Think of any problem in the human condition. Anything. It doesn’t matter what it is. Any war. The Holocaust. The economic crisis. Terrorism. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Global warming. Crime--any crime at all. Any man-made tzuris you can think of. The ultimate solution to the problems of humanity arises out of Parashat Vayera. I know that sounds like a rather over-blown claim. But I mean it. The implications of the story we encounter are that big. I am going to take you through some well-known biblical stories, stories that many of us have strong feelings about. I’m going to ask you to set aside your previous conclusions and judgments of these stories for the next few minutes, and listen to me tell them as if you have never heard them before. I will show us how the great trials of Abraham actually present us with a solution to our deepest human problems, if only we see how it all fits together. I’m going to present a radical re-reading of our texts, an approach that I will show, is the way I believe it’s supposed to be read. According to the Torah. The solution to all our problems begins in a place that is, paradoxically, altogether deep and patently obvious: in our simple willingness to look and to see.
This is Parashat Vayera. Vayera is from the Hebrew verb meaning ‘to see.’ Through the life of Abraham, we learn about when we can “see God,” and when we can’t. The stories we read today have a lot to do with the theme of guests and strangers. Abraham is the great teacher this week about the Mitzvah of Hachnasat Orchim, of welcoming guests to our homes. Abraham, we are told, is so wonderful, so committed to welcoming strangers to his home, that when he sees three strangers passing by his tent, he runs to welcome them, to do everything he can to feed them and make them comfortable—and this, even though he himself has just undergone circumcision without anesthesia! This kind of dedication to welcoming strangers, our sages teach, is what makes Abraham the father of many nations—for him and for Sarah, no one is a stranger in their home! And to make the point even stronger, our sages teach, we have the pitiful contrast between Abraham’s hospitality and Lot’s hospitality. Lot, too, welcomes the same three strangers into his home in Sodom and Gomorrah, but when the local mob wants to have their way with the guests, Lot offers them his own daughter to rape instead, in order to be nice to his guests. Gevalt! How despicable of Lot! He’s nice to strangers, but he’s willing to make his own daughter into less than a stranger, to dehumanize her, and give her to the mob. Disgusting! Thank God for Abraham! If Lot is willing to turn a member of his own household, his own family, into a stranger, thank God for Abraham, where no one is ever a stranger in his tent!
There’s only one problem with this neat and tidy contrast between wonderful Abraham and disgraceful Lot: it doesn’t quite work.
You may recall that there is someone who is not treated as well as everyone else, even in Abraham’s tent. In fact, it’s more than one person: it’s Sarah’s handmaiden Hagar and her son—Abraham’s son—Yishma’el. After Isaac, the beloved son, is born, Sarah demands that Yishma’el and his mother be driven out of their home. Abraham is distressed, and God Godself tells Abraham that he should listen to his wife. And so, mother and child are cast off by our beloved Abraham. They are rendered homeless in the desert. When they run out of water, Hagar places her child down to die and she weeps in despair. Until finally, God opens Hagar’s eyes, and she sees a life-giving well to save her and her son in the desert. So the question we are forced to ask ourselves is: how different really is old Father Abraham from Lot? After all, the both warmly welcomed strangers, and yet both were willing to turn members of their own family—their own children--into less than strangers, and to cast them off to oblivion!
Well wait a minute, we might argue. At least Abraham was distressed. And it was none other than God who told Abraham that it was okay to do this, that Yishma’el would eventually be okay! According to our English Chumash, God says “Do not be distressed over the boy or your slave; whatever Sarah tells you, do as she says...as for the [boy], I will make a nation of him, too, for he is your seed.” Lot had no such assurances when he offered up his own daughter! Well, God didn’t necessarily say what our English translation says. If we look very carefully at the Hebrew where God purportedly tells Abraham to send Hagar and Yishma’el away, it doesn’t say that at all! If you translate the Hebrew literally, God says ‘Al yerah b’einecha al hana’ar v’al amatecha,’ literally: “Don’t do what’s evil in your eye upon that boy and your handmaiden.” God goes on, “Ki asher tomar eilecha Sarah shma b’kolah,” “For whatever Sarah shall say to you, Listen to her voice.” Let’s put this in regular English: God seems to be saying: ‘Abraham, don’t do something if you see it to be evil in your eyes. Yes, listen to the voice of your wife when she cries out that Isaac must be the heir to the Covenant; but also remember, Avraham, that your son Yishma’el--he too is your son, your seed, the father of a great nation as well.” But it seems as if Abraham either ignored or couldn't grasp what God meant by ‘Al yerah b’einecha,’ ‘Don’t do what’s evil in your eye.’ He just focused on listening to Sarah’s voice, and thought God meant that he had to do Sarah’s bidding, and so he threw Hagar and her boy out. And in that act of confusion, of rejection, the greatest lesson in the world was now set in motion...
