect, and prepare for what lies ahead. Whatever you call it, sometimes you simply have to give in to being “stuck” before you’re able to push forward.

Leading By Example – Parshat Vayera 5776

Leading by Example

As a parent I am often reminded that there are always little eyes and ears watching and listening to my every move.  Shiri wants to do everything we do, from my marching in place when I’m trying to get in a few extra steps for the day on my Fitbit, to eating the foods she sees us eating, to the way in which she models me on my phone. (Any object she picks up she holds to her ear and yells “Hi!”)  She is a sponge looking to me for what her next move should be.  As human beings we look to others as role models when we’re learning new skills.  We learn how to react by watching others, and we learn the appropriate behavior for a variety of situations by imitation.  This comes as a powerful mandate for the modeler.

The Torah is also filled with instances in which imitation is the mode of transmission for behavior and expectations.  In last week’s parshah, Lech Lecha, Abraham leads by example when he circumcises himself as part of a covenant with God.  Being a moral exemplar is a paramount role in the Torah.

This week we read parshat Vayera, in which Abraham and Sarah contemplate the son that will be born to them in their old age; Sodom and Gomorrah fall as Abraham bargains with God to save Lot’s life; and Isaac is born, causing a rift in Abraham’s house with Ishmael.  Abraham moves forward in making a deal with King Avimelech, and we end with the Akeidah, the test of Abraham as God instructs him to offer up his son, Isaac.

God asks much of Abraham in order to save his family and be a loyal adherent to God’s ways.  Throughout the narrative we see Abraham’s moral compass developing over time. As Abraham is called to take care of issues in Sodom and Gomorrah, he faces a moral dilemma when God’s solution is destruction.  Abraham asks, “Shall not the judge of all the earth deal justly?”  God has challenged Abraham, and now Abraham challenges God right back with the notion that even God is subject to the moral standards decreed for human beings.  That is to say, if God is going to command moral behavior, God must exemplify that behavior.

The flawed sentiment “Do as I say, not as I do” has no place in Judaism.  The idea that parents, teachers, and rabbis can expect one thing and model something else is utter nonsense.  Will my daughter embrace the beauty of Shabbat as an adult simply because I told her how important it was to me?  No.  The perpetuation of the traditions we hold dear will rely on us showing, not merely telling.

This Shabbat, and at every opportunity, let us look to Abraham’s definition of practicing what we preach.  Let us lead by example.