Tent of Understanding and Patience

How do we respond to existential crisis? I would assume that no two people would respond exactly the same way to the same situation. And I would also assume that the same person would respond differently to different crises.

I was thinking about this question when reading the start of Vayera, this week’s Torah portion. Avraham and Sarah were promised a great nation, and there she finds herself old, menopausal, and childless. We see God looking after Avraham in his tent. Avraham sees three strangers traveling in the desert. He runs to invite them in and host them. Avraham and Sarah meet their needs and go way beyond that. I can only imagine the anguish of Sarah’s life. She thought her life was about having and caring for a child and now she is schvitching getting food ready for these strangers. As it turns out, these travelers were actually angels sent to bring messages. One of these messages is that Sarah was going to have a child. Her response is to laugh. There we read:

And Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment—with my husband so old?”

Genesis 18:12

She laughs because it seems absurd that she should be able to have a child. The humor of the situation reveals her patience in light of God’s tardiness in delivering on God’s promise.

It is fascinating to compare Sarah’s response to Lot’s daughters behavior at the end of the Torah portion. Like Sarah they are faced with what they perceive as existential crisis. Their town had been destroyed, mother turned to a pillar of salt, and they find shelter in a cave. There we read:

Lot went up from Zoar and settled in the hill country with his two daughters, for he was afraid to dwell in Zoar; and he and his two daughters lived in a cave. And the older one said to the younger, “Our father is old, and there is not a man on earth to consort with us in the way of all the world. Come, let us make our father drink wine, and let us lie with him, that we may maintain life through our father.” That night they made their father drink wine, and the older one went in and lay with her father; he did not know when she lay down or when she rose. The next day the older one said to the younger, “See, I lay with Father last night; let us make him drink wine tonight also, and you go and lie with him, that we may maintain life through our father.” That night also they made their father drink wine, and the younger one went and lay with him; he did not know when she lay down or when she rose. Thus the two daughters of Lot came to be with child by their father.

Genesis 19:18-36

In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman wrote, “We are prone to blame decision makers for good decisions that worked out badly and to give them too little credit for successful moves that appear obvious only after the fact.” Lot’s daughters do something horrible, but from their perspective you could appreciate their motivations. They assume that the entire world has been destroyed and they want to save it. How should we judge them for their actions?

Even if I am understanding of their perception, I would say it was horrible. Not only because it was unethical and gross, but because their stance toward time. It seems that no time passes and they are working on a solution to the problem of populating the world. While their issues and Sarah’s are similar, their perception of time is very different. Sarah is patient and Lot’s daughters are impatient and impetuous. It is particularly fascinating to visualize the juxtaposition between Sarah’s tent and Lot’s Daughter cave. How to we react to crises? Do we run to caves or take our time in tents? Do we jump to the wrong conclusion or do we wait too long?

Arabian Desert Tent Images, Stock Photos & Vectors | Shutterstock

In his book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell wrote, “The key to good decision making is not knowledge. It is understanding. We are swimming in the former. We are desperately lacking in the latter.” How do we get out of the case and position ourselves in tents of understanding?

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