Archive for Vayera

Vayera: Fearless Welcome

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayera
But when she came up to the man of God on the mountain, she clasped his feet.Gehazi stepped forward to push her away; but the man of God said, “Let her alone, for she is in bitter distress.” (2 Kings 4:27)
Good morning! 
Sorry it’s been a while since I got myself organized enough to get to the keyboard. I could list all the reasons, but that’d be kvetching, and who needs that? 
Onward and upward. 
This week’s Torah portion is Vayera, which is a series of dramatic narratives concerningAvraham and his family, concluding with the famous binding of Yitzhak on the altar. However, as rich as those stories are, this week something in the haftarah caught my eye. The text from the prophetic books has several obvious links to the Torah portion, especially the theme of miraculous childbirth. In the Torah portion, of course, it’s Sarah who bearsYitzhak, but in the haftarah, the prophet Elisha announces the birth of a child to a woman from Shunam, a small town in the north of Israel. 
This woman- known only as the Shunammite woman- is both wealthy and hospitable, going so far as to build a small guest room for Elisha, who apparently visits with some frequency. In gratitude, he offers to do her a kindness; she doesn’t ask for anything, but Elisha’s servant Gehazi points out that she has no son, so Elisha announces that at that season in the following year, she will have a child. 
So far, so good, and again, the connections to the story of Sarah and Avraham are clear. Then tragedy strikes: some years later, the child dies while visiting his father in the fields, and the Shunammite goes to find Elisha. When she draws near, she falls at Elisha’s feet, butGehazi pushes her away (see verse quoted at the top.) Elisha to Shunem and revives the child, but for today, let’s notice the two contrasting reactions to the approach of an obviously distraught, grieving mother, who has just ridden hard and fast to find a healer. 
Gehazi’s impulse is to push the woman away, perhaps to protect his master, Elisha, from her emotions, her pain, her grasping or sweat or tears or cries. Elisha is not afraid of any of those things, and in fact seems to be especially solicitous of her precisely because she was in distress. 
To me, the reactions of Gehazi and Elisha to the appearance of the Shunammite woman represent two tendencies within religious communities: the first is to police and protect the boundaries of the community, defending it against anything threatening,  unruly, uncomfortable or unpredictable, while the second option, embodied by Elisha, is to embrace and include human beings in all their messy imperfections, because in doing so, we enrich and fulfill our own humanity. To be fair, all groups have boundaries of some sort, but many individuals and communities succeed in welcoming those who are seeking healing, feeling broken, unsure of their faith, and in search of balm for the vicissitudes of life. 
The greatness of Elisha, it seems to me, is not that he raised the dead boy- he’s clear that’s God’s doing, not his own- but that a distraught and bitter friend threw herself at his feet, demanding redress for her suffering, and he didn’t recoil in the slightest. The real inspiration of this haftarah is not in the miracles, which are not our doing, but the character of the prophet, who can be our model for a true spirituality of welcome, acceptance and kindness, teaching us to reach out and embrace those who may have nothing to give but the opportunity to love. 
Seen this way, the connection between the Torah portion and the haftarah is not divine miracles but human compassion: as Avraham welcomed the strangers to his tent at the beginning of the portion, so too the Shunammite woman went out of her way to welcome Elisha into her home, and just as the angels heard Yishmael crying where he was in the wilderness, Elisha meets the Shunammite women in her pain, reaching to her and lifting her up. Perhaps that too is a miracle, but a miracle of the spirit, one which any one of us could enact this very day.  
Shabbat Shalom, 

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Vayera: She is My Sister

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayera 
Avraham journeyed from there to the region of the Negev and settled between Kadesh and Shur. While he was sojourning in Gerar, Avraham said of Sarah his wife, ‘She is my sister.’ So King Avimelech of Gerar had Sarah brought to him. . . . (Bereshit/Genesis 20:1-2)

