vayera: God is in the Otherr

Translated by Netzach Sapir


The Zohar, which literally means “glow” or “radiance,” is named for the inner layer of reality, the layer in which, according to Kabbalah, G-d can be found. The Zohar directs its readers to identify the world’s underlying glow with G-dliness, and to seek to encounter it – an encounter which leads to enlightenment. One of the Zohar’s greatest messages for humanity is that the Divine can be found in life itself: in our selves, in our relationships and in all people. As opposed to other mystical paths which demand that a person disconnect from the world in order to arrive at a transcendent “true reality” beyond this one, the Zohar offers a path to G-d which connects the earthly experience with the heavenly one. The journey to G-d, according to the Zohar, traverses through human relationships: from the intimate relationship between a woman and a man to the relationship a person conducts with his community. Much of the Zohar is written as a conversation between friends studying, traveling, living their lives, and through all this, interacting with Torah. The monastic concept, in which a person isolates himself from the world in order to connect with G-d, is foreign to the Zohar and to Judaism in general.

Broken Vessels, Broken People

Parshat Vayera concludes with the story of the Akeidah, the binding of Yitzchak. The Torah does not explain why the Master of the World found it necessary to test Avraham. Both the Zohar (nistar) and the Midrash (nigleh) are needed in order to explain what provoked G-d to test His trusted servant. A contemplation of the difference between the explanations of the Zohar and the Midrash serves to demonstrate the unique and wonderful message of Kabbalah. Both of the interpretations see the Akeidah – which ultimately brought Avraham closer to Hashem – as a response to Avraham’s having withheld something from G-d, damaging his relationship with Him. In response G-d requests from Avraham the ultimate sacrifice – his only son. Let us briefly examine the sources to see what they hold Avraham’s sin to be and what he withheld from G-d.

            The Midrash, which is brought by Rashi, writes as follows:

“After these things” – Some of the sages say that it was after the Satan spoke, for he accused Avraham before G-d: “In all the feasting that Avraham made, he didn’t sacrifice to you a single bull or ram.” He [G-d] replied, “All that he did, he did only for his son. Yet were I to tell him, ‘sacrifice him to me,’ he would not hold back.” (Rashi on Bereshit 22:1).

According to the Midrash, Avraham celebrated the day that Yitzchak was weaned yet throughout the festivities he didn’t offer any sacrifice in thanks to Hashem. Avraham’s sin lay in his ingratitude to the Creator. The Satan takes advantage of this mistake to call Avraham’s dedication into question, and in response, G-d tests Avraham with the Akeidah.

            The Zohar explains Avraham’s sin differently:

Rebbe Shimon opened and said: Anyone who is happy during the holidays and does not give a part to the Holy One, the Evil Eye of the Satan hates him and prosecutes him and drives him out of the world… [How does one give a] part to the Holy One? By cheering the less fortunate ones as much as he can. For in these days, Hashem comes down to the world to visit his broken vessels, and he sees them and sees that they have nothing with which to rejoice, and he cries for them, and he ascends heavenward to destroy the world. [The angels] who dwell on high come before Him and say, ‘Master of all worlds, merciful and compassionate you are called, have mercy on your children.’ He says to them, ‘I have not fashioned the world except out of kindness, as it is written, ‘a world of kindness he will build’ (Tehillim 89:3), and the world exists on it.’ (Introduction to the Zohar 10b).

Later, the Zohar tells that the Satan arrived at Avraham’s party disguised as a poor beggar. No one paid any attention to him, and so he ascended back to heaven and accused Avraham before G-d: “Master of all worlds, you said: ‘Avraham who loved Me’ (Isaiah 41:8), but here he makes a feast and gives nothing to you and nothing to the poor.” Avraham’s sin is not only against G-d, it also against society: he failed to consider the poor. Unlike the Midrash, which focuses only on the direct dialogue between Avraham and G-d, the Zohar describes the wider human picture, a picture through which the infinite G-d is revealed.

