November 9th, 2011
Gen. 18:1 – 22:24
Having circumcised himself, Avraham sits by the opening of his tent, ostensibly looking for guests. Three angels, appearing as men, arrive to give him the news that Sarah will have a baby within the year. Sodom is destroyed, and Lot and his daughters are saved. Sarah gives birth to Yitzhak. As Yitzhak grows up, Sarah tells Avraham to send Ishmael away, as he is a bad influence. Avraham reluctantly sends Ishmael away, along with his mother, Hagar. G-d tells Avraham to bring Yitzhak as a sacrifice. Avraham takes him to the top of a mountain and is about to sacrifice him when G-d stops him. He offers a ram in Yitzhak’s place.
My wife and I once found ourselves tangled in a knot, with each of us tightening it by holding firm to our position. I wasn’t getting the love and affection I wanted, and it was bringing me down. Ketriellah insisted that I shouldn’t need her affirmation in order to be happy and confident. I was trying to pull love out of her. She was trying to pull self-confidence out of me. It seemed impossible to resolve. I didn’t think I could be confident without her affirmation. She didn’t think she could affirm me until I showed self-confidence. We were each pushing for what we thought we needed, but the knot only got tighter. Our combined refusal to give in created a level of friction that was almost unbearable. And then it happened. In a moment of pristine clarity, I suddenly realized that I could be confident without her support, and she realized she could drop her agenda around my self-confidence and simply praise me when she wants to. We had thought this shift to be impossible. How wonderful to be wrong!
I have experienced miracles in my life, but this wasn’t one of them. On the contrary, this transformation was a direct, natural, predictable result of longing.
At the opening of the tent
Longing is at the heart of every good story, including Avraham’s, which we pick up three days after his self-circumcision (ouch!). The beginning of the parsha finds him “sitting at the opening of the tent in the heat of the day.”i In this one line, Rebbe Natan of Breslov hears volumes. The opening of the tent is “the particular transformation one must go through in order to reach a higher spiritual level.” But when a person approaches the opening, “the negative forces rise up against him very intensely.” That’s the heat of the day. It was Avraham’s stubborn willingness to “sit and persist” by the opening of the tent “for many days” that earned him the revelation that followed: “And G-d appeared to him.” There have been “many who were close to the opening but turned back.”ii
Rebbe Natan is spelling out a spiritual formula. The call to a higher state (opening of the tent) is followed by a challenge that calls for persistence (sitting) in the face of substantial resistance (heat of the day) and offers a valuable reward at the end (revelation). The formula applies to everyone—spiritual seekers struggling toward refinement, communities aspiring toward unity, couples sensing the possibility of being closer. All are at the opening of the tent. It takes persistence. There will be resistance. The finale is revelatory.
It’s no wonder that many people give up. The “heat of the day” pushes us right up to our edge, testing our nerves, patience, and commitment. In its grasp, couples feel like they are fighting instead of growing, like they are strangers living in the same house. They begin to doubt what got them there. Their minds start spinning with questions. Do they really love each other? Is this goal worth all the effort? Is the relationship really worth all this damn struggle?
Rebbe Natan assures us that the “heat of the day” is to be expected and that, yes, the goal is well worth the struggle to get there. But we cannot get there without finding a reservoir of strength.
Do you really want it?
How will we avoid being yet another couple that gets “close to the opening but turns back?” It is not a set of skills that is needed here. And it is not a piece of information or a miracle. It is nothing we can gain from the outside. No, in order to break through, we need longing.iii
So we need to gauge our longing before we strategize about our methods: Is it really important to me to express caring more sincerely? To be more intimate, more honest, more loving? Do I want it so much that I am willing to be more vulnerable in order to get it? Or am I truly satisfied with the way things are?
“Of course I want it,” you say. But your initial answer is irrelevant. The truth lies in your kishkes, beyond what you think you want, in how much yearning there really is. If there is enough sincerity, devotion, and commitment, your efforts will bear fruit. If not, you will ultimately turn back, and the “heat of the day” will cool down as the opportunity for change fades away.
Don’t know how much longing you’ve actually got? Don’t worry. G-d helps us inventory our longing by putting obstacles in our way.iv If we quickly turn back, then we know that we didn’t really want it—“I’m sorry about canceling our date tonight, but I had to take that meeting.” On the other hand, if we forge ahead, leaping over any potential speed bump, then we can know we’ll surely get there, and with more resolve than ever—“I told my boss he’d have to reschedule or meet without me. No way am I canceling our night out!”
Longing to resolve
A good fight, a conflict full of emotion and intensity, can feel like the “heat of the day” but if you look closer, you’ll see that it’s really “the opening of the tent.” The trick is not to look for a compromise or solution when we are feeling judgment, frustration, or doubt. If we give in, if we succumb to the desire for a return to mere comfort by trying to solve the so-called problem, we end up approaching it as if it were math, while the solution lies in the kishkes. It’s longing. That’s what broke the stalemate between G-d and Avraham.
