Monday, October 18, 2010

Lawlessness in the Family

Parashat VaYeirah
15 Cheshvan 5771 / Oct. 22 - 23, 2010
Bereishit 18:1 - 22:24

Lawlessness in the Family

by Uri Manor, Moishe House Silver Spring

I think there are actually two overarching themes in this parsha; one is brutal lawlessness and the other is brutal love between parent and child.

Perhaps symbolically, we start off with Abraham serving angels calf and milk. Abraham, one of the holiest men in Judaism (and of course also Christianity and Islam), is serving one of the most unkosher meals ever and to angels!!! Perhaps even more amazing is the fact that the angels eat it and their next action is to reward him and Sarah with news of a son. Ok fine, this meal was prepared before the laws of kashrut were handed down, but I think that there was a reason why it was calf and milk. It could have been calf and potatoes or milk and vegetables but it was specifically calf and milk. Calf and milk is treif because it represents the mixing of the mother and child---killing a child and mixing with the mother---it is an unholy mixture. Immediately we have both themes of the parsha intertwined - lawlessness and parent:child.

Sarah responds to the good news of a new child by laughing - perhaps literally, perhaps metaphorically - in G-d's face.

We've barely begun the parsha and we already have Abraham cooking one of the most treif meals possible and Sarah laughing in G-d's face.


After some incredibly monotonous arithmetic swordplay between G-d and Abraham (50, 45, …, 15, 10) we transition to what happens when the angels actually get to Lot's house in the horrible city of Sodom and Gomorrah. Immediately every man in town --the entire town--surrounds Lot's house and demands that Lot lets them in so that they can Sodom-ize his guests. Lot responds by begging the townspeople to, instead, take his virgin daughters and to "do to them as you please".

Now we're dealing with lawlessness riding piggy-back on even greater lawlessness - notably, always within the context of parents and their children.

The angels are kind enough to absolve Lot from having to deal with this situation any further by blinding the townspeople, and then they immediately tell Lot to get the hell out of town and to take his family with him, because they're going to destroy the city. In perhaps one of the most famous scenes in Genesis, although the fleeing family (minus the sons who mocked Lot's warnings and stayed behind) was instructed not to look, his wife looks back and is turned into a pillar of salt. Why salt? Salt was actually precious, almost worth its weight in gold and is also a wonderful preservative. Is Lot's wife being turned into a pillar of salt a condemnation or an adulation?

We've just heard about Lot offering his daughters in exchange for peace to the angels/men (whether he knew they were angels was unclear). Lot's wife may or may not have feared G-d but her love for her children was so great that as the city was being destroyed she had to look back. It is all too common to read this story as a reflection of the weakness of woman, but I wonder if this story is more about the strength of a woman's love for her children.

So we have Abraham cooking up some treif, Sarah laughing in G-d's face, Lot offering his daughters up for gang-rape, and we have Lot's wife looking back. But apparently, that's not enough lawlessness…nor is it enough about parent:child relations...

We now cut to a scene where Lot is in a cave, with his two daughters - the same two daughters Lot offered to the townspeople. The daughters are convinced that they must either seduce their father by getting him drunk, or they will never reproduce. Obviously, they whipped out the wine opener, and drunken incest-rape ensues. Note that they were both successful in becoming pregnant, and that this is where King David's lineage comes from, and that King David's lineage is of course the ancestry of the Messiah. SO, the next time you mock or judge these women, realize that you are mocking and judging the great great great…..great great great grandmother of the Messiah. If you were convinced that you were the last human on earth would you sleep with your father for the sake of humankind? If not, does that make you a greater or lesser person than these women?

Either way, this parsha has just dished out another delicious combo of lawlessness and parent:child love for us. Oy ve.

The next part is so weird and contorted, it gives me chills.

While Abraham is journeying in Gerar, Abraham tells everyone that Sarah is his sister so that they don't kill him in order to be able to take her as their wife. The king of Gerar, Abimelech, had Sarah "brought to him". In a dream G-d tells Abimelech that he's going to die, for he has "taken" a married woman. Abimelech realizes that he has done something horribly wrong, but pleads to G-d that he did it unknowingly since he thought Sarah was just Abraham's sister. Interestingly, it is never clearly articulated whether Abimelech slept with Sarah or not, but in the very next scene, Sarah is pregnant. We are not told how much time has elapsed.

Given the behaviors of the time and the persistent theme of lawlessness, the wandering mind may dare ask the question: Was Abimelech, Isaac's birth father? Probably, not, but either way we can definitely be sure that Abraham was at the very least concealing part of the truth when claiming Sarah as his sister.

Lawlessness wins again.

Isaac is born and everything is happy and wonderful for Sarah who revels in her laughter, when almost immediately we are thrust into more intertwinements of lawlessness + parent:child relations: Sarah demands Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael , the son Hagar had borne to Abraham, into the wilderness (so that Isaac doesn't have to share the inheritance - again we're witnessing a mother's love for her own children overriding other considerations). Abraham complies, having been assured by G-d that his son will survive. Hagar wanders in the wilderness, and after running out of water in the wilderness (a classic symbol of lawlessness) Ishmael almost dies before G-d rescues her and Ishmael with more water. The close call between Ishmael and death can mean many things, but I just want to point out that Abraham almost killed Ishmael by agreeing to send him and Hagar into the wilderness.

At this point, we can hardly be surprised to read that G-d Himself has instructed Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Abraham appears to have no issues with this (remember that this is the same dude who questioned G-d's decision to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah), and proceeds to prepare for the sacrifice. Thankfully, G-d stops Abraham from completing the sacrifice.

After reading these stories I have a sense of "Oh my G-d we really need laws - without structure the world would be such a horrible place!". I find myself wondering if I only think all these behaviors (e.g. Sodomites raping visitors) are so bad because the laws against these abominable behaviors have already existed all my life - am I brainwashed? Was Lot brainwashed from being surrounded by such extreme abomination?

Maybe a lesson needs to be learned from the chronological positioning of these stories? This parsha obviously came before Moses gave us the groundwork upon which all modern civilization is based, and in these stories you can see the way the world was before Moses.

The truth is that the scientific community would argue that many of these stories are likely to be at least true in principle - rape, sacrifice, and incest were all regular occurrences in that day and age. So maybe these stories are here to simply to instill a sense of awe in us, and a newfound appreciation for how far we've come as a society, and as a people?

We may never know the answers to these questions, but one thing that is apparent from both scientific and spiritual grounds is that we humans have been selected to have a sense of morality, and that those who lack that sense are usually removed from the face of the Earth rather quickly. Whether by epic floods, sulphuric fire from the heavens, or by an inability to cooperate well enough to survive together in more difficult times, we would clearly all perish without the divine sense of love and care for each other, and for our children.


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