Parshat Vayera centers on a phenomenal moment in Jewish tradition: the negotiation between God and Abraham about the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. By all accounts, the people of the doomed city do not have a lot going for them. Ezekiel enumerates their sins, saying “She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me.” But Abraham fights for them, claiming that there must be some number of righteous people within the gates. He asks: Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? … Far be it from you to do a thing like that! … Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly? Abraham challenges God. He advocates for the people of the city and for God’s own moral standing as a God of justice. Here Abraham demonstrates that he is iconoclastic, thwarting the traditional power dynamic between divine and devotee and bringing morality into the debate of action.
In a midrash, the Rabbis characterize this remarkable interaction as prayer. Discussing the importance of kavanah—mindfulness or
intention—during prayer, the rabbis declare that Abraham is the highest exemplar. The midrash points to this story, saying “…And nobody had kavanah in their prayer like our Father Abraham, which we see from the fact that he said: “Far be it from you to do a thing like that!” What is it about this kind of chutzpah clappei shamayim -challenging the heavens—or what today we might call “speaking truth to power”—that the rabbis see as the ultimate spiritual expression?
Genuine prayer requires a combination of openness and chutzpah—the strength of mind to honestly engage with what is within and around us, and the strength of imagination to see how it might be different. Abraham’s intense focus on approaching the world in this manner is a type of perpetual prayer. And in this case, he was able to push even God to do the same. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, theologian, civil rights and anti-war activist, also found great inspiration in using prayer’s directed introspection as an impetus toward worldly engagement. He states: ‘Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehoods. The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement, seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, the hope, the vision. Though we can only dream of relating to God as Abraham did, our liturgy reminds us that we too can pray for justice. Prayers aimed to subvert oppressive systems and challenge the status quo can be found throughout the siddur. Prayers that the hungry should be fed and the naked clothed seek to break the chains of global capitalism that leave millions starving and unprotected. Prayers that the sick will be healed and that the dead will rise challenge the circle of life we believe to be natural. If we can challenge the very systems of creation, davka—how much more so—can we challenge those who claim the authority of God.’
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Abraham, at the outset of the parshah is told to go and travel to a land that God will show him. G-d promises to make him a great nation, to bless him and to make his name great, so that he will be a blessing for all. It is interesting to note that Abraham had no idea where he was going! And what is this blessing he is promised? The Or Hachayim (Rabbi Chayim Ben Attar) explains that this additional blessing was to compensate Avraham for God purposefully not telling him his destination. Rabbi Attar explains that this was a tremendous and very difficult test. Not only did Avraham have to leave his home and all the people he knew, but he was travelling blind not knowing even the country he was bound for. The fact that Avraham did not question God and just accepted to undertake this journey demonstrates what a true Tzaddik he was and how worthy he was of Hashem’s blessings. That is why Avraham encountered success wherever he went- his total faith was unparalleled and therefore recognized by Hashem.
“And it occurred, as he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, ‘See now, I have known that you are a woman of beautiful appearance. And it shall occur, when the Egyptians will see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife!’ – then they will kill me…’ ” (12:11-12) How was it possible that only now Avraham recognized Sarah’s beauty? The Arizal says that up till this point in time Avraham had no
concept of physicality – like Adam before he sinned. However, as he approached Egypt, the world center of decadence, even his lofty spiritual level lessened when he perceived good and evil – the domain of physicality. Sensing this change in himself, Avraham recognized the depths of impurity that was Egypt. He now sensed that it was indeed possible for man to sink to murder in order to satisfy his physical desires.
The following is a quote from the the Vilna Gaon: “In every generation new barriers need to be erected, for every generation is less than its predecessor and the eruv rav (descendents of the Egyptians who left Egypt at the time of
the Exodus) grow stronger. Therefore, it is necessary to barricade anew the breaches (in morality) perpetrated by the eruv rav. This is what the Torah means when it says “Guard my guardings!” (Vayikra 29:9)
Rabbi Chaim Zvi Center explains: Like Avraham, the closer we get to our own little Egypts – the larger our cars, our houses and our physical well-being loom in our lives – the more we know that we need to build
stronger and stronger fences against a world that celebrates immorality and conspicuous consumption.
Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair comments: ” Life’s essential journey is that of the soul discovering its true identity. We learn this from the first two words in this week’s Torah portion. “Lech Lecha.” “Go to yourself.” Without vowels, these two words are written identically. When G-d took Avraham out of Ur Kasdim and sent him to the Land of Israel, He used those two identical words —Lech Lecha —“Go to yourself.” Spiritual growth requires the soul to journey. Our soul must notch up the miles, not our feet. The spiritual road requires us to forsake the comfortable, the familiar ever repeating landmarks of our personalities, and set out with an open mind and a humble soul. We must divest ourselves of the fawning icons of our own egos which we define and confine us — and journey. Avraham experienced ten tests in his spiritual journey. Each was exquisitely designed to elevate him to his ultimate spiritual potential. When G-d gives us a test, whether it’s the death of a loved one or a financial reversal or an illness, it’s always to help us grow. By conquering the obstacles that lie in our spiritual path – be it lack of trust in G-d or selfishness or apathy — we grow in stature. We connect with the fundamental purpose of the journey — to journey away from our negative traits and reach and realize our true selves. We ‘go to ourselves’. “
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“And God saw how great was the evil of mankind in the world and that all the desire of their hearts were only evil all the day long and God regretted that He had made human beings in the world and He was deeply saddened. And God said: ‘I shall wipe out humanity – which I created – from off the face of the earth, from man to beast to creepy-crawly to birds of the sky, for I regret that I made them.’ BUT Noach found favor in the eyes of God.” (Genesis 6:5-8)
The one redeeming personality in the whole word was Noach. Now, he was not great enough – or so it seems – for God to save the whole world in his merit. But he was great enough to be saved, along with his family, to become the new first family of humanity. However, the Torah does not here describe what was so great about Noach.
Rabbi Avi Heller explains: If we look backward in the Torah, we find an intriguing hint about Noach’s specialness, which is that Noach was special from the time he was born. Not only was he the tenth generation from Adam, but when his father (Lemech) named him, he said: “This [one] shall comfort us from our hard work and the suffering of our labor, from the ground that God has cursed.” (Gen 5:29) Among the generations from Adam to Noach, Noach is unique in having an explanation given for his name and he is given special attention by the Torah. However, it is possible that none of this is really to Noach’s credit. First of all, when the people said “this one will comfort us”, they could hardly have meant that they would all die in the flood. According to this, Noach was supposed to SAVE everyone, but in the end he failed and managed only to save himself. Second, there is a delicious double-entendre, for the phrase “this one shall comfort us” has the same Hebrew root as the word for “regret”, as in: this is the one that will finally convince God to regret having created human beings. When we look forward, we see what Noach’s real value. It is true that he failed to save his generation and that he never lived up to his potential. But the Torah loves Noach nonetheless and, at the beginning of our portion, it lavishes attention on his name, repeating it five times over the course of three verses. What’s special about Noach is that he focuses on his relationships with God, with his fellow human beings and with his family, his future generations. He finds favor in the eyes of God because he seeks a relationship with Him. As a tzaddik, he upholds justice and integrity, even in a world where everyone cheats and profits thereby. As a tamim (unblemished one), he also understands mercy and generosity, going beyond the letter of the law to help others. But all the time, he retains his humility, walking with God, ascribing his virtue not to himself but to a higher power. Finally, Noach transmits these values to his children.
Noach represents for us a first step, a way of first focusing on our relationship to God, our friends and neighbors and our future (our children).In emulating Noach, we can learn that we must spend time on our own “4 cubits” – building our own ark – before supervising the construction efforts of others.
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To introduce the creation of man, the Torah says, “VaYomer Elokim Naaseh Adam BeTzalmeinu KiDemuteinu,” “And God said, ‘Let us make a man in our image, as our likeness.’” (Bereishit 1:26) The Midrash explains that this Pasuk uses the plural Naaseh because God consulted the Malachim (angels) before creating man.