The story of the Binding of Yitzhak boils down to a disagreement. G-d wanted him to be sacrificed, and Avraham wanted him to stay alive. Rather than negotiate a compromise as he did when G-d threatened to destroy Sodomv, Avraham understood that G-d was testing his resolve to do G-d’s will.vi Avraham also wanted to know the extent of his own devotion, so much so that he “woke up early in the morning and saddled his own donkey.”vii
We should remember Avraham when our relationship reaches a crossroads—Dave wants to have another child, while Sarah wants to adopt. Scott wants a new house; Jane wants to live in a yurt. Paula wants more time together, and Jack wants more time apart. It seems like only one (or neither) of us can be happy with the decision we must make. With no hope of resolution, we may be tempted to compromise, give in, or give up.
Instead of seeing conflict as an unsolvable problem, we can learn to hear it as an invitation: Where there is “heat of the day,” an “opening of the tent” must be close by, and longing is called for. We should take stock of our longing rather than look for solutions: How strong is our desire to work it out? Or are we looking for an excuse to check out or call it quits? If there is enough longing there, we’ll find the right solution.
Avraham’s longing was enough to get him past very serious obstacles, both internal and external.viii As he stood, knife in hand, with Yitzhak bound before him, it was clear that his devotion was paramount: “Don’t send forth your hand against the lad, and do not cause him any harm. Now I know that you truly revere G-d, and you did not withhold your precious son from Me.”ix
We may have to get to the sacrificial altar, fully prepared to cast our attachments into the fire of longing, before we see beyond the simple opposites of pregnancy or adoption, house or yurt, more time together or less time together. Our willingness to sacrifice—to willingly give up something important to gain something of higher value—expresses our longing to make the relationship work.x With enough longing, the heat of the day will give way and the answer will be obvious.
In Rebbe Nachman’s story, The Lost Princess, a king gets angry at his daughter and wishes that the “no-good” would take her, which it does. No one is able to find her the next morning. The sheni lamelech (literally, second to the king) searches for her and, at last, finds her captive in a castle. She gives him instructions on how to free her, but he fails twice to follow them. The second time, he falls asleep for 70 years. She leaves a message beside his sleeping body to seek her in the palace of pearls on the mountain of gold. The sheni lamelech sets out to look for the palace in the desert and comes across a giant holding a huge tree. He tells the giant about his quest, and the giant tries to turn him back, telling him that he has been fooled, that there is no such place. The giant even calls every animal in the world, each of whom testifies that there is no palace of pearls on a mountain of gold.
The sheni lamelech, however, will not be convinced. He insists that such a place exists. Impressed with his perseverance, the giant sends him off to his giant-brother, who is master of all the birds. The same conversation takes place—the giant tries to dissuade him, the birds testify that there is no such place, and the sheni lamelech insists on continuing. So the second giant then sends him on to a third giant-brother, who is master of the winds. We then get a third iteration as the giant-master calls all the winds to prove that there is no palace of pearls on a mountain of gold. The sheni lamelech still won’t budge. Meanwhile, a wind comes late to the meeting. The giant angrily demands, “I called all of the winds. Why are you late?” The wind responds, “I was delayed because I had to bring the princess to the palace of pearls on the mountain of gold.”
Rebbe Nachman’s story, at its core, is about longing. The sheni lamelech’s insistence allows him to get past the giants, who, it should be noted, were very persuasive fellows. According to one explanation, the huge trees they carried represent the enormous amount of knowledge they had.xi They caused the sheni lamelech’s “heat of the day” to boil as they confronted him with compelling reasons to give up. Those giants are the voices, both inside and out, that try to convince us that we cannot succeed. They can make us feel like giving up on happiness, passionate love, intimacy, and freedom. They make the goal seem unreachable. Longing, once again, saves the day. It gets us past them.
The sequence of the story is essential: The princess didn’t arrive at the palace until the sheni lamelech’s longing reached its peak.
We might have a few questions at this point. What’s so great about taking our relationship to the next level? Why does the human soul have such a strong desire to deepen the bond with another? These are big questions with various answers. The most relevant answer for our discussion here is that deep intimacy is the only way to reach areas of our potential that we can scarcely imagine.
iiLikutei Halachot Even Ha’Ezer Hilchot Ishut 4 starting with paragraph 19
iiiSee R’ Nachman of Breslov Likutei MoHaran I:31, I:66,
ivSee R’ Nachman of Breslov Likutei MoHaran I:66
viSee Rabbeinu Bachaye on Gen. 22:1 for an explanation of the Akeidah as a punishment for Avraham’s covenant with Avimelech
viiGen. 22:3 with Rashi
viiiSee Midrash Tanhuma Vayera 22 and 23
xThe difference between compromise and sacrifice has been defined by Michael Skye in his article Compromise vs Sacrifice as follows: Compromise – 1. Giving up something important to gain something of higher value, yet feeling like you lost. 2. Choosing between two values in a way that wounds your spirit, drains your power, and limits your vision. 3. Choosing from guilt, from fear, or from a position. Sacrifice – Giving up something important to gain something of higher value, and feeling like you won. 2. Choosing between two values in a way that breathes life into your spirit, builds your power, and expands your vision. 3. Choosing from honor, from vision, or from a stand.
xiHeard in a class with Rabbi Gedalia Fleer, a well-known teacher of Breslov Chassidut; see also R’ Shalom Arush’s book The Garden of Yearning