Vayera is quite a powerful portion of Torah. It spans a total range of human emotion, from the mitzvah of welcoming the stranger and hospitality (18:1ff) to heeding a call to sacrifice a son (22). In between we have the Biblical permission to argue with God (18:24ff) the birth of Isaac and the confrontation between Sarah and Hagar (21). But wait, there is always much more.
The Sodom and Gomorrah story and Abraham’s arguing with God certainly rings true today for so many of us. We hear this now in the pandemic. There is an easy temptation to argue with God as to why this is happening, why this is happening to us and, especially meaningful and powerful, is the “why” in the face of so many people who have died. This story sets the stage for Judaism’s permission to have the freedom (maybe the obligation) to confront God when we see injustice, to ask the “why” questions. To argue, as did Abraham, also means that we need to understand that we may lose the argument, as Abraham did.
The Sodom and Gomorrah saga also details a frightening passage between Lot and his daughters (19:4-11). It is in that story we see the famous passage (19:26) of Lots wife who turns to look behind her and is turned into a pillar of salt. I am always struck by this little story as I think it speaks to us in very real terms, and maybe more so this year. The isolation and the shut downs for so long a period of time have impacted our generation in so many ways. I hear this frequently in sessions with congregations. There is a natural tendancy to want to “look back” to when “things were normal”, and maybe even argue with God seeking answers to how long must this last?
But the story also can teach us that what was, was! One thing is becoming evident. The lives we lived prior to March of this year may never return to that same state of reality. To constantly “look back” may doom us to a sort of paralyses of time. We are becoming more and more aware of the fragility of our lives and the quickening of time. If we only look back, we may be stuck. I think Judaism teaches us that our lives are in the future and yes, we may not be able to control that future, but it is there that we are going. There is this great line from Joni Mitchell’s “The Circle Game” which reminds us that “we are captive on the carousel of time, we can’t return, we can only look behind from where we came”
Yes, we can look behind and honor from where we came, but, even in this pandemic, even in this time of isolation, we are moving to tomorrow. The challenge for so many is how to engage this moment in time so that it has meaning for us as we transition. This is a challenge not only for individuals, but really for the entire community. Make no mistake, congregational life is forever changed. How all of us choose to see our tomorrows will help all of us in these moments of transition. To stay fixated on what was, and will never in the same way be again, may doom us to be symbolic pillars: unmovable and looking only on what was, and not on what can be.
Rabbi Richard F Address