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Vayera Drash 5784

11/05/2023 01:14:16 PM


Rabbi Faryn

Rabbi Faryn's Drash from Shabbat services on November 3, 2023.

Trigger Warning: This drash, given the moment we find ourselves in in both contemporary time and Torah time, necessarily discusses the ongoing violence in Israel and Palestine, including specific losses I have experienced. Please take care of yourself as you need during this drash. The first half will serve as a form of lament–an ancient grief technology that helps us to digest and move through our grief. The second half, I hope, serves as a balm. As a healthy and healthful way forward for us, and for the whole world.


Part 1: A Lament

“Is anyone else sobbing after reading this week’s parshah?”

This is the question I received from a rabbinic colleague this past Monday. Just an hour after receiving news that the dear friend of many of my Israeli colleagues, Khalil abu Yahiyeh, had been killed along with his wife and children in Gaza. Khalil, who had been all of our lifeline of hope, of inspiration, of poetry, of justice in this time. Who was providing us with daily updates on what was happening in Gaza, where the bombs were falling, what the bombs were made of, where they were being told to move, of what the stars looked like from his side of the fence, of which of us he was naming them after, of what the liberated future looked like, of the taste of the coffee we would, one day, all drink together. Our updates were gone. Our star was gone. 

Is anyone else sobbing?

Later that night, I allowed myself to read the details of the news from my friend Shaked, whom I had met at an Israeli-Palestinian coexistence institute. I learned that her father, Avshalom Haran, had been killed in the Hamas attack on October 7th (they had only recently been informed), and that her mother, her sister and eight other relatives, including many children, are now hostages in Gaza. Taken while observing Sukkot together as a family on the kibbutz her grandparents had built prior to the foundation of the state of Israel. Prior to Gaza being Gaza as we know it. A kibbutz with a socialist dream. A liberatory dream.

Is anyone else sobbing?

This week’s parshah, Vayera, is teeming, heavy, dripping with grief. It holds some of the most heinous and heart-wrenching stories that I believe are found in Torah, many of which we read on Rosh Hashanah. Sarah banishing Hagar and Ishmael from their home to die in the desert. Abraham nearly sacrificing his son Isaac at God’s command. But, the story found in this parshah that we do not read on Rosh Hashanah, and, that I think is most relevant to our time, is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. 

A summary: Gd declares that the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah’s people are very great, That Gd must determine whether they are worthy of continuing to live. Abraham asks him, “Will you sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?” Abraham proceeds to haggle with Gd. Will you kill them if there are 50 innocent? 45? 40? 30? 20? But 20 couldn’t be found. Only one was found, and the cities were doomed. The righteous one–Lot– was told to flee along with his family. The rest perished from sulfurous fire raining down from heaven.

The rest perished from sulfurous fire raining down from heaven.

I, once again, see sulfurous fire, raining down from heaven. I see the words “innocent” and “guilty” being tossed around, left and right. And, I see a theology. If, according to Torah, only the guilty die, I can’t help but ask myself– of what was Khalil guilty? Of what was Avshalom guilty?

Khalil was 27 years old, a scholar of literature, a peace activist, and a hopeless optimist. 

He spent his entire life in Gaza. Did that render him guilty?

He studied, in university, the way the state of Israel adopted colonialist ideologies in its establishment and maintenance. Did that render him guilty?

He befriended and maintained deep and loving relationships with many Israeli peace activists. Did that render him guilty?

He participated in the Great March of Return, hosting a tea party with Israeli activists on the other side of the fence–did that render him guilty?

He dared to hope and dream–did that render him guilty? 

He dared to imagine a future without borders and walls–did that render him guilty?

He believed he would live to be a part of a better future–did that render him guilty?

Avshalom Haran: 66 years old, a kibbutznik, a peacenik, an economist. 

He married into a family who founded a kibbutz on the border of Gaza before “Gaza” as we now know it existed–did that render him guilty?

He spent his entire adult life building Jewish, socialist community on that border–did that render him guilty?

He was born and died an Israeli citizen–did that render him guilty?

He raised a cadre of kids who work toward peace and coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians–did that render him guilty?

He dared to believe in a liberatory, socialist land-based utopia for the Jewish people–did that render him guilty?

Is innocence and guilt even the right framework? For, even if they were among the “guilty” rather than the “innocent,” do we truly believe the guilty deserve to die? Perhaps we need a new theology.


Part II: Hope

In our parshah, the guilty die and the innocent live. The only innocent, according to the story, is Lot, and for this, he and his family are pardoned. But they are told–Flee. Do not look behind you. Do not stop. Just run. Forget the past. Look toward the future. What is happening behind you doesn’t matter. You are better than it. You are above it. Turn away. Look forward. Move forward.

Lot–the apparent innocent one–follows this instruction. But Lot’s wife cannot. She cannot simply abandon all of those with whom she lived and loved, even if they were guilty. She looks back, at the pain, at the horror, and, for this, she becomes a pillar of salt. She, too, perishes for her “sin.”

But have you ever asked yourself, why salt?

Salt plays a very fascinating role in the Jewish tradition and imagination. The further you dig, the deeper the well (or, perhaps, salt mine). According to Dori Midnight, a Jewish community care practitioner and ritual leader:

“Jews have long held salt as precious, symbolizing life itself, and have relied on its cleansing, healing, and protective powers. Salt was laid at the entrance to the ancient temple as a boundary and was part of the sacred offering made by the High Priests, understood as a symbol of the covenant between people and the Divine. The ancient rabbis likened salt to the Torah, as both are essential for life. In the Torah, salt is rubbed on a newborn in a ritual for protection and in the Talmud, a couple of drunk rabbis massage their feet with salt and oil to “get clear.” Midwives throughout the diaspora advised casting a circle of salt around the birthing room. In medieval Europe, salt was tucked into children’s pockets along with a bit of bread and set in bowls in the corners of homes as protection from sheydim (demons). Seen as absorptive for both blessing and curse and in Sephardic tradition, salt would be placed in a packet in a prayer book or carried in a sack to the synagogue to be blessed and then used in a ritual to remove the evil eye. Once a sacred offering in the temple, salt moved to the altar of our kitchen tables, where it continues to  preserve us for life.”

So, if Lot’s wife transgressed against G-d’s will, as we traditionally understand the story to be saying, why did she quite literally morph into the very Jewish symbol of life itself? Of protection? Of healing? What does it really mean that Lot’s wife became a pillar of salt?

I think it means that we have been reading this story wrong all this time. That Lot’s wife looking back is not the transgressive act, but the exemplary one. The one G-d wanted all along. The one we must all aspire to. For in times of great violence, of great pain, we need to turn toward those facing that violence. Turn toward those experiencing pain. For only by turning toward can we ourselves become the protection that they need. The protection that we need. 

Therefore, we need to turn toward Khalil. Toward Avshalom. So that their memories may be for the collective liberation of all of our peoples. We need to turn toward all those still living but under imminent threat of death, for our presence and attentiveness to them both spiritually and, very tangibly, provides them with a source of protection. We must turn toward all those who are not facing imminent threat of death, but who feel as if they are and, & who quite well may be soon be due to decades, generations, millenia of anti-semitism, for our presence will provide for them the trauma healing that they need. And we must turn toward each other, across great divides, even when it feels it might break us apart. For without one another, we are nothing. Without one another, we are fleeing with only ourselves in mind and only fear in our heart. But together, we are salt. We are protection. We are life.

Sat, July 20 2024 14 Tammuz 5784