In the book of Proverbs, we read that “good news fattens the bone” and “as cold waters to a faint soul is good news from a far country.” And there is the familiar statement that “no news is good news.”
The Torah reading for this week, Vayeira, has important points to make about how to receive reports of events that come our way, both good and not-so-good. When Abraham heard from Sarah that Hagar and Ishmael were making life difficult for Sarah and Isaac, he banished Hagar and Ishmael from their home. Hagar and Ishmael took that bad news along with them on their journey, where they heard from an angel the news that God would provide for them and make Ishmael a great nation. Abraham heard the news – or the command – that he should take his son Isaac to Mount Moriah where it seemed, based on God’s direction, that he would offer Isaac as a sacrifice - and Abraham remained silent and didn’t even share the information with his son, perhaps because he was focused on his faith –or perhaps because he was devastated. God almost withheld the news from Abraham that Sodom and Gomorrah were about to be destroyed, but decided that Abraham could be to God a special sounding board. Abraham challenged God not to destroy the cities if there were almost any number of righteous people living there. In that case, Abraham was not silent at all.
How do we respond to the news that comes to us? Today is Veteran’s Day, which carries with it the memories of members of the armed forces who returned home alive and in person to their loved ones while other family members received word their loved one had died in the service of our country. In either case, it is likely that family and friends responded with pride. This past week included the anniversary of the death of Yitzhak Rabin in November, 1995 – a tragedy that exposed a wide rift in Israeli society that still remains, one that we hope will not bring more bad news of the taking of a life for the cause of political disagreement. Perhaps recent economic challenges in Israel have finally made possible greater dialogue between those in different places on the political spectrum. This week also included the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night of Broken glass in Germany, with many destroyed synagogues, Jews murdered by the Nazis, and many taken to concentration camps. The news of those events signaled to the world, at least to those who would take note in a significant way, the true hateful nature of the Nazi regime. Kristallnacht is still a prime example of the demonstration of state-sponsored violence that must not be ignored. In light of that event, as we hear hateful rhetoric from various corners of the world, we have trained ourselves to respond with words of protest against those who spread prejudice and bigotry. We offer expressions of support to the victims of verbal and physical attacks who are targeted simply because of who they are.
Finally, the reports in the last two days emanating from Penn State University have become a prime focus in the media. If anything, this sad situation that led to the firing of Coach Joe Paterno and Penn State President Graham Spanier demonstrates the need to immediately share the news about acts of abuse. Withholding such information, as we have seen all too often, offers cover to people who don’t deserve protection and leaves abuse victims without the support they need to move forward with their lives.
We shouldn’t only focus on what we would consider bad or sad news without looking at the one piece of good news found in the Torah reading for this week. Three visitors – divine beings sent by God who took on human appearance – came to Abraham’s and Sarah’s tent with the express purpose of delivering good news – that Sarah, who had not yet been able to have a child, was going to bear a son. Rather than greeting the news with joy and elation, Sarah responded with disbelief, wondering how she could have a child, saying, in her words, “now that my husband is old.” She didn’t even mention what the narrative noted – that she was well beyond her childbearing years. God then repeated to Abraham what Sarah said, but with one change – asking why Sarah wondered if she was going to have a child given that she was advanced in years. That divine wisdom likely headed off at the pass an argument between husband and wife about who was old, illustrating the importance of couching our statements in a way that doesn’t hurt the feelings of someone close to us. Still, the basic news didn’t change – Sarah was going to have a son – and so she did, naming him Isaac, Yitzchak –he will laugh, because, she said after his birth, “God has brought me laughter – all who hear will laugh with me.” Sarah’s surprising but understandable doubt did, in the end, become joy.
Let us take a moment to think about an example of a piece of news that came to us in recent days that was, perhaps, not so good, but that was balanced out by another report that was much more in our favor.
The opportunity to look at good news as something positive is always there – along with the possibility of finding a silver lining in the reports about our lives that are not what we hoped they would be. After this silent moment, we will recite a blessing together.
Yes, Virginia (or Sarah, in this case), there is a blessing about receiving good news in Jewish tradition – please say the beginning with me and I will teach you the concluding words:
BARUCH ATAH ADONAI ELOHEINU MELECH HAOLAM HATOV V’HAMAYTIV - Blessed are You, Eternal One, our God, Ruler of the Universe, who is good and is the Source of all that is good.
May goodness and good news surround us in the days to come. And we say Amen.