Plant-Based Torah – Vayera: Despair, Beware!

October 20th, 2021


In this week’s parsha, Avraham establishes the morning prayer service, as it is written: “In the morning, Avraham stood in the place where he had stood before the LORD” (Genesis 19:27). Since the days of the Talmud, this verse has been the basis for the daily morning prayer service, established by the patriarch of our people. Jewish prayer is referred to by the Hebrew phrase avodah she’ba’lev – literally “service of the heart.” Avraham was deemed worthy of the covenant between humanity & God because of his loving service to Divinity. Nevertheless, we see this manifest in two radically different ways throughout three central narratives in this week’s parsha, Parashat Vayera. 

First, we see Avraham as a righteous, generous soul as he rushes to attend to the three angels who come to visit him disguised as regular humans. Avraham is recovering from his circumcision that concluded last week’s parsha, nevertheless he is quick to offer generous hospitality to these strangers. Generosity & hospitality are very holy dispositions that are central to anyone seeking to walk in God’s ways, as it is written “You open Your hand and You satisfy the needs of all living things with favor” (Psalm 145:16). Soon after, God confides in Avraham the intention to destroy the cities of Sodom & Gomorrah for their greed, lust, and cruelty – to which Avraham, in turn, challenges God to not destroy the cities if there are at least ten righteous people within them. Nevertheless, Avraham’s advocacy is for naught, as the city is destroyed, apparently signifying that there were not even ten righteous people worthy of redeeming the others.

Following this incident, we see a very different Avraham: a submissive servant, who does exactly what is instructed to him by God – to sacrifice his favorite son & heir, Yitzchak. Though Avraham is stopped at the very last second, sparing Yitzchak, this is a radical shift in Avraham’s character! Perhaps dejected from the perceived failure of his defense of Sodom & Gomorrah, Avraham stays silent and does what is asked of him. Though he is rewarded with a blessing following this incident, there is a more subtle outcome – God never speaks to Avraham again.

When we fight for righteousness & justice, we serve as Avadim HaShem – servants of God, seeking to bring more light in a complicated world. In this role, we all have much to learn from Avraham – we should go out of our way to be giving warmly, generously, and lovingly. This must be done both in the literal sense of attending to others’ physical needs, as well as in the way that we treat all of creation – be it other people, to animals, and to nature. Furthermore, we must be outspoken when we see a potential injustice! Avraham appealed to God’s capacity for compassion when it came to potentially innocent people in the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. The righteous, courageous chutzpah required for this cannot be understated – Avraham literally challenges the Divine will! Avraham earned this rapport with God through his character, by walking in God’s ways of compassion, forgiveness, and humility – and therefore he manages to get God to agree. 

It is from here that we must learn from Avraham’s mistake – how we respond to perceived failures. Despite his righteous activism, there simply were not the ten redeeming innocents in the cities. Avraham, a lover of people, clearly felt a sense of responsibility and guilt by this outcome, even if he knew it was out of his hands. Therefore, when the most morally challenging task imaginable is asked of Avraham to carry out himself, he is silently complicit in carrying out his duty – effectively ending his career as a prophet, drowned by his perceived inability to make a difference. 

The legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden z”l, would often quote this anonymous poem:

“Before God’s footstool to confess A poor soul knelt, and bowed his head; “I failed,” he cried. The Good Lord said, “Thou didst thy best—that is success!”

Walking the path of righteousness can be dejecting and lonely, the crises seemingly insurmountable – but our resilience must be maintained! Prolonged dejection is the anchor to drowning in the sea of indifference, cynicism the cruelest ailment of humanity. Thus warned Dr. King “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people, but the silence over that by the good people.”

We live in dark times – occasional frustration will happen as the road to righteousness and justice is a steep uphill journey. It may seem like nobody cares, so why even bother? Beware my holy sisters and brothers! That creeping dejection is your yetzer hara, the evil inclination within every human soul that seeks to trick people into not doing the right thing. We must be diligent of this! For even the great Avraham can succumb to the seemingly benign spiritual tumor of dejection and despair.

The Jewish mystical tradition has a custom of reading the chapter of the binding of Isaac during every morning service, as a reminder of Divine compassion. Perhaps we, the voices of justice & compassion, should adopt this custom – as a daily reminder of the perils of dejection and self-doubt. Being the outspoken voices of love & righteousness can be an exhausting existence – nevertheless, it is our duty, our very purpose! The road is hard, the resistance is great, but may we be the emissaries of Divine Truth with joy, love, and warmth! May we keep the words of the great Rebbe Nachman with us at all times: “It is forbidden to despair!” 

Shabbat Shalom.

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