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.

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?