This week’s Torah reading is Vayera, which famously begins with Abraham hosting three angels, who go on to prophesy the birth of Isaac, and then to destroy the sinful Sodom and Gomorrah. In this parasha we get a much deeper look into Abraham’s character traits and personality. Of course, there is a great deal to be learned from the first patriarch. His legendary hospitality and kindness (stemming from his root in the mystical sefirah of Chessed, of which we wrote about last year) is already well-known. His empathy and concern for others, too, is often highlighted from this week’s reading where he negotiates with God to spare the people of Sodom. Yet there are several more lessons (among many others) we can draw from the great Abraham.
Dust and Ashes
In the midst of his conversation with God to spare the people of Sodom, Abraham meekly states anokhi afar v’efer, “I am dust and ashes” (Genesis 18:27). This alludes to the account of creation where God makes man afar min hadamah, from the “dust of the ground” (Genesis 2:7), and after the Forbidden Fruit, curses man: “from the dust you came, and to the dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).
It also reminds of the words of the great sage Akavia ben Mehalalel in the Mishnah (Avot 3:1): “Reflect upon three things and you will not come to sin: Know from where you came, and where you are going, and before whom you are destined to give a judgement and accounting. From where you came? From a putrid drop. Where you are going? To a place of dust, maggots and worms. And before whom you are destined to give a judgement and accounting? Before the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.”
Rashi comments on Abraham’s words that were it not for God’s salvation, Abraham would have been turned to ashes by Nimrod’s flaming furnace, and to dust by the alliance of armies that warred against him (Genesis 14). Abraham thus addressed God in this humble manner, recognizing that he is in no position to argue against His creator, yet at the same time fulfilling his God-given mandate of being holy, and being like God, Who is ultimately compassionate and graceful. Of course, God comforts Abraham in telling him that had there been fifty righteous people in Sodom, He would not destroy it (or had there been forty-five people for that matter, or forty, or thirty, twenty, or even ten).
All of this is a great lesson in humility. As the Mishnah states, a person should never forget where they come from and where they are going; how short and futile life is; and where they really stand in the grand scheme of this vast universe. However, one should never be self-effacing, nor should a person forget that they are made in God’s image, with an infinite potential to grow, create, and improve their world.
One of the earliest Chassidic leaders, Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa (1765-1827), said it best: “A person should have two pockets in his coat. One should contain the Talmudic saying: ‘For my sake was the world created.’ In the second pocket he should keep the Torah verse: ‘I am but dust and ashes.’”
Later on in the parasha we read what seems like a déjà vu, where the beautiful Sarah is once again abducted by a king, this time Avimelech of Gerar. As a result, Avimelech’s household is plagued by some sort of infertility, or according to others, a curse where all of their orifices were sealed, preventing both excretion and childbirth. The story concludes with Abraham praying for Avimelech and his household, and they are healed. The Torah specifically states that the women were once more able to deliver their babies (Genesis 20:17-18).
The very next verse starts by saying that God “remembered what He had said… and Sarah conceived and bore a son to Abraham…” Rashi comments on the juxtaposition of verses: since Abraham prayed for Avimelech’s home to be fruitful, so too was his own home made fruitful. The lesson: one who prays for the needs of another, while having the same need, will also have his or her need fulfilled. The key to successful prayer is not constantly begging for one’s own needs, but instead, to focus (sincerely, of course) on the wellbeing of others.
In the final major passage of the parasha we read of the Akedah, the “binding of Isaac”. God commands Abraham to do something that seems both immoral and illogical. To be fair, despite the fact that most people assume God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son, the exact Hebrew wording never mentions killing or death, but simply asks Abraham to “elevate” Isaac. Nonetheless, Abraham himself believed God asked him to have Isaac sacrificed, perhaps in the spirit of the day when human sacrifice was common. We cannot imagine how difficult this must have been for Abraham, especially since Isaac was his long-awaited son.
God tells Abraham: “Please take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac…” (Genesis 22:2). Why the redundancy in wording? Couldn’t God just say “Please take your son” or “Please take Isaac”? Rashi answers by quoting a beautiful midrash: God initially said “Please take your son”. Abraham, knowing where this was probably going, said “I have two sons” (referring to Ishmael, his son from Hagar). God said “your only one”, since by this point Ishmael had been expelled, and it was already clear that Isaac would inherit the Covenant. Abraham replied that, nevertheless, they are both his “only sons” – Ishmael his only son through Hagar, and Isaac his only son through Sarah. So God said “whom you love”, and Abraham quickly replied that he loves both of them. Finally, God explicitly said “Isaac”. Rashi finishes by saying that God rewarded Abraham for each of these expressions, in lovingly trying to avoid the difficult test.
Despite this, the Torah says that Abraham “arose early in the morning” to fulfil God’s test. This is the third time where the exact phrasing is used, describing Abraham as arising early in the morning. It is from this that the tradition of Abraham instituting shacharit, the morning prayer, comes from. Abraham was an early bird, and a diligent man that got all of his work done promptly. This is another great lesson from the first of our forefathers.
Rabbi Dosa ben Harkinas tells us in the Mishnah (Avot 3:10) that sleeping in in the morning is one of four things that guarantee a person will fail in this world (the others being drinking alcohol in the day, being childish, and spending time in places where ignorant people gather). How can one sleep in when there is so much to be done? So many goals to accomplish, and so many mitzvot to fulfil; so many opportunities to take advantage of, and so much wisdom to study; so many things to explore, so many people to help, and so many lives to change. To end with the words of Rabbi Tarfon (Avot 2:15): “The day is short, and the work is abundant, but the workers are lazy, although there is much reward, and the Master is pressing…”