The Midrash states that when Moshe was writing the Torah, he saw this Pasuk and he asked Hashem, “Why are You creating an opportunity for people who don’t believe in You to find support for their opinions in this Pasuk, which seems to imply the existence of multiple gods, Chas VeShalom?” Hashem answered that he should leave the Pasuk the way it is and let anyone who wants to err do so. Hashem said to do this because in the future, there would be a leader who would think that he could make decisions without consulting his subordinates and his subordinates would be able to say that if Hashem consulted the Malachim, that leader should consult them too (BeReishit Rabbah 8:8).
Based on this Midrash, the Chanukat HaTorah explains the saying of Chazal that arrogance is like idol worship. One can interpret “Naaseh Adam” in two ways—that it is an expression of humility which Hashem showed by consulting the angels, or that it indicates the presence of other gods. A person who chooses to be arrogant will deny that Hashem went out of his way to show that humility is important; therefore, he will infer from this Pasuk that other gods exist, which is Avodah Zarah.
Rav Elchanan Wasserman finds this Midrash puzzling. In a business venture, would someone risk a large amount of money for a small profit? Obviously not; the risk and reward have to be somewhat in balance. So too, why would Hashem create a situation where someone could mistakenly conclude that other gods exist, just to teach the lesson of humility? This is a case where the risks seem to heavily outweigh the rewards.
Rav Elchanan explains that for years, people have learned this Pasuk and not believed that other gods exist. The Pasuk does not imply that there are other gods; it is clearly saying that Hashem only consulted his angels out of common courtesy. Only people who are looking to deny Hashem’s existence can understand this Pasuk as saying that there are other gods. This is what the Midrash means when it says that if people want to err they can—they are looking to err, so there is nothing Moshe can do to prevent it. This also means that the risk-to-reward proportion is greatly in Hashem’s favor. The vast majority of people will be able to learn the message of humility from the Pasuk and only a very few, for whom nothing can be done anyway, will perceive the wrong message.
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When reading the opening passage of this parshah, one may become aware that it is very similar to a specific passage in
Isaiah 1:2. The Sifri contrasts the use of the word ‘ha-zanah’ by Moses in connection with the word ‘aretz’ – earth -, as
reflecting Moses’ closeness to heaven. Isaiah, on the other hand, uses ‘shemiyah’ for hearing in connection with heaven, and ‘ha-azanah’ in connection with earth. This is supposed to reflect Isaiah’s relative closeness to earth.
There are, however, according to Torat Moshe, other differences between Moses and Isaiah, which deserve our attention. Isaiah uses the term ‘dabber’ for both heaven and earth, whereas Moses employs the term ‘dabber’ only when he addresses heaven, whereas he uses the verb ‘amar’. Also, when referring to the heavens, Moses invites ‘ha-azinu’ – listen first, whereas he presumes that the earth will listen only after his speech has already been made (‘imrey phi’), or at least begun. Moses
illustrates that a tzaddik can command heavenly beings, seeing that the latter do not enjoy freedom of choice. Even a tzaddik, however, cannot COMMAND a fellow human being, unless that human being is agreeable. A tzaddik even can use harsh
language, i.e. ‘dibbur’ when addressing heavenly creatures. When he addresses earthly creatures – such as human beings – he cannot dictate, and there is hence the word ‘amirah’ – which is to say but in a soft language and tone. All of the above,
Torat Moshe explains, was applicable to a person of the caliber of Moses. Isaiah, a lesser mortal although a major prophet did not presume to address heavenly beings in so peremptory a matter. He would communicate only the word of God, not his own. Hence – ‘ki Hashem dibber’ in Isaiah 1:2, where he commanded heaven and earth only to listen to the word of God. If the
Midrsah Hagadol relates that heaven and earth arrested their orbiting when addressed by Moses, just as they had stopped orbiting at the time of the revelation at Mount Sinai, the meaning may be this: At Mount Sinai, the giving of the 10
commandments and the immediate direct guidance of God was so evident, that anything based merely on natural law, such as the motion of galaxies, ceased. Also, this served as a warning to Israel that should they fail to accept the torah, the motion of the galaxies would become meaningless since God would destroy nature; having creating it only for the sake of the Jewish people accepting his covenant. When Moses calls on heaven and earth as witnesses to his warning to the Jewish people to remain loyal to their God and their Torah, he reenacts the events of the time of the revelation at Sinai in order to bring home his point. An additional reason for calling up the heavens and the earth as witnesses is that according to Torah law, the witnesses must be the first to execute any punishment decreed by the Court, based on their testimony (Deut. 17:7). It will be heaven and earth, which by withholding their bounty will execute judgment on the Jewish people, should they fail to heed Moses’ warnings.
