By Rabbi Dan Lewin
The pulsation of the world seems to be fluctuating rapidly, reviving haunting echoes of the past. And our nervous systems are on high alert.
Two weeks ago, while I was at the airport seeing my son off to school, I found myself seated at the gate with two Delta crew members/mechanics who were speaking Arabic loudly behind me. One of them intensely glared at me. I briefly met his gaze and then I turned my attention to the window, watching the plane as it departed.
Meanwhile, a random lady approached me and asked if I was from Israel. “No,” I replied, “but I am Jewish.” Her eyes lit up as she enthusiastically revealed that she was Jewish as well and we naturally started a conversation, the same one everyone has been having about the tragic events. She appeared visibly shaken, seeking guidance on what she could do. I did my best to share some of the traditional spiritual tools that we embrace during times of crisis. She was grateful.
Through our exchange, it became unmistakably clear to me that in these challenging times, when evil reveals itself so strongly, the inherent connection between our seemingly diverse souls and beings, scattered around the world, also becomes glaringly apparent. (As my father wisely points out, the varying reactions to these horrors have sorted the morally sound from the morally sick.) The goodness that runs through our veins is shaken and the illusion of “normal” life has faded away.
We share the same sadness, pain, confusion, hope and strength: “am echad,” one nation.
Open hearts and souls
In this light, I’ve heard people comment that the hearts of Jewish people are open now, broken and ready to connect. In Chassidic thought, this phenomenon signifies the awakening of the deepest layer of the soul during crisis, an inner power that typically remains dormant. The mystical texts describe three revealed layers, collectively known as nr”n (an acronym for nefesh, ruach and neshama), which flow through our consciousness, guiding our behavior. Yet during normal functioning, the soul may encounter internal resistance, leading to dissonance, clouded thinking and insensitivity. At times, it might seem as if one’s Jewish identity is optional. However, the subconscious layers remain pure and resilient, impervious to external influences or damage.
When the core of the soul, the essence known as yechida, is revealed, it naturally awakens a sense of unity among our people and the desire to strengthen our commitment to Torah and mitzvahs. That soul strength is transcendent, above reason and understanding, but it can be activated. When we sense this inner call and awakening, it’s important to seize the moment to reconnect with our Jewishness, our history and what it means to be a stranger in a foreign land, just like Avraham, the first Jew.
Living with the times
Concerning daily study, there’s a saying that “one should live with the times,” which means delving deeper into the Torah portion to extract wisdom and lessons from the ancient text especially applicable to current circumstances.
Our Jewish heritage, in many ways, begins with two people, Avraham and Sarah, whose lives we’ve been following for the past two weeks. Examining the verses and their commentaries together, we find a wealth of relevant information that teaches us what it means to be Jewish: all the primary values, themes and patterns that establish the journey of their descendants throughout history.
Amidst a world marred by tyranny and chaos, Avraham stood alone in his faith. He didn’t hide his beliefs; he proclaimed the Oneness of G-d and guided others, even in the face of persecution. He is referred to as “the Hebrew,” a term signifying that he was from “the other side” (of the river). Its deeper reference, however, implies having a singular, often unpopular, viewpoint psychologically and morally.
Wherever Avraham and Sarah settled, they were uprooted and forced to reestablish their community of followers in a new place. But their ultimate goal was to arrive at “the land that I will show you.” Such has been the story of their descendants — “am echad (one people) scattered and distinct among the peoples…” (Esther 3:8).
Perhaps what distinguishes Avraham most in the recent passages is not his character or vision, but an eternal covenant. “I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your seed after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God to you and your seed after you. And I will give you, and your seed after you, the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.” This covenant is explicitly tied to the land and encompasses his descendants. To eliminate any confusion, the biblical narrative swiftly clarifies the lineage: “My covenant will I establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this set time in the next year” (Genesis 17:20–21).
In addition to the patterns and core principles, this week highlights Avraham’s kindness, boundless hospitality and diligence in fulfilling G-d’s instructions, no matter how difficult. We also encounter the worst of humankind in Sodom — corruption, robbery and bloodthirsty mobs — and a harsh reality where the only cure is complete destruction. The stark contrast between the principles exemplified by Avraham and the behaviors prevalent in Sodom serves as a poignant reminder of the enduring conflict between two distinct value systems.
Standing alone, maintaining morality in an immoral world, enduring persecution and persisting through the long and volatile journey — these experiences are deeply rooted in Jewish history. As descendants of Avraham, we also inherit his values of kindness, hospitality and generosity, reflecting an innate inclination toward love and protection. Our nature compels us to champion justice whenever and wherever evil emerges. It’s a lesson underscored by the story of Sodom, where the imperative to eliminate evil prevails.
Most importantly, this parasha is titled Va’era, which means “to appear.” It signifies a new, elevated level of God’s revelation to Avraham, utilizing the name Havayah, which is associated with infinite kindness, compassion and miraculous occurrences. May we, too, encounter a heightened revelation of goodness and divine protection during these times. And may the strength and captivating unity awakened endure long after the darkness has dissipated.
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayan-chai.org.