Va’yera: The Fear of The “Other”

One of the amazing realities of Torah is how many times a passage in a portion relates to the “here and now”. We come this week to one of the most powerful of our portions, Ve’yera. It begins in Genesis 18 with the scene of Abraham, recovering from surgery (his circumcision) welcoming strangers. This has been interpreted as the basis for the mitzvah of “hachnasat orchim”, or welcoming/hospitality as well as the mitzvah of “bikur cholim”, visiting the sick. This portion contains several famous stories such as the expulsion of Hagar and Ishamel and the classic “akedah”, or binding of Isaac, which we meet again on Rosh Hoshonnah.
For this week, however, I wanted to look again at the disturbing story of Genesis 19. Here we see Lot welcoming into his home two “malachim” (angels, messengers?) We have been told of the impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Indeed, in Genesis 18, we have that famous negotiation between Abraham and God on the number of righteous needed to save these cities. So, Lot houses these two strangers and in a matter of a few verses a mob descends on Lots home demanding that these strangers be sent out. The story is graphic in what the mob wishes and is even more disturbing as to Lots response. (verses 4-8). The mob presses on citing the foreign nature of Lot and these visitors. And so the mob scene ensues.
Naomi Rosenblatt, in her “Wresting With Angels” cites this story as a symbol of fear of the stranger: the “other”. She writes that we “naturally fear strangers because we don’t know their history and we perceive them as having no stake in the future of our community” (p.174) The fear of the “other”! This fear, if allowed to embed itself into the fabric of a society, leads to that society’s destruction. Is this story in this week’s portion a glimpse into what may be at play now with us? Are we becoming fearful of people and societies that we do not understand. of people who may not “be like us”? Do we not read in Leviticus 19 that we should “love our neighbor as ourselves”? Rosenblatt concludes that” To put the concept of loving the stranger to work in our own lives, we have to extend ourselves as human beings. It is precisely because this district of strangers is so deeply embedded in our natures–and magnified by our human imagination–that the Bible instructs us to protect them.” (p.174)
One of the gifts, we hope, of our own maturing, is the ability not to make snap judgements about that which is not familiar. We learn, through our own experience, to first welcome and try to understand people and ideas that may be new. We were “new” once ourselves. Our ancestors were new and ideas, that we take for granted, also were once, alien to the status quo. To erect barriers to what may seem to be alien to us, tempts the fate of these two cities of Va’yera. Funny how the Torah seems to speak to us now, so many centuries later.
Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Richard F Address

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