Vayera: A Visionary Journey

At the conclusion of last week’s portion Lech Lecha, “Go To Yourself”, Abram has expanded into Abraham, and has circumcised himself – meaning, as I described last week, that Abraham has opened himself and committed himself to remain open to YHVH, Life Unfolding. As this week’s reading of Vayera, which means “He Had a Vision,” opens, Abraham is now sitting in the entrance of his tent, his wide, open tent. The parsha begins with this enigmatic phrase:

Vayera eilav YHVH b’elonei mamre. (Genesis 18:1)

This is often translated as, “YHVH appeared to him by the oak trees of Mamre,” but that standard translation ignores the possibility that this is not a concrete story but a visionary tale. The Hebrew could just as accurately be translated as, “YHVH appeared to him in the oak grove of Mamre,” or more simply: “Abraham saw God in the trees.” Abraham, after his circumcision, is in a profound state of openness. In this blessed state of consciousness, he sees YHVH inherent in all creation. The Torah continues with a phrase that will recur many times in this parsha: “Abraham lifted his eyes, and he saw . . .” Lifting one’s eyes might connote an elevated form of seeing. In this case, Abraham sees three men, standing near him. Without hesitation, he runs to greet and serve the strangers, because he sees God in them, too.

This is the new way of “seeing” that Abraham represents and points us toward. In bliss, in awe, and without fear, Abraham perceives YHVH within all creation, and responds, naturally and unhesitatingly, with caring acts. When Abraham then learns that destruction is about to rain down on Sodom and Gomorrah, he unhesitatingly defies God and argues for justice, that the innocent not be punished.

Vayera, “He Had a Vision,” climaxes with Genesis, Chapter 22:

After all these things, God tested Abraham, and said “Abraham!” And he said “Hineni” – “Here I am.” God said Take your, your only one, the one you love, Isaac, and lech lecha – go forth – and offer him up as an offering on one of the mountains that I will show you. (Gen. 22:1-2)

Listen to how the rhythm and language of this final test of Abraham echoes the first time he heard the call:

And God said to Abram, lech lecha – go forth from your land, your birthplace, your father’s house to the land that I will show you. (Gen 12:1)

Abraham is once again called to take a journey with no guarantees, but with the promise and possibility of a new way of seeing and understanding the world, the possibility, as the Torah repeats, of becoming a blessing to all the families of the earth. But the stakes are even higher now – will he have to give up his son in order to fulfill this journey?

And Abraham responds, “Hineni,” which means “Here I am,” ready, present, willing. Life will now test Abraham as he has never before been tested. YHVH tells Abraham to take his son, the gift of Yitzchak, laughter and joy, and give it up, return it to God — and with the same alacrity with which he leapt up to greet the strangers standing outside his tent, Abraham leaps to this task, rising to the test, rising early the next morning to prepare for the journey. Most of us instinctively rebel against Abraham’s eager readiness: This is his son, for God’s sake! What kind of crazy story is this?

Take a breath: Yes, this is a crazy story! It is myth, a vision quest, the language of symbol, not concrete reality.

What does a child symbolize in this tale? I think of Kahlil Gibran: “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself.” By risking everything and opening themselves to life, Abraham and Sarah became conduits for life. But the “yitzchak,” the joy that then moved through them and into the world, is not theirs to possess. The spiritual quest requires our willingness and faith to give our love away, radically. So Abraham takes his pride and joy and journeys toward the Holy Mountain, ready to offer it back to the source.

References to sight recur over and over as the story builds:

On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw hamakom, the place, from afar. (Gen 22:4) Abraham’s vision remains clear. Hamakom, the place, is a revered name for God in the Jewish tradition. Any place can become the place of Divine indwelling, if we can lift up our eyes and see.

Abraham ascends the mountain of God. He is ready to offer his pride and joy. Ready, present, and willing. An angel calls to him and tells him to stop: Abraham has risen to the test. He was willing to give away everything, in the sublime awareness that life does not belong to him, anyway, but is a gift that flows through us. This is the challenge we face in order to ascend the holy mountain of awareness: we must be willing to let go of our desire to control life.

Again, Abraham sees:

And Abraham lifted his eyes and saw a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns. (Gen. 22:13) We blow the shofar, the ram’s horn, in order to remember to lift up our eyes and see YHVH in everything: the trees, the blowing breeze, and each other. We blow the ram’s horn to remember to rise to the test and ascend the holy mountain with our father Abraham and dwell rapturously in the perception of the oneness of all.

Abraham names the mountaintop after his vision:

And Abraham named that place Adonai Yireh (“The Place of Divine Vision,” or “The Place Where I Saw God”). We say to this day “b’har Adonai Yeraeh” (“On the mountain of YHVH, there is sight”.) (Gen. 22:14)

Perhaps we should call that kind of sight “insight.”

Our spiritual father Abraham showed us how to see in a new and ever-challenging way, how to love life and simultaneously let it go, how to trust and journey to a new kind of awareness, and how to open ourselves to be trusting and trustworthy conduits of life. Ken yehi ratzon. So may it be.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jonathan