Parasha VaYerah

To See and Do The Torah is a remarkably terse document that uses surprisingly few words.  For example, if you want to know what Abraham looked like, the Bible does not tell us.  The Bible describes King Saul as “tall and good looking” and describes King David as “handsome”, but that that about does it for descriptions of men.  When it wants to describe women it uses the word “yafah” or “yefat-toar”, meaning beautiful, but we never know what color hair a woman has or what color are her eyes.  The Torah, much like poetry, utilizes few words and contains multiple layers of meaning.  The root of the word “ra-ah” — to see – appears prominently throughout the story of Abraham.  This week’s parasha, Va-Ye-rah, means “to appear” , and the parasha begins, “G-d appeared/va-ye-rah to Abraham”.  Abraham “sees” – va-yar – three men approaching his tent.  When two angels approach Lot, sitting at the gates of Sodom, the Torah tells us that Lot “sees” them – again, the word “va-yar”.  G-d opens Hagar’s eyes and she “sees” a well, and the Torah tells us “va-taireh be-air mayim” – she saw the well.  Abraham “sees”—va-yaar – the place where he is to sacrifice Isaac from afar, and later “sees” a ram caught in the thicket and sacrifices it in place of Isaac. He calls the place where this happened “Adonai Yireh” – another form of “ra-ah”, to see, which the Torah connects to a saying, “On the mountain G-d will appear”.  Thus this parasha begins and ends with reference to the sense of sight. So it becomes interesting when the Torah COULD use a form of the word, “va-yaar” but chooses not to. This occurs in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.  As you know, G-d destroys the city because of its sinfulness.  Not even ten righteous people live there.  The Torah tells us that Abraham rises early in the morning of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, “va-yash-kef” – and he sees.  Forms of the verb “ra-ah” to see, are used exactly 1,299 times in the Bible. Forms of the word “va-yash-kef” are used only 22 times in the Bible.  The question is, why is it used in this instance when the more common word could have been used?[1] The way to answer that question is to look up the other 21 places where a form of the word “va-yash-kef” is used and look at its meaning in context.  When we do that, we find something interesting. It is almost always near the word for “window”.  For example, in the story of Deborah, Sisera, a Canaanite general, goes to war against the Israelites. He is eventually killed.  His mother looks out a window, expecting his arrival home.  Jezebel, the evil queen of Northern Israel, looks out a window before she is thrown out of it by the vengeful Jehu.  The Book of Proverbs describes a wise man ruefully  looking out a window at a youth who is about to be ensnared by a harlot.  In all of these instances, the word for “to see” is not “ra-ah” but the far lesser used “va-yash-kef”.  We can now understand that when the Bible uses the root “ra-ah” for seeing, it is usually followed by some action by the one who sees.  A person sees, and does. When the Bible uses “va-yash-kef”,  the one who sees is usually passive.  They are looking on, perhaps waiting, but are not taking any action.  The Torah is telling us that Abraham, usually an active protagonist in his stories, watches the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah from afar.  He will not be riding to the rescue, as he did when his nephew Lot was captured in war. Abraham is an onlooker, a bystander, a most uncharacteristic role for this most active of men. Perhaps we can understand Abraham’s passivity. After all, he has been informed by G-d that the cities are being destroyed because of the evil within them.  He has already tried to intervene to spare them.  Abraham does not descend to the valley to help the survivors. The story that follows has a desperate Lot and his daughters taking refuge in the mountains. They are the sole survivors of the city of Sodom. There is nobody to help them.  They feel alone in the world.  How sad. We cannot afford to be so passive when we see devastation and destruction.  We cannot allow people to feel alone when disaster strikes. When Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans several years ago, there were some  rabbis and ministers, fundamentalists all,  who understood this as the “hand of G-d” punishing the people of New Orleans for their sinful ways, much like G-d punished Sodom and Gomorrah in this week’s parasha.  We emphatically reject that theology.  Now there may be some human responsibility for some of the destruction.  Our failure to take global warming seriously may be contributing to the severity of the storms we have experienced in the last decade.  When we build in low lying and vulnerable areas we may be opening ourselves up to loss of life and property. When we do not evacuate areas we are warned to leave we should not be surprised when there is loss of life.  This is not really the time to debate this.  This isn’t the time to cast blame and assign responsibility.  This isn’t the time to be a passive onlooker.  This is the time to offer support in whatever way we can. This is a time to reach into our pockets and help out. I know many of you have already, and many of you will.  Did you know that according to a study published in 2010 by a Purdue University economist in The Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, American Jews are, on average, significantly more generous in giving to others for basic needs than are American Protestants or Catholics?  When you do give, I hope you will consider giving through the Jewish United Fund. In this week’s announcements we have sent a link to their website which will make it easy for you to contribute.  Of course, your contribution through any organization is valuable and praiseworthy.  But when you give through the Jewish United Fund, you will be contributing both as an American and as a Jew.  Frankly, it is good PR for our people, and it says something to the world about Jewish values.  Moreover, one-hundred percent of your contribution will go to those in need. Let us not be mere onlookers. Let us not stand from afar and observe. Whether it be in response to a natural catastrophe or to the daily struggles of our fellows, let us see and do, not merely gaze on, and observe. Shabbat Shalom


[1] My thanks to Dr. Ora Horn Prouser, President of the Academy for Jewish Religion, for pointing this out in a recent communication.