Easily one of the most powerful portions, Vayera (Genesis 18-22) contains within it a lifetime of messages, symbolism and challenges. It opens with the three strangers who are welcomed into Abraham’s tent and, according to tradition we see the proof texts for two major values and mitzvoth: visiting the sick and hospitality. We also have within the portion the challenging and perplexing chapter (21) that deals with Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael and Isaac, along with Abraham and God. The jealousy and family dynamic of family roles gets played out in the Torah, as it is being played out in so many modern families. The portion concludes with the famous story of the “binding” of Isaac (the Akedah), which we just experienced at Rosh Hoshonnah. For this week, however, I wanted to look at just a little segment of another major story, that of Lot and his family and the destruction of Sodom and Gemorroah.
The texts that deal with this story (19) give us some disturbing insights into deviant behavior of the part of Lot and later, his daughters. In the middle of the story, however, we come across an often overlooked little bit of textual interpretation. In 19:12-16, we see the call on the part of messengers telling Lot that he needs to get his family out of harms way as the city will be destroyed. The messengers plead with Lot. As the urgency mounts, we read in 19:16 “Still, he hesitated/ delayed” (v’yit’mahmah). Why not flee? Jonathan Sacks, in his “Covenant and Conversation” sees this as part of the tension that Lot had in trying to assimilate and the reality that, in the end, he was still “the other” (p/113,114).
There is another aspect of this hesitation that can relate to much of where we find ourselves. There is a cantorial mark that appears above the Hebrew word for hesitates or delays. That make, known as a shalshelet, appears only a few times in Torah. It signifies a long note, chanted up and down and up and down, symbolizing ambivalence. What can it mean for us? How many times, as we get a little older and more and more comfortable in our lives, do we, when faced with change, feel ambivalent? How can we move on when we are so comfortable? How can we speak out when it may compromise our alleged security? How can we “rock the boat” even when we see injustice and fear and divisiveness? How many families, right now, are facing decisions about placing or moving a loved one into a facility, which may be safer, but represents a huge change in the family dynamic? SO we hesitate. A danger may be that if we only look backwards, if we fail to see what is and what lies ahead, we may, like Lot’s wife, become stuck. The more secure we get, the greater the fear to change. The more secure we feel, the greater the danger that the security is false. This portion is filled with challenges. We live in a moment when those challenges to our families and community seem more complex than ever, but if we hesitate in meeting them, confronting them and responding to them, we run the risk of stagnation.
Rabbi Richard F Address