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Vayeirah : The Mission Continues

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G-d’s Mysterious Ways

A strange thing happened today. In this week’s column I was committed to continue the theme that I have been writing about for the last couple of weeks: The search for our personal mission in life.

But then, during a moving telephone conversation today about life’s tragedies, I was struck by a very serious quandary; one that cannot simply be ignored. Hence, the following words, before I continue with the sequel to last week’s article.

In this week’s Torah reading, G-d determines to destroy the sadistic and corrupt city of Sodom. But before doing so, we are told that G-d pondered:

“Shall I hide from Abraham what I am going to do [destroy Sodom]?”

G-d then informs Abraham of His plans to destroy the city. Abraham does not remain silent. He adamantly protests, and demands that G-d not destroy Sodom.

“Will You actually wipe out the innocent together with the guilty? Suppose there are fifty innocent people in the city. Would You still destroy it, and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty good people inside it? It would be sacrilege even to ascribe such an act to You – to kill the innocent with the guilty, letting the righteous and the wicked fare alike. It would be sacrilege to ascribe this to You! Shall the whole world’s Judge not act justly?”

G-d agrees, that if there are fifty righteous people He will spare the city. Abraham continues to plead:

“But suppose that there are five missing from the fifty innocent? Will You destroy the entire city because of the five?”

And Abraham works his way down. 40. 30. 20. 10. Even ten righteous people could not be found in Sodom. The city is subsequently destroyed.

Powerful story. G-d will not conceal His plans from Abraham. G-d knew full well that Abraham would challenge His decree, yet G-d still invites Abraham to the challenge. And indeed, Abraham does everything in his power to reverse the verdict.

So many lessons can be gleaned from this story: The depth of our intimate relationship with G-d; G-d’s unwillingness to conceal His plans, even when they are foreboding; the power of prayer; our ability to reverse Heavenly decrees; compassion even for the wicked.

Many lessons. But here’s the big question, one that should not allow us to rest peacefully:

In our own time we experienced a horrifying Holocaust. 6 million innocent Jews, and many millions more, were annihilated. Over a million children alone perished.

Why did G-d not ask the same question, whether He should hide the terrifying future form His righteous people.

Sodom was a wicked city, which deserved to be destroyed; the 6 million were innocent. When it comes to wicked Sodom G-d wonders whether He should reveal His plans to Abraham, and then proceeds to do so. But when it came to the decimation of a third of the Jewish nation – far more than the population of Sodom – G-d chooses silence…

Some say that G-d intentionally concealed the impending Holocaust from His tzaddikim because He did not want them to intervene and stop the decree. “Tzaddik gozer Haokodesh Boruch Hu Mikayem,” G-d fulfills the decree of a tzaddik, and beyond that: “Hakodesh Boruch Hu gozer, tzaddik mevatel,” a tzaddik can abolish G-d’s decree!

Perhaps.

But that still does not quiet our pain.

In this week’s Torah portion, You – G-d – show us that You struggle with the destruction even of cruel people. You inform us that You could not remain silent and conceal Your plans from Abraham. So you know how to speak when You want to. Why then, we implore of you, were You so silent in 1935?! You could have at least warned us to escape!…

We often hear about G-d’s mysterious ways. As G-d tells Job (paraphrased): “were you there when I created heaven and earth that you question me about My justice.” We ask why there’s suffering, but do we ask why there’s joy? We ask why there’s disease, but do we ask why there’s health? We ask why there’s death, but do we ask why there’s life? We come in “middle of the picture” and ask why things aren’t working in the world, but do we ask with the same passion why the world was created for in the first place? We ask why bad things happen to good people, but do we ask why good people were born in the first place?

We take life, birth, health and joy as a given. We are troubled only when there’s pain. The real question is not why there’s pain and suffering, but why is there joy. Not why is there death, but why is there life in the first place – a life that allows for pain and loss and death. Because the secret of death is directly linked to the secret of birth, the secret of pain is directly linked to the secret of life. If we knew the beginning, we would know the end.

These are G-d’s mysterious ways. And as we accept G-d as G-d, we must also accept that G-d has His mysterious ways.

“’My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,’ says G-d. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.’” (Isaiah 55:8-9)

All good and fine. However, in this week’s portion our mysterious G-d suddenly decides to not conceal His plans from Abraham. Ahh, now You, G-d, have set a precedent; You have opened the door – You have demonstrated that at time You do share with us Your mysterious ways. So why didn’t You warn us, why did You remain silent – and why do You remain silent when so many suffer senseless pain? When innocent children are being hurt?

If you want to nitpick, you can argue that inn the case of Sodom G-d felt responsible to inform Abraham, because it was G-d Who destroyed Sodom, whereas man perpetrated the Holocaust. But go tell that to the survivors of those that perished in the Holocaust, or to any father or mother who suffers a tragic loss…

It is told that a great Rebbe, who had lost his entire family and hundreds of thousands of his Chassidim in the Holocaust, once said: “Even if G-d wanted to reveal to me the mystery of allowing such a slaughter, I would rather not know.” [Perhaps it was the Gerer Rebbe. If anyone has more information on this, please let me know].

The only thing one can really say is that being exposed to G-d’s mysterious ways is no simple matter.

Perhaps that’s why G-d deliberated and wondered – and let us know about it – “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am going to do?” G-d knew the implications of inviting Abraham into the “inner chambers,” to be privy to the cosmic secrets of existence and beyond.

As we read in the heartrending Yom Kippur prayer how Rabbi Yishmael, the high priest, purifies himself and with reverence pronounces G-d’s ineffable Name and ascends to the heavenly heights to inquire whether the Divine Will sanctioned the Roman decree to brutally kill the ten greatest Jewish leaders of the time.

