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.

A Grain of Salt – Parshat Vayera 5773

I am a bargainer.  Not just when I look for shopping deals, but even as part of my day to day life from childhood to adulthood.  With my students I bargain: “If I get through everything I want to finish today, then you can have the rest of the class time to do other work.”  As a kid I might have bargained with my parents: “If you let me stay up to finish watching my favorite show, I’ll read extra before bed tomorrow.”  Sometimes in my relationship with God I try to bargain too: “God, if you help heal this person, I promise I will never ask for anything again.”  Bargaining is a way of life for some, for others it just happens in moments of desperation.  Regardless of what leads you to bargain, often in a bargain one person has the upper hand.
One of the great examples of an expert bargainer is Abraham in this week’s parshah, Vayera.  In our parshah, Abraham’s story heats up.  He recovers from his covenant with God, welcomes in themelachim (the messengers of God) to his tent, witnesses the birth of his son Isaac and the separation of his son Ishmael from his household, and makes a covenant with Avimelech, king of Gerar.  The most notable events are Abraham bargaining with God at the incident of Sdom and Amora and going blindly to sacrifice his son at God’s request.  These two events define Abraham’s life and relationship with God in deep and intense ways.
As the narrative tells us, God tells Abraham that he will destroy the cities of Sdom and Amora where Lot, Abraham’s uncle, is living because the people are absolutely dreadful.  Upon hearing this news, Abraham begins to bargain with God.  “God, if I find 50 good people, will you save the cities?”  God agrees, but Abraham cannot hold up his end of the bargain.  Abraham asks again thinking he can find 40 good people, and eventually goes all the way down to 10.  Each time, God agrees to Abraham’s offer, perhaps ultimately knowing what the end result will be.  Ultimately, Abraham has nothing left to bargain with, so he grabs his family, warns them not to turn back, and leads them all to safety except for Lot’s wife, who turns back and becomes a pillar of salt.
It was bold of Abraham to bargain with God.  The Torah rarely tells us what God feels in any given situation, but I can almost imagine God’s reaction when Abraham starts the bargaining.  I imagine a mixed reaction, dismayed and annoyed that someone would be so bold as to bargain with the divine and at the same time, taking it with a grain of salt knowing that Abraham has indeed given up all he’s ever known out of devotion to Him.
What we see in our parshah is that Abraham is willing to do whatever it takes, including bargaining with God, for what is right, yet, as with Sdom and Amora, knows when the argument is lost and the conditions cannot be met.  Abraham also understands what it means to have faith and trust in God, like with the binding of Isaac, when the situation warrants it.  Ultimately, a bargain can only be successful if both parties hold true to their promises.  This balance isn’t easy, but will lead us well in our lives if we can follow the model.
May we all accept Abraham’s challenge and stand up when the situation warrants a bargaining voice to do great good, but be able to walk away when the price is too high and our energy could be better used elsewhere.
THIS TOO IS TORAH: There is a stark contrast drawn between the hospitality of Abraham and Sarah and the inhospitable community of Sdom. The Mishnah paints the residents of Sdom as people who ascribe to the philosophy “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours.”  Have you ever been in a strange or unfamiliar place and felt like an outsider?  How would you want to be treated?

