When God Appeared to Him…
Sermon on Parashat Vayera
October 22, 2010
We were captivated just nine days ago by the joyous scenes of rescue emanating from Chile. We celebrated with the families of the miners and the people of Chile as the successful rescue of the thirty three miners who were trapped underground for two months took place. The miners went through a harrowing ordeal but are, for the most part, doing well. They still wear sun glasses, even indoors, as they adjust to light and their new life above ground. Even in their darkest moments, the miners never succumbed to despair. From all reports, they seemed to be quite stoic, accepting with faith their ultimate rescue or their eventual deaths. They shared what little food and water they had and, for those in such a dire situation, seemed to experience little acrimony with one another. The entire population of Chile was united in celebrating not only the rescue of the miners, but the nation’s ability to mount a successful rescue operation so far under the earth. It showed the world that Chile was capable of using the latest technology in providing for its own people.
Throughout the ordeal, millions of people prayed to God to facilitate the rescue. Countless millions thanked God for the rescue itself. Hundreds of millions of human beings saw God’s hand involved in this drama. While we almost always instinctually thank God when something positive happens in our lives, is God the one we should be thanking? If we thank God for rescuing the miners, should we not also blame God for allowing the miners to be trapped there in the first place? When we thank God for saving the miners are we saying that God actually saved them? Was God responsible for the collapse of the mine? Did God have a role in this at all? The answer is not as clear cut as it may seem.
God appears many times in our Torah portion for this week which is appropriately titled Vayera, meaning “He (God) was seen.” “One incident after another involves people seeing or not seeing God. The eyes of Hagar, Abraham’s concubine, are opened so she can see the miraculous well God has provided for her.” Abraham sees God in the guise of three angels and offers them hospitality in his tent. “Abraham sees God atop Mount Moriah while the servants who were traveling with him do not.” God directly intervenes several times in the lives of Abraham, Sarah, Lot, Hagar, Isaac, Ishmael, and the inhabitants of the cities of Sodom and Gemorrah. God destroyed those cities and all their inhabitants while saving Lot and his daughters. God also stopped Abraham from sacrificing Isaac and saved Hagar and Ishmael from certain death in the desert. In our Torah portion, God is directly responsible for the life and death of our protagonists.
Do we still believe this? Our ancestors certainly did. They believed that God caused the winds to blow and the rain to fall. They believed that God would directly intervene in our lives. They believed that God would punish the evil and reward the good. It is hard for us, particularly after the Shoah, to accept this. If God could directly intervene in human life, wouldn’t God, at the very least, have rescued the one and one half million Jewish children who were murdered by the Nazis just because they were Jews? Of course He would if He could. After creation, God removed Himself from direct intervention in human life. God gave humans the moral freedom we needed to be human. The ability to make moral choices is one of the qualities that separates us from the animals. Without that freedom of will, we would not be human. God gave us the ability, for good or for ill, to directly intervene in the lives of others and to impact the world. When we pray to God we are asking God for help, strength, succor, and support so that we can get through a difficult time or make a perilous journey. We are asking God for courage and conviction as we navigate through the shoals of life. We turn to God when we are out of strength and have no where else to turn. God can answer our prayers by replenishing the emotional and spiritual wells that are depleted. When we pray to God for health and healing, we are asking that God give strength to the doctors, nurses, and caregivers who bring healing to our loved ones. When we ask God to bring comfort to the mourners, we are asking God to enable us to bring support to those we love. When we ask God for help, we are really asking God to give us the emotional and psychological strength to work our way through adversity. There was certainly quite of bit of praying to God going on in that mine.
We do not believe that God caused the Chilean mine to collapse. We cannot accept the idea that God causes earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes and other natural phenomena. While God created the natural laws that govern all of natural life, God has nothing to do with a tornado taking one path and not another, destroying one home and not a different one. God does not get involved in the operation of these laws nor does God intervene in them. In the same token, God does not engage in mine rescues. God created a world in which random chance is operative during each and every moment of our existence. God did create a world where we are His partners in healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and freeing the captives. God did give the Chileans the ability and the will to free their miners. God did give the miners the faith, stamina, and courage to withstand their ordeal. It is for that we are thankful. While our ancestors may have seen God appearing in their everyday lives, we see the Divine presence behind acts of courage, inspiration, and ingenuity.
We are indeed thankful for the rescue of these brave men. While God may not have rescued them directly, God did have a great deal to do with it. We pray that God will continue to assist us as we do our best to make our world a better place.
Amen and Shabbat shalom
1. Etz Chayim, page 99.