One of my favorite passages in the siddur comes from the morning liturgy. It’s a section taken from the Talmud known as Eilu D’varim, and to paraphrase, it says, “these are the Mitzvot that have no measure that a person does them in this world and is rewarded in the world to come,” it then lists certain Mitzvot including, honoring father and mother, doing good deeds, welcoming guests, visiting the sick, learning new things every day, caring for those who are mourning, celebrating with newlyweds, meditating in prayer, being a peace maker, and it ends by telling us that the study of Torah is equal to all these Mitzvot implying that studying the Torah leads one to perform these acts. When I teach this section of the service to our students I tell them that not only are these Mitzvot priceless but they are the kinds of deeds that they will have the opportunity to live out many times and that this is a way to bring holiness into our lives.
In many ways, our Biblical characters, including God, demonstrate the performance of these Mitzvot. For example, in the portion of VaYeiRA that we read in the beginning of this month, Abraham performs HaChNaSaT ORChiYM, he welcomes guests to his tent and provides them with hospitality. God too does a Mitzvot in the portion. According to Midrash Abraham, who is recovering from his self circumcision, is visited by God in the form of the three men or angels who come to Abraham’s tent. God performs BiKUR ChOLiYM, the taking care or visiting of the sick.
In a previous Torah portion God appears to Abraham and tells him, “I am EL ShaDaiY, walk before me and become perfect.” This is yet another invitation for Abraham to show his obedience to God for he is then commanded to circumcise himself as well as all the men in his clan, including his son, the 13 year old Ishmael.This he does and this is where we encounter Abraham in the portion, recovering from surgery at the age of 99.
According to the Zohar, Abraham achieves what God promises him, that if he walks before God he will become perfect. This promise is made in chapter 17 of Genesis. The chapter begins by telling us that God appeared to Avram, as he is known then. The language used is worded this way, VaYeiRA YHVH EL AVRaM, literally “Adonai appeared to Avram.” Here the syntax of the Hebrew makes sense but in the beginning of this parashah, our text, in reporting God’s appearance to Abraham, is worded differently than in the last portion. Here it says VaYeiRA EiLaYV YHVH which means “to him YHVH appeared.”
Here, Abraham is referred to first. The Hebrew seems to imply that there is a change in Abraham from last week to now, that he actually achieves what God says, that he should “walk before God.” And so, the Hebrew hints at this by putting the reference to Abraham literally before the name of God. So, how does Abraham achieve perfection?
The characters in the mythology of the Torah are not perfect but they certainly are not two dimensional either, rather they are extremely complex and not so easily understood on the surface level. What is great about our Bible is that it is not shy about portraying the many sides of a person’s personality and often we can learn lessons from our ancestor’s negative traits as well as the ethics, morals, and mitzvot they do perform. But let’s be sure, Abraham is the central character in the book of Genesis because he is, in a way, a theological genius, an innovative thinker, and a great leader and warrior. As the Rabbis have taught us, Abraham came to realize that his father’s idol worshipping ways were not for him, and his rebellion demonstrated his belief in the One God. This is why, in a previous Torah portion, God made the point to tell Abraham, or Avram to not only leave his home land but, specifically, his father’s house as if to say to leave his father’s theology behind. Leaving his home, Abraham sets off on a journey where he is destined to become the father of two nations and although he may not be a perfect human, he becomes a perfect Abraham. How did he get this way?
Torah commentators tell us that God put Abraham through 10 tests or 10 trials. These trials are instrumental in shaping and refining Abraham’s character. While the different commentators have varying opinions as to what the ten trials are, they all agree on his exile from his homeland, his self circumcision, and the binding of Isaac which takes place at the end of VaYeiRA.
We all know the story, we read it every Rosh Hashanah and its drama sets the stage for the seriousness of the Holy Days. God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son, who according to the text was 37 at the time. Abraham, the faithful Jew, sets out to carry out this mission, traveling with Isaac to Mt. Moriah where he prepares the alter and binds Isaac. Abraham raises the knife above his head, is ready to strike when an angel appears and calls Abraham’s name twice, “Abraham, Abraham,” In the chumash there appears a line in between the names. The Zohar explains that the line is there to show us that Abraham is different after the first saying of his name, in between the Abrahams, he goes through a transformation. As the last of the ten trials, the binding of Isaac is the final event that brings Abraham to the level of self-actualization. But what was the test? Was it that he would go through with sacrificing his son? No. In a way, by following an impulse to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham was just acting out the ritual belief of his past. Human sacrifice was a prominent practice in the area that Abraham left. No, the test was that he would need to hear the true voice of God telling him to stop and not to offer up his boy and to do what a parent should instinctually do, to protect the life of their child. This he does, and defies an antiquated, barbaric practice. And this is why Abraham saved the world because, he made the leap from believing in a God who wants the sacrifice of human life to a God that wants to be experienced in the holiness of human life. This is a lesson our world needs more than ever. God manifests in our worlds as our very lives and we find God through the endeavor of sifting and surveying the experiences and events of our lives to find those sparks of holiness as we strive for a more perfected society.
This is life. At times it seems that life, if not God, is putting us to a test, pushing our limits of patience, acceptance, and perseverance and stretching the boundaries of our faith. Spiritual teachings do tell us that “God is indeed, testing us,” and that there is a purpose and an expected outcome from the challenges in our lives. Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of the Reconstructionist Movement, taught that God is the force in nature that helps the human reach perfection. It is the impulse to perfect and refine our character. This is what Abraham understood, that if God is truly One, than that Oneness could not be separate from our world and separate from our lives. Certainly God manifests as the world, as our lives and when we recognize that, we reach the possibility of the potential for perfection.
A prayer book for homes of mourning reminds us, “who among us has not passed through trials and bereavements…?” Exactly. We have all been through the tests and trials of life and hopefully we have learned and grown from them. And, when we are challenged again, may we be able to put our best face forward and live life in the moment, to face the reality of whatever situation. May we do it in wholeness, in Shalom.
A famous Chasidic vignette describes the great Rebbe Zusya of Hanipol some time before his death saying, with some trepidation, “In the coming world, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not more like Moses?’ They will ask me: ‘Why were you not more like Zusya?’” This is our mission in life, to be the best we can be, to actualize our true selves, to reach our true potential.
Kein Y’hi Ratzon, may this be God’s will.