Hello again! My apologies for the erratic production of these weekly commentaries over the summer and holiday season. My hope is to get back in the regular swing of things but lately I’ve learned the value of saying bli neder.
Well, enough about me, what about Avraham and Sarah? Why is Avraham always passing his wife off to other men? Really, last week (see verses 10-20) and now, as above, this week too? 
Now, if I was scholar of Biblical literature or history, I’d point out that if there are two stories of Avraham encountering a foreign king and telling him that Sarah was really his sister, this can’t be an accident but probably evidence that the earliest sources of the text were oral narratives, in which a story might take different forms (Pharaoh? No, it was Avimelech!) and enter the shared culture in different ways. 
On the other hand, the sages and teachers of classical Judaism believed that every word and every story had its own meaning and lesson, and this is no different. In fact, our friend Rashi notices a profound difference between the verses above and the verses inBereshit 12 which tell of Avraham going down to Egypt and telling them that Sarai was his sister. So let’s take a look: 
As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know what a beautiful woman you are.” If the Egyptians see you, and think, ‘She is his wife,’ they will kill me and let you live. Please say that you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that I may remain alive thanks to you.” (Bereshit 12:11-13)
What you may have noticed, and Rashi points out, is that in the earlier story, Avraham (then Avram) asks Sarah (then Sarai) if she will change how she presents herself to others. In the second story (the verses at the top) Avraham just does it on his own, without asking Sarah for permission. Rashi’s language seems rather critical of Avraham; he says that he did this “against her will, because she had already been taken into the house of Pharaoh on account of this.” 
I read Rashi as strongly implying that Avraham abused the permission that Sarah had granted him in one situation by presuming it applied in a different one. Of course, in both of these stories, there is a divine intervention so that Sarah is neither harmed nor sexually exploited, but still, it seems that Avraham should have obtained Sarah’s permission before speaking on her behalf. 
Whatever the origins of these two odd stories, we read them not as historical curiosities but as narratives with moral force. In this case, we see ourselves in Avraham’s thoughtless act; who among us has never taken a loved one for granted, deciding for ourselves what is best for them without consultation or dialogue?
It is all too human to act impulsively out of fear or anxiety, forgetting that others may have their own perspectives and desires and dignity. It is both ethical and loving to make sure we include others in decisions that affect them; we can understand Avraham’s fear without excusing his act. Avrahamwas called a prophet in Avimelech’s dream, but he also appears to us as only human, sometimes falling short, sometimes rising to great heights,  just like us, the inheritors of his legacy. 
Shabbat Shalom, 

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Vayera: Ethics of S’dom

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayera

And his wife looked back, and she turned into a pillar of salt. (Bereshit/ Genesis 19:26)

Good morning!

This week we continue the story of Avraham and his family- Yitzhak is born and Yishmael is banished, but in the middle of all that Avraham’s nephew Lot gets into trouble in the wicked city of S’dom. What is the cause of his trouble? He welcomes guests- in this case, they happen to be the angels who visited his uncle Avraham at the beginning of the portion- and the rabbis understand this to be contrary to S’dom’s pervasive ethics of selfishness and contempt for the poor and needy. Thus, a mob shows up at his door, demanding that he turn the men over, but instead the visitors help him escape from the doomed city. Warning Lot and his family not to look back, the angels urge him to flee quickly; his wife does look back, and is turned into the famous pillar of salt, as in the verse above.

It’s important to remember that the real crime of the residents of S’dom was not sexual abuse as such. Although the mob comes to Lot’s door demanding the men so that “we might know them,” based on the ancient rabbi’s understanding of S’dom,  the threat of sexual abuse was the means by which the mob enforced the city’s ethic of contempt for the poor and weak. (Hat tip to Gershom Gorenberg for pointing this out in his columns on S’dom and politics.) Not only that, but the ethic of withholding assistance to the weak was one that the city was proud of, and its new residents adopted, as illustrated byRashi’s comment on why Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt:

“She sinned with salt, and she was punished with salt. He said to her, ‘Give a little salt to these guests.’ She replied,’Also this evil custom you wish to introduce into this place?’ ” 

Note that, in this interpretation, Lot’s wife didn’t regard it as merely inconvenient to give salt to the guests, but as evil or bad [Hebrew minhag ha’ra ]. In our world, there are indeed people who believe it is wrong to help the poor and weak, but nothing could be further from Judaism or any other mainstream spiritual/religious teaching or philosophy. The sin of S’dom was not only that they disdained the poor, but that they enforced a radical selfishness as the prevailing cultural ethic, and drew other people into their orbit of self-absorption. Our Torah portion this week begins with Avraham running after wayfarers to invite them into his tent; the contrast with S’dom could not be clearer, nor the ethical implications for those who consider themselves the children of Avraham. The moral and spiritual descendants of Avraham actively seek out opportunities to help the lost, lonely, weak, needy and poor; we are charged to be antidote to the ethics of S’dom in a world which needs us more than ever.

