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Cheshvan 5781 ~ Nov. 6, 2020

Our lives are the tapestries of the stories of the incidents that surround us. One of my favorite stories happened many years ago when I was a child. We were at Toronto International Airport, at the ticket counter getting information on an inbound flight carrying a family friend, when my father overheard a conversation between a ticket agent and a college age student returning home at winter break. The young woman had missed her plane due to traffic and the agent insisted that she pay fifty dollars extra to take the next flight. A note, these were the days before the fare wars and non-refundable tickets. The girl cried and the agent was unsympathetic. “I don’t have any more money,” she said. “ Then you will need to find alternate transportation. Take the train or the bus. But you can’t go with us.”  My father walked up to the counter and turned to the agent, took fifty dollars out of his pocket, put it on the table and said to the ticket agent, “Put her on the next plane.”  Not only was fifty dollars a lot of money at that time, but it was money that my father could ill afford to simply use on a stranger. The girl looked stunned. “Wait a second, I don’t know you. Why are you doing this?” My father responded: “Here is my telephone number and address. If you are able to, then I know that you will pay me back, but for right now it is important that you get home to your family.” In one of my last conversations with my dad I finally had the courage to ask him if she ever returned the money to him and he responded: “Earl, does it really make a difference?  I didn’t expect her to return it to me! Mom and I both were thinking: Who knows… Maybe one day my child will be in a similar situation. I only hope that when that happens someone will be as kind to my child.” That story has always remained at the top of my list.

Our Torah reading for today also is a tapestry of stories. It is the story of the kindness of Abraham to three men who appear in front of his door in the heat of the day. It is the promise of the birth of Isaac, and Sarah’s laughter. It is the story of the destruction of Sodom; the birth of Isaac; his circumcision; the rage of Sarah and the sending away of Ishmael and Hagar, and the binding of Isaac. Each one of these stories represent significant lessons through the tapestry of the life of our first patriarch and matriarch.

Three of these stories are quite troubling. Needless to say, the “Binding of Isaac” is one that befuddles us each year as we read it. Let me share with you another one.  It is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah and Abraham’s response. When you think of Abraham and Sodom, what do you think of? You think of the story in terms of his standing before God and pleading with him to save the city if there are fifty righteous people. He continues his request all the way down to the possibility of ten. At ten he stops. When God says there aren’t ten righteous people what does Abraham do? He turns around and walks back home.

Now, this isn’t the picture that we have just been shown of Abraham. As our Torah reading opens, hadn’t he just invited three travelers (angels in the guise of men) into his home with an offering of water and bread, and then made a lavish meal? Wasn’t Abraham the champion of the cause of other people? Hadn’t he just gone into battle to protect the city-state of Sodom and to free his nephew Lot, and refused to take any reward? Yet he walks away from saving that city when God shares with him that God is about to destroy the city and all of its inhabitants. What makes Abraham different than Noah, who built an ark for himself and didn’t care about the others in the end? What about his nephew? Why couldn’t he be like Jonah who in the end went to the city of Nineveh and prophesied the dooms day setting?

As one reads the Biblical narrative one finds that Lot is saved on his own merit. When he sees the guests in the town square, he invites them into his home. Why? One reason is hospitality. A second reason is that Lot knew what the people of Sodom do to visitors who dare stay overnight in their town. Perhaps Lot might have recognized the Godliness of the visitors. For all of these reasons, and perhaps many more, Lot goes against the town policy to bring the men into his home.  As the story continues, when the people learn of his hospitality, they come to Lot and demand that he turn the visitors over to the angry mob. Lot  refuses.  He tries to placate the townsfolk offering two of his daughters who are not yet married and are virgins in the visitors’ stead. The crowd refuses, only wanting the visitors.

One of our congregants asked me just yesterday, as we were studying Torah together, how Lot could justify such an exchange, not only in terms of morality, but as their father.  Honestly, I could have shared midrashim and commentaries that perhaps might have praised Lot. That would have been dishonest to my current Jewish values, for there is no rationalization. One simply does not permit a violation of any individual – be it a stranger or someone in one’s own family. And then I remembered the story of my father and the money that our family needed to put food on our table and he could ill afford to simply hand over to a ticket agent. Lot’s merit of helping another at the sake of his own family, as wrong as it will always be to us, spells out the great degree of understanding that Lot has for the wayfarer, providing for them and protecting them.  

In my humble opinion, the story of Lot in some way parallels the tragic story of the Binding of Isaac.  It shouts out: “No, No, No! Lot, this is not what God wants  from His faithful. Don’t hand your daughters over to the mob, violating them to protect another. Stand tall for both your daughters and the visitors. And it was that same message that the angel of God cried out to Abraham as he began to thrust the knife down toward his son Isaac, bound to an altar. Do not give up on the principles and morals of what makes you different than all of the rest.

Remember Abraham’s response to the angel’s call: “Abraham, Abraham!” As he cautiously releases the knife from his grip and spares Isaac from a wrongful act of faith, he declares: “Hineni!” “Here I am.” But there is much more to learn from that one Hebrew word than a three-word translation.  Perhaps that is the message we should glean in this very long week of what seems to carry the weight of the stories of Sodom and Gomorrah and the Binding of Isaac melded together, once again.

Sat, June 25 2022 26 Sivan 5782