For the week ending 7 November 2009 / 19 Heshvan 5770

Parshat Vayera

by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair -
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Three days after performing brit mila on himself, Avraham is visited by G-d. When three angels appear in human form, Avraham rushes to show them hospitality by bringing them into his tent, despite this being the most painful time after the operation. Sarah laughs when she hears from them that she will bear a son next year. G-d reveals to Avraham that He will destroy Sodom, and Avraham pleads for Sodom to be spared. G-d agrees that if there are fifty righteous people in Sodom He will not destroy it. Avraham "bargains" G-d down to ten righteous people. However, not even ten can be found. Lot, his wife and two daughters are rescued just before sulfur and fire rain down on Sodom and her sister cities. Lots wife looks back and is turned into a pillar of salt. Lots daughters fear that as a result of the destruction there will be no husbands for them. They decide to get their father drunk and through him to perpetuate the human race. From the elder daughter, Moav is born, and from the younger, Ammon. Avraham moves to Gerar where Avimelech abducts Sarah. After G-d appears to Avimelech in a dream, he releases Sarah and appeases Avraham. As promised, a son, Yitzchak, is born to Sarah and Avraham. On the eighth day after the birth, Avraham circumcises him as commanded. Avraham makes a feast the day Yitzchak is weaned. Sarah tells Avraham to banish Hagar and Hagar's son Yishmael because she sees in him signs of degeneracy. Avraham is distressed at the prospect of banishing his son, but G-d tells him to listen to whatever Sarah tells him to do. After nearly dying of thirst in the desert, Yishmael is rescued by an angel and G-d promises that he will be the progenitor of a mighty nation. Avimelech enters into an alliance with Avraham when he sees that G-d is with him. In a tenth and final test, G-d instructs Avraham to take Yitzchak, who is now 37, and to offer him as a sacrifice. Avraham does this, in spite of ostensibly aborting Jewish nationhood and contradicting his life-long preaching against human sacrifice. At the last moment, G-d sends an angel to stop Avraham. Because of Avrahams unquestioning obedience, G-d promises him that even if the Jewish People sin, they will never be completely dominated by their foes. The parsha ends with the genealogy and birth of Rivka.


The Knowledge of the Night

"…and have not withheld your son…" (22:16)

It's difficult for us to experience what real night is anymore.

Nowadays, the electric light has vanquished the night, and night is more or less like a rather overcast day. We live in a twenty-four hour, round-the-clock world that never slumbers or sleeps.

But it wasn't always so. Not more than a couple of hundred years ago the day ended when the sun went down, and whatever artificial light existed was meager, expensive, and difficult to generate.

Imagine yourself in total darkness. A darkness where all outside stimuli have been removed; a darkness so deep that all you can perceive is your own existence. The existential truth that you are there. The sort of darkness where everything else is withheld from you.

The word for darkness in Hebrew is choshech, whose root is connected to the verb "to withhold" as it says in this week's Torah portion, "And you have not withheld your son…"

In real darkness we experience the withholding of every other existence save the sense of our own being.

"To relate in the morning Your kindness, and Your faith, in the night…" (Mizmor Shir L'Yom HaShabbat)

Faith is something that takes place in the night, in the absence of any other reality than the surety of our own existence.

Everything we know, all knowledge, can be discussed, examined, argued about, refuted, proved, dissected, and shared.

With one exception.

There is one piece of knowledge that is beyond all refutation or controversy, beyond doubt and beyond proof.

And that is the certainty of our own existence.

No one can tell us that we are not here, and we need no proof that we exist. The truth of our own existence is irrefutable and intuitive, beyond all logic or discussion. It is the deepest form of knowledge, and deeper than knowledge itself.

It is the knowledge of the night; the certainty of our own existence when all outside stimuli have been removed.

The Rambam writes that in the last syllable of the Shema, we should be moser nefesh, literally we should “give over our souls” to G-d. This doesn’t just mean that we are prepared to give up our lives rather than betray our faith; it means that in the Shema, despite our total certainty that we exist — that we are ‘one’ — we submit that certainty to His Oneness. We surrender that irrefutable certainty of our own existence and declare that that we are no more than just one expression of what G-d wishes to reveal in His world.

This is the meaning of the verse "…and Your Faith, in the night."

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