This week week we turn to one of the most powerful sections of the entire Hebrew Bible. Parashat VaYeira (Genesis 18:1 - 22:24) ) contains every human emotion possible, all described in the most economical of linguistic terms. Many literary critiques call this section the most important piece of literature every written in any language, and certainly this week's section has had more influence on world history than any other piece of literature. To summarize such literary greatness then in only a few paragraphs is not only frustrating but also impossible.
Reading the text on the pshat level (the text's plain meaning) we learn that this week's parashah revolves around history's most important figure: Avraham. The text begins by telling the reader that one day Avraham was sitting in his tent when he suddenly realizes that there are three "melachim" (often translated as angels or messengers) standing before him. They inform him of Issac's birth. Sarah, now 90 years old, Sarah to laughs at the notion hat she will become pregnant. Like so much in this week's parashah the sweet is mixed with the bitter. The malachim inform Avraham of G'd intention to destroy the twin cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. In the hope of saving the cities Avraham argues with G'd but in the end admits defeat.
The text now moves to the malachim's arrival at Lot's home, to the Sodomites' xenophobia, their lack of hospitality, and their eventual destruction. Once again there is the mixture of the bitter with the sweet. The text notes that Lot and at least a part of his family are saved, but his wife ignores G'd's warning, looks backward and becomes a pillar of salt. Her death results in Lot's daughters' mistaken desire to preserve humanity by having sex with their father (who is in a drunken stupor) and their giving birth to Ammon and Moav.
We now learn of the birth of Isaac in the year 2048 (Jewish calendar). The text will then climax with the most famous chapter in the Bible (chapter 22). Called the Akedah or binding of Isaac, it is not an understatement to note that this chapter has had more influence on the world than any piece of literature, and sets the stage for the totality of western civilization, art, music, literature and political discourse. This parashah offers the readers layers of intellectual discourse. In fact whole libraries have been developed from its profundity. Thus , this week the most we can hope to do is to touch on a few of its overarching themes.
Certainly one theme that comes from this week's parashah is the idea that Judaism is a religion of checks and balances. It is not always easy to understand all of G'd's commands. VaYeira teaches us that no one is perfect; and that we must never abandon our own reason to questions of faith. To be Jewish is to question and even when necessary to challenge G'd. Parashat VaYeira reminds us that Judaism is a religion of action, and that in the face of injustice, we are required to act. Note that when G'd informed Noah that he would destroy the world, Noah did nothing. In contrast to Noah, Avraham fought with G'd stating: Would the Judge of all the earth not do justice?
This week's parashah forces us to ask the question: Is G'd is always just? It teaches us that as G'd's partners in creation, we must seek not only justice but also the sanctification of life. Is G'd always just or are we reading into the text what we want to see rather than what the text is really telling us? What do you think?