This Week's Portion: Vayera: Remaining Open to Revelations
This portion — Vayera — relates to Abraham: his circumcision at the age of 99, his encounter with 3 angels who reveal that he will have a son, Isaac, and — most crucially — the moment when G-d tells Abraham that he must sacrifice that son. Although the portion seems to incorporate many disparate events, there is a common thread that unites them. What is that thread? Each story explores a path to revelation. This is relevant for us, as spiritual people, because of course we all strive toward deeper truth in our lives. We find ourselves asking G-d, what is our purpose? What should we do now? Why is this happening to us? All of us suffer anguish, and so all of us seek a revelation. However, this portion reminds us that just asking is not enough. It’s possible that, even as we ask these questions, we are missing important messages from the Divine as a result of our attitudes and behaviors. Vayera instructs us that, to be able to receive revelations, we must first take action — just as Abraham did — even when that action goes against our instincts.
Often we believe that pain is a path to revelation. Think about it — we believe that, if we suffer, we will be somehow rewarded for our resilience. At first analysis, this theory seems to fit Abraham’s situation. Given that he had to circumcise himself — there were no surgeons, no anesthesia — using a sharp stone as his tool, there is no doubt that he endured extraordinary pain. We might wonder if the pain alone was the purpose of the circumcision. However, this would be an incorrect interpretation. The mere experience of suffering was not why G-d asked Abraham to do this. There was a reason for this very literal opening up of Abraham. In order for him to receive a revelation — which he did, three days after the act of circumcision — he had to first uncover himself. In other words, this was a physical rupture that left him spiritually open, and as a result he was more able to accept a message from G-d. This gesture, then, had its own intrinsic significance, beyond simply the endurance of pain.
After the circumcision, which was undertaken to expose Abraham to revelations, he was visited by three angels. At first, he did not know who they were. These angels looked like ordinary desert people, so he could have just turned them away. He certainly had reason to, given that they arrived only three days after Abraham’s circumcision. However, despite his painful situation, he chose to welcome them warmly. He showed his visitors sincere hospitality: greeting them, feeding them, and even washing their feet. So what does this show us? It shows us that Abraham was acting in complete openness. He was open to receiving others, and he was humble enough to understand that revelations could come from unlikely sources. This humility was validated when his guests transpired to be messengers of G-d. They had an important revelation to share: despite their old age, Abraham and Sarah would have their first son, a son named Isaac.
When Isaac was born, many people celebrated. However, some expressed doubts. They knew that Sarah was an old lady, supposedly barren, and so they could not accept the miracle of her new baby son. Be honest with yourself — how would you have reacted to this news? Maybe you understand why they were too closed-minded to believe that such an event could ever take place. We can imagine how rumors soon spread about the origin of the child. But those doubters were punished for their lack of faith: G-d dried up the milk of the noble women, leaving them unable to feed their own children. Those babies were then fed by Sarah, a righteous woman whose milk was flowing and plentiful. This is a reminder to us. There are always unknown elements in life. If we approach life certain that we know it all already, then we leave no space for new revelations; we are blocking our ability to receive. On the contrary, if we can accept that which may at first seem irrational, then we are showing our capacity to accept G-d’s plan. This is when Divine messages are received.
There can be no more extreme example of this acceptance than when G-d told Abraham he must sacrifice his son. Thankfully, as we know, G-d had no intention of letting him do this, but Abraham didn’t know that. He had no idea it was a test, and we can only imagine how he felt when he was given such an unthinkable task. Although, of course, he did not want to sacrifice his beloved Isaac, he bound him up as he had been instructed to, and he even went as far as to raise his sword, showing his full intention to kill his only son. At the very last moment, G-d intervened and stopped the sacrifice. Abraham had shown his complete openness to His plan and proven that he wholeheartedly trusted G-d’s word, even when it contradicted his most fundamental instincts. This demonstration of unconditional faith was a path to blessings for Abraham, another route to revelations.
So what can we learn from the many stories of Vayera, and how can we apply their wisdom? How can this portion help us unravel revelations in our own lives? The guidance offered here is clear. First, we must open ourselves to the word of the Divine. This means being uncovered, removing barriers, experiencing discomfort, and making ourselves vulnerable in the process — just as Abraham did. Remember, if we are closed off and arrogant, we become unreachable, even to the Divine. Humility is key. In action, that means being willing to question that which we have believed to be certain. As human beings, of course it’s natural that we become attached to ideas. However, we mustn’t let that attachment hold us back. The danger in doing so is that we become stuck, our rigidity freezing us in place and stopping us from moving forward in our spiritual journey.
Hospitality is a route to revelations too. Although we are in the times of COVID, there are still ways for us to host, serve, and connect with our community. As Abraham showed, we must be willing to learn from others — even those that society has deemed “lesser” — because unexpected sources can be vessels for important messages. These are times of great adversity for many, but even when we face adversity in our lives, we must trust that G-d has placed these challenges in our path for a reason. Why? Because in overcoming them, vital lessons can be learned. The most important message of this portion is that we should not live as if we already know it all. A more spiritual way of life is in fact to live as if we know nothing at all, because then we open ourselves up to the possibility of learning everything. As Vayera teaches us, it is only through humility and open-mindedness that we can become truly receptive to G-d’s revelations.