Genesis A Divine Image Problem
Parashat Vayeira (Genesis 18:1-22:24)
“I really prefer Semitism,” one of my teens remarked around the Shabbat table this week, on hearing about an educational program for teens about antisemitism. Understandably, in the wake of Hamas’ brutal attack on Israeli citizens, and the callous support for that calculated act of mass terrorism that we’ve seen in various communities and college campuses, Jewish communities are responding with programs to prepare and educate our teens for what they may encounter. And while I, and my teen, understand the need to devote our efforts to combating antisemitism, in my heart, I agree with him. In better times at least, I believe we get more, and our kids get more, from focusing on the joy and meaning to be found in Jewish culture, texts, traditions and values. I want our children’s image of what it means to be Jewish to be a much greater percentage of joy and pride in who we are and a lesser proportion of awareness of those who hate us.
With the war continuing between Israel and Hamas, and ongoing uncertainty as to how to practically do any good from my safe home in the US, I’ve turned back to an old frenemy: doomscrolling. Many of the posts that I scroll by again and again are quotes of Golda Meir, Israel’s Prime Minister from 1969-1974. One that keeps catching my eye is, “If we have to have a choice between being dead and pitied, and being alive with a bad image, we’d rather be alive and have the bad image.” Meir’s words express regret at Israel’s mistakes and losses suffered in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and their echo feels particularly relevant today. They also reflect an age-old area of debate within Jewish law; when caught between transgressing a mitzvah or being killed, which is the right choice? Like Meir’s assertion, the overall rule is that life takes precedence over mitzvot. But there are a few instances where the Rabbis rule the other way [murder, idolatry, sexual assault]. Transgressing these mitzvot, tradition tells us, amounts to hilul Hashem, desecration of God’s name. The tension between upholding the Divine image, and allowing evildoers to win is much older than our current conflict, much older than the state of Israel, older even than the Talmud and the Torah.
All the way back at the beginning of the Torah, God creates humanity in God’s image, blessing people with the responsibility to fill up the earth and increase God’s image in the world. By the end of the first parashah, the first murder occurs, diminishing God’s image. And by the second parashah, all of humanity goes off the rails, leading God to reset with a great flood, and try again with the one family that walks in God’s ways, and afterward promising never to destroy all of humanity again.
This week’s parashah is called Vayeira, meaning, roughly, “God showed God’s Self.” God’s appearance to Abraham is described in visual terms. It is not clear whether this vision of God is the same as the appearance of the three angels (in the form of people) who visit Abraham, or if it is something additional. But even after the guests leave, having delivered their good news—that Abraham and Sarah will soon become parents—God’s conversation with Abraham continues, with God revealing that an outcry has come from Sodom and Gomorrah and that God will investigate and consider destroying the cities. Abraham’s chutzpah, his audacity to challenge God’s judgment and argue for the cities to be spared for the sake of a few righteous people, is a source of pride in the Jewish imagination. We have a patriarch brave enough and confident enough to question God. We have a God merciful enough to agree, and big enough to allow our questions.
This week I want to take a deep dive into the breath before this iconic and surprising interaction. Before God tells Abraham about the impending destruction of the cities, we get a glimpse into what God is thinking:
Now GOD had said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, since Abraham is to become a great and populous nation and all the nations of the earth are to bless themselves by him? For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of GOD by doing what is just and right, in order that GOD may bring about for Abraham what has been promised him.” (Gen. 18:17-19)
Why does God end up sharing the plan with Abraham? Why does Abraham’s destiny—to become a great nation, to be the source of blessing to other nations, to teach his descendants to do what is just and right—influence God’s decision to bring him into dialogue about how God deals with evil in the world?
The commentators give an array of possibilities. Perhaps God’s promise to give Abraham the land and make him the father of nations makes Abraham partially responsible for what happens to the people in the land (Rashi). Maybe God’s openness with Abraham was a reward for Abraham’s expansive hospitality to God’s messengers (Sforno). Or it could be that what God rhetorically questions keeping hidden from Abraham is God’s aspect of compassion. God opens the conversation so that Abraham can ask, and then God can reveal that if there were even ten righteous people, God would spare the city and hope for the repentance of the rest (Or HaChayim and others).
The Hasidic master, R’ Chaim Tryer of Chernowitz explains in his commentary, the Be’er Mayim Chayim (Well of Living Waters), that we can learn from this passage that God’s ability to hold in balance two strong emotions is beyond what human beings are capable of. He elaborates that when people are filled with pure joy, they are incapable of also grasping anger and judgment, and need to devote a separate time to those emotions. And the other way around as well: when a person is filled with great anger, they cannot access their joy and compassion. Our finite nature means that when we allow ourselves to feel one kind of emotion fully and deeply, other emotions and aspects of our personalities become hard to grasp. God, on the other hand, can hold onto both great kindness and compassion even while full of righteous anger. Referring to a midrash that God is consulting with the heavenly court, the Be’er Mayim Chayim teaches that God invites Abraham to argue for and elicit God’s compassion to balance God’s judgment. And though Divine judgment still reigns, wiping out the cities, Divine compassion simultaneously allows Lot and his family to escape, along with any righteous people who would have listened to him.
The Torah emphasizes that what Abraham learns, he will pass down to his descendants, to be experienced by all the nations of the world. In this encounter, God reveals to Abraham an important aspect of the Divine image that we, his descendants seek to multiply in the world.
God created a very good world, and blessed human beings with the task of filling it with the Divine image. But for reasons incomprehensible to us, sometimes human beings desecrate the Divine image, acting in cruel, violent, inhuman ways. God has the capacity to be filled with anger and judgment at the same time as compassion and kindness. But for human beings, it is a struggle to hold our emotions, our perspectives, and the aspects of our personalities in balance. In our daily doomscrolling, we see people, groups, and communities leaning into singular emotional states: rage, fear, sorrow, helplessness. Even in seeking balance, I find myself in moments when I feel all anger, or all sadness, or all compassion. To feel any of these is deeply human, and the tendency to be drawn deeper and deeper into one is natural. But to become perpetually stuck in only one perspective, only one feeling, is a missed opportunity to reflect and to repair the Divine image in the world.
As we watch the war unfold, we see the tragedies of Hamas’ massacre of Israeli civilians come to light, and see the civilians of Gaza suffer and die in collateral damage of Israel’s need to protect civilians from further atrocities. Against this backdrop, the choice Golda Meir proposed between being dead and pitied or alive with an image problem reverberates. There is only so much each of us can do, particularly for us golus Jews here in North America, about the image problem of Israel in the media, or about rising global antisemitism. But of no less importance, we can attend to the Divine image within each of us. We can keep it healthy by resisting rage and hate, even while feeling anger and outrage, by allowing our pain and sorrow to envelop both Israelis and Gazan civilians, by holding onto hope and demanding that humans all over the world stand up for the release of hostages, each one a reflection of God’s image in the world. By attending to our individual Divine images, we can see more clearly and lift up the Divine image of those around us, living up to the vision God gives Abraham to pass down through the generations. And in doing this, we can reinforce the pride and joy in “Semitism” that our children, our teens, and really all of us need in order to counterbalance and combat the antisemitism around us.
Rabbi Shira Shazeer received rabbinic ordination from the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in 2010 and a Masters Degree in Jewish Education with a focus on special education in 2022. Previously, she studied Torah in the Scholars Circle at Drisha Institute for Jewish Learning and music at Goucher College. Rabbi Shazeer teaches in the learning center at Gann Academy. She is a Yiddish enthusiast, a singer, accordion player and occasional composer, and parent to three fabulous kids.