Parashat Vayeira 5784
Sometimes, Torah feels so very present. You open the Torah portion to see what it contains, and a particular verse speaks directly into this moment. That happened when I was studying last week’s parasha. After Abraham redeems his nephew Lot from having been kidnapped, God says to Abraham: Do not fear, for I will be your shield.
My heart is breaking over the hostage situation. I want them home. I struggle to stomach the idea that there are Israeli elderly, that there are young children–my own children’s age–sitting in those tunnels. There is an instinct in my heart to run toward that situation and try to wrap my arms around those children and keep them safe. Since we cannot do that, I want God to be a shield for them.
Instead, I have been hugging my children every chance I get.
Years ago in Boston, I was at a synagogue Shabbat pizza dinner for families with young children. One family was hosting everyone at their home. The mother of the house was running late. She was a doctor, a pediatric oncologist. Her husband said she’d be there soon enough, that she had gotten caught at work.
She arrived a few minutes later, looking tired and relieved to be home, if not a bit embarrassed to have people at her house before she could arrive, get settled, and have things set up for everyone. Her daughter, then a toddler, sprinted to her mother. The doctor opened her arms and wrapped her daughter up in a huge hug. I asked my friend if everything was okay, how work was. She said, “Today is a day to come home and hug your child.” It had been the worst kind of day for one of her patients and their parents.
I want nothing more than for all of us to be able to open up our arms, and wrap them around all of the children in harm’s way, to be a shield for them, to keep them safe, so that they can grow up in a world in which they do not have to fear. I want to channel that Divine confidence and say to every child all at once, Do not fear, I will be your shield. Since that cannot be, I will keep hugging my children as much as they will let me.
There is another verse in this week’s Torah portion that has stood out. Jonah will read it tomorrow morning. This week, we read Parashat Vayeirah. In this week’s reading, Sarah becomes a mother. She clashes with Hagar, the mother of Abraham’s other son, Ishmael. Which Child of Abraham is preferred: Isaac or Ishmael? God rescues Hagar and Ishmael after their banishment to the wilderness. Then Abraham is put to the test. He defends Sodom and Gomorrah, and despite this, the cities are still destroyed. God then requests Isaac as a sacrifice, and Abraham almost follows through. It takes an angel to stay our patriarch’s hand. This week’s parashah is a big one. And within it, there is one verse that, this week yet again, rings out: Genesis 18:19.
God is considering the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah and Abraham’s involvement in the cities’ demise. And in a brief moment, God offers a soliloquy: “Should I hide from Abraham what I am doing? Yet Abraham is certain to become a great and populous nation, and through him all the nations of the earth shall be blessed! For I have selected him, so that he may teach his children and those who come after him to keep the way of the Eternal, doing what is right and just, so that the Eternal may fulfill for Abraham all that has been promised him.”
I once heard someone describe this verse as the mission statement of the Jewish people. God selects Abraham to be a progenitor of Derekh Adonai, the way of the Eternal. And what is Derekh Adonai? To act righteously and justly. The prophet Micah echos this sentiment, “It has been told you, O mortal, what is good, and what the Eternal requires of you—Only this: to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)
I love these verses because they give Jewish practice and Jewish ethics meaning. God wants us to perform acts of tzedakah and mishpat. What is asked of us goes beyond charitable giving. It is about righteous living and just living, recognizing the imperfections in our world. We–like Abraham–will encounter our versions of lawless cities, and God wants us to define ourselves as a people who do the next right thing, making us worthy of blessing.
For those inclined to pick up on a call for tikkun olam and justice, these verses are catnip. God wants us to be like Abraham: God wants us to pursue justice so vehemently that we would even negotiate with God directly to protect the souls of the innocent! We long for justice to be at the core of our tradition, because it gives us something to believe when confronted with images of terror, heartache, and the rubble of war.
But over the last several weeks, for many of us who have been so committed to a particular approach to justice, who have believed we have been building allyship across lines of difference, those relationships have been called into question. There are some in our community who describe Israel as an absolute aggressor, portraying the events of the last several weeks as one of only Palestinian oppression. Their perspective fails in so many ways, but most especially in their lack of proximity to those–both Israelis and Palestinians–impacted by the violence.
