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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Vayera: Who Knew What When?

Several years ago, I had a student who spoke her mind a little too freely. During class discussions, she'd periodically blurt out her less-than-diplomatic observations -- calling one student's ideas "stupid," for example, or complaining that another took "so long" to get his words out. I tried, of course, to step in when I sensed an insult was coming, but I was not always successful -- which meant that occasionally other students would respond by bursting into tears or by hurling insults back at her.

But one Shabbat morning, her lack of self-control had a remarkably wonderful outcome. We were at our "Sharing Shabbat" service -- a relatively short family service that proceeded class time each Saturday morning. One woman in our congregation had recently suffered the tragic loss of her brother to cancer, and became quite emotional during the Mourner's Kaddish. My student -- I'll call her Jackie -- didn't personally know the woman or her family. Nevertheless, she approached the woman when the service was over, and said, "I am so sorry for your loss."

Several people overheard this, and and were truly amazed. The infamous Jackie had shown sympathy? She actually comforted someone? But to me, Jackie's actions were totally in character. While other kids no doubt had thoughts that inhibited from them from reaching out to others -- What if I say the wrong thing? What if she cries more? What if she tells me to leave her alone? -- Jackie's tendency to act before thinking made her capable of an enormous act of kindness.

What does Jackie have to do with this week's Torah portion?

Vayera means "And He appeared," and in this week's portion, we have three stories in which God is apparent in Abraham's life. First, God appears in the form of three strangers, whom Abraham welcomes into his home; second, God bargains with Abraham regarding the possibility of saving Sodom and Gomorrah from destruction; and third, God appears in the form of a ram to stop Abraham from sacrificing his son Isaac.

When I discuss this portion with my students, I like to ask is: What did Abraham know and when did he know it? After all, the name of the portion suggests that God is present; but when was God present, and when did Abraham know it -- and  and what effect did that have on Abraham's behavior?

Did Abraham know know that God sent those three strangers? Was he trying to trying to score point with God by treating the strangers so kindly?

Did Abraham know that God would allow him to bargain for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah? Did he challenge God because he suspected this is what God wanted him to do?

Did Abraham know that God was only testing him with Isaac? Did he willingly bind Isaac because he knew God would stop him before things got out of hand?

Eleven- and twelve-year-olds are typically the most self-conscious of people, constantly examining themselves from other vantage points. If I sit next to that girl, will she realize I like her? If I answer the teacher's questions, will I look like a dork? If I take off my coat, will people notice my ugly shirt? If I tell a joke, will people think it's funny? No wonder sixth-graders always hang back and need to be prodded even just to walk down a hallway; from their perspective, every move they make provokes scrutiny and judgment!

Which is why I love thinking about Jackie, and how she responded that morning. It was a pure act of the heart.

In this week's Torah portion, we think about God's presence. Ironically, while Jackie's act was sacred, it   didn't involve thought at all.

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