Please enjoy a d’var Torah this week from Liza Bernstein. Liza has spent the past three summers at camp, most recently as Rosh Machon 2019. After graduating from Penn, Liza has spent the last couple of years staring at a lot of Gemara, at Hadar and the Conservative Yeshiva. She hopes to one day join the Workmen’s Circle.
Walk Before Sarah: Reflections on Parashat Vayera
by Liza Bernstein
How do we hold our communities and ourselves accountable? In this week’s parashah, Vayera, we read a beautiful encounter between God and Sarah, and we find ourselves discovering a God who is begging to be held accountable.
In the beginning of the parashah, three angels come to visit Avraham. They tell him that, in a year’s time, Sarah will be pregnant with his son. Sarah, listening from the edge of the tent, laughs out loud. The Torah does not tell us why Sarah laughed. Was she skeptical? Or was she in awe and excitement over this prophecy? We don’t know, and seemingly, neither does God – for God then turns to Avraham and asks, somewhat incredulously, “why did Sarah laugh?” Before Avraham can answer, Sarah fights back. She refutes God, claiming “I did not laugh.” At this moment in the Torah God speaks to Sarah for the first and last time. “But you did laugh,” God admonishes. The conversation is over, and the angels leave.
God’s critique of Sarah feels intuitively troubling. Is it possible that God only spoke to the founding matriarch of our religion once, and even more troubling, that the one statement was a critique? The rabbis strive to answer this question by providing us with the background of God’s thought process. In B’reishit Rabbah, Rav Abba says, “how many times did God ‘dance’ around Sarah in order to talk with her?”
?כמה כירכורין כירכר בשביל להשיח עימה
The verb כרכר here can mean flirtatiously dancing – metaphorically circling around someone in order to get their attention. In this midrash, Rav Abba paints a picture of God as dancing with Sarah, gently provoking her in order to get a response. Rav Abba tells us that God wants Sarah to respond. God wants her to push back and stand her ground.
Only two weeks ago, we read the story of Noah. When God tells Noah that God is going to destroy the world, Noah is silently docile. Did God want Noah to argue? Using Rav Abba’s read, the answer is yes. It is no coincidence that directly after Sarah refutes God, Avraham finds the strength in himself to argue with God. When God wants to destroy all of Sodom and Gomorrah, Avraham declares his horror at God’s intentions. In an incredibly beautiful pasuk/verse, Avraham shockingly cries out, “will the Judge of all the Earth not rule justly?!” Will the Being that demands ethics not abide by ethics? The parashah’s chronology implies that, without Sarah’s first refutation, Avraham wouldn’t have had the courage to stand up to God. Through this reading, Vayera presents us with a Being that craves rebuke and accountability. In God’s confrontation with Sarah, God says, “Argue with me. Demand that I be better. Hold me accountable.” God guides Sarah, and Avraham dutifully follows.
Often in life, we need leaders and role models to show us what is possible. This week, Sarah provides us with a poignant model for accountability and leadership. Until Sarah argues with God, we are unaware of the power of our own voice. Moreover, Vayera presents us with a new mode of being in relationship with God – a mode of moral accountability. As we follow Sarah, we should strive to hold ourselves and our communities more accountable – at school, at work, and on the Kikar.