Divine Attributes in human beings

Author: Esther Ehrman, Heshvan 5774/October 2013

Shiur Vayera

Divine Attributes in human beings, a legacy of the Patriarchs.

Genesis, ch.18-22 (Vayera) through the eyes of Rav Eliyahu Dessler (1891-1954).

The eighteenth century scholar, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (the Ramchal) in his work Messilat Yesharim, explains that we have inherited from the Patriarchs certain great qualities, such as 'Chesed' and a love of the Land of Israel. Rav Dessler, in a talk given a few years after the end of World War 2, to the Talmud students of Yeshiva Poniewicz shows how this was exemplified in the life of the patriarch Avraham.

Chesed is not easily translated by any one term; it denotes lovingkindness, grace, a love of G-d and one's fellow man. It is one of the ten kabbalistic 'Sephirot', spheres of Divine activity. The Biblical section Vayera opens with the episode of Abraham seeing three men near his tent,going out to invite them in. His hospitality is such that, although the Lord has been communicating with him, Abraham asks Him to wait while he attends to total strangers, possibly idol worshipers angels as it turns out. Everything gives way before the obligation to practice Chesed. Rav Dessler compares Abraham's conduct to that of Job. Job, too, is hospitable; he gives his guests whatever they wish, wine and meat, if that is what they are used to; but he does not go out to bring in strangers and he gives only what they want – that is not full Chesed.

We next learn that the Lord plans to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah and Abraham has the temerity to argue that this might destroy some righteous people, Tzaddikim, together with the wicked who deserve it, 'Shall the Judge of the whole world not do justice?' (Gen. 18, v.25). Rav Dessler explains that this boldness was allowed by G-d because its motivation is pure Chesed. This is not only the Chesed of concern for others, it is also Chesed towards the Lord. Abraham is not questioning G-d's justice, but, if He destroys the righteous with the wicked, His image might be tarnished in peoples' minds. Similarly, Moses seemingly questions G-d's ways, arguing that the Egyptians might think that the Israelites were brought out of Egypt to die in the desert. Rav Dessler also makes the comparison with Noah, who, although a Tzaddik, did not speak up for the wicked generation that was to be destroyed in the Flood. Every Jew, says Rav Dessler, has inherited a spark of such Chesed from Abraham, but warns that the temerity shown here would incur severe punishment in anyone not totally fit to speak in this manner. Here, again, there is a comparison with Job who, likw Abraham, complains about the good and the bad being destroyed together. Job, however, is speaking of himself, not out of a concern for others.

The Bible text continues with the occasion when G-d tells Abraham to send away his son Ishmael. Abraham obeys. He rises early, prepares a little bread and water – clearly inadequate in the desert, says Rav Dessler and, although his son is sick (Rashi), sends him and his mother, Hagar, away. The quality Abraham displays here is another of the Sephirot attributes, 'Gevura', severity, strength, the strength to overcome his own emotions, his love for his son, his concern for him, because he is wholly convinced that that is what G-d wants.

Finally, with the Akeda, when he is convinced (as it turns out, wrongly)that G-d wants him to sacrifice his son Isaac, Abraham again demonstrates his unquestioning acceptance of the Divine command, as he understands it, with Gevura. Why, asks Rav Dessler, did he remain silent, how could he raise no question? Not only had G-d promised that his future would come from the descendants of Isaac, what about being asked to commit murder? being asked to commit child sacrifice, one of the Canaanite abominations (cf Deut.12, v.31)? Rav Dessler explains that a human being has an individual life that involves a given number of free choices. If he is killed, a portion of his choices, his personality, has been taken from him, stolen, as it were, one reason for the prohibition of murder. It was never G-d's intention that this should happen. Abraham's test here is not only to be willing to obey G-d's order as he, Abraham, understands it, but not to raise questions that might be interpreted as doubting the Divine teaching. Whereas Chesed prompted Abraham to the semblance of a challenge, - Chesed because it was not for himself, but for others - for the people of Sodom, here,at the Akeda, Gevura was required to a supreme degree, because any challenge here might have seemed to be motivated by his love for his son and not seen, as it should be, as an acknowledgement of the Divine. Once this is clear, says Rav Dessler, it was possible for the ram to appear. The ram, he explains, was necessary now, because it is an essential concrete realisation of a sacrifice. It is not enough to want to offer up everything, including the future, an act is required. The Midrash has Abraham asking whether he might not inflict a slight wound on his son and he is answered by an angel forbidding him to harm him in any way whatsoever. G-d is willing to accept sacrifices and takes the intentions for the deed only if the deed does not contravene His teaching- hence the institution of animal sacrifices.

'After he withstood his tests', writes Rav Dessler, 'Avraham prayed that the power to break one's personal will would remain with Israel throughout the generations'. We have inherited the will and the ability to ensure that the concept of the Divine is not tarnished as well as Abraham's understanding of Chesed and Gevura, as related in Vayera, from the Patriarch.