Common Ground: VaYera 5775 by Cantor Lipp

Wed, 11/12/2014 - 9:31am -- lcanfield

After winning the senate, Mitch McConnell, presumptive majority leader this coming January, said he’d be willing to find common ground with the president.

Sometimes the rabbis, when looking for common ground in the Bible, use unusual words which occur in two different places.

There is such a word in our portion this Shabbat and it’s ‘Sanverim’. It appears two more times in the Bible, both in a single verse in a miracle story about Elisha. Let’s look at both stories and see where there might be some common ground.

After enjoying Avram and Sarai’s hospitality and delivering the good news that they would have a child at this time next year, two of the guests continue down to Sodom and Gommorah with two ostensible goals: 1. To find out whether the citizens of said cities are as evil as reported. 2. To save the few righteous that might be there from the cities’ imminent destruction.

As they arrive in the town square, Lot, one of the few good people in the town, offers his hospitality, a place for them to stay. Knowing this is illegal in Sodom the angels are content to spend the night in the street. Lot insists. The people of Sodom, hearing of this crime, showing hospitality to aliens in their midst, demand that Lot shove them out so they can have their way with them. Lot refuses and goes out himself, the door shutting behind him. As they threaten him, the guests cause these sanverim to blind the crowd and they pull Lot into the house to save his life, promising to escape with him and his family the next morning before the fire and brimstone that will replace Sodom and Gomorrah.

The other story with the blinding light which is the best translation of Sanverim we have, is in the midst of the miracle stories of Elisha from the book of Kings. It seems that Elisha has a pre-technological inside track to the mind of the king of Aram who wants to conquer the northern commonwealth of Israel. Every time the king wants to attack a location, the Israelites are gone, safe thanks to Elisha’s warning. They know precisely which locations to avoid. The king finds out who is responsible for these intelligence leaks and surrounds Elisha’s house whereupon the ‘Sanverim’ make him invisible. The blinding light strikes again. Elisha leads them to a vulnerable spot in Samaria where the king of Israel is able to take advantage of them. The King of Israel asks Elisha, may I attack them now? Elisha answers, “Did you earn the right to do that? Was it a brilliant military strategy that brought them to your doorstep? No, you should feed them.”

The King of Israel gives them a huge feast and sends them on their way. The last verse of the story explains that the Aramean bands stopped invading the land of Israel.

So what do these stories have in common? The difference between them is obvious: One ends in death and destruction and the other ends in an avoidance of the same. What both have in common is an uncommon, indeed extreme expression of hospitality.

Lot offers his guests hospitality even when he knows it may cause him harm. He then puts himself in harm’s way for their sake. Similarly, the King of Israel, following Elisha’s lead, could have killed all the Aramean soldiers who meant him ill but by going against conventional rules of warfare and upsetting their expectations, he created a state of peace.

I don’t know what kind of common ground the Executive and Legislative branches of government will achieve in the two years they have together. 

One thing is guaranteed. They will likely come to a better result if some bread is broken. I don’t even think extraordinary measures of the kind expressed in the blinding light tales will be necessary.

Shabbat Shalom.

David Lipp