Yom Chamishi, 17 Tammuz 5780
Tzom Tammuz Thursday, 9 July 2020
Parashat Vayera 5775

8th November 2014 - Rabbi Charley Baginsky

It has often been said the Bible is not a children’s book. But the portion for this week reads more like the most risqué episode of some popular soap opera. First Sarah becomes pregnant in her old age – her very old age. Then the male citizens of Sodom wish to have intercourse with the honored guests of Lot – from whence we get the word sodomy. Then Lot proceeds to offer his virgin daughters to the baying crowd in substitution of his guests. This is followed by the seduction and incest of Lot with his daughters. Sarah is placed, by her husband, in the position of sexual pawn between himself and Avimelech. Hagar is banished from her house, with her young son by a weak Abraham and a vindictive Sarah and this is all climaxed with the near murder of Isaac by Abraham. Were this a movie I doubt a certificate 18 would be enough.

What happens when we are confronted by the difficult readings? Can we just pick and choose; call the good  - divinely inspired and the messy and sometimes downright nasty -  human?

The authors of our Siddur chose the theme of Theodicy to match this portion. The first reading asks:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but unable

Is God able, but unwilling?

Is God impotent, indifferent or malevolent?

And I add was God, the God who told Abraham to sacrifice his son?

Was God the same God that called Lot worthy and watched him offer up his daughters?

Was God, the same God who created Sodom and watched it burn?

But I ask a further question, why do we continue to read the stories of these people and to remember them every day in our prayers? To connect ourselves to them and, in our own way, venerate the scroll that houses them and their stories?

Harold Kushner in his seminal book, when bad things happen to good people, writes: “Is there an answer to the question of why bad things happen to good people? That depends on what we mean by answer. If we mean, ‘is there an explanation which will all make sense of it all?  - why is there cancer in the world?... Why did the plane crash? Why did my child die? Then there is probably no satisfactory answer. We can offer learned explanations, but in the end, when we have covered all the squares on the game board and we are feeling very proud of our cleverness, the pain and anguish and the sense of unfairness will still be there.”

So, like I Kushner instead of the word ‘answer’, I look to the word ‘response’. While often we are unable to find any satisfying answer to the tragedies in our lives, we can choose how we respond. We can seek to forgive the world for not being perfect, to forgive God for not making a better world, to reach out to the people around us, and to go on living despite it all and even more so to attempt to make it a little bit better. It is for that reason that I think we as a people have stuck by Torah and God for so long. Because God gave us, in what ever manner we choose to believe, a book that should be sacred despite its imperfect people and despite the cruelty that we find within it. For each time we turn to it, within its pages we also find hope, we find the ethics we try to live by, the strength of human courage and love, and the possibility of good things happening to good people, even when they had given up hope – did Sarah not have a baby at 90!

Vayera means God appeared, we can spend our lives looking and waiting for some sign that God is near. But for me Vayera is about the nearness of God, for we have inherited a divine book that is human – where there are stories that continue to reflect the difficulties and trials of human life. So let us not avoid the difficult passages, but instead use them to ask the difficult questions and I believe that somewhere in the mess and darkness of it all we might just be offered the opportunity to come closer to the divine.