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Parashat Vayera 5779 — 10/27/2018

Parashat Vayera 5779 — 10/27/2018

Bereishit 18:1-22:24

R. Goldin takes up, inter alia, two points that seem unrelated, but which I believe have a common theme, one which I can use some physics to elucidate, and which have pressing teachings for our times. The first has to do with Avraham’s bargaining with Gd over the fate of Sodom and its sister cities. The second has to do with the hapless Lot and his misadventures in Sodom.

R. Goldin asks why Avraham was so concerned with Sodom, and also why Gd was so concerned to tell Avraham what was going to happen to Sodom. He answers that Gd had promised Avraham two things:

  1. His progeny would not be unduly influenced by the evil of the surrounding world
  2. His progeny would be able to have a positive influence on that surrounding world

Now if Sodom and its sisters were to be wiped out, even if they housed some number of righteous individuals, then these two promises of Gd’s are called into question. The righteous individuals are not protected from the evil of their surroundings, nor are they able to exert much of a positive influence in their surroundings. So Gd allows Avraham to “bargain” him down to a very small number of righteous people, only to demonstrate that even that small number couldn’t be found. Sodom and Gomorrah cannot be used as a counter-example to invalidate Gd’s promises to Avraham.

Turning to Lot, we find a small weakness – desire for material possessions – drives Lot to live amongst the Sodomites. He quickly rises in rank, becoming a judge of the city (the judges sat in the gates of the city, where Lot meets the angels). He marries a Sodomite woman, has children with her, marries his daughters off to Sodomite men and generally gets absorbed (“assimilated”) into Sodomite society and culture. R. Goldin points out that this was a step-by-step process. First Lot camped near Sodom. Later (when he is captured by the 4 kings and rescued by Avraham) he is described as “living in” Sodom. Now, in our parashah, he has become an elder of the city, and, by implication, he has become responsible as well for its evil. Perhaps Lot thought he had enough of a basis of morality from his time with Avraham to withstand the challenges of living in Sodom. Obviously he was mistaken.

What does this tell us about our situation as Jews in the modern world? First, it is obvious that we are a very small fraction of the world’s population (around 0.2% using 2017 figures), and second, it is obvious that we have an outsized influence on the world. Yet the world has a large influence on us as well, both outside the Land of Israel, where assimilation is a major problem – the majority of North American Jewry is barely recognizable as Jewish beyond a few nostalgic culinary patterns, and in Israel, where the continued existence of the State is constantly under challenge by a hostile world.

When it comes to interacting systems, physics has some insights to offer. First, it is impossible to have a completely closed system. No boundary is perfectly sealed against penetration by either energy and/or material. Second, a perfectly closed system is subject to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that in a closed system, disorder maximizes. A closed system is a dying system.  An open system, on the other hand, with sufficient energy and material flowing through it, makes spontaneous transitions to more highly structured states.

Third, the smaller the system, the more it is influenced by its surroundings. The degree to which a system can be influenced by its environment is given by its “surface area” – the interface it presents to the environment. A baby, for example, has a large surface area compared to its volume – therefore it has to be kept wrapped up even on a warm day, because it loses heat relatively rapidly compared to its mass (which is generating the heat). An adult, on the other hand, may have more surface area than the baby, but relatively speaking his mass is greater, and he may be taking clothes off on a hot day. In technical terms, the surface area increases as the square of the size and the mass increases as the cube of the size. Therefore, the smaller the system, the bigger the ratio of surface area (outside influence) to volume (system size).

The lessons for the Jewish people are clear. We cannot close ourselves off from the environment – if we do, we will quickly wither and die. Furthermore, our national mission of being “a light unto the nations” obviously requires us to interact with those nations to some degree. This was Avraham’s concern – that we be able to be open to the world, yet not overwhelmed by it.

On the other hand, we cannot be open indiscriminately to the environment.  Before adopting something from another culture, it must be adapted to our own special needs and our own cultural dynamics. This is Lot’s problem. Having met the enemy, he became one of them. This is a problem for all cultures of course, but, as we discussed, it is more acute for smaller ones, as our examples of Lot and of American Jewry attests.

The truth is, the universe and everything it are open systems – they are open to the transcendent, to Gd. Gd is continually sustaining every particle of creation, as our liturgy says, “He renews every day the works of Creation.” Gd is eternal, which means transcendental to time. His Creation is an eternal process, it is not anything outside of Gd, as our Sages tell us, “Gd is the Place of creation, the creation is not the place of Gd.” In the case of human beings, we have the opportunity to go within ourselves and culture our souls so that they become progressively more receptive to Gdliness. This gives us the strength and the wisdom to discern what in the environment is helpful and what is harmful, whether it be the food we eat or the company we keep. By doing so we grow in holiness ourselves, and we can radiate this holiness to the environment – thereby creating an environment bathed in holiness in which we can all bask.


Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parsashat Vayera

Genesis Chapter 18.

1. Now the Lrd appeared to him in the plains of Mamre, and he was sitting at the entrance of the tent while the day was hot.
2. And he lifted his eyes and saw, and behold, three men were standing beside him, and he saw and ran toward them from the entrance of the tent and he prostrated himself to the ground.

When Gd appears to us, as He does for some in our congregation , how will He appear? With a Form, or as The Formless, The Unbounded, All-Pervading, Omnipresent, All-Knowing, All-Powerful, All Loving, All Joyful? Or as a Mixture of Formless and Form?

Gd appears to Abram (not yet Abraham) as Abram sits in the doorway of his home; how does He Appear? As the Formless, or with Form?

The Parshah does not tell us nor does it tell us that Gd spoke to Abram nor does it tell Abram’s reaction to Gd’s appearing: immediately after we are told that Gd appeared, we are told that Abram looked and saw three men.

The men turn out to be angels, messengers of Gd, Expressions of Gd, so I read between the lines and take it that Gd appeared first as the Formless and instantly!

He appeared with Form, as the three angels.

When Abram was sitting at the entrance to his tent, he was the link between the inside, the Formless, Unity,and the outside, the Formed Diversity.

This is definitely a taste of Teshuvah, return to Primordial Oneness.

Through the sound of Torah, we can have a taste of Teshuvah: 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 Parshat Vayera read by Rabbi Michael 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, recite Torah and share the delight and joy of Torah with others.

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

Baruch HaShem