Friday, October 22, 2010

Seeing the Good - Parashat Vayera

It is a scorching day.  The desert sun beats down on the tent making it unbearable to be inside.  Outside is no better as the temperature of the day continues to rise.  Avraham sits near the Alonim trees, which give off just a bit of relief both from the shade they produce and the bit of moisture they add, gazing out into the vastness, into the void.  Where others see desolation, Abraham sees possibility.  Where others see emptiness, Abraham perceives the Divine.  These days have been a series of trials, one after the other, and it is not clear at this moment, sitting outside in the arid heat, that the trials are over.  In fact, they are not.

For Abraham the list of challenging tests seems endless: leaving the ancestral home; making a place for a nephew along the away; brit milah at an advanced age; promises unfulfilled; constant wandering; domestic struggles; childlessness followed by sibling rivalries; and, ultimately, child sacrifice only narrowly avoided.  Each one of the trials is difficult on its own.  Combined, the picture Avraham could paint is one of pain, darkness, negativity and hopelessness.  This could be a setting where only evil and pain were perceived.

In almost every instance, however, Avraham has the uncanny ability to see things differently.  Wandering will lead to a homeland promised by God.  Childlessness will lead to generations of descendants so great that they cannot be counted just as the stars cannot be counted.  The promise of the destruction of cities leads to the chance for a deep encounter with God, an encounter that is not one-sided, where there is a possibility for a different outcome.  Why does Avraham choose to see things differently?  How can he see the positive and the possibility where most others would see only darkness?  How, in the midst of the heat of the desert day and the pain from recovering from his own brit milah does Avraham have the energy to get and run to the travelers he sees, to the Divine he perceives, and to the possibility of good that he knows travels with the wanderers?

Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, in his commentary on the Torah known as Kedushat Levi, provides us with one possible answer:

“And he saw them and ran toward them” - And the issue is that the Tzaddik - the righteous person - when he sees a person, is able to distinguish whether that person is good or not.  That is to say, when the Tzaddik sees a person and brightness (or clarity) and a great light comes to him, then this is a good person and if not, then not.  

Avraham, the tzaddik, sees good where others might not be able to perceive it.  He basks in the goodness of others and creates opportunity for more good.  Moreover, he acts, even when in pain, to increase good in the world.  Far from a pollyanna, Avraham is a realist with a  default position to perceive good, to seize the moment, and to bring more good.

As the days get shorter and the city is shrouded in growing darkness even at midday, it is challenging to see good, to see possibility for good.  In place of the desert heat, we have the Midwestern cold with temperatures dropping each night.  With each passing day, it will grow harder to get up, to run to welcome others, to help them.  It will be easier to stay inside, to watch passers by, or to walk briskly past people who need help because it is oppressively cold.  As the winter draws near, the challenge for each of us it to be like Avraham - to see light in the midst of darkness; to make our spiritual homes even more welcoming to the wandering traveler; to see the goodness clearly and brightly.  And then, it is our job to increase that brightness, to be tzaddik-like in our conduct toward ourselves, toward others, and toward God.

Shabbat Shalom.

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