Watch Your Tone – Parshat Vayera 5772

“Watch your tone, young lady.”  I remember these words coming as a warning that I was on the fine line between being sassy and being in trouble for it.  The tone of voice we use can tell others exactly how we’re feeling, what’s on our mind, what we think about them and so much more.  When we get excited, our voice might get higher, and when we lie, our voice might go quiet.  When we’re angry we might scream, and when we’re annoyed, our tone might have a certain bite to it.  While the words we use are important, how we say them can tell others so much more about what we’re thinking.
Parshat Vayera, this week’s Torah portion, is chock-full of narrative.  It opens with Abraham after he makes the covenant with God and goes through his circumcision.  He is immediately greeted bymalachim, messengers from God.  Abraham has a choice: he can welcome them and make them feel at home, or he can send them away.  Abraham chooses to welcome them.  Next in the parshah, Abraham has to deal with the fall of Sdom and Amora and save his cousin Lot and his family as these two cities of weak morals come to their own demise.  Later in the parshah, Abraham and Sarah are blessed with the birth of Isaac and have to sort out their complicated family dynamics with Ishmael and his mother.  After Abraham makes a pact with a nearby king, he comes to a moment of testing, both of his faith and his trust.
This section of text is referred to as the Akeidah, the Binding of Isaac.  This is the narrative of God asking Abraham to take his son, his only son, the son that he loves, Isaac, and sacrifice him as an offering for God.  This whole incident is described by the rabbis as a test of Abraham’s faith, but it teaches more about his character.  During this encounter, Abraham uses the same word, Hineini, (“here I am”) three times in response to three different people.  While the text isn’t written in click-to-hear format, we can imagine the change in his voice.
The first time Abraham answers is to God in chapter 22, verses 1-2.  God calls out to Abraham, and Abraham, not knowing what is about to come to him responds, Hineini, “Hey God, HERE I AM!”  One can envision Abraham perhaps hesitantly, but enthusiastically awaiting his next task from God.  Saying  Hineini with this attitude lets others know you are there and ready to step in.  You’re not judging what they might ask of you or placing conditions on what you’ll agree to, you’re simply ready to go.
A few verses later in chapter 22, verses 6-8, we find Abraham on his way to fulfill God’s wishes in offering up Isaac.  He and Isaac are walking together with all the materials necessary for a sacrifice except for the animal to be used.  Isaac, who is possibly every bit as nervous as his father, calls out to Abraham, perhaps with a bit of hesitancy and concern.  Abraham again responds with Hineini.  But this Hineini might lack some of the enthusiasm of the previous one.  Abraham stands up this time, walking with his son, trying to be a calming presence.
The third instance occurs as Abraham has his arm lifted to make the sacrifice. A malach, an angel of God, calls out to him.  Up to this point, Abraham has twice answered calls ready to act and has twice been burdened with their gravity.  It should come as no surprise that this time the malach has to call his name twice before he answers.  Perhaps this time he answers with a bit of a bite in his voice.  “What?! I’m here!”
In our lives, we are constantly being asked to support this cause or that cause, to give money to this organization or that one.  We have families, friends, and jobs that constantly place requests, demands, and constraints on our time.  While we might have once jumped up and said Hineini, here I am, ready to help, maybe we now find ourselves overburdened and annoyed at these requests.  But, if Abraham had ignored that final request, our story would have gone quite differently.  We too have the opportunity to turn ourselves off, or to continue to take responsibility for ourselves and our community, to keep answering the call because it’s the right thing to do.  Just watch your tone.
ללמוד  To Learn: ללמד  To Teach: לשמור  To Keep:  לעשות  To Do:
Parshat Vayera is the source text for the mitzvah of Bikur cholim, visiting the sick.  Saying Hineinimeans making sure that those in our community who cannot be physically with us because of treatments or other limitations are still included.  When a classmate, friend, neighbor or family member is sick, make a little extra time to visit them, call them, send a meal or a card as a family.  Include your children in the learning.

D’var Torah: Pico Egal Parshat Vayera

Do you ever feel alone?Traveling on a journey with no guide?Going into the unknown?Or, do you sometimes feel like someone is watching you?Silently guiding you?Do you feel like you’re being followed?If Abraham were to take the MMPI, that wonderful personality inventory, his answers might be troublesome for the program he was applying to.These are questions Abraham might have grappled with in our Parshah.In parshat Vayera, God’s presence is known, only when God calls out, and acts from behind the curtain.Abraham journeys, with a silent partner, God, lurking in the bushes, calling out from the sky, silently guiding the journey.

Our parshah has many different images of God accompanying Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar.It begins with Abraham and Sarah minding their business in the desert as Abraham heals from his recent circumcision, and all of the sudden these three messengers from God appear, are welcomed in and invade their space.Next, we come upon the events of Sodom and Amora, God puts Abraham to work again, but the task is not easy, and the righteous people are nowhere to be found.

Abraham must have known he was special before this, All this God calling out to him, special directions, fathering a child at an incredibly old age, and yet, there is no mention of his acknowledgement of this.Abraham continues on after the failed attempt at saving Sodom and Amora and moves onto his encounters with Avimelech.Abraham and Avimelech make an oath, who points out to Abraham that God is with him in all that he does.A powerful message evidenced by the encounters with God of Sarah, Hagar, and Abraham.

Once again, Abraham moves on with his life, as God Calls out to him to take his son, his only son, the son that he loves, Isaac and sacrifice him. Abraham exhibits an incredible amount of faith and takes Isaac with him to Mount Moriah. And then, as he is about to commit the aultimate act of trust in God, God calls out to him once more, and this time, Abraham answers HINENI, HERE I AM, I AM HERE, READY, I BELIEVE.

God calls out, and Abraham answers, ready to serve, ready to follow his leader. Abraham is not alone, on every task, God accompanies Abraham, a silent partner, until the time is right to intervene.

“You are not alone, I am here with you” Michael Jackson may have made these lyrics popular, but parshat vayera, our portion, this week teaches us more about this concept and God than any Michael Jackson song ever could. When we are alone, or feeling alone, perhaps we need to take the time to look for the HINEINI moments in our lives. Perhaps God Is calling out to us, we just can’t quite hear it. Perhaps, we must engage in this dialogue, and take a second to recognize as Avimelech did: God is with you in all that you do!

As we enter into Shabbat, Vayera, may we be blessed with the strength and ability to see those things we are too busy to see during the week, to hear those subtle voices of a silent traveling companion, and to stand up with courage and say HINENI, HERE I AM, ready to do my part in the world. May we never feel alone, and recognize that God is here with us.