Shabbat-Table Talks: Parashat Vayera
By Rabbi Ralh Tawil
How can we conduct a discussion when there are diverse levels at the table? Ans. Divide the group into two if possible and let the older group work on a clearly directed project that is more involved than that of the younger group.
a) Younger group: How do we teach a Torah value when the contemporary situation would dictate somewhat different behavior? Briefly stated: Would we want our children to model Abraham's kindness to strangers exactly when there are "strangers" around who might take advantage of their good hearts? (This issue is distinct from the situation where the Torah value and the contemporary value are completely incongruent. That issue will be a topic of a different talk.)
b) Older group: Connection between Hesed and survival. Why? (Society is built upon trust--give examples. Trust in one another is strengthened when hesed is being done.)
In this week's parasha the behavior of people towards strangers is the touchstone by which the morality of the person or society is measured. The continuity/survival of the person or society depends on the way they treat travelers.
Abraham is depicted as being completely given over to the value of helping wayfarers. Moreover, his household is "on call" to receive and assist wayfarers. A quick order here and there directs them as to what they should be doing. He delegates in order to get a more complex job done. (Incidentally, Abraham models an important technique of family management. When you delegate a job to your kids, let them see you also diligently involved in some task necessary for the family's good.) He is rewarded with the message that he will have a child from his beloved wife.
Lot is also very involved with the idea of assisting wayfarers. Yet his family is nowhere to be found. He is forced to offer his guests a meager fare of massah (unleavened bread) because they can be made very quickly. Where is his family? Why were they not involved in providing for the guests? Apparently, Lot was not able to involve them in this hhesed (good deed) because he did not transmit this value to them. (The midrash poignantly captures this idea and makes it concrete. There was a great quarrel ("massot" can also mean quarrel, see Isaiah 41:12) concerning the salt. Lot told his wife "bring a little salt for the guests." She responded: Are you trying to teach even this bad habit here. Bereshit Rabbah 50.) (See Judaic Seminar 2:1 for a further discussion.) Lot's family ends up continuing in an incestuous way.
The people of Sedom try to take advantage of the strangers and exploit them. This is the evidence that God is seeking to destroy Sedom. Sedom becomes the paradigm of destruction throughout the Tenakh.
Read texts in Hebrew or English or Hebrew with translation of difficult words.
I. Genesis 18:1-15
II. Genesis 19:1-13
III. Genesis 19:30-38
Tell those around the table that you have something to discuss that will interest everyone. How important it is to treat guests and strangers properly. Tell the older group that you want them to listen to the texts (or get them books) and think about the connection between proper treatment of guests and survival.
Younger Group (ages 4-7)
Read the texts or tell the story to the younger group. Ask them to speak about Abraham. They might cite the famous midrash about his tent being open on four sides to receive guests.
Ask: who else besides Abraham do we see involved in providing for the guests?
Question: Should we do this even today?
What if someone we do not know knocks on the door and wants to be let in? Should we do it, or should we first ask Mommy or Daddy if it is ok?
What about people that are in the synagogue?
What about guests that mommy or daddy have invited to our home? How can we help them? (Helping to serve them and making them comfortable. Giving up our bed to a sleep-over guest?
What about new kids in your class that don't have new friends yet or that do not speak English so well?
How do adults know whom to invite and how much trust they give a person who they have just met? Discuss the ways you do that. Is there a family or friend connection? Does he come referred by someone else? Is he connected to an institution that I know? Who are his references, can I check up on him?
Compare and contrast the two stories. What is the connection between Abraham's behavior and the message he receives? (Ans. Those who carry out acts of kindness merit survival.)
Is there a connection between Sedom's behavior and their end? What about Lot and his family?
Why should gemilut hesed lead to a thriving society? Describe an imaginary complete gemilut hesed community or society. What small step can we do to introduce more hesed in our community? (Perceive a need that matches your ability to give and make the connection with the people who have that need. Do not speak about financial giving but about services that could be done to the community that would make it a better place to live.)