On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah - Vayeira: Where is God?

Parashat Vayeira starts with a cliffhanger. We’re told that God appeared before Abraham, but that’s it—we never find out where God appears or what God says. Instead, we get three desert wanderers, who have important news for Abraham. So, where is God in this story? Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, discusses where God may have been, and where God could be now.

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[URJ Intro:] Welcome to episode 43 of “On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah,” a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, we reflect on more than 2000 years of Jewish wisdom in just 10 minutes, with modern day commentary on the weekly Torah portion. Of course, we do think there are plenty of ways to interpret Torah, and we want to hear what you think so talk to us on Twitter. Our handle is @ReformJudaism. Or like us at Facebook.com/ReformJudaism and subscribe to the podcast on iTunes.

This week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the President of the Union for Reform Judaism, teaches us about Parashat Vayeira. He wonders what kind of welcome do you offer to others, and how do you nourish the people around you?

[Rabbi Rick:] This week we focus our attention on Parashat Vayeria. It comes literally a week after Parashat Lech L'cha, when God calls to Abraham and Sarah to begin the journey of the Jewish people-- a journey of blessing and discovery, sometimes of danger and uncertainty.

And in the opening of this parashah, we are told literally vayeria eilav Adonai -- that God appeared unto him. And then, the story goes on to tell of Abraham and these three desert wanderers, but we're left wondering, wait a minute. I thought that whole portion was about God appeared. Well, where is God?

So, the opening says God appeared, and then our Abraham is sitting inside. It is a hot day, and he's recovering. He had had some minor surgery the end of last week's parashah -- minor surgery, of course, is something that happens to someone else. Major is what happens to you. He was circumcised in his latter years, and he's home convalescing.

And yet, Abraham's the kind of person that can't just sort of stay inside and worry about himself so he's sitting at the edge of his tent, khom hayom the text says, in the heat of the day. And he's desperately combing the desert landscaping to see if he can see anybody that he can welcome into his tent. That's the kind of person Abraham is.

Well you know the story, that literally he sees these three desert wanderers. I mean, they are filled with the desert journey, and they're disheveled, and they're probably haven't showered for a long time, and they are hot. And Abraham brings them into his tent to feed them, to nourish them, to give them refreshment.

But it turns out these are not just three guys. These are none other than the angels of the Most High. These three individuals are the angel Mikha'el-- Michael, the angel Raphael, and the angel Gavriel. Of course, we think of angels-- we think of these creatures with wings that are floating around, but in the Torah, in the Jewish tradition angels look like you and me. They can't be discerned just from their appearance.

So, Abraham welcomes three guys, three people, three very unimpressive individuals because he knows that they need his hospitality. He only learns that they are angels after the fact. Well, how many of us would welcome homeless people into our homes if they were wearing signs on their foreheads said angel of the Most High, right? Amazing individuals who bring with them blessing-- everybody would be rushing. But our Abraham doesn't know that's who they are and still welcomes them in.

So, the angel Michael is coming to tell Abraham and Sarah that they'll finally have the child that they've been hoping and dreaming for. Raphael is one who brings healing. That's literally what the name means, and he brings the blessing of healing to Abraham as he convalescence. And the third angel is Gavriel, and he brings the news that God intends to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah.

That angel awakens in Abraham a righteousness, a need to both stand up and be willing to fight, not an angel, but even the Most High God-- God's self. So we have this incredible moment where these three individuals are bringing these unbelievably important revelations to Abraham, but we're still wondering where's God. Well, I think the text is telling us somehow God is present in our interactions with other people, not in the everyday, but in that deeper dimension.

Martin Buber, the philosopher, also talked about the I-Thou. When we are able to see in the deepest way the other, we actually get a glimpse, a window into God, into the holiest dimension of life. And so, for us, as we go searching for God in our world, God may be just as present in the soup kitchen, or the homeless shelter, or the sanctuary, or our home, or the street, or our offices, or our schools.

And I just would spend another moment just also underscoring what it means to be a religious leader. So basically, God and Abraham have an argument about how do you, in a sense, give people a chance to do the right thing.

God has determined that Sodom and Gomorrah are so evil they simply must be wiped out. Abraham challenges God, he said “hashofet kol ha'arets lo ya’ase mishpat?” Will the judge of all the world not do what's right? So, Abraham says, God, you can't be sweeping away the righteous with the innocent. And he shows us the face of a religious leader that's about chutzpah, right? You know the word "chutzpah?" It's about having intestinal fortitude. Abraham has it when it comes to other people, other leaders, other challenges, but he's also willing to say to God, God, this is not befitting You. This is not Your role to be, in a sense, sweeping the righteous along with the evil.

So, we get to challenge how we're supposed to live lives of courage and faithfulness and righteousness. And are we willing not only to challenge political authorities or maybe even people in our own family, our own communities-- but to do so out of righteousness, not out of self-interest-- and can we even argue and take issue with God? Those feel like uniquely Jewish gifts to us, Jewish obligations, that we're to stand for what's right no matter with whom we argue, no matter with whom we are debating, or trying to find the path forward.

So, I say to all of us, after you listen to the podcast, maybe you're sitting in a Starbucks somewhere having a cup of coffee and maybe those three people sitting next to you aren't just people, maybe those in fact are messengers of the Most High. Maybe Gavriel and Raphael are right there. Maybe there's a cause in this world that you are going to be the Abraham, and you're going to raise your voice, and you are going to be, not just willing to give a sermon or give an argument, but to stand, maybe alone, in the world, because you know that what you stand for is what our tradition demands, that which is right and just and true.

So, God may, in fact, be present all around us, in so many parts of our lives, but we've got to be awake, and we've got to be open as Abraham was awake and open. And who knows? Vayeira eilav Adonai. Maybe, maybe, maybe, maybe. Maybe God will appear to you or to me, and if God does, let's make sure to be that warm, welcoming soul that Abraham is. And if there's an argument to be had with the Holy One, don't be shy about that. God may in fact appear, and when God does, let us know just be surprised, and let's be ready to learn and internalize that which is Most Holy.

[URJ Outro:] Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of “On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah.” If you like what you heard today, and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week and ReformJudaism.org and on iTunes, where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit RerformJudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism, including rituals, culture, holidays, and more. “On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah” is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life.

Until next week -- l’hitraot!