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Torah Commentary
Vayeira (November 12, 2011)

Missy Bell,
of Youth Learning and Engagement

THE TORAH PORTION Vayeira is full of important stories. Vayeira begins with three angels visiting Abraham. His welcoming response is from where the Jewish value of hachnassat orchim (“welcoming the guests”) is derived. The angels then tell Sarah that she is going to have a child. Next we encounter the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and Abraham’s attempt to find righteous people in the cities. Finally, Sarah gives birth to Isaac, and we have one of the most well-known stories in the Torah, when Abraham nearly sacrifices his own son.

One of the lesser-known stories is when Sarah becomes jealous of her handmaiden, Hagar, because Hagar is also the mother of one of Abraham’s sons. In the previous Torah portion, when Sarah was unable to become pregnant, she told Abraham to have as one with Hagar. In Vayeira, Sarah asks Abraham to cast them out into the wilderness because she does not want Ishmael to be Abraham’s heir. While lost in the wilderness, Hagar and Ishmael run out of water, and when Hagar fears for her son’s life, she cries out to God. In the next verse, we see that God responds directly to Ishmael’s cries, rather than Hagar’s. This is the first of many examples in the Torah of characters wandering in the wilderness and characters crying out to God.

This text is a central text for Temple Emanu-El’s High School Confirmation Program through which students have the opportunity to look at what it means to be a teen, comparing their journey as adolescents to the Israelites’ journey in the wilderness, from Egypt to the Land of Israel. The students compare this text to Exodus 2:23-25, when the Israelites cry out to God from the wilderness. In the Genesis text, God responds by providing water for Ishmael. In the Exodus text, God gives the Israelites the opportunity to take responsibility for themselves. The students compare the way that God responds to Ishmael and the Israelites to the ways that their parents responded to them as children — and now as adolescents. The students also have the opportunity to start thinking about things that make them want to cry out…anything from how much homework they have to all of the injustice they see in the world. This conversation begins to shape the rest of the year, as students choose one idea that makes them cry out and learn how Judaism responds to this topic. They also choose a way in which the class can respond.

According to Rashi, the reason why God responds directly to Ishmael rather than responding to Hagar is that a sick person’s prayer is stronger than someone else’s prayer on their behalf. The importance of being able to help oneself is a common theme in Judaism. According to Maimonides’ ladder of tzedakah, the highest level of giving is to help someone to help one’s self. As the Confirmation students learn in Exodus 2:23-25, God gives the Israelites an opportunity to help themselves, rather than just providing them with what they need the way God gave water to Ishmael.

What makes you cry out? What is the best way for you to respond?


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