Parasha Vayera

A few weeks ago I gave a sermon in which I mentioned a film that I had seen called “Twenty Feet from Stardom.” In the sermon I cited the famous story of Rabbi Zusya, who feared that when he died and went to heaven he would be asked not “why were you not Moses,” – he could answer that, G-d did not  give him the great courage that G-d gave Moses;  and not “Why were you not Maimonides”—he could answer that, G-d did not give him the great intellect that he gave Maimonides. The question that Rabbi Zusya feared was, “Why were you not Zusya?”  I posted the sermon on my sermon page and received the following comment – “What if you ARE yourself and are very flawed and see this but are helpless to be otherwise.” I replied to this comment on line that no one is helpless to be otherwise. We are all flawed individuals. Our task is to polish our star so that it can shine more brightly. Our work is to improve ourselves every day. Tonight I want to expand on these thoughts. Even our holy Torah knows of no unflawed or perfect people. Despite the high esteem that we hold for Abraham, who read about in this week’s Torah reading, the Bible does not present him as without faults. When a famine drives him and his wife to Egypt, the Torah tells us that Abraham is concerned for his own safety. What if the Egyptians see his beautiful wife and kill him so that they can take her for themselves? “Please tell them that you are my sister,” says Abraham to his wife Sarah. The RamBAN sees this as a great sin. Better he should have better trusted in the protection of G-d, than to have asked for such a sacrifice from his wife. As it is, Sarah is taken to the Pharaoh, and it is only through the intervention of G-d that Pharaoh is prevented from taking her as his wife. Yet, not having learned the lesson, Abraham repeats the mistake with another king in another foreign land later on in the parasha. Look at Abraham’s role as a family man. Abraham and Sarah cannot have children, so Sarah suggests that Abraham betroth her maidservant, Hagar. “Perhaps I will be built up through her,” says Sarah. Apparently, the custom of the time was any child of a woman’s maid through her husband would be counted as the child of the woman herself. Once pregnant, Hagar gets haughty. She thinks she is better than Sarah. Sarah is greatly vexed by this. Can you blame her? Here you agree that your maidservant can have relations with your husband for the purpose of pro-creation, and the maid begins to laud it over you! So, Sarah complains to Abraham. Does Abraham go and talk to Hagar about it? Does he explain to her that we all have to get along in this household, and it is best that you treat Sarah with respect; she is, after all, my first wife and I love her dearly? Does he talk to Sarah about it, after all, Hagar is only a young woman and like all young women she is a little full of herself, especially now that she is giving us a child, and we must be patient with her, I’ll talk to her, and you let me know if this keeps happening. No. When Sarah complains to Abraham, Abraham seems to get angry and impatient with her. “She’s your maidservant,” he snaps back at Sarah, “Do with her as you see fit!” That leaves Sarah with nowhere to go with her anger and frustration than to take it out on Hagar, which she does. Then there is the episode of the binding of Isaac. How could Abraham argue so passionately with G-d over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah – “If there are only ten righteous people in the cities, will You not save the city for the sake of the ten” – but when it comes to the destruction of his own flesh and blood, his beloved son Isaac, he does not raise any protest whatsoever. It is like the shoemakers children who have no shoes themselves. Abraham seems more concerned with the stranger than he is with his own family. So it is with all of the heroes of the Bible. Isaac with his naiveté, Jacob with his dishonesty, Moses and his temper, Aaron and his lack of a backbone, King David with his lust. All are deeply flawed individuals who do great things despite their shortcomings which the Bible does not hide from us. This month marked the passing of another flawed giant of our tradition. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the 93 year old patriarch of the Sephardic community in Israel, passed away. On the day of his funeral hundreds of thousand of people turned out in the streets of Jerusalem for the funeral procession. Forty thousand people participated in a memorial service at the conclusion of shiva last week. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Rabbi Ovadia, “one of the wisest men of his generation” and “a giant in Torah and Jewish law and a teacher to tens of thousands.”  President Shimon Peres, who had been with Rabbi Ovadia hours before his death, said, “When I kissed his head, it was as though I kissed the very greatness of Israel.” Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s rabbinic opinions, which carried a great deal of weight in Israel and abroad, were often enlightened and compassionate. He was the only major rabbinic figure in Israel to take the courageous stand that preserving lives was more important than retaining land. This meant that he believed that it was religiously permissible to give up territory in the Land of Israel – land that he considered holy — for peace. He made the compassionate ruling allowing women whose husbands had been killed in the Yom Kippur war but could not be definitely confirmed as dead – the agunah – to remarry. He applied similar reasoning in an opinion allowing women whose husbands had been killed in the 9/11 attack to remarry when there was no body or witness to the death. He wrote a rabbinic opinion, citing the views of a 16th century scholar, that the Jews of Ethiopia were part of the ten lost tribes of Israel and therefore could legally immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return. This opinion was influential in the absorption of tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews into the Jewish State. As the leader of the political party, Shas, he gave voice and dignity to the Sephardi community of Israel who had suffered years of disenfranchisement and discrimination at the hands of the Ashkenazi establishment of the State. Quite a list of accomplishments for any one person. Yet, like Abraham, Rabbi Ovadia was a very flawed person. He spewed anger and vitriol at those he considered his political and religious enemies, including former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Palestinian Authority President Mahmood Abbas, Israeli Supreme Court Justices, secular Jews, Conservative Jews, Reform Jews, and gentiles in general. Under his leadership women from his political party were forbidden to run for office. Through his comments he did a great deal to exacerbate the divisions and polarizations that are a part of Israeli life. The Palestinian sage Alexandri, who lived during the time of the Talmud, used to say, "When a common man uses a broken vessel he is ashamed of it, but not so with the Holy One. All the instruments of His service are broken vessels." Our tradition understands that we are all flawed human beings, even the greatest among us. We all are obliged to work toward repairing our flaws. But our brokenness does not, and should not, excuse us from acting in the world to alleviate pain, to address suffering, and to do good works. We can grow every day toward reaching our full potential as husbands and wives, as mothers and fathers, as friends, as workers, and as citizens.  In doing so, we fulfill our Creator’s mission for us here on earth. Shabbat Shalom