A few weeks ago a pipe burst in the ceiling above our tub. The building quickly repaired it and covered it up for a few weeks. When it came time to make sure that the pipe was holding, we decided that this was a good time for the contractor to fix the hole and paint the entire bathroom. So on Tuesday morning, the contractor sent his painters, Ishmael and Isaac. How could it be that on the week that we read Parashat Vayeira in our Torah reading, the week that we read about the birth of Isaac and the banishment of Ishmael (and his mother Hagar), two painters by the same names walk into our apartment? It must have been bashert: meant to be..
This parsha is packed with drama. If it had been written by J.K Rowling, it would be at least two volumes, maybe three. To recap, in the previous parsha, Lech L’Cha, God told Abram that it was finally time to leave his parents’ house. He and Sarai get a name change and start their adventures. Our story opens when Abraham is sitting at the entrance to his tent at the heat of day (really, the heat of day) when three strangers appear from somewhere. Abraham rushes to greet them and tells Sarah to prepare some food. (We will pass by without a spewing of feminist outrage.) It turns out that they are messengers of God and they tell Sarah that she is going to become a mother. The nearly-90-year-old Sarah laughs, probably saying, “What the _____?” I’ll let you fill in the blank.
In Act 2, the men set off to the cities of Sodom and Gemorrah. God shares some news with Abraham that the towns are about to be destroyed because they are doing some terrible stuff. Abraham tries to bargain with God to save the cities: “If I can find 50 decent people in the city, would you save it?” Abraham pleads. Unfortunately he has to plea-bargain down, not even being able to find a minyan of innocent people. It seems that the place was a real cesspool.
Meanwhile, Abraham’s brother-in-law Lot is sitting at the gate of Sodom when two messengers arrive. He brings them home quickly, to get them away from the violence. (But yet, he was sitting outside at the entry way to town?) Soon, the evil townspeople find out that they are there and come for the strangers. In a truly disgusting act, Lot offers his two virgin daughters to the men. Nice, huh? He was ready to give up his daughters in exchange for the strangers. Thankfully, the messengers turn everyone blind so they can’t even find the doorway. The messengers/angels tell Lot to leave town with his family. (Sounds to me like Lot probably belonged with the townspeople.) In the morning, the angels saw Lot and his wife and the two daughters out of town. God destroyed the town with such fury, Lot and his family were told not to look at it. But his wife turned back and turned into a pillar of salt. (When you take a tour near the Dead Sea, the guides will point to a pillar of salt and claim that it is Lot’s wife.) Lot ends up in a cave with his two daughters. Thinking that he is the only man left on earth, they get him drunk and “lay” with him on successive nights. From their children come the Moabites and the Ammonites. Scene closed on Lot and his lot.
Now, back to Abraham. He and Sarah end up meeting the King Abimelech. Abraham tells Abimelech that Sarah is his sister. Abimelech has a dream where God sets him straight and then next day he sends Abraham off with all sorts of goods and riches. Really? And don’t blink! Abimelech will fall for this again soon enough.
And finally, we are at the main event. Abraham is 100 and Sarah 90 when she gives birth to Isaac. Now that she had a son of her own, Sarah casts out her handmaid Hagar and her son Ishmael. Remember, Ishmael is also Abraham’s son. God tells Abraham to listen to Sarah, just one of the many events in his life that will not lead to good father-son bonding. Abraham gives Hagar a bit of water and bread and sends her and Ishmael out to the desert. God has been following them and has sent out another messenger, this time to save Hagar. (The angels are working overtime in this parsha.) God says Ishmael will become a father of a great nation and a well appears before them.
Believe it or not the portion is not over yet. We have the story of the Akeda, the binding of Isaac. That could be a blog post, a novel, and a Ph.D. thesis of its own.
Last week in school, I showed my 5th graders the BimBam.com video of this portion, which focusses on Ishmael and Isaac. After they saw the video and I answered their questions, I asked them, “So why should we care about the Syrian refugees?” We had previously talked about the refugee crisis, the election, and our President-Elect’s desire to ban Muslims from this country. Although it took some pulling and prodding, the students finally realized that if Ishmael and Isaac are really brothers, and they give birth to the Arab and Jewish peoples, then we are all related. Don’t we have a moral obligation to care for our cousins no matter how far back we go?
We live in strange and scary times. I learned a few things this week. It’s a good thing that when the bathroom is out of commission, the YMCA is only two blocks away with its nice showers. Even fifth graders can understand the enormous possible consequences that this election will bring. And if Ishmael and Isaac can spend four days in this rabbi’s tiny bathroom working together (for a while, our handyman Jose was in there too, working on a pipe), there is hope for this world.