Vayera: Existence, Non-Existence and the Love of Justice

We want a world of unconditional love and kindness. We want God to love unconditionally and to forgive. Until it comes to evil. Nobody wants unconditional love and forgiveness whilst murder and oppression take place.

In the face of evil we want a world of justice; where evil is removed – forcibly if necessary. Until it comes to ourselves. Nobody wants a world where all that is bad to be forcibly destroyed and removed when we ourselves have aspects that are not all good. We are human. We have shortcomings.

We want and need strict justice for some, but want and need unconditional love and forgiveness for ourselves. So we want God to operate in seemingly contradictory ways.

The contradiction does not just touch upon God’s interaction with the world. It also touches upon our emotional connection to God. We seek His love, and respond by loving Him. We seek his justice, we respond by fearing Him.

This problem lies at the core of this week’s Torah reading: Vayera. Abraham is the character most associated with unconditional love and kindness.[1] From the opening of the sidra, he goes through extreme self-sacrifice to feed and care for vulnerable travellers.[2] He prays for the evil town of Sedom to be spared.[3] He prays for a man who kidnapped his wife.[4] The Torah describes Hashem’s own love for Abraham;[5] the prophets describe Avraham’s love for God.[6] 

But as the episodes of the Sidra move on, he is forced to recognise the need for justice, and for fear of God too. When the Philistine chieftain, Avimelech, takes Avraham’s wife Sarah, Avraham saves himself by describing their relationship as siblings.[7] When God revealed to Avimelech the true situation, and Avimelech challenged Avraham about it, Avraham responded ‘I did this because I could see that there is no fear of God in this place, so they might kill in order [to take] my wife.’[8]

The recognition that a world without the fear of God would be a calamitous place overrun by evil, takes Avraham on a journey that culminates in the angel telling him: ‘now I know that you are one who fears God’.[9] Along the way he has shown willingness to perform the ultimate violation of natural love and mercy; the ultimate act of self-sacrifice, in taking his own child up to an altar to be offered to God.[10]

How are we to understand the interrelationship between these two attitudes? What balance does God strike? And what balance should  we strike?

The answer lies in the character Isaac whose birth and early life is the core narrative of this week’s reading.

Isaac’s very name means laughter. Laughter characterises the vast majority of encounters he has. When Abraham first hears he will have a child, he bursts into laughter,[11] later when Sarah hears a messenger deliver the good news, she too laughs.[12] When he is actually born, Sarah declares, ‘all who hear will laugh with me.’[13] When his older brother seeks to harm the child, it is descried as laughter, presumably in the sense of mockery.[14] Even his relationship with his wife Rebecca is described by the Torah as laughter.[15]

Clearly something about Isaac’s life is deeply connected with laughter. What is that connection?

One powerful suggestion is that laughter is the instinctive human response to something sudden and unexpected. A great punchline that twists the meaning of the lines before it, or that crosses lines others would not, or that shocks, can all evoke laughter.[16]

Creation is the ultimate unexpected. God has no needs, so there is no ‘reason’ for creation.[17] It is the purest possible choice ever made: one for which there was no demand. Creation addresses no need and responds to no problem. It is an act of pure Will and nothing else. In that sense, it is the greatest act of humour possible.

Creation is inherently unequal. God is the giver, we are the takers. We give God nothing in return for creation. That is why creation is the greatest act of altruism, and unconditional giving; the very act of creation is the purest selfless love there can be.[18]

But that very unevenness creates in its wake an enormous problem. On one level it can be stated like this: to be in this totally unbalanced relationship which we never chose means we lack any sense of dignity whatsoever. We may be the takers, but there is nothing nice about being a taker. God may have Willed the purest act of loving and giving, but that act of loving and giving cannot find a recipient when all there is pure giving and pure taking.[19]

Another way to consider the problem is this. God is, as it were, thinking the world into existence. We can also think a world into existence. We can dream up all sorts of beings and creatures. But they never truly exist. They are all just figments of our imagination. Our consciousness fills them, and leaves them no room to feel themselves.

So we have the problem of creations who lack dignity, and we have the problem of creations that lack awareness. They are deeply related. And they are solved in exactly the same way: by creating the space for the created beings to choose to receive the very life, existence and love that is being offered.

The Kabbalistic doctrine of ‘tzimtzum’ describes a process of ‘withdrawal’ through which God creates space for man to exist.[20] It seems impossible to us. After all, to the extent to which God thinks something into existence God fills it and it has no sense of self. To the extent to which God withdraws his thought, that entity is withdrawn from existence. The answer is that God somehow creates a vision of creation that is complete and whole, and then withdraws partially from it, leaving a faint withered shadow of the former creation that lies delicately poised between existence and non-existence.[21]

We cannot fully understand this process because we ourselves cannot actually do it in our minds. But the result is that we end up with a being that is torn between existence and non-existence. Between connection to God and detachment from God. That being has freewill, and that freedom produces and actual autonomous mind that is aware.

Freewill also means that even though creation is an act of love and giving, we do not immediately receive anything. We have to use our minds and our will to choose to connect to God. We could instead choose to reject God, and embrace non-existence instead. The allure of illusion is immensely powerful. It takes immense effort to choose to connect to God, to choose to receive His goodness, and to choose to allow His plan, dream and vision of creation, to come to fruition.

