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  • Writer's pictureAyelet HaShachar

As You Do

The following Dvar Torah was delivered on 15 November 2019 by Nell Cohen at Ayelet HaShachar’s Kabbalat Shabbat service, responding to the themes and content of Parshat Vayera.

This was the most overwhelming and depressing parsha I have ever read. Much like this week in reality. So if you’re looking for a good pick me up message today from me, then I warn you, you should leave now. It’s fine, you can say your Shabbat dinner starts early… Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Content warning: this parsha is laden with mass destruction, xenophobia, mass murder, rape, incest, misogyny, kidnapping and almost two filicides (parents murdering their children).

Also when I give the signal, you are to say “As you do”.

This will also feature Harry Potter references.

Abraham visited by three angels. They tell him and Sara they will have a baby. Sara laughs because she thinks it’s a joke but we later find out it’s not. The angels also told Abraham they were on their way to Sodom, and it was eventually disclosed Hashem planned to destroy the two cities of Sodom and Gomorrah for their wickedness.

Abraham’s nephew Lot lives in Sodom with his forever unnamed wife and forever unnamed four daughters, two of them married. Abraham negotiates with Hashem, will you destroy the righteous along with the wicked? What if there fifty righteous men? Okay, I won’t destroy the cities. Or 40? 30? 20? 10? Hashem agrees he won’t destroy the cities even if there are even 10 innocent men there. (Obviously women, children and servants are not included they’re just considered property). The angels depart for Sodom, and Lot invites them into his home to stay the night. But the city of Sodom gets wind of the information that Lot is housing these strangers, and they form a violent mob outside his home demanding for the strangers to be released to them. So what does Lot do? Lot offers his two virgin daughters to them instead. SIGNAL – Ron Weasley would say here: “He needs to sort out his priorities”. But they said no they want the strangers. They knock down the door, and the angels tell Lot that he must flee the city with his wife and two unmarried daughters because it’s going to be destroyed. They must never stand still, must never look back, just escape. The city is then consumed by fire and brimstone as Lot and his family flee. Lot’s wife – “She who must not be named” – turns back to look at the city, and is famously turned into a pillar of salt. SIGNAL

Lot and his daughters flee to a cave. The daughters think the end of the world has come upon them and they need to somehow continue the human race, they have no children, so they proceed to make their father drunk, and then lie with him, although he has no idea he is passed out, and then they both become pregnant. SIGNAL

Abraham and Sara meanwhile go to the land belonging to Abimelekh, and pretends that Sara is his sister so he isn’t killed. Sara is then taken by Abimelekh to be his wife SIGNAL, but in his dream Hashem says to him he has taken a married woman and that’s a sin – because if she wasn’t married it would be totally fine – therefore he is going to die. Abimelekh pleads that he did so out of ignorance, and he is spared, and returns Sara and gives them land and wealth and a free pass to live in his lands in Beer Sheba – which we know today is not that exciting.

But I’m telling you now, this story just keeps getting worse.

Sara then has a baby Yitzhak at 90 years old, but once he is weaned, she suddenly feels threatened by Hagar, and Hagar’s son Ishmael. Hagar is Abraham’s Egyptian concubine. So Sara tells Abraham to expel Hagar and Ishmael SIGNAL. As Hermione would say, even worse than dying is getting expelled. Abraham agrees to expel them, the next morning gives them a little bread and water, and sends Hagar and Ishmael on their way. However, they get lost in the wilderness of Beer Sheva, which we know today is quite an understandable thing to happen. They slowly start starving to death, and she casts Ishmael into a bush because she can’t bear to watch her child die.

She prays, she cries, then Hashem reveals to her a well of water, and saves the mother and child, and promises Hagar that Ishmael will one day be the leader of a great nation. If I were Hagar, I’d be thinking, Well that’s fine for Ishmael but what about me?

And then finally – the last part – Hashem tells Abraham to take Yitzhak up the mountain Moriah – my alma mater – and sacrifice his son SIGNAL. This plays out quite horribly, imagine the fear of that child who after asking again and again, Father where is the lamb we are about to sacrifice? To only reach the top of the mountain and then be bound up by your father, and realise that the fire, the wood, the knife is intended for you. As Abraham is about to bring the knife down on his son, an angel arrived and said, “Abraham! Abraham!” “Here I am!” said Abraham. And Hashem said, “Do not stretch your hand toward the boy, , for now I know that you are God-fearing and did not withhold from Me.”

Essentially, he got punked. And that’s where we end.

There’s this big debate at the moment about wokeness, most often its characterised as a war of words between the conservative, prosperous baby boomers and the avocado eating, no-good millennials and Gen Z’ers. They make it seem like in order to become “woke” – to be aware of the intersections of privilege and oppression in society, and all the ways that human beings are really bad, you need to do an arts degree. Well, I believe all you need to do is read the book of Genesis. Here I was reminded that the world is cruel, and the more vulnerable you are, the more violence you will face, and the least likely you are to be remembered or named in history.

I have no unifying, uplifting message from this Torah portion, that’s how miserable it was. It is the original Series of an Unfortunate Events.

I always wondered why Lot’s wife was firstly, never given a name and by extension, an identity. She will forever rendered as a symbol of caution. Secondly I will never understand why she was turned into a pillar of salt, just for looking back. There’s an interpretation that the salt came from her tears, and by these tears she was consumed. There’s another interpretation that her story represents a tale of fear and longing, the feeling of paralysis and being stuck, looking back on the past, on your losses, and being fearful of a future without all that you’ve left behind. This story was really poignant to me in light of the bush fires in the last few weeks, in Queensland and NSW, that continues to wreak havoc and destroy wildlife and homes, and in a few cases has destroyed lives, because those people could not get out in time. I feel a deep empathy for the people who have had to run from their properties, the terror they must have felt surrounded by fires, and to have lost everything.

Finally, I want to address this negotiation between Hashem and Abraham, ‘Will you spare the righteous amongst the wicked?’ I argue that this negotiation was interesting philosophically, but realistically irrelevant. Both in these stories and in our world today, the worst case scenario is that everyone dies, both the guilty and the innocent, like in Sodom and Gomorrah. In the best case scenarios, it wasn’t the guilty who suffered, it was the most vulnerable people who suffered. Those of least value: women, children, foreigners, and servants.

In one sense, the way experts and activists have talked about climate change, they have said that eventually, like the fire of Sodom, the changing climate will hurt us all if we don’t act soon. Whether that be by bushfires, drought, rising sea levels, or otherwise, or by a ripple effect that will trickle down into our very delicate social and economic structures. On the other hand, what I have seen from the bushfires, and I what I have seen from this Torah portion, is that it will be the most vulnerable people and wildlife, who will be hurt first and suffer the most. While our leaders continue to play political football over this mess, while we continue to point at red herrings and play divisive games of “who is more woketh than thou”, I wonder what will happen to the most vulnerable of us in future scenarios?

Nell is a journalism student, musician, progressively-minded Jew and long-term member of the Ayelet HaShachar community.

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