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Vayera Sermon

As I always teach, we do not choose our bar/bat mitzvah portion, it chooses us. The challenge is to wrest meaning from the Torah’s words. Week in week out, year after year, we have to read all of the Torah’s words. We have to find meaning in its laws, in its intricacies, in its stories. That is what it means to be a Jew. We must apply the words of the Torah to our daily lives.

And so here is this week’s story and lesson. First a reminder about the story and the somewhat sordid details of how Abraham and his wife Sarah deal with their first son Ishmael and his mother Hagar. After Sarah gives birth to Isaac she sees Hagar’s son Ishmael as competition and so instructs Abraham to kick them out. Abraham is at first distraught and consults with God who tells Abraham to listen to his wife Sarah. Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael into the desert with meager rations. They nearly die in the heat, but are rescued by God and the appearance of a miraculous well.

It is a wrenching story. It is disturbing for two reasons. There is profound disappointment in Abraham and Sarah. And there is the pain of Hagar and Ishmael. Hagar says, “Let me not look on as the child dies.” And sitting at a distance, she burst into tears. Vatisa et kola vatevk: And she lifted up her voice and cried. The Hebrew is even more poignant. And God heard the cry of the boy: Vayishma Elohim et hakol hanaar.

I have two observations. Sometimes those closest to us, sometimes those we most love, disappoint us, do wrong. The pain of Hagar and Ishmael is caused by Sarah and Abraham. My heroes have indeed disappointed me.

This brings me to Penn State and the revelations of pedophilia and cover ups coming from there. Those who we held in high esteem have done wrong. So many people, of all these great people, did not do enough to save these children. Too few did the right thing. It is an unequivocal moral lapse when people fail to protect children, when they fail to protect those most vulnerable. The Penn State students, the college community cannot see this. They still only see their heroes—and their terrible flaws. They can only see Abraham and Sarah’s achievements and not the pain they have caused others.

It is like our Jewish tradition that cannot see Abraham’s imperfections. How can Abraham do what he did? Even though God says it is ok, he should have given his son Ishmael and his mother enough water. This is the first lesson. We must see even our greatest heroes as flawed. I imagine that Abraham’s household quietly whispered about what Abraham was doing. I suspect that many people knew the truth about the Penn State coach. I imagine that they quietly spoke about what was happening to Hagar and Ishmael but did nothing. They whispered, but failed to act. Everyone failed to stop our heroes—and they are therefore diminished in our eyes. And then others become culpable.

The Talmud states: “Whoever can prevent his/her household from committing a sin but does not, is responsible for the sins of his/her household; if he can prevent his fellow citizens, he is responsible for the sins of his fellow citizens; if she can prevent the whole world, she is responsible for the sins of the whole world.” Don’t be afraid to see even the greatest people as making mistakes. And if you are a true friend, then try to stop them. Don’t apologize for them, don’t excuse their wrongs. Instead help them do the right thing.

My second observation. God hears the cries of those in pain. God hears all and listens to all. No one has a cornerstone on God’s ear. No faith has a more direct line to God than any other. This is the power of including Hagar and Ishmael’s pain in our Torah. This is the power of including their cry to God in our Torah. They may not be part of the Jewish story, but they are part of God’s concern.

It is somewhat comforting that God hears the cries of those in pain. But we must as well. We must hear the cries of those who are hungry, of those in chains. Of course we cannot fix all of the world’s problems. If God responds to the cry of the son of servant girl, how much the more so must we respond to the pain of others. This is the most important lesson. We must work to alleviate the pain of those suffering. If God hears their cry we must as well.

Although we might be disappointed with our heroes we must always reach out to everyone, and anyone, who is in pain.