Sunday, November 17, 2019

Parashat VaYera: Making Space

Making Space
Thoughts on Parashat VaYera 2019
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God’s one-sentence command of Avraham was strict and straightforward:
…And He said, “Take, pray, your son, your only one, whom you love, Yisshak, and Go forth to the land of Moriah and offer him up as a burnt offering on one of the mountains which I shall say to you.” (22:2)
It appeared to leave Avraham with no room for self-expression or interpretation. His options seemed simple: to listen or not to listen to God’s word.

And yet, as Avraham began his journey to “the land of Moriah,” something unexpected took place:
On the third day Avraham raised his eyes and saw the place from afar. (22:4)
Instead of lowering his eyes in an obedient march to “one of the mountains which God would say,” Avraham “raised his eyes,” and recognized the mountain – on his own – from afar.  Indeed, after Avraham had climbed the mountain and God warned him not to harm Yisshak, Avraham again “raised his eyes.” He again expressed himself independently, noticing a ram that was caught in the thicket by its horns, and deeming it the right replacement for Yisshak on the mizbeah (22:14).

Ironically, then, the episode of the Akedah – forever remembered as Avraham’s display of absolute deference to God and His word – lays hint to an integral element of space in the man-God relationship. It teaches that even in the most “constricting” circumstances of our relationship with Him, there remains a hollow void within which each individual may carve out their own personal niche. Even as Avraham followed the absolute order of God to sacrifice his son, the opportunity to “raise his eyes” remained.

I first appreciated the significance of a literal and figurative space to our lives during a meeting with a personal mentor, David “Hurdle” Tawil. Hurdle was critiquing the speed of my speech in a sermon on one particular Shabbat morning. He told me that by failing to sufficiently breathe in between sentences and paragraphs, I stole the opportunity from my listeners to reflect upon the message and find its relevance to their own lives.

“I’ll tell you a story to get across the point,” Hurdle then told me, with the twinkle of his eye. He told me that over sixty years ago, a friend of his was struggling in the retail business of clothing. Distinguished today as a standout philanthropist of our community, this individual was struggling to make ends meet at the beginning years of his career. And so, he called Hurdle into his store, and asked him for advice. He showed off his high-quality merchandise and questioned why nobody seemed interested in buying it. “And I noticed the issue immediately,” Hurdle told me, “there was not enough space from one rack to the next.” Entering into the store, consumers were “overwhelmed” by the vast array of merchandise laid out in front of them, and unable to appropriately “take in” and appreciate the value of each individual garment and parcel. “When you leave the right amount of space,” Hurdle then taught me, “you allow for the people around you to appreciate what you have to offer.”

The British historian Emma Hornby pointed out that both in Hebrew and Greek words for “spirit” also mean “breath” (nefesh and neshamah) or “wind” (ruah). The silence of the “space in between,” a breath or the wind, allows the spirit in.[1] Indeed, the very creation of man entailed God “blowing into his nostrils the breath of life – nefesh hayah,” creating a “living spirit – nishmat hayim” (2:7). And Onkelos, the classic translator to the Torah, famously explained that the “living spirit” of man is best defined by his ability to speak (ruah me-malela). How ironic! Our self-identity, which is best expressed through our speech with one another, was born out of the silent space of a breath.

Consider the similarity of relationships with our children to the “Akedah experience” between God and Avraham. No, I don’t mean that we too ask our children to slaughter others! But just as God expected Avraham to obediently follow his word, so too do we of our children in many interactions with them. Learning from that somewhat unexpected “space” which God carved out for Avraham, the message to us is clear. Allow your children to “raise their eyes” and notice on their own. Even as you intend to impart advice from years of life-experience, the words are often understood best through a medium of appropriate space. It is ironic yet true that guided-growth flourishes most in a context that invites self-reflection and expression.

[1] Emma Hornby, “Preliminary Thoughts About Silence in Early Western Chant,” in Silence, Music, Silent Music, (Aldershot, UK, 2007). Pg. 142-3. Cited by Jane Brox, Silence: A Social History of One of the Least Understood Elements of Our Lives (New York, NY, 2019), pg. 68.