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Parashat Vayera 5777 — 11/19/2016

Parashat Vayera 5777 — 11/19/2016

Bereishit 18:1 – 22:24

There are two main instances of separation in our parashah: Avraham’s separation from his nephew, Lot, and Yishmael’s enforced separation from Yitzchak (and from Avraham as well of course). In the selections we have, Ramchal focuses on the former. The text tells us that the shepherds of Lot and of Avraham argued with one another, and the Midrash fills in the rest of the story: The shepherds of Avraham were always careful to keep their livestock from grazing in private fields and pastures, while those of Lot were not. Lot’s men rationalized that Gd had promised Avraham the Land, and since he had no other heirs, the Land would fall to Lot, therefore they were not stealing anything that was not theirs anyway. Of course this reasoning is completely specious (the Rabbis interpret the seeming non sequitur “And the Canaanites and the Perizzites were still in the Land” to allude to this line of reasoning and its falsity). The Land may have been promised to Avraham, but it was not his at the moment, and it was not a given that Lot would inherit it, as in fact he did not. The fact that Lot could have advanced such arguments indicates that he had not fully absorbed his uncle’s good qualities. This was confirmed when Lot chose to go live in Sodom, which was already a notoriously greedy and cruel place, and further confirmed when he allowed himself to be seduced by his own daughters after Sodom’s destruction.

Perhaps it is not surprising that Lot was but a pale reflection of Avraham. First, Avraham was a very special individual, able to perceive and deduce on his own that Gd is One, even while surrounded by wall-to-wall idolatry. In fact, the Midrash tells us that Lot’s father, Avraham’s brother Haran, was himself a waffler. When Nimrod threw Avraham into a furnace for refusing to renounce his beliefs, Haran thought to himself, “If Avraham emerges alive, I’ll proclaim Gd is One. If not, I’ll continue with my idolatry.” Avraham emerged unscathed, Haran pronounced that Gd is One, was thrown into the furnace, and perished. This is the difference between ordinary people and extraordinary people!

Nevertheless, the two were connected, and Lot is not considered a total reprobate in the Rabbinic literature. Ramchal brings a more esoteric aspect:

The destruction of Sodom began with “the two angels came to Sodom in the evening and Lot was sitting at the gate of Sodom” (19:1). The emphasis on evening is because that is when the attribute of din rules. Our Sages teach us that on that very day the people [of Sodom] had appointed Lot to judge over them. The evil people of Sodom wished to eradicate kedusha [holiness] and strengthen the forces of evil. Evil gains strength by attaching itself to its roots of kedusha. Lot’s soul was rooted in the back portion, the source of tumah [impurity], of the spiritual level of Avraham. In their battle against kedusha, the wicked people of Sodom appointed Lot as judge in order to strengthen their grasp on their roots of kedusha. [My bold]

There are two very startling concepts here. First, apparently each spiritual level has a side of kedusha (the “front”) and a side of tumah (the “back”). The second is that evil has its source and gains its nourishment from kedusha. I don’t understand either of these concepts fully, but I’ll try to make sense of them.

I think the first principle is required because nature has a principle of balance – when kedusha increases, tipping the scales so-to-speak on the side of closeness to Gd, then there is a counterbalancing force that keeps the scales from going completely to one side. Why should this be necessary? Maybe we can think of it like a black hole. Black holes are very interesting to study, but if you get too close to one (the “event horizon”) then you get inexorably sucked in to the center of the black hole and are destroyed! In the same way, the closer we get to the infinite, the less relevant our finite self becomes. The light of a candle gets lost in the glare of the sun. In order for us to be in a relationship with Gd, it is necessary for us to maintain our individuality. Otherwise, there is just Gd, alone with Himself, and this may be the ultimate reality, but it is not for this that Gd created the universe.

This principle is brought out in the Rabbinic literature. At the beginning of the Second Temple period, the Sages prayed that the inclination for idolatry be removed, and this was granted them. Idolatry, at least among the Jews, was no longer the problem it had historically been throughout the First Temple period. However, to counterbalance this decrease of the power of tumah, the power of kedusha had to be reduced as well. Thus, prophecy ceased after Haggai, Malachi and Zechariah, who flourished at the beginning of the Second Temple era. Our Rabbis also tell us that the greater the person, the greater is the inclination to do evil. Power and money can be terribly corrupting, as we have seen in the US, both in government and in the private sector, drawing us away from our true purpose in life to superficial, material values.