He ascends and inquires of the angel clothed in white, who answers him:

“Take it upon yourselves, righteous, beloved Sages, for I have heard from behind the Curtain that this decree has been imposed upon you.”

“Behind the curtain.”

What else lurks “behind the curtain” wouldn’t we all want to know. But that knowledge comes with a heavy price. And that price is not something we should take lightly. That’s why the above-mentioned Rebbe said that he would rather not know.

Perhaps that’s what happened to the three of the four great men who entered the Pardes (lit. garden), and did not come out intact. One went insane, one died and one became an apostate. They saw things “behind the curtain” that they could not contain.

But then there was Rabbi Akiva, who “entered in peace and left in peace.” The same Rabbi Akiva that was able to laugh and see redemption where others saw the desolation of the Temple Mount after its destruction.

What is the secret of Rabbi Akiva and Abraham? Perhaps knowing that is precisely what distinguishes them as Rabbi Akiva and Abraham.

Yet, we still cry out.

 * * * *

[Long pause].

One lesson we can derive from this episode regarding our own personal mission is that in our search and our journey there will be many mysteries that we may not be able to fathom. There is no need to force yourself into discovering the answer to all mysteries.

Yes, there is a curious, voyeuristic – even sensational – human side that is drawn to the unknown and the exotic. Many seek out “crystal balls” to discover our destinies, our previous lives, our dreams and our stars. But we must also know that our primary goal is; personal responsibility. Not how much knowledge you have, but what you do with the knowledge that you have. We were given all the information we need to fulfill our mission. And if something was not told to us and remains a mystery that means that we don’t need that knowledge to fulfill our calling.

It’s not that healthy to peek “behind the curtain.”

That’s why true Kabbalists and Mystics rarely share these secrets. Guided by the maxim: “Those that say don’t know. Those that know don’t say.”

Figure out what to do on this side of the “curtain” before venturing further.

* * * *

We now stand in the fourth stage of the sequence defining our mission in life. As discussed in last week’s article, the Torah chapters from the beginning of Genesis outline the story of our lives:

The mission begins (Bereishit).

The mission is revitalized, with the cleansing of the world following mans’ great fall (Noach).

The mission is embraced and begins to be realized by Abraham, with the first step being the need to transcend our own subjectivity (Lech Lecho).

Now, in this week’s chapter (Vayeira), the mission develops further and takes on new dimensions.

Primarily, the focus is on self-sacrifice.

To fulfill our mission in life we have to be ready to embrace higher standards than the narcissistic struggle for survival. We must be ready to surrender our immature need to “have it our way” and accept a greater calling. This includes, transcending even our “good” and “holy” interests in face of something more Divine.

This is the inherent message in many of the lessons in this week’s story:

Abraham “turns away” from his personal relationship with G-d in order to greet guests, from which we learn that “greeting guests is greater than receiving G-d”! By greeting the guests, Abraham actually experienced G-d in a higher way. Never allow your own religiosity and commitment compromise your love and graciousness to other people. After all, the more you love G-d the more you’ll love what G-d loves – His own children. (See last year’s Religious Selfishness).

Abraham tries to protect even the wicked city of Sodom. He does everything in his power to reverse their impending doom. Even though Abraham was completely committed to G-d and His ways, and he therefore clearly did not condone the criminals of Sodom, yet Abraham transcended his own personal comfort. Abraham could have easily retreated to his own spiritual oasis to build his family and students and ignore the undeserving Sodomites. Instead, he challenged G-d to save the city. Because Abraham was not a “tzaddik in peltz” (a righteous person in a fur coat), whose sole interest is to keep himself warm, but he knew that our Divine calling is to “light a fire” that warms everyone, not just yourself. (See How to Treat Infidels).

The lesson is obvious in our own mission. Your mission is never just about you alone. It always includes illuminating and warming the people and the world around you.

Finally, at the end of the portion we read about the Akeidah, lit. the Binding of Isaac. How Abraham was ready to offer his son to G-d. – Perhaps the most controversial story in the Torah. Abraham was prepared to offer to G-d not just his son but also the profound love of a father for his child – and all the promises that G-d had made about this child! This was the ultimate test of dedication. G-d didn’t want Abraham to kill his son; He wanted him to transcend even the personal, subjective love that a parent has to a child, and infuse it with an objective Divinity. For an elaborate discussion on this see Kill Me a Son.

We too, in our mission, will at times be tested. And the ultimate test is when you are asked to transcend even your own healthy commitments and loves, and when you do you come out a greater person. Example: As a healthy parent you have to often ask yourself: Do I want this good for my child because it is my good or because it is my child’s good?

To return where we began. The search for our mission consists of two parts: Things we know and things we don’t know. Our personality, opportunities, people and places are all available to us. But even the things we don’t know are also part of our mission: To forge ahead despite the mystery.

One thing we know for sure: Part of our mission is about love – selfless love.

We have to know how to transcend even own mission, that is: our understanding of our mission.

It’s interesting to note, that the reason G-d feels He cannot conceal His plans from Abraham is because (as the verse continues):

“Abraham is about to become a great and mighty nation, and through him all the nations of the world will be blessed. I have given him special attention so that he will command his children and his household after him, and they will keep G-d’s way, doing charity and justice. G-d will then bring about for Abraham everything He promised.”

Abraham’s commitment – and leadership – give him the right to know G-d’s ways. Our relationship with G-d is a two-way street: The more we immerse ourselves in our calling and the more dedicated we become to our mission, the more access we gain to the deeper mysteries of life.

So, the plot thickens. As you continue to embrace your mission in life you will continue to grow and the journey will gain momentum. It may get more complex but also more exciting.

It is your mission; your journey; your music. If you open yourself to it the voyage will be exhilarating.

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