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Rabbi Sydni's Shabbat Sermons

פרשת וירא, תשפ״א

Parshat Vayeira, 5781

by Rabbi Sydni

Saturday, November 7th, 2020

Eyes Wide Open, Awareness in the Face of Fear

It may seem like we have a good amount to fear. If “our guy” wins, we may fear the reaction of the “other side.” If “the other guy” wins, we may fear for the future of our country. Regardless, we fear the possibility of not being able to see family for months to come. We fear the possibility of us and our loved ones catching this virus. Our fear keeps us alert and active - we vote and speak out because of our fear. We wear masks and keep distance because of our fear. But when God repeats to Hagar in our parashah, to Isaac and Yaakov in the weeks to come, and to the Israelites throughout their desert journey - Al tiri or Al tira - Do not fear - what are we to do with the very real and effective emotion we carry with us?

Our parashah is ripe with moments of fear that lead to misfortune (or at least, potential misfortune). Lot’s daughters seduce their father out of some sort of fear. Traditional commentators label their fear as sourced in the belief that no one else in the world exists to help them further humankind, while midrashist Ellen Frankel writes of their fear that their father may be willing to give them up to save himself, just as he offered back in Sdom. These women want sons to protect them, when they know their father will not. And although their fear is well founded, their actions not only represent incest, but also, lead to the establishment of two of Israel’s future enemies - the Moabites and Ammonites.

Sarah, wife of Abraham, becomes so fearful of the power of her maidservant Hagar and Hagar’s son Ishmael that she expels them from her household. Educator Cathy Shad writes, “Only a very deep, all-consuming fear could have driven Sarah, famed for her hospitality, to abandon two members of her own family. It feels to me that Sarah’s fear literally got the best of her, that it was so all-encompassing that she lost her ability to feel pious, loyal, or hospitable.” By driving out Hagar and Ishmael, Sarah diminishes the potential size and unity of what would eventually become the Israelite people. More personally, Sarah brings her maidservant and stepson into a position of life-threatening hunger and thirst.

What might have happened, had Lot’s daughters ventured out of their mountain cave, to see if other people existed? What might have happened, had Sarah spoken with Hagar about her worries and come to a compromise about shared space and inheritance? How might we resist our basest impulses and refuse to be blinded by our fears? God created and still creates a beautiful but terrifying world - God certainly cannot expect us to completely abandon fear; however, God can expect us to approach our fear with an appropriate mindset. Thank God, responding to the election or the pandemic doesn’t require the same speed of response as a shark attack or an approaching tornado. Thank God, we can take the time to figure out our next steps, before we cause any hurt to ourselves or others.

In the face of fear, we may speak out against what we know to be wrong, and yet, with such speech, we must remember the people whose lives we are affecting in the process. Before we send that text message,we must think twice about the hurt we might cause. And before we make that statement on social media, we must remember the people whose voices we need to include in order to get enough support to carry forward our will.

In the face of fear, we may support policies that lift us up in particular, when we know that others may be pushed down in the process. Before we dive in, we must ask ourselves how we can gain back what we’ve lost without taking away from our fellow human beings in the process. From the actions of Lot’s daughters and Sarah, we know that quick actions that help ourselves in the face of fear have the potential to hurt not only our immediate fellows but those who will come after us, as well.

In Deuteronomy (10:12), God asks us ליראה את ה׳, to fear God, to walk only in God’s ways, to love God, and to worship God with all of our heart and soul. When we react to fear, let our fear for the future, or even moreso, our fear of the “other,” never surpass that fear of God, that same God who asks us to love the other as ourselves and to pursue righteousness at every opportunity.

One more potential fear-based catastrophe occurs in our parashah. After Sarah banishes Hagar and Ishmael, and Hagar and Ishmael run out of food and water in the desert, Hagar abandons her son under a nearby bush and cries. She is afraid that her son will die, and she is not prepared to witness his death. But God hears the child’s cries and sends a messenger to open Hagar’s eyes. Rabbi Sharon Brous paraphrases those angel’s words in terms we need to hear today, of all days: “I can’t promise you that everything will be okay. But I can tell you that you will not be able to save yourself or your son if you live with a blinding fear that prevents you from seeing redemption when it sits squarely in front of you.” Hagar decides not to be blinded and opens her eyes to see a nearby well, a well that may have been there the entire time. Although the future may not be perfect, for now, the small step of eyes wide open has granted Hagar and Ishmael a life to come.

Today, we save ourselves by refusing to despair, by refusing to act or type or speak with terrified haste. Today, we take our time to assess what’s to come, to assess our options, and to let our commitment to the Divine, our commitment to compassion, override our fear. Shabbat Shalom.