Between the Lines—Va-yera

Insights from Midrash with Rabbi Abigail Treu

Genesis Rabbah 48:7

בראשית רבה (וילנא) פרשה מח

והוא יושב פתח האהל כחום היום, רבי ברכיה משום ר' לוי אמר ישב כתיב, בקש לעמוד, א"ל הקב"ה שב אתה סימן לבניך, מה אתה יושב ושכינה עומדת, כך בניך יושבין ושכינה עומדת על גבן, כשישראל נכנסים לבתי כנסיות ולבתי מדרשות וקורין קריאת שמע והן יושבים לכבודי ואני על גבן שנאמר (תהלים פב) אלהים נצב בעדת אל.


As he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day
. Rabbi Berekhiah said in Rabbi Levi's name: It is written: he sat. He wished to rise, but God said to him: Sit—you are a symbol to your children. As you sit while the Shekhinah (God's Presence) is standing, so will your children sit and the Shekhinah stand. When Israel enters synagogues and study halls and recites the Shema', they sit in My honor, and I will stand over them.

What do we find ourselves doing when God's Presence suddenly appears to us?

Sometimes we are davening. This is what Rabbi Levi must have been thinking when he envisioned our reciting the Shema' as a means to inviting God's Presence into the room. And because that can work so well, prayer is the backbone of the Jewish spiritual experience.

But when that doesn't work? When we "wish to rise" but some voice inside bids us to "sit"?

What if we imagine that voice is God's voice? What if sometimes God wants us to rise to the occasion of sensing God's Presence in the world, but at other times God wants us to sit, to lay spiritually low?

The midrash imagines that even in those stretches of life—and we can imagine Abraham going through such a spiritual low in the aftermath of his circumcision and the household turmoil—we are doing some Jewish good. Even in the stretches of life when we do not sense God's Presence in our own lives, we can remain committed to laying the groundwork for the next generation.

Spirituality is one "way in" to Jewish living for many Jews; handing down the tradition is another. I imagine that among us—the thousands who read these emails or receive them in letter form each week—there are some of each camp. This midrash invites us to join Abraham in sitting in the tent door, ready to rise when we see God's Presence approaching on the horizon or, alternatively, serving as role models for those who will come next.

There are many ways to approach Judaism and a Jewish life—patience, quiet, contemplation, and an open heart among them—especially when we experience a sense of urgency and find ourselves waiting anxiously for God's Presence in a doorway or hallway of life. At these moments, as our children watch, we must be willing to be an example: to sit and do nothing so that we can be fully present when God's Presence acknowledges us and draws near.