Cheshvan 18, 5780 – November 16, 2019
Torah Reading: Genesis 18:1 – 22:24
Haftarah: Kings II 4:1-37
Welcome back everyone to this week’s “Torah for the Earth” audio essay. I’m your host, Charlie Forbes, and in the fourth installment of this series I will be discussing Parashat Vayeira, meaning “and He appeared.” Vayeira is the Torah portion where G-d reveals himself to Abraham in the form of three strangers who appear to him at the entrance of his tent during the heat of the day. I could put strangers in metaphorical air quotes, because it becomes apparent through the rest of the narrative that Abraham immediately recognizes these three visitors as divine beings, disguised as men, whom have come to carry out an activity for G-d. It is important to remember that this is only three days after Abraham’s circumcision, which is when the wound is the most painful and the individual the weakest. (1) Even at this point, Abraham calls on his wife Sarah so they can both offer the highest level of hospitality they can give, and care for these messengers of G-d. The birth of Isaac is announced, and the planned destruction of Sodom is reveled before Abraham appeals to G-d’s mercy on behalf of Sodom. The welcoming that Abraham and Sarah provide is a universally relevant practice of hospitality, care, and an extension of kindness – of chesed. It is also a model for how we can exercise our concern for the earth.
It is a fundamental, Kabbalistic principle that there are two opposing energies that work together and define a framework for G-d’s interaction with the world. These are the energies of chesed (of kindness) and gevurah (meaning judgement or limitation). These are, in a sense, the yin and yang of the material world as they push and pull on one another as opposing forces. But they can also work together, simultaneously, in a continuum as united vehicles for G-d’s actions. In this same respect, human beings can mirror and embody the energies of chesed and gevurah as we seek to balance our own actions, and accomplish what we need to in this world. The archetypes of chesed and gevurah are demonstrated quite plainly in the story of Cain and Abel, where Cain is said to embody mostly gevurah and Abel mostly chesed. These had an effect on their subsequent incarnations, but the point here is to emphasize that both chesed and gevurah exist as seeds within the world and within all individuals. The extent to which we balance the watering of each seed is of great importance.
Leading up to the introduction of Abraham, the world (and human behavior) was characterized by tohu, by chaos. (2) This is the same word – tohu – that is found within the phrase “tohu va-vohu” from the story of Creation in Genesis 1 describing the state of the earth before it was formed. The necessity of countering this chaos is one reason why the divine Name Elohim appears within the Torah throughout this period, as Elohim is associated with divine judgement (gevurah) and alludes to G-d’s control of nature. But the trajectory of the world changes with Abraham, as we enter into an era of tikkun, of repair. Tikkun Olam, or ‘Repair of the World’ is a classical Jewish concept featured in the Talmud and in Kabbalistic writings that addresses our role in the rectification of the material realm. It does, of course, have cosmological and theological associations, but has come to represent a variety of action involved with fixing the world as we presently understand it. It is customarily linked with a fulfillment of the mitzvot – the 613 commandments given in the Torah – but has come to encompass many approaches to social justice and environmental justice. Acts of tikkun are considered a human responsibility, and are initiated by a full engagement with the energy of chesed. It is the principle energy embodied by Abraham as he welcomed strangers at his tent, and can provide a powerful message for reframing acts of tikkun to include ecological responsibilities. In this way, chesed can serve as a theological basis for healing an ecologically damaged world.
The beginning of this parashah has much to teach us about making people feel welcome, and about how to build community. Sometimes this principle is quite simple, as I am sure we all have had moments when we have chosen to extend a hand – or an open heart – to someone who is just briefly in our lives. But many things in this world are transient, not just the presence of people. How about natural phenomena like weather events, rain, storms, animal migrations, or even giving birth? The seasons also change, the day fades into night, and that bird doesn’t always sit outside your bedroom window. Our choice to bring the energy of chesed to transient moments is what exemplifies and sustains the era of tikkun, and emboldens our connection to G-d. This is – in essence – what the ritual technology of mitzvot are designed to do: tether us to G-d and reinforce our embodiment of chesed. You cannot fulfill a commandment in the past or in the future – the realm of mitzvot can only occur within the present moment, which is transitory. Abraham’s display of chesed as he fulfilled his obligations to G-d is a lesson for how to live in the present moment, and to care for the fragility of transience.
