Parashat Vayeira – Erev Shabbat 15 November 2019
Week of 10-16 November 2019
Torah Portion: Genesis 18:1-22:24 Haftarah: 2 Kings 4:1-37
Theme: The Presence of God
In today’s Torah reading, we have a number of big events like the visit of the divine beings, the announcement of the birth of a child to Abraham and Sarah, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorra, the birth of Isaac, the expulsion of Hagar and Ismael, the binding or sacrifice of Isaac. These events seem disjointed that at first it is hard to find a focus as many themes are possible.
But after rereading, I was happy to find a cohesive narrative. Let me retell it: There was an old childless couple, Abraham and Sarah. One day, divine beings visited them and told them that in a year’s time, they will have a child of their own. They could not believe this good news. During the next year, a lot happened like Abraham had to help his relatives who became victims of the Sodom and Gomorra disaster, he and Sarah got into a complicated relationship with King Abimelech of Gerar. Then after Isaac was born, there was the sending away of Hagar and her son Ismael into the wilderness. The climax would be for Abraham to decide whether to sacrifice or not Isaac. In the end, like in most Western sagas or in the popular Korean dramas in my side of the world, we have a happy ending. But it was a story like no other. God is a lead actor and the running thread was God’s presence which made the difference, resulting in the story’s twists and turns.
The parasha’s opening word Va-yeira (“The Lord appeared/was seen”) is apt for the narrative which has one incident after another which involves people seeing or not seeing God. God’s promise to Abraham of giving him descendants as many as the stars was at risk. But God appeared in a dream to Abimelech who had been misinformed that Sarah was Abraham’s sister. This prevented him from going to Sarah. An angel of the Lord also prevented Abraham from laying his hand on his only son. In both instances, God made the promise of descendants possible. In the wilderness, Hagar was weeping, certain that death would come for her son as she had run out of water. Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. Thus, in crucial moments, like when Abraham, Abimelech and Hagar faced a dilemma or had a difficulty God was present and intervened.
The parasha, however, tells us of an incident when Abraham chose to be away from the presence of God. This was when he opted to attend to the three strangers, teaching us that caring for others is a great mitzvah (commandment). Rabbis have stated: “Hospitality to wayfarers is greater than welcoming the Divine Presence.” (Shabbat 127a). Etz Hayim quoting Aaron of Karlin says that when we turn our attention from God to tend to the needs of people, we do God’s will. Conversely, God is not pleased when we place such a great focus on God that we ignore those in need.
I believe God is present in my life and that he is near me. Today’s parasha tells me that I can bring myself nearer to God by keeping the two great commandments as Jesus has told us in the Gospels: Love God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind and love your neighbor as yourself. (Luke 10:27) Scholars have grappled with the question of who is my neighbor? We don’t have to go far to find her or him as one answer says that he or she is someone near you, especially one who needs help or is in dire need. From the haftarah’s story of the widow’s olive oil, we learn that helping others in seemingly hard to help situation can be done well if we work together.
For Reflection and Discussion:  Have you recently felt the presence of God in your life? Please share your experience.  Do you agree that when we turn our attention from God to tend to the needs of people, we do God’s will? Why?  What are ways to show love for our neighbor?
Bibliography: Etz Hayim Torah Commentary (New York: 1990); https://www.myjewishlearning.com/