Hold My Hand – Parshat Vayera 5783

Over the past two-plus years, as Covid turned our world upside down, we’ve all felt the loss of what was our normal. Not being about to be physically present for holidays was hard, masks were uncomfortable, but so important. We went through the peaks and valleys of fear to relative calm and back to fear again as variants and surges came and went.

One of the lasting effects of Covid is how we handle physical touch. We’re now hyper-aware of every physical interaction. Whether it’s avoiding a handshake when meeting someone new or the awkward hug while holding your breath, for someone like me who’s used to giving a big hug or a gentle arm squeeze when I’m comforting someone, the early phases of the pandemic were especially hard. It’s only now as we’re understanding more and living with our adjusted reality that I realize how much meaning holding hands can have in our lives.

From skin-to-skin contact for newborns, to adult health benefits like slowing the heartbeat, lowering blood pressure, and triggering the release of oxytocin, the positive effects of touch have been proven time and again. Studies using PET scans have even shown that just holding a person’s hand helps the brain’s response to stress.

Hagar, Sarah’s maidservant and Ishamel’s mother, teaches us this lesson as well in the Torah this week. In this week’s parshah, Vayera, 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 can no longer handle having Hagar and Ishmael in their home, she sends them into the wilderness. Hagar is alone with her child, feeling vulnerable and a bit scared. In chapter 21, verse 18, God instructs Hagar, “Come, lift up the boy and hold him by the hand.” Though they’re isolated from their community, God reminds Hagar that they have each other in this powerful moment of human touch. 

The exact translation of the Hebrew is closer to “make your hand strong in his.” When we hold each other, when we lift each other, we are stronger. As we’ve all learned over these last years, a simple high five or a gentle arm touch brings strength and connection. The name of our Torah portion this week, Vayera, means “and he saw.” Perhaps this is a reminder that really seeing each other is more than a visual cue. The real value of human connection is to see when someone is in need. 

Now See, Hear – Parshat Vayera 5782

One of the hardest parts in switching to what is now a commonplace Zoom lifestyle was not being able to really see people. Yes, we mostly had our cameras on during meetings and services, but only seeing someone from the neck up isn’t really seeing them. So much of what I use in conversation comes from watching body language, watching subtle movements and shifts in others, and being fully present with another person. I’m just as guilty as the next person of occasionally being “checked out” when a meeting is online. If I’m not on a walk, where there are fewer distractions, it’s much too easy to check and answer emails or help a kid with a project. I wanted to be fully focused, but sitting and staring at a screen all day long didn’t really allow me that focus I needed. So in other words, not being able to completely see people has also made it difficult for me to completely hear them.

I know I’m not alone in my inability to be fully focused, or fully listening, when something else is calling for my attention. One reason I know this is because it’s actually at the center of this week’s Torah portion. In this week’s parshah, Vayera, we learn a version of 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 Abraham and Isaac are on the walk to the mount for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, there is stilted conversation. Isaac repeatedly asks questions based on his observations. “Where are we going?” “Where is the sacrifice?” And Abraham’s answer is consistently, “God will see to the sheep” and “He saw the place.” Whereas Isaac was taking in the world around him, likely because he was fully focused on the experience, Abraham’s focus was somewhere else, perhaps hoping and praying that God would intervene and call off this test. Abraham wasn’t watching his son to see how to really comfort him; instead, he was focused on God. 

This is not to say that as a monotheistic people we shouldn’t focus on God; rather, it’s a subtle reminder that Judaism, parenting, and life in general are about being present. After this incident, Abraham and Isaac don’t really speak to each other again, not that you can blame them. But I can’t help wondering if that would have been different if Abraham had been fully present with Isaac, listening to him, to really see him and to answer his questions, share wisdom, and let him know he was loved, despite this challenging ordeal. 

What I’ve learned about Zoom is I’m not able to be fully present unless I remove the distractions.  When we listen to each other, when we can really see each other, not just in a tiny window at the top of the screen while we mindlessly scroll Facebook or answer email, but in the full screen (large box, so to speak) that’s how we build relationships and move forward with one another. May we continue walking into 5782 with presence and focus on the things that matter. 

The Multipurpose Life – Parshat Vayera 5781

What do you want to be when you grow up? A question that is asked repeatedly throughout our young lives. If you ask my son Matan what he wants to be, he’ll tell you a leaf blower or a vacuum cleaner (not the people who use these items, but the items themselves). If you ask Shiri, her answer depends on the day, but it’s usually a pop star or an artist/author like Eric Carle. No doubt these notions will change as they mature (Matan’s most certainly will). Do you remember your answer to this question from when you were a child? Are you actually doing one of the things you hoped to be doing?

Over the course of a lifetime, we may hold any number of different titles, positions, or even careers. Our purpose or calling in life might change based on our passions, strengths, or needs at any given time. This is one of the characteristics that makes us human: we have the ability to make clear choices, change our path, and fulfill multiple goals throughout our lives. 

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.”

One item in the narrative of Abraham and the story of Sodom and Gomorrah which fascinates me is when we learn about different numbers of angels. Previously when Abraham encountered the angels, three of them were mentioned as they visited him in his recovery. Now we’re down to two, and by the end of the parshah we’ll only have one. Why this decrease in number? The Talmud suggests that an angel exists to perform one specific task, after which the angel disappears. In our text, one angel delivers the good news about Sarah and Abraham and their future, one destroys Sodom, and the third arrives to rescue Lot.

We often think of angels as God-like beings, and by definition that suggests they don’t face the same limitations we do. However, these angels serve only one purpose each, while human beings, on the other hand, can and do live to serve multiple purposes and to achieve countless accomplishments.

One of the deeper lessons of Parshat Vayera is that we as humans have been given something not even the angels have. We have the ability to change, and that is more powerful than any single purpose.

Open Eyes – Parshat Vayera 5780

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“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

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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.