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Parashat Vayera 5776 — 10/28/2015

 Parashat Vayera 5776 — 10/28/2015

Bereishit 18:1 – 22:24

It appears that the culmination of Avraham’s tests is the Akeidah, the “binding” of his son Yitzchak and his near-slaughter on the altar. Yet some commentators contend that there was another test – Avraham had to negotiate with the Hittite inhabitants of the land to get a burial place for his beloved Sarah. And he had to pay an exhorbitant price.

Incidentally, there are, I believe, three places in the Land of Israel that are ours by right of purchase – Avraham bought the Cave of Machpelah near Chevron, Ya’akov bought a field outside of Shechem (in Samaria, called by the Arabs Nablus, a corruption of the Latin Neopolis = New City), and David bought the site of the Temple. The Cave of Machpelah is, by tradition, the place where four couples are buried: Adam and Eve, Avraham and Sarah, Yitzchak and Rivka and Ya’akov and Leah. This is given as one of the reasons Chevron is also called Kiryat Arba, the “City of Four.” The Jewish part of Chevron, which was partially reclaimed in 1967 after the Arab massacred the Jews there in 1929, is called Kiryat Arba. The ridiculous and shameful UNESCO Resolution designating the Cave of Machpelah as a “Muslim” holy place is a blatantly anti-Semitic ploy by the Arabs to drive the Jewish people from our Land and our heritage.

Now negotiating with the Hittites may not be terribly pleasant, and Avraham may have felt he got fleeced in the deal (he was a very motivated buyer!), but how does it compare with being ordered to slaughter your beloved son of your old age?!? The question becomes even more pointed when we consider that the trials are supposed to increase in difficulty! R. Steinsaltz explains:

Our sages interpret the verse “You shall love Gd your Lord with all your heart (bekhol levavekha), with all your soul (bekhol nafshekha) and with all your might (bekhol me’odekha) (Deut 6:5 [the beginning of the first paragraph of Sh’ma]) as follows: … ‘with all your might’ means with all your money” (Berakhot 54a). … From the order of the verse’s wording, however, and from our sages’ interpretation, it appears that … with all your money is the highest of them all. How is this possible? …

The meaning is not in the sense of “hand over your money or give up your life.” Rather the Torah commands us to love Gd even in the face of oppressive poverty, whose effects are cumulative, gradually piling up. These are not troubles that occur all at once, but troubles that drain the spirit drop by drop, each day drawing out another drop and yet another.

R. Steinsaltz gives some examples of cases where people who had a demonstrated capability of making the supreme sacrifice for Gd, were unable to stand what appeared to be much simpler tests. Sometimes it is much easier to die for Gd than it is to live for Gd. Dying for Gd is a single decision to perform one heroic act. Living for Gd requires renewing one’s dedication day by day, moment by moment, even when we’re tired and cranky, even when the kids are screaming and the boss is angry. Yet this is the trial that most of us face, and as we all experience, it can be a very difficult trial indeed!

Why is such a trial necessary for our spiritual growth? I would like to suggest that the answer lies in the very nature of life itself and our purpose as human beings. Our Sages tell us that a human being has two aspects. Our soul is a “piece of the Divine from Above” – it is, in its essential nature, infinite and transcendental. We also have a body, which is mortal and finite, and which permits us to act within the material world. It is the material world which presents us the challenges that we must overcome and choices that we must make for our souls to shine forth in their perfection. In one sense, the nature of every test is that it is an opportunity to overcome the limitations of our physical nature and to demonstrate that we are, indeed, essentially Divine.

Now in a certain sense, martyrdom is the ultimate overcoming of our physical nature. We all want to live, we all go on fighting to live under most circumstances. Survival is the first mandate of virtually all life. Yet we know that the survival of our soul, the deepest level of our self, is not really dependent on the continuation of our physical body. When we are faced with martyrdom, we are given the opportunity to actualize that particular article of faith. (I hope it is obvious that I am not justifying the actions of those who impose martyrdom on others.) Martyrdom is a great moment of transcendent faith, and while we may pray to be spared it, we also pray that if necessary, we will embrace it.

Martyrdom, however, is a one-off, supremely transcendent moment. Nobody has repeatedly martyred themselves. What is much more difficult is to find the transcendent within the quotidien life. This actually requires a higher level of awareness than simply an awareness of our own essential nature. In fact, it requires us to be able to perceive the inner, infinite nature of everyone and everything.

This, of course, takes quite a bit of practice! First we must become familiar, on the basis of our experience, with our own souls. That means, not only when engaged in “overtly” spiritual activities, like prayer, must we focus on our own inner nature and our relationship with Gd. We must also maintain that awareness even when involved in daily activity. This requires a kind of repeated cycling between the transcendent and the sphere of activity, between the boundless and boundaries, until we can encompass both simultaneously in our awareness.

Perhaps that is the underlying meaning of this last test of Abraham’s. He may have thought he had reached a spiritual peak at the Akeidah, and to be sure, he had. Now the challenge is to maintain that spiritual peak as he came down the mountain and returned with “his lads” to Beer Sheva. William Blake describes the challenge:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower 

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 

And Eternity in an hour

Haftarah, II Kings 4:1 – 4:37

Can something be said on your behalf to the king or the army commander? She said, I dwell among my people (4:13)

The Shunammite woman had built a small extension to her home where the prophet Elisha would stay when passing by that way. After some time, he wanted to show gratitude to the woman, and asks if he can do her a favor. She replies that she “dwells among her people.” (The Haftarah shortly will relate how Elisha becomes aware that she has no children and that her husband is elderly, and he promises her a child – this being the relationship between the Torah portion, where Sarah is promised a child, and the Haftarah.) To understand this brief exchange, we must first understand that Elisha was not suggesting an audience with the local warlord. The king is The King, and Elisha, being a prophet, could presumably enable the woman to come into a closer relationship with Gd. To this the woman replies, “I dwell among my people.” Is she turning down a closer relationship with Gd? I don’t think so. I think what she is turning down is an experience of the transcendent that she is perhaps not yet prepared to handle or to integrate into her life. She dwells among her people, as part of a community in Israel, a sacred community that is forging a relationship with Gd according to the path that Gd laid out for Israel in the Torah. This path may be slower, but it is certainly surer, and less dangerous.