            The concept of the “broken vessels,” which was mentioned in Parshat Noach, has a slightly different connotation here. The breaking of the vessels is the reason for the imperfect nature of reality. Before the vessels were broken, they received a constant flow of direct light from G-d, and reality was a perfectly balanced harmony. But something went wrong in the cosmic creation process and the vessels exploded, sending shards of light all over the world (thereby infusing the entire world with veiled divinity.) Man’s purpose in the world is to fix the broken vessels, reveal the hidden sparks and elevate them. The broken vessels are the humans themselves – every one contains a fallen divine spark, and Man’s work is to mend this human lacking, which is really a divine lacking. The Zohar explains that giving tzedakah is not only a mitzvah “ben adam lechavero,” between a person and his fellow, but is really giving to G-d. The mortal realm, with all its shortcomings, is part of the G-dly realm. For Avraham to be considered a lover of G-d, he must show himself to be a lover of humans, especially the “others,” the beggars and the broken.

            The social interpretation of the broken vessels received further development in the writings of one of the great kabbalists of the 20th century, Rabbi Yehudah Ashlag. He was of the opinion that the breaking of the vessels was expressed by the great damage caused by an unequal distribution of wealth, a reality which destroys the world – rich and poor alike. In 1958, David Ben Gurion wrote to Rabbi Tzvi Brandwein, a close student of Rabbi Ashlag: “He [Rabbi Ashlag] asked me many times if, after the establishment of the state, we would establish a communist regime.” Ultimately, after seeing what happened in the Soviet Union, Rabbi Ashlag became disillusioned with the communist dream, and ceased to believe that the vision of the distribution of wealth could be carried out though politics.[1]

Wealth and Joy

The Zohar demands of a person not only to give money to poor people, as would be convenient to think, but also to make them happy. The Zohar’s definition of social justice does not end at the economic level, it extends to a more general human awareness. As Douglas Adams puts it in the opening to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

Most of the people living on [planet Earth] were unhappy for pretty much all of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movement of small green pieces of paper, which was odd because on the whole it wasn't the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy. (Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, pg 1)

This can also be seen from the Satan’s story about dressing up as a beggar and finding that no one paid any attention to him. His complaint was not only because of the food that was withheld from him but even more so because of the feeling of being ignored and excluded. The Talmud Bavli states that one who comforts a poor man with kind words is greater than one who gives him money (Bava Batra 9b).  

Unfortunately, all the modern-day debates about social justice, even those motivated by the best of intentions, tend to restrict themselves to questions of finances and budgets, and conclude with the established collective sigh of dismay at the plight of the poor. The value of happiness is not included in the economic equation, and there, I think, lies one of the main shortcomings of the communist movement: It is not enough to distribute wealth among the people, we must find a way to distribute happiness as well. There are millionaires and billionaires who are sad, lost people, broken vessels that need healing. A proper approach to social consideration must take into account how all human resources – physical and spiritual – can be made accessible to society. Spiritual resources include closeness between people, acceptance of the strange or different, happiness, responsibility, giving to others and spiritual pursuit. 

The key to happiness is not found in heaven. We must not forget that the responsibility for this world lies with us. The verse, “A world of kindness he shall build,” (Tehillim 89:3) is usually interpreted as a request to G-d that He build the world in kindness, but the Zohar here places the responsibility for building a world of kindness on humanity. The existence of the world depends on us, on the kindness and compassion with which we treat one another. The G-dly reality, the Zohar constantly reminds us, depends on Man.

Welcoming Guests and Receiving the Shechinah

Prior to the story of the destruction of Sdom, Hashem says that “Avraham will go on to become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the world will be blessed through him. For I have known him in order that he would command his sons and household after him to keep the path of G-d and to do righteousness and justice…” (Bereshit 18:18-19). Hashem chooses Avraham because he believes in his ability to pass on to his children and followers the way of G-d, the way of righteousness and justice. But Avraham’s message is that it is not only the brother or friend who is worthy of righteousness and justice, but even the distant relative, even the stranger. In order to understand just how radical this approach was and still is, it behooves us to take note of the context: these verses appear immediately before the destruction of Sdom and Amorah and serve as a sort of introduction to it. Avraham pleads with G-d in an attempt to avert the evil decree: “And Avraham approached and said ‘will you sweep away the righteous with evil?...Will not the judge of the whole world do justice?” (ibid 18:23-25). Avraham’s outcry rings with the call for righteousness and justice – the path of G-d upon which he walks.

