For the week ending 7 November 2020 / 20 Heshvan 5781

Parashat Vayera

by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair -
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Three days after performing brit mila on himself, Avraham is visited by G-d. When three angels appear in human form, Avraham rushes to show them hospitality by bringing them into his tent, despite this being the most painful time after the operation. Sarah laughs when she hears from them that she will bear a son next year. G-d reveals to Avraham that He will destroy Sodom, and Avraham pleads for Sodom to be spared. G-d agrees that if there are fifty righteous people in Sodom He will not destroy it. Avraham "bargains" G-d down to ten righteous people. However, not even ten can be found. Lot, his wife and two daughters are rescued just before sulfur and fire rain down on Sodom and her sister cities. Lot’s wife looks back and is turned into a pillar of salt. Lot’s daughters fear that as a result of the destruction there will be no husbands for them. They decide to get their father drunk and through him to perpetuate the human race. From the elder daughter, Moav is born, and from the younger, Ammon. Avraham moves to Gerar where Avimelech abducts Sarah. After G-d appears to Avimelech in a dream, he releases Sarah and appeases Avraham.

As promised, a son, Yitzchak, is born to Sarah and Avraham. On the eighth day after the birth, Avraham circumcises him as commanded. Avraham makes a feast the day Yitzchak is weaned. Sarah tells Avraham to banish Hagar and Hagar's son Yishmael because she sees in him signs of degeneracy. Avraham is distressed at the prospect of banishing his son, but G-d tells him to listen to whatever Sarah tells him to do. After nearly dying of thirst in the desert, Yishmael is rescued by an angel and G-d promises that he will be the progenitor of a mighty nation. Avimelech enters into an alliance with Avraham when he sees that G-d is with him.

In a tenth and final test, G-d instructs Avraham to take Yitzchak, who is now 37, and to offer him as a sacrifice. Avraham does this, in spite of ostensibly aborting Jewish nationhood and contradicting his life-long preaching against human sacrifice. At the last moment, G-d sends an angel to stop Avraham. Because of Avraham’s unquestioning obedience, G-d promises him that even if the Jewish People sin, they will never be completely dominated by their foes. The Torah portion concludes with the genealogy and birth of Rivka.


Last in Line

Something that always amazes me when I travel by plane is how competitive people are to get to the front of the line, whether it’s for the security check, check-in, passport control or boarding. Human nature wants to be “the first.” And even in these days of limited air travel and much shorter lines, people still want to be first in those short lines. When flying out of Tel Aviv the other day, I pointed this out to my wife and asked, “We’re all going to get on the same metal tube and leave at the same time, so what does it matter who goes first?” “Well,” she said, “they’ll have more time for shopping.” I said, “But the shops are all closed in the airport.” So she said, “Even so, people want to just get through and sit down.”

During the prayers of the Yamim Noraim — the Days of Awe — we pray to Hashem to put an end to competitiveness. Were it not for competiveness, a person would be happy to live modestly, dress modestly and behave modestly. But, because we cannot bear the thought of someone being more than us, our lives become dedicated to out-doing our neighbors.

The difference between Capitalism and Communism is the kind of competitiveness their systems produce. The Communist says, “Your car is bigger than mine. I’m going to make sure you don’t have a car at all!” The Capitalist says, “Your car is bigger than mine. I’m going to make sure that I have a car so big that I can put your car in my trunk and give you a ride!”

Arguably, the beginning of the Communist approach to competiveness was in Sodom. The evil of Sodom and Amora was that they usurped a trait of Hashem. The deeper sources teach that their society was based totally on the characteristic of din — strict justice. The trait of din says, “You get what you deserve, no less, and certainly no more.” In such a society there is no room for chessed, kindness, because we often receive chessed even when we do not necessarily deserve it. Chessed is “for those who are good and for those who are evil.” When Hashem judges us with din, it is always to fulfill the purpose that His chessed should be of the best kind.

But, if competitiveness is part of human nature, it must have a positive application. The Mesillas Yesharim describes three levels of spiritual motivation. The second level is that we cannot bear the thought of getting to the next world and seeing our friend in a “better seat.” The third level is that we cannot bear the thought that when we get to the next world we will see someone in a “better seat” and think to ourselves, “That could have been my seat!” It is not that we are jealous, that we want our fellow not to have that seat. It is just that we know that had we tried harder and been more competitive in the things that really matter, we could have the front row in the stalls of the World to Come. And that’s significantly more painful than having to join the line at the back of the line at the airport.

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