Shabbat Shalom,


P.S. It goes without saying that at a time when so many have been devastated by Hurricane Sandy, it’s a great time to give to organizations on the ground helping and healing. UJA Federation of NY has a special fund for this purpose, as do many other worthy organizations. Give generously and wisely.

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Vayera: Servant Leadership

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayera

“He took curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared and set these before them; and he waited on them under the tree as they ate.” (Bereshit/ Genesis 18:8)

Good afternoon!

Our Torah portion, Vayera, opens with the famous scene of Avraham sitting in the opening of his tent, when he is visited by three men who eventually announce the birth of a son to Avraham and Sarah. Avraham doesn’t know these “men” are really angels or emissaries from the Holy One;  Rashi says they appeared to be just normal Arab travelers. Nevertheless, Avraham’s reaction is startling: he runs to greet them, invites them in, offers them food and drink, and instructs his servant to prepare a meal.

Now, never mind the apparent violation of mixing milk and meat together in the verse above; one could say that the laws of the Torah hadn’t been given yet, or one could simply point out that “curds and milk” come before the calf, and indeed even in a traditional understanding of Jewish dietary practices, one can have soft dairy like milk or yogurt right before meat, with only a quick rinse of the mouth and the table cleared between them. So let’s put that question aside, and focus on a different aspect of Abraham’s actions: his example of not only hesed, or kind generosity, but also his humility, in serving the guests himself, standing over them and attending to their needs.

The rabbis of the Talmud told a story in which several of the great sages attended a feast for the son of Rabban Gamliel, the leader of the rabbinic court, and marveled that R. Gamliel himself served the drinks to the guests. Rabbi Yehoshua pointed out that Avraham was the greatest man of his generation and yet stood over his guests and served them, so why not Rabban Gamliel? (Talmud Kiddushin 32b, quoted in the Torah Temimah.)

To me, this little story conveys so much about leadership, humility, and honor. Of course we should honor great sages and accomplished leaders; but they bring themselves even more honor through humble service to others. “Servant leadership” is a term you find these days in business books and journals, but it’s hardly an innovation: the ancient rabbis well understood that religious and moral growth is always correlated to great compassion and generosity, and these in turn are actions, made real through something as simple as serving a meal or welcoming guests.

In the view of the ancient sages, Avraham’s greatness was not in his status or prowess at war, but in the fine details of his ability to give. Seen this way, standing over guests and serving a meal is a profound and necessary religious act- indeed, who remembers that Avraham built an altar? Of greater importance was his example of humble service, which inspires to this day.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Vayera: Healing Through Giving

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayera

Good morning!

This week the Torah portion opens with Avraham in his tent:

“The Lord appeared to him by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot. Looking up, he saw three men standing near him. . . .” (Bereshit 18:1-2)

Many commentators assume that he’s sitting in the tent recovering from being circumcised, which happened at the end of last week’s parsha. (Cf. Bereshit 17.) Not only that, but since the three visitors appear to be divine messengers, the classic commentary is that the Holy One appears to Avraham to visit him in his recovery- doing the mitzvah of visiting the sick and setting the example for the rest of us.

Our friend Rashi says that Avraham sat in the opening of the tent to see if he might welcome any wanderers, and makes this point even stronger by quoting an earlier text which notices that the text says this happened “as the day grew hot.” According to this midrash , we learn about the heat of the day in order to teach that there was a special miracle to make the day especially hot so that Avraham would not encounter travelers, so he would not have to trouble himself with hospitality. The problem was that Avraham himself- according to the midrash– was troubled by not having guests, so God made the three angels appear in the likeness of men.

This interpretation is a bit complicated, but it gets to something important: sometimes the way out of pain- physical or spiritual- is by giving. Avraham might have been recovering from his circumcision, but according to this midrash he didn’t want his discomfort to prevent him from the hospitality, the hesed [lovingkindness], to which he was committed. In fact- if we go with this reading- not giving seems to have been more painful for him than surgery, since he was so troubled being all alone that God appointed the men to appear so Avraham would have the joy of generosity.

Seen this way, Avraham is not only an example of hesed- loving/giving- but also of healing, for his path of healing was not to withdraw from the world but to surpass his pain with a greater pleasure. This is not to say that we should never take time to rest and focus on our own healing, but giving to others can, under the right circumstances, lift us out of self-focus and provide a vital connection which itself is part of the healing process.

