Let me get this out of the way first: if you want to revisit my poem inspired by this week’s Torah portion (posted a year ago), you can see it here. I’m working on revisions, but won’t have it together before Shabbat.
I’m going to use this post to promote other people’s midrashic takes on the text. I’ll start with a 4-point summary of this week’s action:
- Three messengers visit Abraham & Sarah with news of Isaac’s birth within the year.
- Sodom & Gomorrah. Death and destruction. Pimping your daughters. Salt pillar. Incest.
- Hagar & Ishmael thrown out into the desert by Abraham at Sarah’s insistence, and with God’s permission.
- The near-sacrifice of Isaac.
Yes, all in one Torah portion. If you need more detail, grab the closest 5 Books of Moses and read away.
Midrash #1: Supplied by my dear spouse. He says that we ought to think of ourselves (i.e., us Jews) less as the children of Abraham and more as the children of Sarah. After all, Abe had several children over the years (not just Isaac & Ishmael), but Sarah had only one. I kinda like this, as I’m a Sarah (Hebraically), named after a Sarah, AND I’m thinking about adding a tree-like design to my tattoo (a la the oaks of Mamre, amid where the matriarch lived as this week’s action opens).
Midrash #2: Lot’s wife, a poem by Wislawa Szymborska. There’s a whole bunch of women’s poetry about this particular Biblical episode, but this one’s a keeper. Szymborska supplies a list of reasons why Lot’s unnamed wife might have looked back, including carelessly, while tying my sandal strap.
Midrash #3: Bob Dylan’s opening lines to Highway 61: God says “Abraham, kill me a son…” Here’s a great Youtube video with Johnny Cash speaking those lines, followed by his performance of another song that might – or might not – be about God.
Midrash #4: This one is supplied by my friend & rebbe, Arthur Waskow, who has a much more positive view of humanity than I. He’s a prophet of potential & I lean towards gloom and doom.
This week’s Torah portion Vayeira takes its name from its first word. This word is usually translated “appeared,” but it comes from the root for “see,” and the same root appears in a different form right afterwards. The second word is “YHWH.” That is usually translated “the Lord,” but since this sacred unpronounceable Name with no vowels can only be “pronounced” by breathing —- “Yyyyhhhhwwwwhhhh” – I translate it as “the Breath of Life” or “the Wind/ Breath/ Spirit of the world.”
The first sentence says “YHWH brought-about-being-SEEN to [Abraham] in [b’] the oaks of Mamre.” (Most translations say “by the oaks of Mamre,” thus avoiding the problem of how we might see God at all, let alone in oak trees. But I think that’s the point.)
Then the story continues: “… and he lifted up his eyes and SAW [va’yar] and here! — three people were standing upon him, and he SAW [va’yar] and ran …[to bring-them-near and then to feed them].” First the oak trees themselves and then the three visitors were the visible, see-able presence of God.
How can the Divine Breathing-Spirit of the world become visible in trees? Think about the rustling leaves, quivering as the wind rushes from them, in them, into them. Quivering as the trees breathe out what we breathe in (oxygen), and then breathe in what we breathe out (carbon-dioxide). This is the rhythm of life upon our planet. As we open our eyes to this rush of breath, we see God.
This rhythm and balance of O2/CO2 is exactly what is now OUT of balance, creating our planetary climate crisis. What we call global scorching is a radical disaster within the very Name of YHWH.
And it was not till Abraham saw God breathing in these oak trees that Abraham was able to see God breathing in human beings. Then he and Sarah acted to affirm this holiness by feeding God who of course is never visible except in all that is around us — that is, is ALWAYS visible if we open our eyes. Feeding God by feeding human beings — sharing with earthy human beings the abundance of the earth. And in response, the human beings who were God’s messengers (“angelos” is simply Greek for “messenger”) told Abraham and Sarah that they would, after all, have a child.
Once Abraham had deeply seen the interbreathing of all life as God, he more deeply saw the intertwining of adam and adamah, the earthy humus and the human earthlings, that feeds us all and celebrates the One. Not till he saw God in this body of earth-human interchange could his and Sarah’s bodies intertwine to seed new life.
So if this story honors the first expression of Eco-Judaism (and maybe eco-Christianity and eco-Islam, all born of Abraham’s vision), we should honor this story by opening our eyes to it. Look closely at a tree, at grass. Sniff at its leaves, breathing life into it and out of it. Pray not to the tree but to the whispering, rustling Breath that enters it and leaves it, the ONE that sustains all life.
Promise to sustain it. Act to sustain it.
Amen to this and a great big thank you to all the weavers of commentary. They give me the courage to write and the inspiration to argue.