November 18, 2016
Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon
Members of the Board of Directors are visiting the rabbi, who is in the hospital. “I have good news and bad news,” the delegation leader says.
“What’s the good news?” the rabbi asks.
“The board voted to wish you a refuah shleimah, a speedy healing.”
“Thank you!” says the rabbi. “But what’s the bad news?”
And the delegation leader says, “The vote was 10 to 9.”
Good news/bad news indeed…
At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion of Vayera our great ancestor Abraham sees strangers approaching him across the desert. He is living in the area of Be’er Sheva, then as now the main settlement of the Negev Desert, in the Aravah, the great desert rift valley that runs all the way down to Eilat on the Gulf of Aqaba. Be’er Sheva turns out to be a surprisingly important place in Genesis, the main residential area for the semi-nomadic generations of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and for a time, at least, of Esau and Jacob as well.
At the end of last week’s portion of Lech Lecha, Abraham received the berit, the great covenant of circumcision. According to commentaries, as Vayera begins Abraham is still convalescing from his own circumcision when he sees strangers coming from afar. Because of his deep commitment to the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, welcoming visitors, he rises from his seated position, rushes to greet the travelers, and insists that they accept his hospitality. He has his wife Sarah prepare a meal, he washes the strangers’ feet, and he provides them with refreshment while they wait for dinner.
What Abraham cannot know is that the weary travelers are actually malachim, angel-messengers sent by God. In Breisheet, throughout the Book of Genesis, angels are essentially single-use beings who deliver messages, one message per angel. So it proves to be here, more or less: the first malach delivers the message that the aged Sarah will bear the even older Abraham her first child, leading Sarah to laugh out loud, and giving the coming child, Yitzchak, his name, which is derived from the Hebrew word for “laughter”. One angel, one task, so far. The second angel is present, according to the rabbinic commentators, to heal Abraham from the circumcision he had performed on himself (with a flint knife! They made people much tougher in those days…). Two angels, two tasks. The third angel will go on down the road from Be’eir Sheva and journey to Sodom to warn Lot about the coming destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Three angels, three tasks.
However, there is some ambiguity about this, as the Torah tells us that two malachim, angel-messengers, actually visited Lot in Sodom. The commentaries resolve this by noting that bringing the good news of Sarah’s upcoming pregnancy and the healing of Abraham are actually both elevated, beautiful acts, similar in generosity and graciousness. And since they are both in the same category, both excellent actions can be ascribed to a single angel. The other duties of the angels, saving Lot and destroying Sodom, are considered to be so different as to require different angel-messengers.
In other words, angels can bring messages which are either good, like the coming birth of Isaac, or bad, like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. But I wonder about this odd division of labor. No “good news/bad news” angels? Combinations of positive and negative messages in one messenger are somehow prohibited by God?
Perhaps there is a reason for this.
“I have good news and bad news,” the old joke has the doctor begin. “Which do you want first?”
The patient answers, “The bad news.”
The doctor says, “Your operation will cost much more than predicted, and it’s not covered by insurance.”
“Oy vey!” the patient moans. “So what's the good news?”
And the doctor answers, “I can buy a new Mercedes.”
Such mixed emotions…
There is wisdom in the way the Torah delineates between those given the charge of providing positive tidings, and those who bring the opposite. There are definitely times when it’s much better to receive the good news undiminished by caveats or conditions, or to hear the unvarnished truth in bad news, clear and straight.
Of course, it’s not only angels who know this fact, but it might only be angels who continue to observe this practice.
Today, we live in a world in which every truth comes adulterated by ambiguities, in which incontrovertible facts are denied many times daily, and in which different news networks often cover totally different stories. In fact, our news outlets should now more properly be called “free media” rather than “news networks”, according to my guest, Mara Liasson of NPR and Fox, on the Too Jewish Radio Show last week. Objective truth seems to be vanishing from our lives as we watch. We have developed entire sectors of society who have their own sets of “truths” unrelated to reality, and listen only to those who share those truths. Good news and bad news are becoming blurred into whatever people wish them to be.
This angelic division of messenger function in Vayera reminds us that some things in life are really good news, and others are bad news. And perhaps more importantly, that truth is not always relative. Members of the press have never been confused for angels in our society. But they have always been expected to be essentially objective. They weren’t perfect, and they weren’t always truly objective. But they had standards: they reported what happened. If it was good, it was good. If it was bad, it was bad. One-sided news wasn’t news, it was propaganda, and it happened in totalitarian countries, not ours.
Sadly, the expectation of objectivity has now been transformed into a kind of sideshow in which different networks expect specific points of view, regardless of the subject or the facts of the situation. Our media could learn a lot from Vayera here.
There is another relevant good news/bad news joke.
Moses is coming down from Mt Sinai with two tablets. He tells the Israelites, "I have good news and I have bad news. The good news is I got Him down to ten, the bad news is adultery is still in."
In addition to angels being able to honestly convey messages, God has to do so as well in Vayera. There is a fascinating passage, perhaps my favorite one in the entire Torah, in which God has decided to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah because they are completely evil. Our portion quotes God as saying to God’s self, “Shall I tell Abraham about what I am going to do to Sodom and Gomorrah, seeing that we are in a covenantal relationship and he is going to be the father of nations of descendants?” God decides that transparency is essential to a real relationship. He must tell Abraham the bad news. And so, God tells Abraham about Sodom.
It is Abraham’s response that teaches us the most about how we are to use our ability to speak up when faced with bad news. In a famous, wonderful passage, Abraham takes God to task, both arguing with God and holding God accountable. Abraham, in perhaps his greatest moment, says to God, “What if there are righteous people among the wicked? Will you destroy the righteous with the wicked? Will the judge of the whole earth not act with justice, hashofeit kol ha’arets lo ya’aseh mishpat?”
And God is persuaded. He agrees that if there are enough righteous among the people of Sodom the city will be spared. And if there are not, at least the righteous will be spared.
Abraham’s protest ends up failing; there aren’t even 10 righteous people in Sodom, not enough to make a minyan. But his willingness to stand up bravely, even to God, in order to fight for justice and fairness in society becomes the model for Jewish activism ever after. That is how a Jew responds to injustice, to truly bad news: not with acquiescence, but with courageous and principled resistance.
In our lives, there is often bad news. We have little control over much of that. But what we do have the capacity to control is our own reaction to it, the ways in which we are able to stand up for our principles, for justice and equity and decency. And that gives us the capacity to turn bad news into something else: good news about our own character, our own capacity for morality. May this be our will, now and always.