Avraham’s attitude towards the other stands in contrast to the prevailing paradigm in Sdom: “And the King of Sdom said to Avram, ‘Give me the people and keep the spoils for yourself’” (Bereshit 14:21). These would seem to be the words of an outstanding leader – it is not the money and loot which interests him, only the welfare of his people. But if we look closer, we discover what the King of Sdom is really saying. He sees as his only obligation the people of Sdom. He has no interest in the welfare of others (as can be seen by the way the Sdomites wish to treat Lot’s guests.) Beit HaLevi explains the difference between Avraham’s hosting and Lot’s hosting: Lot was willing to risk his life for his guests’ sake only because he knew they were angels from G-d. Avraham, though, did not know that his guests were divine messengers. Nonetheless, his tent is open in all directions. When he saw three wandering pagans passing by, he served them fine food, offered them water to wash their feet and to quench the desert thirst, and met them truly, regardless of who they were.

The Midrash makes an amazing statement about this: “Welcoming guests is greater than receiving the presence of the Shechina” (Shabbat 127a) – the human is placed above the Divine. From the Zohar we saw earlier, it seems that to welcome a guest is itself to receive the Shechina’s presence!

Avraham’s consideration of the other, the distant from him, echoes in the modern day philosophies of Martin Buber and Emanuel Levinas. Buber’s philosophy of dialogue is based on the cultivation of “I-You” relationships, as opposed to “I-It” ones. “I-You” relationships create an honest connection between me and the other, and it understands that a person can only shape his own spiritual identity through interaction with the other. Buber arrived at this conclusion after a tragic event. In the beginning of the 20th century, Buber engaged in the study of eastern traditions, both academically and experientially. One day, while he sat meditating, one of his students approached him and asked to speak with him, but Buber ignored him. The next day he discovered that the student had put an end to his own life. Buber blamed himself for his callousness and his excessive dedication to transcending worldliness. He decided to change his path, and began developing his philosophy of dialogue, in which seeing the other is of paramount importance.

Emanuel Levinas, a French Jewish philosopher, sought to direct his gaze on the face of the other, different from him, and thereby to discover himself. In his approach, G-d is the “absolute other,” totally different from him. The purpose of man is to open himself to the human infinity standing before him.

This is especially true of life in Israel. The “other” in Israel is anyone who isn’t us, who doesn’t look like us or speak our language. It is enough just to look into Israel’s backyard to understand the tribal nature of Israeli society and the social isolationism that reigns in it. The same is true for the way we relate to other nations and religions. The true challenge of today is to look warmly to these “others,” who get lost in the Israeli domain.

Ramadan and the Zohar

            I will conclude with a personal story. I had the privilege of participating in an interfaith gathering celebrating the end of the month-long fast of Ramadan. Held in the upper Galil, the Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Druze followers of the Abrahamic path met in an attempt to promote peaceful coexistence and mutual respect. I was asked to speak to represent the Jewish faith. To honor our hosts I began by discussing a precept from the Koran which was pertinent to the day and demonstrated the connection between the G-dly and the human: According to the Koran, a person who is unable to fast on Ramadan can release himself of his obligation by giving food to poor people. I was surprised by the equivalency with which the Koran relates to the G-dly service and social-humanist activity. Afterward I explained to the participants the parallel in Judaism, the Zohar’s interpretation of Parshat Vayera, where we are called upon to open our hearts to the other. We concluded the learning with a joint prayer that the shared values of our religions should assist us, the children of Avraham, in deepening our appreciation and respect for each other, and bring us closer to peace.

[1] Michah Odenheimer, “The path of Kabbalah to Communism,” Haaretz, 14/12/2004 (Hebrew)

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