The other principle is that evil feeds off kedusha. It would seem that evil is constantly trying to destroy kedusha wherever it can? Why would something try to destroy its own source of nourishment? Again, I can only speculate. If we look at evil as that which draws us away from Gd, evil itself is measured, or takes its existence, from Gd, even if in a negative way. In a sense, evil is just negative kedusha – the hole that’s left when kedusha is lacking. It has no substance of its own (and I hasten to add, we may have this understanding for our own situation, but we don’t present it to someone who is suffering because of some evil that is afoot in the world – we strive to ease that person’s pain and to eliminate the evil). The worst sin a Jew can commit is chillul haShem, desecration of Gd’s Name. The word chillul comes from a root that means “hollow” – chillul haShem is a hollowing-out of the meaning and the sanctity of Gd’s Name. Evil is the hollow that’s left after a chillul haShem. The rectification of chillul haShem is kiddush haShem, sanctifying Gd’s name (not necessarily by martyrdom), filling the darkness with Gd’s light as refracted through our individual actions.

It seems to me that the fact that evil feeds off kedusha implies that evil is by its very nature self-limiting. It’s like a parasite that kills its host – the parasite also dies when there’s nothing left to feed on. Hitler might well have won WW II Gd forbid if he hadn’t obsessively diverted badly needed fuel and manpower to his war against the Jews. Ultimately it is quite possible that this diversion cost him the war and his Reich and his life. Montgomery didn’t stop Rommel by himself, Rommel ran out of fuel. (I know this is an oversimplification – please read Lucy Davidovicz’s The War Against the Jews for a proper historical treatment.)

I believe that the relationship between good and evil is inherent in the nature of creation, when viewed as separated from Gd. When we can view all of creation as nothing other than Gd, interacting with Himself, then we will be in a position to bring Gd’s light to every corner of creation, banishing evil forever.


Reflections on This Week’s Torah Portion

by Steve Sufian

Parshat Vayera

Although the meaning of Torah and its guidance for us in English translation may not be so easy to grasp, the sound of Torah can give us something of the feeling of the Torah as Gd, Totality, Oneness, vibrating within Gd.

Here is a recording of Parsha Vayeira read by Rabbi Michoel Slavin, the regular reader at Chabad’s central Brooklyn synagogue:

In listening to this recording, I felt delight and joy, flowing sweetly, an inspiration to master Torah tropes and Hebrew so I, too, can read, feel and share delight and joy of Torah.

I hope we will all have the opportunities to fulfill this wish.

Vayeira and Teshuvah

We are looking at Torah from the standpoint of it as a means to Teshuvah, return to the original state, the Primordial Oneness and as a series of accounts of individuals and the Jewish nation making progress to Teshuvah and actually experiencing Teshuvah, as Noah, “who walked with Gd” and “Was perfect in his generations” seems to have.

In Parshat Vayeira, Gd appears, “vayeira”, to Abraham once – a second time, He does not appear, but speaks with him – when Abraham is sitting at the entrance to his tent after his circumcision. Does this mean that Abraham has fulfilled the command Gd gave him in the last parshah, “to walk before Me and be perfect”? Does this mean he has experienced Teshuvah?

It seems to indicate that he is making progress but not yet Teshuvah because when Gd appears to Abraham, Gd says to Himself, “Shall I reveal My purpose, to destroy Sodom?”, and thus Abraham does not yet experience total knowledge, which he would had he experienced Teshuvah.

But Gd does reveal His purpose andt provides an occasion for Abraham to show his kindness, his love for his fellow human, as he pleads with Gd to save Sodom, in which his nephew Lot is dwelling, for the sake of even ten righteous men (people).

Later Gd tests Abraham, speaking to him and telling him to bring his son as a burnt offering. Abraham does this and Gd, through an angel, stays his hand and tells him he will blessed, because of the purity of his faith, his descendants will be greatly numerous and blessed and will inherit the lands of his enemies.

Abraham has passed the test and will be blessed (“varaich”) but we do not know if this is a Total Blessing, Total Return.

In the next parshah, Parshat Chayei Sarah, we do see some sign that Total Blessing is given and that Abraham has become perfect. Not only Abraham but also Sarah and Isaac, their son.

But let us not wait until next week to become perfect ourselves, to experience Teshuvah.

Today is always the best day to be kind, innocence, simple, to serve Gd and to return and to share the return with everyone.

Baruch HaShem