This week’s parashah is one of world history’s great literary vignettes. In the parashah, everything in it is open to interpretation, and nothing in it seems as it really is. We can study this week’s parashah forever and still not know it. To add to its literary mystery, the Hebrew used is so profound that no translation into a foreign language even begins to approach its depth of meaning.
We find this week’s section, called ironically, VaYera (he (it) appeared) in Genesis 18:1- 22:24. It would not be an exaggeration to state that VaYera may be the most important literary piece ever written in any language. The section has influenced much of the western world’s literature, philosophy, theology, and political thought.
To add to the mystery, the language used is so simple and straightforward that it seduces us into thinking we know it, when in reality the more we study this parashah the less we know it. Reading this weekly section we find three subthemes: (1) Abraham’s appeal to G-d to save Sodom and Gomorrah, (2) the expulsion of Ishmael, and (3) the most difficult of the three tales: that of the “Akedaah” or as it is poorly translated into English: “the binding of Isaac”. The three at first appear to be three separate vignettes yet when we read them as one we find overarching themes such as the meaning of human life and the role of justice in human history.
Like a Russian doll, that contains another doll inside of each doll, we find that this week’s Hebrew text embeds philosophical questions within other philosophical questions. For example, in 18:25 we find Abraham’s famous challenge to G’d: “…ha’shophet col ha’aretz lo yaasheh misphat”. Most scholars translate this phrase to mean something such as: “Shall the judge of all the world not do justly?”
The translators base their translation on the verse’s prefix “ha” reading this particle as an interrogative. Any Hebrew reader of the text knows, however, that we may also read this same particle (“ha”) as the definite article (“the” in English). By reading the “ha” as the definite article instead of an interrogative, we turn Abraham’s question into an ironic exclamation. Now the sentence becomes one of sarcastic accusation. “The judge of all the world will not do justice!”
This double meaning underscores the fact that this is a parashah dealing with a great number of moral and ethical questions. It argues that we dare not make decisions based on emotions but rather we must examine the facts of each individual case. Justice demands that we do no less. It also argues that human beings are complex, that no one is totally good. We note that Abraham did everything possible to save Sodom and Gomorrah and yet remained silent during the expulsion of Ishmael and never protested G-d’s request to sacrifice his son at Mt. Moriah? In the latter cases was Abraham merely obeying orders? Was he willing to defend others while sacrificing his family? These are questions that go to the heart of our personal, social and perhaps even political discourse.
What does the text mean by doing justly, for whom do we do justly and under what circumstances? Is the term social justice an eternal challenge or a mere statement used by politicians to hold onto their own power? How we answer these questions tells us not only a lot about this text but also about ourselves. What would you say?
Youtubes of the week:
This week we listen to the music in Hebrew of the Israeli artist Yehoram Gaon, next week we shall hear a selection of Gaon’s songs sung in Ladino (Judeo-Spanish).
Shalom Eretz Nederet (There is no country like Israel):
Tachanat Ruaj Montifiori (Montifiori’s windmill):