If we compare this weeks parsha, Haazinu, to parashat Netzavim (which we read before Rosh Hashanah), it seems to be very similar upon first glance. It begins with the idea of God taking Israel under His wings, and Israel repaying this kindness by
worshipping idols. This -of course- is followed by God punishing Israel for forsaking Him. Both parshas end with an instruction to do good deeds, in order to ensure only reward from God. The obvious question which arises is why is Haazinu different? What does it add to Netzavim? Also, how is it special in relation to all the different types of tochacha -rebuke- we have already seen in Deuteronomy?
Just by looking at the verses, it is obvious that there is a difference in the poetic style of the parsha. It is a shira, a song, which according to the Netziv, is the only part of the Torah which was written before it was taught. But the Ramban finds a deeper meaning to the verses, explaining the parsha as both an account of Israel’s history, and a prophecy of their future. He explains the following verse: “and Moses came and spoke all the words of this song…” – to include everything that will happen to Israel in the future. Ramban demonstrates how each section of the shira refers to a different part of Israel’s history. It starts with God taking care of us in the desert, conquering the other nations. Israel then forgot that it was God who had helped them, and they proceeded to turn to avoda zara-idol worship
Ramban discusses certain things which were predicted to happen in the future – i.e.: that God would disperse Israel to the four corners of the earth. He points out that the end of the shira states that God will take revenge on their enemies. He stresses that the accuracy of certain predictions is proof that this promise of revenge (or rather a promise of final redemption- which is how he understands revenge) will also one day be fulfilled.
Nachshoni compares this logic to that of Rabbi Akiva, who looked upon the remnants of the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, and still was able to rejoice because he understood that just as the prophecy of the destruction of the Temple had come true, so too would the prophecy of the geulah- redemption.
These commentators clearly see Haazinu as representative of something more than a harsh rebuke. They realize that Haazinu is a story of Israel’s history and future. They see in it the ultimate comfort of the promise of redemption.
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In Parshat Vayelech, Moses tells the Israelites that although he won’t be entering Israel with them, God will be with them and will triumph as long as they keep the covenant. Moses tells the people “I am no longer able to go out and come in…” (Deuteronomy 31:2). What this refers to is the fact that he will not lead them into the Promised Land and into war. The Or Hachayyim explains that Moses wanted to explain to the people why he was convinced that he would die on that day. It is not in the nature of the religious to let onto their peers that they have some superior perceptions; this would be arrogant. This is why Moses cited two different reasons: 1) I am unable to lead you in war, i.e. I no longer have God’s permission to do so. This permission has now been given to Joshua. 2) God has told me: “you will not cross this river Jordan.” From these two indicators it was clear to Moses that he had outlived his usefulness and was about to die. The sequence of the words “and the Lord had said to me, etc…” which follow so closely on Moses’ statement: “ I cannot go out, etc,” indicate his loyalty as a servant of the Creator. He suggested by this sequence that if, per chance, this same God would now give him instructions to cross the Jordan, he, Moses, would gird himself and be ready to lead the Israelites across though he did not feel capable of doing so at the moment. The only reason he did not insist on doing so was that God had told him not to.
Moses calls Joshua to command him to settle the people in the land. The Alshekh states that Joshua’s function is to be viewed NOT as THE CONQUEROR. The Torah emphasizes that you will come with the people, instead of you will bring the people, as stated later in verse 23. Had Moses said to Joshua publicly in v.7, what he said to him privately in v.23, Joshua’s function could have been misunderstood. Since the statement in v.23 however, was not made ‘le’eynei bnai israel’ – in the presence of the Jewish people, no misunderstanding was likely. Joshua’s courage was needed, since, de facto, he was to be the leader. As long as the people view Joshua as one of them, they will be satisfied that God is doing the fighting for them. It states “The Lord will not let you weaken” (Deuteronomy 31:8). Joshua need not fear or be faint-hearted, because God will walk ahead of the nation.
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