Monday, November 3, 2014

Vayaira 5775 (November 2014), Chessed

My disabled son at a camp/training program at Sunflower Bakery, a program which is a true embodiment of the meaning of chessed. This kosher bakery exists to train youth with disabilities to work in bakery settings to the maximum of their abilities, whether that is as a pastry chef or cookie maker, then helps them get all the necessary certifications for food service work and places them in paid jobs.  Only three of the full time staff are paid; the others, all women, are entirely volunteers, coordinating, applying for grants, screening youth applicants and more.

The parsha begins at the point when Avraham is recovering from his bris milah, and is visited by three malachim (angels, heavenly beings) in the guise of men. The Toldos Yitchak tells us that the second was the malach Raphael come to heal Avraham, the third Gavriel come to destroy S'dom, but the first, always noted as the first among the three, was Michael, come to announce to Sarah that in a year she would have born a son. His mission was not to Avraham, though that was whom he spoke to, but to ensure that Sarah was notified.

In contrast to Sarah's modesty, generosity, good nature, intelligence, and dutifulness to G-d's will, we now have the tale of Lot's family. His wife display's none of Sarah's modesty nor generosity despite Shem having taught Avraham, and Avraham having taught Lot that the family of Noach was saved in respect of their mitzvah of generosity and chessed in caring for the animals on the ark. Rather, she publicly went from house to house deliberately gathering attention and ensuring all nearby knew she had been asked to provide a small portion for guests to the home.  Even so the two remaining angels (Michael having returned to heaven after performing the specific task of informing Sarah) attempted to save her in honor of Lot's desire to do the mitzvah of hachnasas orchim.

After the destruction of the five cities, Avraham and Sarah left the area since there would be no more travelers whom they could provide for and teach. They traveled towards G'rar, where the kind Avimelech heard of Sarah's approach and attempted to marry her. Unlike the Egyptian Pharaoh who had lusted after her beauty, Avimelech knew of the greatness of her family and her own reputation as a prophetess, though somehow he did not fully comprehend and was deliberately mislead about Avraham being her husband and not another kinsman. Due to his righteous reasoning, he was not destroyed nor his land damaged, and Sarah was returned to Avraham. Avimelech makes public pleas directly to G-d along with all his household, and makes amends to Avraham and Sarah; they then pray themselves that all the women of the land bear children with ease. And for the first time we see the teaching that one who prays for another receives the blessing themselves, for it is now that Sarah becomes pregnant for the one time in her life. Bereishis Rabbah teaches that, "If anyone should give up hope that Hash-m will ever rebuild Yerushalayim, he would be told, 'Look to Avraham your father and Sarah who bore you (Yeshayahu 51:2).' As Hash-m rejuvenated Sarah in her old age, giving her children, thus will he do to Yerushalayim."

The haftarah of this week re-emphasizes the glory of the righteous Jewish woman; it is taken from sefer II Melachim and tells of the prophet Elisha and his interactions with an impoverished widow and with the Shunamit woman.  I will mention that both stories have deep cabalistic meanings which I will not go into at all here in my brief discussion of p'shat. The widow was in fact the widow of the righteous royal courtier Ovadya who provided for G-d fearing prophets under an idolatrous king. Her household had sold absolutely everything including their furniture and food to pay their debts after Ovadya's death, and the Royal Prince Yehoram threatened to take the widow's two children and sell them into slavery to make good on the debts.

While no miracle had ever happened in Ovadya's honor during his life or after his death, his widow pleaded to the prophet Elisha, and her own greatness merited a deep miracle. She was told to accumulate vessels from neighbors and anyone she could, and pour from the tiny jug of oil that was all that was left in her cupboard. The oil poured to fill every single vessel brought into the house until they ran out; then she was able to sell the pure olive oil to pay the money. But while the prophet may have been the human vessel to bring the miracle to fruition, surely only the true inner perfection of the widow herself who had helped her husband in his efforts to care for G-d's prophets in opposition of the king himself allowed the miracle to occur at all.

The final story is that of the Shunamit woman who has a single child who dies; only the prophet Elisha can revive him. Again, how often are the laws of the universe set aside, even by a great prophet? Certainly, how often for the good of a single family, a single mother? Pirkei d'Rebbi Eliezer says,
Why did this woman merit that the dead should be revived for her? Because she was always involved in acts of kindness towards others."

Sarah, Ovadya's widow, and the Shunamit woman all embodied perfect chessed. Through this they teach us, enrich us, and inspire us.

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