In an incredible completion of the circle, our effort not only earns our reward; it is our reward. We deserve and earn our reward by choosing to connect to God. The reward is that we are connected to God – the ultimate Infinite Source of all good.[22] To the extent we do good, we earn good. To the extent we violate good, we lose good. That is where justice is born.

The root of justice is the same as the root of evil. Both come into existence the moment God creates space for a free-will being to exist.

Both are the result of His desire to give.

Avraham began his journey by discovering that creation is an act of pure love.[23] For Avraham there could be no room for justice, even in the face of evil.[24] The anti-kindness nemesis culture of Sedom seduced his own nephew and heir from his side leaving him bereft.[25] Yet he did not seek justice or punishment. Instead he fought for them,[26] and he prayed for them.[27]

But this week he learned that lovingkindness can never truly exist when all that there are are givers and takers. The giver must leave a space for the taker to earn their gift. Without justice there can be no true kindness. This is why the highest level of charity is not to give to someone, but to employ them; to allow them to earn the gift.[28]

Avraham received a free gift in his child Isaac, as unearned and unexpected as creation itself; something that can evoke only laughter. But after being taught again and again the value of justice, of ‘fear of God’, that he was ready to truly earn the existence of his son. In the ultimate test, the binding of his own child, in the willingness to sacrifice everything for God, ironically, he came to earn that very gift. He proved himself to be one who ‘feared God’ and in doing so he earned the love of God.[29]

Vayera teaches us that a relationship is only as strong as our ability to choose it. The gift of love is at its truest when the lover does not try to control the recipient of it, but creates the space for them to grow into their own.

That is the secret of creation that is revealed in this week’s teaching. It is that the ultimate gift that God gave to us was not creation, but the ability to earn it.

We all want a world of unconditional loving kindness. We all want a world of justice. To the extent to which we can justly earn our existence, is the extent to which we can receive and share the Creator’s love and kindness.

[1] See eg. Micah 7:20

[2] Genesis 18:1-8

[3] Ibid. 18:23-32

[4] Avimelech, the Philistine chieftain, ibid. 20:17

[5] Ibid. 18:19, see Rashi sv. Ki yeda’ativ

[6] Isaiah 41:8

[7] Genesis 20:1-2

[8] Ibid. 20:11

[9] Ibid. 22:12

[10] Ibid. 22:1-11

[11] Ibid. 17:17

[12] Ibid. 18:12

[13] Ibid. 21:6

[14] Ibid. 21:9, see eg. Rashi sv. Metzachek

[15] Ibid. 26:8

[16] See eg. R’M.Weinberg, Patterns in Time Vol.1 Rosh Hashana, ‘The Humour of Din’; see R’Dr.A.Tatz, Living Inspired, ch.3 ‘Laughter’;  on the scientific understanding of laughter see eg. Giovanni Sabato, ‘What’s So Funny? The Science of Why We Laugh, in Scientific American, June 2019.

[17] The point is made in numerous works, see eg. Maimonides Guide for the Perplexed 3:13

[18] See Psalms 89:3; see eg.  R’Saadia Gaon, Emunos ve Deos 1:4 (end); R’M.Ch. Luzzatto, The Way of Hashem, 1:2:1.

[19] See eg. R’M.Ch. Luzzatto, The Way of Hashem ibid. 1:2:1-3

[20] See eg. R’M.Cordobera, Pardes Rimonim 4:9; R’M.Ch.Luzzatto 138 Gates of Wisdom, ch.24; R’Sh.Z.Liady, Likutei Amarim (Tanya), Shaar HaYichud Ve’HaEmunoh ch.7 amongst many other sources.

[21] See R’M.Ch.Luzzatto, Daas Tevunos, section 114 (in the R’Ch.Friedlander edition)

[22] See eg. Ibid. section 14

[23] On Abraham’s discovery of God, see eg. Maimonides, Laws of Idolatry ch.1; On his understanding that God is ultimate good to the point where justice does not seem to make sense, see Genesis Rabba 39:6

[24] Genesis Rabba ibid.

[25] Genesis 13:8-12

[26] Ibid. 14:13-16

[27] Ibid. 18:23-32

[28] Miamonides Laws of Gifts to the Poor, 10:7

[29] Indeed as much as Abraham is associated with lovingkindness (chessed), Isaac is associated with justice (din). See eg. Zohar II:257a

- November 5th 2020

About the Author

Rabbi Daniel Rowe Rabbi Daniel Rowe is the Executive Director of Aish UK. He holds a BA in Philosophy from University College London and an MPhil in Philosophy from Birkbeck College. He studied for a decade in Israel in various Talmudic institutes and is considered one of the most dynamic Jewish speakers in the UK, teaching in campuses, communities and schools across the country. Rabbi Rowe is known for his ability to tackle difficult topics and has numerous videos and articles online. In 2016, Rabbi Rowe took part in a live televised debate with a leading atheist, dubbed "The God Debate".  Rabbi Rowe has played an instrumental role in the creation and development of many organisations and initiatives such as the Forum for Jewish Leadership, the Aleinu Conference and Shabbat UK.

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