Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Vayera: Spiritual Purpose in this World

Here is a speech I co-wrote with a student for his Bar Mitzvah:

Of all the important events that take place in our parsha, Vayera, two raise some interesting questions. The first is Avraham’s recuperation from the Brit Milah, and the second is the ultimate test of his obedience to G-d, the Akeida.

At the beginning of the parsha, we find Avraham recovering from his Brit Milah. At the command of G-d, he has undergone a painful procedure that sets him apart and distinguishes him from other people. He has reached a new spiritual high, and has become the first Jew. And where do we find Avraham, shortly after his brit? Sitting at his own doorstep, hoping, searching for guests to invite in. The talmud in tractate Bava Metzia says that Hashem made the weather extra hot that day, so that no travelers would be out. G-d wanted Avraham to have a rest, without strangers to entertain. However, when G-d saw Avraham distressed over his lack of guests, he sent angels to him in the form of men.

Why does Avraham so desperately want guests right after his Brit Milah? Also, Rashi tells us that G-d himself had already come to visit Avraham in his weakened state, even before He sent angels. Why does Avraham leave G-d’s presence in order to tend to three travelers? Let’s leave that question for now, and turn to the akeida.

At the end of our parsha, Hashem orders Avraham to bring his son, Yitzchak, as an offering. He and his son travel to Har Hamoriya with two servants. Father and son are equally intent on fulfilling G-d’s Will. They take leave of the two servants at the foot of the mountain, and ascend to the top. The Torah uses the phrase ‘vayelchu sheneihem yachdav’, ‘they both continued together’ in two verses. According to Rabbi Hirsch, the term ‘yachdav’, ‘together’, is used twice, to emphasize the complete harmony and unity of father and son, in their intention to do Hashem’s Will. Of course, G-d never really intended for the sacrifice to actually take place, and Avraham and Yitzchak soon return to their servants and make their way home.
Here is the pasuk that describes their return home: ‘vayashov avraham el ne’arav, vayakumu vayelchu yachdav el be’er sheva’. ‘Avraham returned to his servants, and they all went together to Be’er Sheva’. Interestingly, the word ‘yachdav’ is used again. This time it describes Avraham and Yitzchak walking together with their servants.

The word ‘together’ is used to describe Avraham and Yitzchak’s path towards the most intense spiritual experience of their lives. Why is it used again later, regarding the seemingly mundane walk back home with their servants? Also, the paragraph of the Akeida episode ends in a strange place. I would have expected it to end with G-d blessing Avraham and Yitchak for their faithfulness. Instead, the Akeida narrative adds the pasuk describing the walk back with the servants. This pasuk is tagged on, making it part of the Akeida narrative. Why is the trip home with the servants part of the lofty akeida story?

Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch offers an interesting explanation to both these episodes:

Other religions hold that spirituality in this world consists primarily of breaking all ties with the physical world and its inhabitants. The person who gets closest to G-d is the one who retreats from the pleasures of this world and escapes from interaction with other people. He meditates for hours at a time, and becomes reclusive. This person often does not marry, have children, or even live among other people.

This type of spirituality is not the ideal in Judaism. As Jews, our job is to connect to this world, and bring it closer to the goals that G-d set out for it. We are also meant to enjoy this world fully, according to the commands, and within the bounds of the Torah. Sometimes, in order to regain proper mastery over our urges, we temporarily deny ourselves permitted pleasures. For example, when a Jew becomes a nazir, he foregoes drinking wine for 30 days. But at the end of that period, he must bring a sin-offering. Rambam writes that this sin-offering is brought to atone for his abstinence from wine, a legitimate pleasure that G-d permits.

As Jewish people, when we have a spiritual connection to G-d, we are not supposed to become hermits. G-d wants us to use our spiritual growth to develop relationships with others, and bring them closer to G-d, as well.

This same lesson is taught at our parsha’s opening. Why did Avraham so eagerly seek out travelers right after his circumcison?- And why did he feel that offering others hospitality was even more important than talking to G-d? After Avraham’s brit, he was afraid that his newfound spirituality might be a barrier between him and others. He felt this especially, since he had physically altered his body, and differentiated himself from the rest of the world. It is precisely at this time that Avraham felt the need to invite strangers. He wanted to demonstrate to himself and to the whole world, that even though he is different, he is not apart from them. Indeed, Avraham sought to reaffirm his ties to humanity.

The same thing happens in the story of the akeida. Avraham and Yitzchak reach the height of spirituality, of mesirat nefesh. Although the climactic spiritual experience is reserved exclusively for Abraham and the son who G-d chose, they do not let it make them arrogant. They do not in any way look down at their servants afterward. On the contrary, they walk together with their servants, ‘yachdav’, as they walked together as father and son when they had to be alone.

The lesson is clear. Jews do not become closer to G-d in order to separate from Mankind, but to help them, and to bring godliness down to Earth. It is our job to bring that holiness into this world.