This text was take from Ilana's D'var Torah to the Reform Community on Friday night, November 18th, 2016.
My name is Ilana. I’m a sophomore in Liberal Studies.
This week’s parsha is called Vayeira. It is most well-known for the Akedah, Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac. However, it also contains one of my favorite stories in the Torah: the story of Sodom. In it, G-d tells Abraham G-d is planning on destroying the city of Sodom because of their wickedness. Abraham asks if G-d would still destroy the city if it contained fifty righteous people, then 45, 40, 30, 20, and finally 10. G-d agrees to save the city under these circumstances, but unfortunately, is unable to find these righteous people. I think it’s easy to see this as negative; after all, Abraham worked hard to stand up to G-d, and was still unsuccessful. He lost, it was over. I don’t think we can see it as a failure though.
The most topical theme I’ll point to here is the importance of advocacy. I can only imagine that Abraham was terrified when approaching G-d. After all, G-d had just blessed him with a son and again promised to make his descendants a great nation. Abraham had the courage and humility to approach G-d and say that this is wrong. He did the right thing rather than the easy thing. He advocated on behalf of people he didn’t know sort of for an unknown reason- maybe because his son was just born, maybe for his uncle Lot, or maybe because it was simply the right thing to do.
As Jews in the twenty-first century, we have many texts and events we can point to that make us want to stand up for others. Over and over in Jewish history, we see Jews standing up for ourselves and for other peoples. We look at Moses who, despite his lisp, told the most powerful man in Egypt to “Let my people go.” We point to Hillel who said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for me, what am I? And if not now, when?” We recall Abraham Joshua Heschel who prayed with his feet while marching in Selma and Washington during the Civil Rights movement of the 60s. We do the right thing because we were strangers in Egypt and continue to know what it feels like to be a minority voice.
All Abraham knew about the Jewish people at this point is that G-d promised they will be a great nation. He didn’t have Jewish role models or texts or events he could site when asked why he stood up for the people of Sodom. His motivation came solely from the knowledge that his people will be great, and he is in no small part responsible for this greatness. It came from his son who even at just a few days old, Abraham knew would lead the Jewish people.
Midrash teaches us that Sodom’s crime was inhospitality. G-d punished them for closing doors in the face of people who were different, for humiliating their visitors, and for keeping their bountiful crops to themselves. Any of that sound familiar? Abraham was the opposite. He was known for audacious hospitality. Before the time of Jewish role models, Abraham embodied what it meant to stand up for others for the sake of doing the kind and right thing, rather than the cruel and easy one.
After the events of the past few weeks which confirm the hatred and bigotry in our world, it’s easy to feel small and powerless. It’s easy to feel that our voices aren’t being heard and to focus on helping ourselves rather than anyone else. After working so hard maybe for a specific candidate or outcome, some of us feel that we failed and that’s going to mean a lot more pain in the world. Like Abraham, we put ourselves out there and for a second maybe felt that we had won, only to find a crushing defeat. But like Abraham, we must keep going. We must fight on and work for the future and for the great nation we have yet to become. We must be one of those 10, 20, 30, 40, 45, 50 righteous people that G-d couldn’t find in Sodom but could find in America.
Somehow, I think Abraham knew we’d be put in this place. That the Jewish people would have to endure thousands of years of anti-Semitism and that beyond helping ourselves, we’d want to help others. It is Abraham that I look to as a role model in these distressing times. Abraham who was the first Jew and who is most remembered simply for welcoming people into his tent. For standing up for people without a voice. For being promised a great nation and setting up a beautiful legacy for it to fulfill. Abraham teaches us that the best we can do is advocate for a better world for our children and to be kind simply for the sake of kindness. If we do that, we will have succeeded.