Parashat Vayera: The covenant of parenthood

Parashat Vayera: The covenant of parenthood

Barnert Temple, Franklin Lakes, Reform

The news that a baby is on the way is often met with cautious excitement. In the best cases, parents start thinking of names, imagine color schemes for the nursery, dream of first laughter, first steps, and first words. As we nest, our vision focuses, even narrowing for a time, and allows our imaginations to wander.

Abraham and Sarah, now officially in covenant with God, receive the promise of progeny in this week’s Torah portion, Vayera. Sarah has been aching for motherhood; Abraham will have his second son, the one from whom the Jewish people will descend. The news comes from messengers in motion, delivering this hard-to-believe but dream answering news. When the messengers take leave, Abraham and Sarah do none of what we have come to expect today. There is no registry to compile. There is no “babymoon” to plan.

Instead, we find ourselves privy to the internal monologue of our Creator, as God wonders aloud about the best way to prepare Abraham for this phase of parenthood. God has a monumental decision to make. “Should I hide from Abraham, my partner in sacred covenant, this plan I am forming? It is Abraham who will continue this populous nation. The people that follow from this child-to-be, will bring blessing to the world. Abraham will have to teach this child My way, doing what is right and just. This child will then be responsible for teaching their own children. And so it will continue. This is the way the blessing-filled promise of covenant will come to be realized.”

Immediately after this internal dialogue, the book of Genesis continues. God can no longer tolerate the cries from Sodom and Gomorrah. In that moment we realize that Abraham is right there, has been there, standing before God. Abraham, preparing to welcome the child who will continue this covenant, steps seamlessly forward and begins a negotiation for which he is famous. Challenging God, Abraham argues that God consider the innocent along with the guilty. Isn’t this the way of a God who is right and just?

Abraham steps into covenant and parenthood in the same moment. And everything changes. We learn that it is all about covenant; we must live at the nexus of responsibility for all lives and the gift of being lifted up by these same lives. As it was for Abraham, so it is for us, the inheritors of this transformative commitment.

For some of us, the experience of becoming parents awakens a part of our soul that draws our attention not only to the needs of our own children, but also to the needs of anyone lacking resources for basic necessities and access to tools for success. In this way, the particular openness that accompanied Abraham’s second time becoming a parent allowed him to enter even more fully into the covenant with God, which necessitates care and action for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. For others of us, the experience of working with and for others, makes it possible for us to become better parents, as it breaks down the walls we have built for self-protection, opening us to vulnerability and change. In this way, God might have known that alerting Abraham to the coming action and knowing he would stand up on behalf of largely unknown neighbors, would open his own heart differently to his son, Isaac, whom he would soon welcome into the world.

Each of us is in covenant — with parents, with children, with partners, with friends and neighbors, with strangers whose lives resemble nothing of our own, with God. As we re-meet our ancestral parents, Abraham and Sarah, we re-engage with the gifts and responsibilities that accompany this brit. Our lives cannot be only inwardly focused, with attention only given to our families. And similarly, our lives cannot only face those outside of our inner circles in the service of justice for those in need, at the expense of those we know most intimately.

Torah is at once a mirror and a window. We look into this mirror for answers to our questions, for deeper learning, for access to tools that enable us to live lives of impact, meaning, and connection. And we also look out through the window, using these tools to do our part to make this world we share more whole and more holy. Abraham, preparing to welcome Isaac and to stand before his covenantal partner in defense of the voiceless innocent, seeks his place in this balance. How do we do the same? From where does your call to covenant arise? Is it from the voices of those seeking refuge here within our borders? Are they the voices of our youth leading the way to a country less plagued by gun violence, demanding we help to keep them safe? Are they climate activists, the next generation who hopes for a world that will be safe to continue to inhabit? Does that call come from our neighbors who struggle with insecurity around food and shelter? These voices and faces, known and unknown, remind us that we are the children of Abraham and Sarah, and that our future depends on our ongoing acts of righteousness and justice.

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