15 Cheshvan 5774 / Oct. 18-19, 2013
In this week’s portion, Vayera, we find tons of action!
God visits Abraham 3 days after his circumcision (at age 99!), and Abraham leaves God in order to run and welcome strangers (hoping to offer them hospitality) – a powerful statement about the value our tradition places on welcoming others! Sarah laughs when she hears these strangers (who are really angels) state that she’ll give birth within the year to a son, Abraham negotiates with God over the lives of innocent inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot and his family are rescued when those evil cities are destroyed, Lot’s wife turns into a pillar of salt, Lot’s daughters get him drunk on back-to-back nights and get pregnant by him, Abraham again lies about Sarah being his sister to a foreign king, Sarah gives birth to Isaac, Hagar and Ishmael are sent away, God tells Abraham to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice and Abraham is about to do so until a heavenly voice calls out and tells him not to. Exhale.
As part of his negotiation with God, due to his concern for innocents being killed along with the wicked, Abraham starts by getting God to agree that if there were 50 righteous people in the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, God would refrain from destroying them. After a bit more needling, Abraham finally gets God to agree to 10. If there were 10 righteous people in the two cities, God would refrain from destroying them. Ultimately there were not 10, and the cities are destroyed (but, due to Abraham’s merit, Lot is saved along with his wife and two unmarried daughters).
This number of 10 has continued to be prominent in our Jewish tradition, as 10 is the number we associate with a minyan – in essence, a quorum. There are certain Jewish rituals that can only be done when a minyan is present, further emphasizing the tradition’s perspective that being part of a larger community is an essential component in leading a full Jewish life.
What does this mean for us in an era of hyper-individualization? For those of us in the liberal Jewish community, where self-fulfillment is often heralded (“learn about and then take on those mitzvot that you find meaning in”), how do we build that a true sense of community if everyone is doing their own thing? Is homogeneity of practice a necessity when building community?
What makes for a community? Does a community require shared expectations? Can people really commit to communal expectations if their own practices are constantly evolving and don’t necessary mesh with the expectations of others, who arguably derive their expectations from their own practices?
Or can a community be formed due to a shared communal value of “trying things out and constantly seeking to learn and grow” – even if that means that there might be disparate practices within that community?
I would argue that such a community can not only exist, but has the potential to thrive, although it admittedly may complicate things at times. I can imagine an amazing community formed around the shared values of exploration, learning and growth.
What do you think?
What makes for a community?
Is like-minded philosophy enough, or must there be like-minded action? What does such action - if any - look like?
This Shabbat, reflect on what kind of community you either are, or would like to be, a part of. Notice how some of our practices today (e.g. praying with a minyan) are derived from our holy texts, and seek to learn what other types of contemporary practices are also textually rooted. Strive to be like Abraham, standing against injustice and negotiating on behalf of those you don’t know personally.