Life can be overwhelming at times, and these past several years have been no exception. We have experienced a series of one “unprecedented” event after the other, all the while maintaining our stand against the antisemetic attacks which can seem perpetual. Our forefather Abraham experiences a similar onslaught of challenges in this week’s parsha, Parshat Vayera, on a more personal level. Not only is he told by three angels that he and his wife Sarah will have a child at the ripe old ages of 99 and 90, but years later he is tested by G-d when he is asked to sacrifice Yitzchak, that very same child. This happens not long after being forced to kick out Ishmael, the son he had with Sarah’s maid, Hagar. On top of all this, Abraham also faces a scare when G-d shares His intentions of destroying Sodom, the city that Abraham’s nephew lives in. With all of these fatal threats against his loved ones, how is it that Abraham is able to sustain his archetypal steadfast faith in G-d? A deeper look into the details of the aforementioned events reveals that Abraham did not simply accept the majority of the situations as they were – at least not immediately. Rashi explains that when G-d told Abraham that He was going to destroy Sodom, the Torah writes that Abraham “drew near” (שננ) to G-d. Such language is used in other parts of Tanakh in the context of approaching a war; Abraham approached G-d in an assertive manner to fight the verdict and even pray, using whatever strategy he could to persuade G-d to spare the innocent inhabitants of Sodom. Similarly, when Sarah wants Abraham to expel Ishmael, the Torah describes the situation as one that distresses Abraham greatly (אַבְרָהָ֑ם בְּעֵינֵ֣י מְאֹ֖ד הַדָּבָ֛ר וַיֵּ֧רַע). The Or HaChaim comments on this phrase, interpreting it to mean that Abraham was concerned that Ishmael would feel rejected and consequently engage in immoral activities. Abraham’s concern for his son was so great that G-d recognized the need to reassure him that Ishmael would survive and even become a nation of his own. Abraham’s actions serve as an important lesson that there is a difference between putting all of our faith in G-d and putting some of that faith in ourselves and our abilities. While Abraham ultimately accepts the word of G-d as a final verdict, he first does what he can to defend those that he cares so deeply about and fights for what he believes is morally right. As a nation founded by Abraham, we should all aspire to find a balance in advocating for ourselves and others while preserving our faith in G-d that in the end, everything – even unprecedented events – will turn out for the best. Shabbat Shalom! Marya Nurgitz McMaster Student
This week’s parsha is one that is filled near to overflowing with iconic stories. Covering Jacob’s travels to, life in, and departure from Haran, the home of his uncle (and eventually father-in-law) Laban, Vayetzei recounts the stories of Jacob’s dream of the ladder, his marriages, first to Leah, then to Rachel, the births of twelve of his children, and so much more.
With all of this, I am struck by a couple of stories that are not explicitly in our text at all, but come to us in the form of Madrash, the traditional interpretations or explanations of our text that have come down from the sages.
The stories that have captured my interest are surrounding two verses that come at the very beginning of our text (Genesis 28:11 and 28:18) and are seeking to explain a seeming inconsistency between these verses. Just as Jacob is lying down to have his famous dream, we are told that “He took from the stones of the place and set it/them at his head and lay down in that place”, the Hebrew text being unclear on the number of stones Jacob had taken. Verse 18, which picks up immediately after the dream, is by contrast, very clear, saying, “he took the stone that he had set at his head and set it up as a standing-pillar”.
The first explanation comes from Rashi (11th/12th c. French commentator), who explains that Jacob had taken a number of stones and arranged them around his head for protection, prompting an argument among the stones, with each asking that they have the honour of holding the righteous man’s head. Rashi goes on to say that at this point, the holy one fused the rocks into one.
There are a number of others that appear in the great collection of Midrash, Breishit Rabbah, each offering a different number of stones. One of the stories counts twelve stones to teach Jacob that he would be the father of twelve tribes; another, three stones, teaching that God’s oneness would be made known through Jacob; yet another, two stones, to teach that Jacob’s progeny would be worthy to form the people Israel.
Our tradition offers us all of these understandings of a single moment in the life of Jacob, each of them teaching him a different lesson. We can find multiple interpretations of most stories from the Torah; that is part of the beauty of Midrash. But I am struck by the form that these midrashim take, each of them recounting a lesson learned, each examining a single moment. In this, I am reminded of the beauty of reflection, of a life examined, reminded that, within the hustle and bustle of our lives, and despite it, each moment has so much potential to teach us.
Rabbi Danny A Lutz
Senior Jewish Educator, Guelph Hillel