Posts Tagged 'Veyera'

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?

Beyond Just Right and Left: On the Authority of Law

We learn in  Shoftim, this week’s Torah portion, the basic elements of the justice system. There we read:

You shall act in accordance with the instructions given you and the ruling handed down to you; you must not deviate from the verdict that they announce to you either to the right or to the left.

Deuteronomy 17:11

While we need to believe in the Torah, the Torah itself is asking us to follow the interpretation of the Judges. The rule of law is not limited to the given word, but rather predicated by following the Judges interpretation of the law. This idea continues from the Judges to the Rabbis as they become the interpreters of the law. This idea is echoed in one of three wonderful story about a non-Jew who wants to convert with a condition. There we read:

There was an incident involving one gentile who came before Shammai. The gentile said to Shammai: How many Torahs do you have? He said to him: Two, the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. The gentile said to him: With regard to the Written Torah, I believe you, but with regard to the Oral Torah, I do not believe you. Convert me on condition that you will teach me only the Written Torah. Shammai scolded him and cast him out with reprimand. The same gentile came before Hillel, who converted him and began teaching him Torah. On the first day, he showed him the letters of the alphabet and said to him: Alef, bet, gimmel, dalet. The next day he reversed the order of the letters and told him that an alef is a tav and so on. The convert said to him: But yesterday you did not tell me that. Hillel said to him: You see that it is impossible to learn what is written without relying on an oral tradition. Didn’t you rely on me? Therefore, you should also rely on me with regard to the matter of the Oral Torah, and accept the interpretations that it contains.

Shabbat 31a

The would-be convert wants to accept the Torah but not the Rabbis’ interpretation. While Shammai is not having it at all, Hillel is willing to play. Just as in our Torah portion one would have to accept left as right and right as left, Hillel is pushing him to accept Alef as Taf and Taf as Alef. In this context the convert realizes that it is a package deal. To have access to the written Torah he will also need to trust the Rabbis and accept their interpretation for better and for worse. To become a Jew is predicated by accepting Rabbinic Authority. We see in the would-be convert a character that I often find in myself. I think I know what is right and what is wrong and I am not willing to trust an external authority. I often get stuck there. I have a feeling I am not the only one who gets stuck in this place.

This is profoundly similar to the Avraham’s situation at the Akedah, binding of his son Yitzhak. God told him to sacrifice his beloved son. Just as Avraham is about to go through with it an Angel tell him not to do it. Is this message the truth or just an interpretation. Should he go through with it? What is he to do? There we read:

When Avraham looked up, his eye fell upon a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son.

Genesis 22:13
Genesis 22 vers 13. De ram op de berg Moria. | Genesis bible, Bible  pictures, Biblical art

Avraham did not know which authority to follow. He did not turn his head to “either to the right or to the left “. He lifts his head and he sees a ram caught in the thicket. In the ram he sees himself. Will he go to the right or to the left or will he lift his head and see another path through the situation? We all get stuck between A and B. We do not always find a way to back up, analyze, and make a plan C. To live a life within the law we cannot deviate from the path. The path itself demands that we trust our Rabbis AND think for ourselves.


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