True story: many years ago I served as a chaplain intern at a large Jewish independent living complex for seniors. Some of the residents ran a tutoring program for local elementary and junior high school students, who came to the apartments for help with their schoolwork. I will never forget that one woman had a serious operation (more serious than circumcision!) and was bedridden for weeks- but as soon as she could, she invited her students to come to her bedside and she tutored them while lying flat on her back, with blankets covering the bandages.

That’s what it means to be a descendant of Avraham.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Vayera: The Open Tent

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2009

Shalom one and all! I’m pleased to announce that my weekly commentaries now come in two formats. You can continue getting this weekly email, or you can use rss or another service to subscribe to the following blog:

I hope over the course of the year to upload all my archives to the blog, where they can be categorized by parsha and holiday.

OK- onward and upward. This week’s Torah portion is Vayera, which opens up with the famous scene of Avraham sitting in the opening of his tent:

“The Lord appeared to him by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot.  Looking up, he saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them . . . . . .  (Bereshit/ Genesis 18:1-2)

Now, at the end of the previous Torah portion, Avraham circumcises himself, so the rabbis assume he’s sitting in the tent because he’s resting and recovering from the procedure; if so, that makes his spirited hospitality even more remarkable. In fact, the rabbis say that Avraham was sitting in the opening of the tent- not inside it- precisely so that he could welcome any strangers who might pass by.

With that in mind, it’s easy to see how Avraham became the paradigmatic practitioner of hachnasat orchim, or welcoming of guests, which is in turn understood as a specific practice within the general value of gemilut hassadim, or “acts of lovingkindness.”

OK, so far, so good, but I promised you that this year we were going to look at links between Jewish prayer and the weekly Torah portion- and here it is, in the form of a passage from the Talmud which is recited every morning after the blessing for the mitzvah [commandment] of Torah study:

“These are things that yield interest during your life, while the principal remains for you in the world-to-come: honoring your father and mother, doing kindness, arriving early to study morning and evening, welcoming strangers, visiting the sick, providing for the bride, burying the dead, paying attention to prayer, bringing peace between one person and another; and the study of Torah is like them all [talmud torah keneged kulam].”

(from the tractate Shabbat, quoted from the prayerbook commentary My People’s Prayer Book, vol. 5: Birkhot HaShachar.)

The basic idea is that there are certain acts which bring reward in this life as well as reward in the World-To-Come, and these acts are fundamental to any understanding of a Jewish life: acts of love and generosity, prayer, and Torah study. Not only that, but in the same section of the Talmud quoted above, the ancient rabbis say that “the mitzvah of welcoming guests is greater than welcoming the Divine Presence.”

I think we can understand that last statement by remembering that hachnasat orchim is not tzedaka, or charitable giving; it’s about establishing connections between human beings, and extending the boundaries of the self by caring for others. We can welcome rich or poor in our tents- it’s the establishment of authentic relationship (however temporary) which makes hospitality a holy act. Of course, as Rabbi Dessler taught, if hesed, lovingkindness, is about extending ourselves to give, it becomes a mitzvah for others to receive. Without the openness to receive, there can be no giving by others; without such giving of the self, there is no hesed; and without hesed, we are not truly the children of Avraham.

Shabbat Shalom,


PS- for the text of Vayera and the haftarah, go here.

and for more on hospitality as a Jewish value, go here

and here.

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Vayera: Filling Empty Vessels

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayera

This week’s haftarah is from 2 Kings, and tells stories of the prophet
Elisha, the disciple of Elijah, who worked wonders of healing and
teaching among the people.

The haftarah is connected to the Torah portion, Vayera, through the
themes of desperation and new hope, and in one particularly striking
image Elisha tells a poor woman, who has creditors knocking at the
door, to borrow empty vessels- jugs and pots- from her neighbors. The
woman had only one jar of oil, but Elisha told her to seclude herself
in her house with her children and pour out the oil from her one jug
into the borrowed vessels- and the oil kept flowing, filling all the
containers and enabling her to pay off her debts. (2 Kings 4:1-7).

This image- of the poor woman pouring out oil into borrowed vessels-
strikes me as a powerful metaphor for renewal in the face of
hopelessness. She had to reach out and draw upon the resources of
others- borrowing the empty containers- in order to discover that she
had more than she knew. Sometimes, when we feel empty and bereft of
strength or creativity, our greatest stumbling block is ill-timed
solitude, a retreat into despair rather than a leap of faith into
community and friendship. Once the poor woman had connected with
others, things “opened up” in new and unexpected ways, and so too may
it be for each of us, that the power of community, fellowship and
mutuality may overcome pessimism and fear.

Shabbat Shalom,


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