Think about the very name of the handmaiden, Hagar. Her name suggests the Hebrew ‘HaGer,’ which means “The Stranger.” Hagar is an Egyptian girl living in Abraham and Sarah’s tent. She’s the perennial outsider who remains a stranger even in our midst, the constant bugaboo, the fly-in-the-ointment. Her son Yishma’el “mitzachek,” he ‘plays around,’ his very presence ‘fools around’ with Abraham and Sarah’s great plans to create a new nation that worships the One True God. Hagar, the Stranger and her kid, they just don’t fit in with the program. What do you do with those nasty Strangers whose very presence undermines our noblest plans? We get rid of them. Drive them out. Surround ourselves only with people who pose no challenges to us. But in our story, God is greater even than Abraham and Sarah’s noblest goals. Hagar is no Stranger for God. And Yishma’el’s name literally means that God will hear his cries for help in the wilderness. It’s no accident that the Torah makes our heart break not for Abraham, but for Hagar in her moment of despair. It’s no accident that God opens her eyes to find life-giving waters.
Judaism has long taught, through Abraham’s example, that it is through welcoming strangers into our home that we can make the presence of God appear—literally ‘to be seen’ in our lives. And the Torah teaches us that this applies kal vechomer, all the more so, to the Stranger whom we think we can never live with in our tents! In other words, it’s all well and good to have an open heart and an open mind, to welcome to your table all those who will agree with you. But what about the people in our own tents, in our own family, who do not agree with us? If we still see someone in our own tent, in our own family, as a Stranger—even as an enemy—then our work is not done! Then God is not fully seen yet in this world!
And now hold onto your hats: this is why God had to tell Abraham to be willing to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac! According to the Zohar, his command to offer up his beloved child Isaac, is the only possible way for Abraham to ascend to the highest level of Chesed, of Lovingkindess. We have long wondered, how is this willingness to offer up his child Chesed?! The answer is that Abraham must serve, together with Isaac, as the living example, once and for all for all the world to see—how we must burst through our blind spots, and see no one as a Stranger. With his knife poised over his son, Avraham finallly saw the “ra b’einecha,” the evil in his eyes--the ultimate betrayal of his own son. What God asked Abraham to do was to be willing to see his beloved child--Isaac (but also Yishma’el!) through the eyes of God Godself: to be willing to see how everyone whom we call “Stranger” is the beloved child of God! What Abraham finally saw in that moment, with his own knife poised above his beloved child, was what God sees, every time a human being is attacked, raped, abandoned, killed. When Abraham felt that unspeakable agony of the knife poised above his own little boy’s throat—he is showing all the generations of our people what we are doing to GOD every time we call another human being a stranger, an other, an enemy.
And when finally, God stays Abraham’s hand, the Torah says “Vayisa Avraham et eynav vayar,” “And Abraham lifted up his eyes and he saw.” Now truly, Abraham saw. Now he can see: there are no Strangers. No enemies. Not even if they live in our very midst, in our very tents. And what did Abraham see, an ‘eyl achar,’ a Ram behind—a Ram to be offered in place of his child. That Hebrew word ‘achar’ hints at the Hebrew word “Acher,” which means, “Other,” or even “Stranger.” A ram for a sacrifice in biblical terms is a symbol of gratitude. It means: Thank God. Thank God, because now Abraham is Chesed, he is Kindness. And now he will never do what is evil in his eyes; now he sees that there are no Strangers.
And there’s one important coda to this story in the Midrash, in the rabbinic stories. After Sarah died, the Torah tells us that Abraham married another woman whose name was Keturah, whose name means ‘sweet-smelling spices,’ the sweet-spiced smell of that arises from a sacrificial offering. According to the rabbis, Ketura was none other than Hagar herself. Now, her name was forever changed: she was no longer The Stranger, but the sweet fragrance of Gratitude itself, taken back, with Chesed, with Love, with healing, into the home that she had been driven out of, back now into the tent of Abraham.
So there you have it: the solution to every problem known to humankind: look are truly see: before you is the child of God, just like your child. The solution to it all became possible in that moment of Abraham’s seeing what is evil in his eyes, and so now we must never again do what is evil in our eyes. It all became possible in Abrahams ability to see with God’s eyes, to find empathy, to find Chesed, ulitmate Kindness. Abraham’s final great trial challenges each one of us: who would you be if you walked through life seeing no one as a Stranger, no one as the enemy? How would you participate in society? How would you forevermore treat your family, your neighbors, your government differently? Our world is beset by innumerable problems from the ways in which we create strangers of one another. Albert Einstein purportedly once said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Thanks to Abraham’s courage, we can now all see the world through different eyes; through the eyes of empathy, of God’s empathy. When Abraham finally lifted his eyes and saw that there are no Strangers at that spot--the spot that would one day be the Temple Mount in Jerusalem--he gave that place a name. He called it Adonai Yireh: God will see. What it means is that here, once and for all, may we see as God sees, and do what it right. May we all fulfill our heritage, and show the world to see with the eyes of God.