Pushing the limits

Pushing the limits

Parshat Vayera, Genesis 18:1-22:24

How do we act when we’re under great pressure? What hidden strengths come out — and what weaknesses — as we navigate through rough times? Parshat Vayera invites us to explore these questions.

When Sarah was told — at age 90! — that she’d bear a child, she laughed. Why? Tradition suggests she was mocking the power of the Divine. But, as human beings, we can also fathom a different reason: Perhaps she felt caught in a Divinely decreed contradiction. I think Sarah laughed because she saw that God was asking her to be both old and young at the same time! How many of us elders experience that feeling when grandchildren pull us down to play with them on the floor? The rush of pleasure, then the worry of “how am I going to get back up?” combined with internal laughter as we acknowledge our own limitations.

In the Akedah, we wonder: Why did Abraham seem so distant? He didn’t express anger or hurt; his emotional affect was flat. Tradition tells us he was showing faith in God. But, as human beings, we can also imagine a simpler reason: Maybe he couldn’t wrap his mind around the idea that he was being asked to give up his precious son! How many of us, suddenly confronted with the possible loss of a loved one, discover we simply can’t react at all — we just go numb?

In the story of Sodom, we may ask: Why did Lot behave so irrationally after hearing of the impending destruction? When the angry mob approached, Lot attempted to protect the “men” (i.e., the angels) who sought refuge at his home by offering his own daughters to the mob to appease them. Why would a father act like that? Tradition says that Lot was a weak man, even a sinner, and maybe he was. But, as compassionate human beings, perhaps we see another explanation: Lot may have been paralyzed by fear for his life! Only when Lot is at last able to worry about the safety of others can he also open to the advice of the heavenly messengers trying to save him and his family. Only when he moves emotionally from “If I am not for myself” to “If I am only for myself” does rescue become possible.

All three stories speak to human complexity. Each person in them — and each of us — combines strengths and frailties. Sarah initially doubts herself but then recognizes her deeper abilities. Abraham seems to be overwhelmed but then finds the strength to respond to the angel messenger and stay his own hand. Lot, at first self-centered and  preoccupied with his own needs, is able to broaden his concern to include the needs of his family.

Even God is humanlike in Parshat Vayera, showing irritation and frustration, but also listening thoughtfully to human argument. This is a God who truly wants to partner with humans in creating a better world. While annoyed with Sarah for her apparent disrespect, God nevertheless sticks with her to fulfill a promise — the birth of Isaac — for the good of the future Jewish people. God responds to Abraham’s intercession and modifies the Divine decisions about Sodom for a more compassionate outcome. In this parshah, God mirrors some human frailties, but also models one of the healthiest strengths of human beings: the ability to change one’s mind in the face of new and compelling evidence — the capacity to learn from experience and grow.

Rabbi Doris J. Dyen is spiritual leader of Minyan Makom-Ha-Lev. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.