The Torah is a rich treasure, with both surfaces and deep depths to be mined. Our tradition asks us to reconsider the entire Torah on a regular cycle. Some of us divide it up so that it takes 3 years to actually encounter every bit of text, others do it annually. Even divided as it is into parshiyot, there’s a lot of material to consider (which is one reason why some follow a triennial reading cycle.)
Although Torah tells us that we can and ought to be all equally scholars of the text, it’s unlikely that this has ever been the case throughout our history. Oh, I’d like to believe that in older times more Jews were more familiar with the Torah (and perhaps, to some extent, that is true in some periods of time) if I had to hazard a guess, I’d say that even in ancient times, those with truly deep knowledge of the Torah were a small subset of the Jewish people.
Part of the reason for that is our tradition has always striven to be practical and relatively friendly to the quotidian. It recognizes that we all have roles to play, tasks to do, families to feed, etc. We’re taught that if we’re planting a tree and Mosiakh appears, we should finish planting the tree. This can be read as much as advice to do the things we need to do to live as it a lesson in the importance of caring for our planet.
Thus, for probably all of our history, we’ve had to rely on the efforts of a few to distill down the essence of what the Torah says for us. It is, in some ways, an unfortunate situation. There are still those among us who value study of Torah above all else, even worldly activities, but they are still only a small subset. In addition, such communities tend to be insular and self-reinforcing. It’s that much easier to devote all your time to Torah study if you live in a community where that is normative (and in a community where your wife and family and the rest of the community take care of things so you can devote yourself entirely to the study of Torah.) In the more liberal and progressive communities, this is far less so. Now don’t get me wrong. Despite some claims of those in the more traditional Jewish community, there are great scholars in the progressive community as well-some of them who may very well be on a par with traditional scholars and poskim. And yes, it is true that recent times have seen somewhat of a resurgence in more serious interest in Torah study in the progressive Jewish community.
Nevertheless, we tend to rely on others to distill things down for us. Let me tell you, it is a daunting task. I’m no great scholar, and my small efforts pale before those who are far more learned than I. Yet, heeding what the Torah tells us – “lo bashamayim hi…” I make my own good faith effort to mine the Torah for its nuggets, to question and probe the text, and suggest possible understandings of it.
I bring this up because parashat Vayera is particularly dense. It contain enough material to be covered over several parshiyot. (Now, I will confess that the same could be said of almost all of the Torah, and the weekly parshiyot-they are all crammed with too much. Yet something about Vayera makes it seem significantly dense.
Look at all that is covered. The visitation and annunciation (if you’ll forgive the theological terms borrowed from Xtianity) to Abraham that he and Sarah will have a child of their own despite their advanced age. G”d debating whether or not to tell Abraham about G”d’s plans to deal with the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham’s bargaining with G”d to spare Sodom and Gomorrah is at least 10 righteous can be found there. The travails of the heavenly visitors, Lot and his family. Lot’s daughter impregnating themselves by their father. Abraham once again portraying Sarah as his sister, and causing trouble (this time for Avimelekh, rather than Pharaoh.) The birth of Isaac. The pushing out of Hagar and Ishmael, and the annunciation to Hagar. The settlement between Abraham and Avimelekh. The Akedah (Binding of Issac.) The genealogy of Abraham’s relatives (that conveniently provides us with Rivkah.)
The Akedah alone is fodder to last a lifetime. Yes, one can pick and choose to focus on one particular story in this parasha, and save other stories for other times. I myself have done so, often. Yet this year, I was so overwhelemed with the sheer density of all that this parasha contains that I find myself at a loss to pick something on which to focus. Oh sure, some things jumped out at me. Like how the Torah has G”d lying to Abraham about what Sarah said when she laughed upon hearing the news she would become pregnant. She spoke with laughter of having enjoyment from her old husband. G”d, in speaking to Abraham, spares Abraham’s feelings by turning the truth around and saying that Sarah laughed saying it was because she was so old. Gosh, I could probably rant for hours on this. We all know that the Torah does not command us to not tell a lie. We know that there is proof text in the Torah for using “white lies” and this text is one of them. Yet this examples involves G”d directly. G”d lies. This means that G”d is capable of lying. Can we really trust a G”d that we know can and has lied to human beings? There’s a question that ought to occupy your time and mine for a while.
There’s the repetition of the “Sarah is my sister” story, only with a very different bent this time. G”d actually speaks with Avimelekh, explaining the situation, and giving Avimelekh the chance to set things right.
There’s the “what happened to Isaac after the Akedah” question. (Most of my readers know my theory-he went off to live with Hagar and Ishmael. I still intend to write that book someday.) There’s the “did Sarah know what was going on?” question.
There’s the mysterious incident of the settling up between Abraham and Avimelekh. Boy, is there subtext galore here to explore especially regarding social and other customs of the time.. (We’ll get even more of that next week with the cave purchase.)
Then there’s another of my favorite questions. Were there really not 10 righteous people within Sodom and Gomorrah? The text implies that all the citizens of Sodom were prepared to have their way with the visitors, but we have only the implication that there were not because they were actually destroyed by G”d. And this right after a piece of text in which G”d had lied to Abraham (albeit to spare his feelings from his wife’s insult.) Hmmm.
Was Lot really as besotted as it seems? Was he totally unaware of what was going on? Or did he, like his daughters, believe they were the only ones left and they had to repopulate the earth?
Where does this fire and brimstone idea come from? From what historical experience did that whole idea of fire raining down from heaven come from? A volcanic eruption? And why do part of this whole sequence really sound like a nuclear weapon? It lacks only the mushroom cloud. (For that matter, what was the “blinding light” that the angels used on the people of Sodom to protect Lot and his family? Why could that be used to protect them, yet later, Lot’s wife is turned into a pillar of salt for looking upon it (or is that waht really did it to her?)
And so much more. Dense, dense, dense. Packed. Where to start? Where to end? I say just jump in anywhere you like and have at it. No matter what you do, it’s going to be too much. So remind yourself that you haven’t finished, and come back to this parasha again and examine things you haven’t examined before (and don’t forget to re-examine the things you’ve already looked at. Your perspective or understanding might change.
As the Torah tell us, none of us are so dense (in that other sense of the word) that the sheer density of the Torah makes in inaccessible to us. Dive right in.
©2010 by Adrian A. Durlester