A Message for Parashat VaYera 2017
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Best-selling author Jon Acuff began his newest book with a confession: “I fought the wrong ghost in 2013.” He was referring to his previous book, Start, and admitting that although he once believed that our biggest problem is overcoming the fear of “beginning” he has now changed his mind. He asked, “Do you know what makes the start look silly and easy and almost insignificant?” And he answered, “The finish.”
Acuff related that year after year, his readers pulled him aside at events to tell him, “I’ve never had a problem starting. I’ve started a million things but I never finish them. How do I finish?” Considering their question, he realized that he too struggled greatly with completions. He noticed that most of his personal books were left half-read, his exercise programs incomplete and scores of other ambitions unfinished. He committed to working on the issue, and then researched and published Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done – a guide to completing the tasks we begin.
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The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to Avraham: “I Have tried you with several ordeals, and you have withstood them all. Now, stand firm in this ordeal for Me, so that others will not say: ‘There is no substance in the first ordeals.’” (Sanhedrin 89b)
Although Avraham had already led a long life of exemplary devotion to God, the trial of the Akedah remained his ultimate test of loyalty. It challenged him to prove that he was in fact greater than mere thoughts, beliefs and ambitions. It tested whether he could finish.
As he stood with an outstretched arm clutching a knife above his son Yisshak, God’s angel interrupted him and declared: “Now I know that you fear God and you have not held back your son, your only one, from Me” (Bereshit 22:12). While the years of trials and tribulations had proved Avraham’s greatness, his success in that ultimate test demonstrated his completeness.
The famed mashgiah of Yeshivat Mir, R. Yeruham Levovitz z”l, often spoke about the significance of completeness. He quoted his teacher, the Alter of Kelm z”l, who highlighted a particular halakhah to portray this concept. Shulhan Arukh ruled: “If one has slices of bread and a whole loaf, he should recite the berakhah on the whole loaf, even if it was made from coarse flour and is small and the slices are clean and large.” Consider the situation: Approaching an array of bread that is laid out on the table, we are cautioned to turn away from fresh slices of appetizing bread and grab the small and less appealing roll for the berakhah. R. Levovitz explained that shelemut (“completeness”) is not merely an added “quality,” but rather a definition of its beholder. Its absence indicates a deficiency in essence.
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We are conditioned to believe that our determination and insistence on absolute excellence mark the appropriate path to the finish lines of our many goals. Jon Acuff contrarily suggested, however, that it is the skill of relinquishing our pursuit of “perfection” that inspires us to finish. It creates for us a mission that is relatable and a goal that feels attainable.
At one critical moment in Avraham’s life, God commanded that he walk before Him and “be complete” (Bereshit 17:1). Paradoxically, it was at that very time that Avraham lost his physical completeness – with his berit milah! God’s message, however, was clear: The necessary road to “completeness” cannot be paved with the unrealistic hopes of perfection. It must instead be led by an honest understanding of our own deficiencies and a focused vision on the finish line.
Rabbi Avi Harari