Over the years, we have shown up for others made vulnerable by injustice. I still believe that showing up for them was the right thing to do. Yet, the silence from so many, coupled with the lack of empathy from those who have tried to find the words to relate–I have heard from many in our community that those interactions (or the lack thereof) are fraught. With Israel under threat, with regular Gazans trapped by Hamas and Egypt as much as the Israeli hostages themselves, I have found these interactions trying. The underpinnings of the aggression coming from anti-Israel rallies here in Great Barrington, the antisemitic threats that are coming toward our college students–it is all so brutal. I find it curious that those who are raising the banner of anti-colonialism right now are doing so from the comfortable perch created by the very thing they purport to contest.
Things are scary right now. And we are threatened. When that is the case, we are called to focus on that which we can control and what God asks of us: We are not asked to fix everything, but to find the way for ourselves to walk God’s path by doing what is just and right. I want to throw my arms around any children in harm’s way. I want to ensure a safer world for them. Which means sometimes, we fight.
My wife, Liz, and I decided to tell our 6-year-old about what was happening. He was going to hear us talking about it. He has now spent a meaningful amount of time in Israel. He has friends who are in harm’s way. So, we sat down together and explained that a war had broken out, that all of his friends were as safe as possible, and that we had been checking in with them. He listened diligently. I asked him if he had any questions. He only had one, “Are we going to win?”
To this sweet boy, being told of war for the first time in his life, in war, there are winners and losers. The question made total sense. Yet the sadness that I felt wash over me was pronounced. In this war, even if the mission is successful, there is no winning. The fight is justified and necessary, but many of the best choices are about taking the least worst option.
We confront several threats all at once. There was the terror and its aftermath from October 7. Routing out Hamas is another front. The Jewish moral imperative is to bring home the captives. Aggressive, antisemitic threats to American college students. Rallies against Israel in front of the Great Barrington Town Hall. Security for us here at Hevreh and in our homes. It is everything, everywhere, all at once.
The prophet Micah has something else to say about all of this. Pursuing justice is undoubtedly part of our call, but it is not the entirety. Walking God's path is about making justice. And, it is also actualized with Ahavat Chesed, loving mercy, as it is usually translated. However, chesed is more than mercy. Chesed is kindness. Chesed is love. Chesed is grace. Chesed is care. Right now, if we want to move through the world with an ethic that can allow us to put our shoulders back and our heads tall, I advocate for an ethic of care.
Deep, profound caring is not always kind, and it is not passive. Caring is about being committed to one another, and to the best that emerges from the most fundamental relationships. Care is what the best teacher gives their student. Care is what a parent provides a child. Care is being attentive to the needs of others. Ignorance–the ignoring of another person’s humanity and dignity–is a form of moral failing (Tronto, 127). Caring is taking responsibility, and constantly evaluating if we act responsibly toward others. The last several weeks have clarified our duties to one another. The phrase Am Yisrael Chai has been said more often in our community in these last few weeks than at any other point I can remember. Caring happens when we ask competent people to take on the tasks. We let experts be experts. We let professionals do their jobs. And we ask them to do so with the same ethic of care with which we approach them. In our corner of the world–in dealing with our safety here at Hevreh–I am encouraged by the care folks like the officers at the Great Barrington Police Department give us. In the tangible ways we have needed to understand our safety at Hevreh, the Great Barrington Police Department has been an excellent partner. Finally, care is responsive. It is of the moment, given in real time.
As Joan Tronto, one of the leading writers on the Ethic of Care, puts it, “The world will look different if we move care from its current peripheral location to a place near the center of human life.” (101)
Yes, we should do justice. But when doing justice seems not to get us there, or provide us a complete picture of what to do next, we need something else to latch onto. Care is the answer. Do justice and give care, says the prophet Micah. Let’s hear the message calling out from this week’s and last’s Torah portions: Wrap our arms around our children, wrap our arms around one another, because it is not the sacrifice of our children that God desires. It is that we should make the future generations a blessing. Let us continue to pursue justice, and in a moment in which we do not know how to respond to others who would tell us of injustice, let us ask them how we might bring more care into the world. It, too, may have the force to repair the cracks so evident to all.