The Age of the Anthropocene has come to be defined by human domination over the planet, as we have cut down forests and dug massive holes in the ground so that we can build our cities and power our machines. And, so, I’ll pose this question: Can we describe these actions as being associated with the divine energy of chesed? I think it’s clear that the answer is a resounding no, and a consequence of this lack of chesed has implications for our relationship with and perception towards the earth. Take, for instance, that when the three strangers came to visit Abraham they were called men, but when the two visitors appeared to Lot while he is in Sodom, they were called angels. Rashi comments that “when they [the angels] came to Abraham, G-d was with them, making them seem no more significant than ordinary mortals. Alternatively, in the presence of Abraham, to whom angels were commonplace, they were called men, not so in the presence of Lot, who was overawed by them.” (3) In this same respect, our expression of chesed towards the earth can enable us to attune more closely with the divine reality of nature, making it appear more simply, and more clear.
Over the past week, I have been asking myself why, when Abraham and Lot separated (in Parashat Lech Lecha) due to a conflict over land and resources, that Lot heads to the city and Abraham remains in the countryside. It is also astounding that, when Sodom is being destroyed and Lot and his family are fleeing, they are told not to stop or even to look – a command which Lot’s wife disobeys, and she is turned into a pillar of salt. (19:26) Why has Lot’s transformation into an urban person become so fixed into his being that, even when he is saved from the sulfur and fire that destroys Sodom, he insists upon going to another city – Zoar? (19:24) I’m not so sure I have an answer at this point except to speculate that both cities and rural spaces function in the Torah as geographical spaces that demonstrate metaphorical principles. This is supported by Sarah and Abraham’s complex relationship with cities, where in some cases Abraham will take material wealth (such as with the king of Egypt) and other times when he will refuse resources from cities such as Sodom. I will also add that there is something about cities which contest the transient essence of the natural world; cities represent our desire to instill permanence (or impose permanence) on an otherwise transient environment. This, consequentially, diminishes our capacity to express chesed, and ultimately elevates urban characteristics to a status that is undeserved. Without the proper expression of chesed, various phenomena are permitted to intoxicate us (such as with the appearance of angels to Lot) rather than fortify our connection to G-d (like with Abraham and his visitors), which leads to a type of proto-idolatry. Buildings (for example) that are built to last for hundreds, or even thousands, of years detracts from the beauty that comes with transience. Transience is the medium for our expression of chesed, and a variety of time-bound action that can help us care for our fellow humans and all creatures on earth. Chesed is an energy that we can learn to cultivate as we stand in solidarity with the earth. After all, how do we think the earth felt when fire and sulfur rained down on Sodom and Gomorrah? Is it fair, or is it just then, that human actions should cause the earth to suffer?
Lot does eventually leave Zoar to settle in a cave on a mountain. There his two daughters ply him with wine, which results in the birth of Moab and Ammon – two sons who become the ancestors the Moabites and Ammonites. Sarah is also abducted again by King Abimelech (20:1), but is eventually returned to Abraham with flocks, cattle, and servants. Isaac is born (21:1), Hagar and Ishmael are expelled (21:9) and Ishmael is later saved at a well. (21:17) Abraham then makes an alliance with king Abimelech (21:22), and we read of Abraham’s tenth trial: The Binding of Isaac, known as the Akeidah. (22:1) The parashah concludes with the birth of Rebecca.
That’s all for now folks. Thank you for listening and catch you next week.
(1) Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.78
(2) As found within Chaim Miller’s “Torah in Ten’ lecture on Parashat Vayeira. Can be accessed at: https://www.chabad.org/multimedia/video_cdo/aid/1323126/jewish/Torah-in-Ten-Vayeira.htm
(3) Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.85
(4) Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.101
Scherman, Nosson. "The Stone Edition of the Chumash: The Torah, Haftoras and Five Megillos, with a Commentary Anthologized from the Rabbinic Writings." (1993).
The Torah for the Earth Podcast and Audio Essays are Copyrighted to Charles Scott Forbes Jr, 2019.