Va Yera – On homophobia, on hospitality, and on horrific choices

In this section Abraham bargains/pleads with God to spare Sodom and Gemorrah if ten righteous men can be found there. In an absence of such righteousness, God destroys the cities. We have the troubling story of Lot’s family – first his offering up of his daughters to strangers, then his wife’s unfortunate transfiguration into a pillar of salt, and ultimately an incestuous scene between Lot and his daughters. The narrative continues with the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah that they will have
a son and the much commented upon scene of the “Akedah” (binding) of Isaac. So, you know, light and pleasant stuff.

There is much to say about each section of this Torah portion. The idea that
Abraham can bargain with God that he should spare Sodom and Gemorrah gives way to many humanistic insights. We do not take the story literally, but even those who believe in a divine plan must acknowledge here that Abraham attempts to control fate. Implicit in the text is the idea that the moral choices of humans can alter our destiny. What are the
sins of the people of Sodom and Gemorrah? One is homosexual relationships, which is why this section of the Torah is so problematic from a Humanistic and egalitarian perspective. However, it is notable that the strangers who approach Lot’s house demanding access to its male inhabitants are interested in committing rape, not consensual homosexual relations. The text does not pick up on this nuance and neither do most commentators, for it is assumed as in Leviticus that homosexuality itself is “abhorrent.” Nonetheless, even the text makes clear that homosexuality here is not nearly as sinful as a lack of hospitality. The people of Sodom are wealthy, yet they adopt an attitude of stinginess. There is a lack of sharing, a lack of concern for the other, that pollutes the town. Homosexuality is a red herring in the text concerning morality. The clear message is that the people are immoral because they do not care for one another.

There are many feminist interpretations of the sections relating to Lot and his family. Lot offers up his daughters to the strangers in place of the men. Given that we know Lot is perceived by the God-character as the only moral man in the city (the reason he may leave prior to its destruction), it is troubling that his offering of his daughters is not viewed as immoral. The text continues in its sexist vain as Lot’s wife (unnamed and defined only be her relationship with her husband) looks back behind her and turns into a
pillar of salt. She is punished for reflecting on her past when her husband has been commanded only to look forward. Lastly, Lot’s daughters get their father drunk and seduce him, their pregnancies figuring forth the Ammonites and Moabites who become the enemies of Israel. It is a story with Oedipal resonances, chauvinistic gleanings in terms of both gender and cultural superiority, and it is a scene which is confounding in
terms of the moral messaging we might expect given that Lot and his daughters are the only ones to escape the destruction of their cities.

Feminists have reclaimed Lot’s wife. Unnamed, she serves as a signpost – a pillar – to signal that we must all resist the temptation to look behind us too much, as living in the past is unhealthy, but so too must we regard with care the direction we choose to pursue. Some argue Lot’s wife may have intentionally looked back, knowing that the only gift she could give her daughters was to mark the territory of the land from which they had come, to remind them of their roots, even as she helped to show them the way
forward. Some also argue that Lot’s daughters’ seduction of their father is retribution for his offer of them to strangers. This is a minority view, however. The text tells us that the daughters thought that Lot was the last living male on earth after the destruction, and so planned the seduction in order to promulgate the human species. They gave him wine so that he would not remember the incident. The idea here, then, is that his daughters acted as morally as possible in an impossible situation. While the incident is unpleasant, the moral lesson we can glean from Lot’s daughters as well as his wife is that there are times in which it is difficult to tell what the right course of action may be. Moral choices, particularly in an immoral world, are sometimes difficult to discern and even more difficult to practice. Nonetheless, we all must do our best to find our path, to move
forward in spite of whatever wreckage we must leave behind in our past, and still try to act as decently as we know how.

The most notable feature of this week’s parasha is the Akedah; the story in which the God-character asks Abraham to kill Isaac. From incestuous relationships to murderous ones, the Torah is no parenting guide. Why would God give Abraham a son at the age of 100 and then ask him to offer him up to sacrifice? It has been read as a test or temptation by God, but most find it difficult to reconcile this deistic image with a sense of his benevolence. A humanistic understanding of the story might even trouble the near-universal interpretation of the story. Abraham’s unthinking devotion to God is typically praised as the ultimate virtue, where we might see it as blind ignorance leading to unthinkable cruelty. God stops Abraham’s hand and thus we find he is ultimately good and caring. But would a good and caring God set up the test to begin with? A Humanist must find that the traditional interpretation of the story — faith is the
ultimate morality – to be lacking. We must empower ourselves to decide what is right. We are not guided by a deity or his messengers, we must guide ourselves. We are not tested by a deity, although the world will present us with challenges; we must find our way through these challenges ourselves. We are not rewarded by a deity for our good decisions and deeds, we must see goodness as its own reward.

The Akedah is part of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy because the story signals so clearly the idea that rebirth is possible. But Va Yera in a larger context reminds us that we have to strike a balance between our connection with our past and our decisions about our future. Lot’s wife looked back too far; his daughters made a huge sacrifice for the sake of creating future generations. Neither seems to have gotten right the balance. The
near-sacrifice of Isaac serves on the Jewish new year to signal that faith will be the light that carries the Jews forth through the generations. We do not, however, accept this either. These narratives are the foundational stories of the Jewish people. They are our cautionary tales, our origin myths, our literary prefigures, our cultural folkstories. We must not attach ourselves too much to the readings of these stories – our intellectual legacy – we have to decide which truths apply to our lives today. Neither, however,
should we disregard these stories; they themselves implore that to remember one’s past prepares us for the future.

So what meaning can we draw from the story that is applicable to us as
Humanists? Perhaps the value that the story highlights is presence, as opposed to faith. The story actually does not discuss faith or belief. Twice when called by God, however, Abraham answers “ Here I am.” This occurs at the beginning of the story as God is about to command him to sacrifice Isaac (22:2) and also just before God stays his hand (22:11). The repetition signifies the importance of the phrase; those three words are the expression of Abraham’s devotion. Presence is a gift we give one another that should not be taken lightly. This story as part of Rosh Hashanah liturgy reminds us to be present in our own reflections as we take account of our own souls and lives in the pursuit of our own goodness. It reminds us that the gift of presence we offer our loved ones and our community is the most precious gift of all. In times of distress, or loneliness, or pain, what better solace is there than to feel someone is there for us? What more important act, than to say and demonstrate to those in our lives: “I am here.” Most read the Akedah as a call to faith. But I read it as a call to presence: the devotion to self and community that comes out of active, willing, committed, and purposeful presence.

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