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Parashat Vayera 5774 — 10/16/2013

Parashat Vayera 5774 — 10/16/2013

Sarah laughed within herself, saying, “Now that I am worn out, shall I have the pleasure [of a son]..:’ (Bereishis 18:12)

In a sense, we are today like Sarah Imeinu of old – bewildered and skeptical. We wonder: how could it possibly be that after so many years of exile and wandering – close to two thousand years our nation will be reborn? How can we come to life again and enjoy all of the strength and vigor that we once possessed?

But the Torah answers, Hayipalei meiHashem davar – “Is anything too difficult for Hashem?” Notice, the verse does not say, “Is this thing too difficult?” but, rather, “Is anything too difficult?” The prophet echoes this truth when he says, speaking in the Name of Hashem: Hamimeni yipalei kol davar – “Is there anything too difficult for Me?” (Yirmiyahu 32:27). With His word alone, the Almighty created and constantly recreates the entire world. So too, He will soon bring about the end of our exile, and will reestablish our judges as of old. He will rejuvenate us and return us to our homeland.  (Chafetz Chaim)

I’ve always been puzzled at the fact that Avraham laughs when Gd tells him he will have a son by Sarah, and he is not criticized, while Sarah is criticized, not only by the Sages, but in the text itself.  They both use very similar language:

Avraham fell on his face and he laughed.  He said to himself, “Can a hundred-year-old man have children?  Can Sarah, who is ninety, give birth?” (17:17)

Of Sarah, Torah says:

She laughted to herself, saying “Now that I am worn out, shall I have my heart’s desire?  My husband is old! (18:12)

(Both translations are from The Living Torah, translated by R. Aryeh Kaplan, z’l.  R. Kaplan was a real Kabbalist, as well as a physicist, and I would highly recommend reading anything he wrote, much of which is available in English – he was US-born and raised.  See for more details and a bibliography.)

Perhaps the difference is that when confronted, Sarah denies that she laughed, for “she was afraid.”  Now Sarah was greater in prophecy than Avraham (Gd tells him to listen to her and do what she tells him to do, which is generally good advice for a husband in any event).  Our Sages tell us that she was afraid because at first she didn’t think the “men” for whom she had just baked bread were anything other than traveling Arab traders; when she realized that Gd (or angels) were informing her of the reality that she would indeed give birth, she became frightened.  Maybe it was her sudden lack of awareness and comprehension that frightened her.

Be that as it may, the Chafetz Chaim finds a lesson for all of us in Sarah’s response to the good tidings – never give up hope.  We must maintain our faith that Gd is running the universe, is in control of human history as well, and can and will arrange for His plan for the universe to come to completion.  Nothing is too difficult for Gd.

This belief is actually quite fundamental to Jewish thought.  For example, Torah has two long passages outlining the terrible consequences if the Jewish people were to stray from Torah and its commandments.  According to Ramban, they correspond to the destruction of the two Temples.  Yet after each one, there are passages of consolation, where Israel is assured that it will return wholeheartedly to Gd and will be received with open arms, restored to its Land and returned to its former glory.  Rambam (Maimonides) places belief in the Messianic future as the 12th of his 13 fundamental Principles of Faith, adding, “…and even though he tarry, I will still anticipate his coming every day.”  Even the long version of our Tachanun prayer, which is an extended plea for forgiveness, ends with an acknowledgement that Gd’s Hand is always open to receive penitents, those who return to Gd and to righteousness.

Where we get into trouble is when we despair.  For example, in the beginning of parashat Ki Tetze (almost at the end of Deuteronomy) we find the law of the “wayward and rebellious son.”  This is a boy who displays traits that will inevitably lead to serious criminal activity.  The parents bring him to court, and the boy is executed.  The law is hedged around with so many Rabbinic qualifications that the Talmud says with great confidence, “There never was a wayward and rebellious son, and there never will be one.”  Yet the entire issue never arises until the parents lose hope of reaching their child.

Similarly, when a person loses an object, someone finding it must return it, unless it can be reasonably assumed that the owner has given up hope of ever recovering it (e.g. currency, which cannot be specifically identified, or a wallet that you dropped in the Colorado River while rafting in the Grand Canyon).  Once the owner gives up hope of recovery of anything lost or stolen, he loses possession to anyone who finds it (or to the thief, who has a separate obligation to make restitution for the value of what he has stolen).

So perhaps Sarah is criticized simply because she did give up hope.  Someone with her expanded level of consciousness should certainly have known that nothing is too difficult for Gd.  And the lesson for us is that we, too, must never, ever give up hope.  Things may not work out in our favor today, but from a longer perspective it may be a temporary setback, or even a necessary experience that we must go through so that we can actualize some potential that we didn’t even know we had.  When someone does evil and flourishes and grows rich, ” when he dies he will carry nothing away; His glory will not descend after him.” (Ps 49:17)  In fact, he will probably have some nasty surprises awaiting him, when he discovers that there is no bribery and no regard to a person’s eminence in the Heavenly Tribunal.  As we read in Pirke Avot (1:7) Never despair of retribution.  On the positive side, we should never despair that we will enjoy the fruits of our positive actions, if not immediately, then in the World to Come.

I hasten to add here that this evaluation of negative experiences is only to be applied to ourselves.  When negative things happen to others, our only proper response is “how can I help”?

Gd created us finite, fallible creatures.  We will stumble and fall, we will strive and fail, we will take wrong turns.  From the Chafetz Chaim’s words we learn to pick ourselves up, continue striving, resolve to do better next time, and to be assured that our loving Father in Heaven is watching over us and helping us every step of the way.


Shemoneh Esrei

You are eternally mighty my Lord,…

Blessed are You, the reviver of the dead.

The second b’rachah of Shemoneh Esrei is called gevurot, mightiness, and t’chiyat hametim, the revivification of the dead.  In discussing the structure of the first b’rachah, we noted that there is a tripartite structure on the deepest level of creation acccording to Kabbalah.  On one side is Chochmah, wisdom, the flash of insight where we grasp the wholeness of life directly.  Then comes Binah, intellect, where the wholeness is analyzed into its parts; this level is characterized by boundaries, which channel the flow of wisdom.  When the two are combined we get Da’at, knowledge, a synthesis of the two which is more than both of them separately.

This structure, which we find internally in the first b’rachah, is repeated in the first three b’rachot.  In that sense, the first b’rachah corresponds to Chochmah and the second b’rachah corresponds to Binah.  The thrust of the b’rachah is that Gd sustains us all while we are alive, and will bring the dead back to life at some point in the Messianic future, healed of all our infirmities, physical and spiritual.  Ya’aros D’vash comments that we experience something of the revival of the dead when we do t’shuvah:

Gd’s acceptance of a sinner’s t’shuvah has some semblance to the revival of the dead, for the Gemara (Berachot 18b) calls  the wicked in their lifetime, dead.  Thus, by doing t’shuvah the sinner is revived from the dead.

The Shemoneh Esrei begins with, as it were, a revelation of Gd in His greatness, and continues in our b’rachah giving form (boundaries) to that greatness, allowing Gd’s transcendental nature to express itself in all the levels of creation.  If Gd is Life, then the creation, which from its own point of view is separate from Gd, is the realm of death.  We experience this as the incessant change of the forms and phenomena of our world – the old form dies and a new one takes its place.  Our b’rachah tells us never to give up hope – even through all the changes and all the death and destruction, Gd is with us, picking us up when we fall down, bringing us back to the infinite life whence we originated.