Categorized | Columnists, D'var Torah

This week’s parasha urges us to spring into action

Posted on 25 October 2018 by admin

The current Torah readings discuss the life of our patriarch Avraham, referred to as the first Jew. Last week, the section of “Lech Lecha” opened with Avraham receiving a command to journey from the comfort of his birthplace to the unknown, “the land that I will show you.” This week opens with “Vayeira,” in which G d reveals Himself to Abraham three days after his circumcision.
The soul — loosely defined as the bridge between our experiencee of the body and the physical world around us, and our experience of divinity — has three main modes of expression: thought, speech and action. Simply put, our personality is reflected in how we think, what we feel and what we do.
In the very first Torah portion about creation, the commentaries explore the defining feature of a human. The natural selection is superior intellect and wisdom. Indeed, thought is potent — our mindset has a powerful influence on the outcome of any action.
But in the Holy Tongue (Hebrew), a human being is called a medaber (a speaking being), indicating that, more than any other trait, the faculty of speech reflects our primary distinction. The esoteric commentaries explain that the natural willingness and ability to share thoughts and feelings with another is sublimely rooted within the soul, stemming from a place inside that recognizes no boundaries — no separation between one individual and another.
When someone is precise with language, capturing images and fleeting reality in words for the sake of transferring light (wisdom and information) to uplift another person, then he or she has utilized this garment of the soul on the highest level.
Then comes action — what we choose to do — which seems to be the most external feature of our personality, largely removed from the intense color and vitality of the inner world. At the same time, action is the garment with the most tangible impact on the environment.
For us to be whole, we must continually sort through and upgrade how we use these three modes of expression, often deciding where to place priority.
When it comes to the emotion of love, for example, people may assess it in different ways. Is love primarily measured by one’s experience or displays of emotion? Or is it measured more simply, by whether someone adheres to the other’s wishes through action?
In relationships and marriage, a deficiency in one type of expression may result in dissatisfaction. Some may want the other person to think and feel more, not just to “do what’s right.” They want their partner to be interested, able to understand them and recognize what makes the other person special. Or the partner may turn around and say, “Don’t just love me in your way; it’s great that you appreciate and feel for me so much, but I want you to do more — show, don’t tell.”
In the spiritual arena, the notion of “a covenant” focuses mainly on doing, regardless of what’s experienced in the moment. Indeed, the real test of commitment within any relationship is what you do when you aren’t enthused or inspired, or even when you are pulled in the opposite direction.
With this idea, we can return to answer a common question about why, despite all the great accomplishments of Abraham, the Torah begins with the command of “go from your land, your birthplace, your father’s house…”
When beginning to study, a Jewish child encounters a series of rich stories within our tradition, relating Avraham’s growth — progressing from an idolatrous upbringing into a profound intellectual investigation, arriving at the recognition of a singular Creator, showing the courage to stand against the prevalent culture of the time and sharing his insights with the multitudes.
We often take the above episodes for granted. It’s strange, however, that within these passages of the Torah, there is no mention, not even a brief introduction, about Avraham’s character. Our first encounter is the divine instruction (and his submission) to “leave your land…” Moving into this week, the style of the Torah is rarely to describe his thoughts, disposition and emotions. All this is reserved for accompanying commentaries and midrashim, while the scriptural verses focus on action, self-sacrifice and withstanding tests.
One explanation of this omission of literary content is that the Torah is sending a message for all generations: Notwithstanding the merit of individual elevation, contemplation and spiritual experience, the starting point of Judaism is listening to “lech lecha,” being able to take the personal journey that is not always comfortable or understood. While knowledge and inspiration vary from one individual to the next, the connection to God through the simple fulfillment of a mitzvah is in a distinct category.
Like the first instruction, each mitzvah we encounter is an opportunity to unite divine desire with human action. The essential quality that fuels action is commitment. Commitment is the ability to dependably override what you may feel for the sake of what you believe is right — adhering to a purpose or principle beyond your immediate desires.
Similarly, the characteristic that surfaces in the continuation of Avraham’s life is blind loyalty, which may be taken as a deficiency. But there’s another way of viewing the simplicity: as a virtue and the foundation of a relationship. After having determined one’s beliefs, ideals and purpose, there will always be temporary moments of darkness, where the inner resolve to move forward — to act despite any lack of enthusiasm — must be employed.
The term for this quality in Jewish literature is “kabalat ol” (acceptance of the commandments), a commitment that joins faith to action. This quality demands (and evokes) more strength than any other. When implemented, that power also flows into other faculties to provide an internal boost.
If, for example, using only the intellect will take a person to a certain level, by tapping into the energy of commitment, the mind is able to function more smoothly. That’s one reason why somebody who is motivated in a certain area will automatically grasp it better. Or, on a lower level, why discipline in a craft can paradoxically generate more creativity.
A clear message from this week, then, is that God values buy-in. He wants us to trust Him and sincerely try, for a while, to get in the habit of not demanding endless miracles in return on a timeline that we dictate. But whether in one’s own experience or that of the Jewish people, once we take enough sincere steps in that direction and stop thinking about the quid pro quo, we receive opportunities to see the divine hand at work, when we least expect it.
Returning to our opening theme, Avraham first recognized his Creator (thought process), then he spread his teachings (speech) and finally performed circumcision (deed). Ever since the Torah was received, however, the spiritual development of a Jew moves in the reverse order: from action (refinement of the body), to speech and, finally, study (thought).

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