The entrance of the “tent”—this is where we find Abraham andSarah at the start of Parashat Vayera. There are simple explanations about why they were there—at the entrance you get the benefits of both shade and breeze, and you also can see who is approaching when looking for lunch guests. The entrance of a tent or a home is the site of much action in other biblical texts, whether it is the place of Lot’s confrontation, the place of the “pesach” during the tenth plague, or as the site of encounter between the divine cloud and Moses, Aaron and Miriam (Numbers 12:5).[i] The expression, “petah ha-ohel,” the opening of the tent, is rich with deep possibilities, and few sources have explored them as thoroughly as the Zohar.
The Zohar begins its discussion of our parashah with Song of Songs 2:12: “The blossoms have appeared on the earth, the time of singing [or, pruning] has arrived, the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.” The Zohar (in the name of R’ Elazar) builds on an earlier Midrashic theme, that after his circumcision Abraham had a new relationship with God. Previously, he would fall down when God spoke to him, but now he developed the ability to stand in the divine presence (or even sit while God “stood” before him). Thus, Abraham is able to encounter God at Petah Ha-Ohel, the entrance to the tent. Through the act of physical transformation—brit milah—Abraham is able to experience more dimensions of God and to enter the divine realm. This theme gets developed by other mystics, including Rabbi Yosef Karo in his mystical journal, Sefer Magid Meisharim, to Parashat Vayera. He, too, sees the moment of Brit Milah as a time of transformation that allows Abraham to receive the fullness of his purpose.
What does this mean to us? From the mysterious and deep world of Kabbalah to the common place realm of our own spiritual lives, this teaches me that physical acts of transformation can yield spiritual insight. Not only brit milah, of course, but any mitzvah that involves our bodies has the potential to open us to the divine presence. Sarah, after all, is physically transformed in this moment. The way Rabbi Karo describes it, Sarah’s transformation is the result of her performance of hachnasat orchim—of welcoming guests to her home. In the act of physically providing for others, her own physicality is transformed, and in her physical change there is also a spiritual breakthrough. Abraham and Sarah are changed in the most unlikely of ways at the end of their lives—through the organs of reproduction. Whatever we are to make of the literal sense, the literary sense is quite profound—they do physical deeds for others, they are physically transformed themselves, and the new generative power with which they are endowed is linked to a flow of divine insight and energy that had previously been obscured from them.
Jewish spirituality is tightly bound to the realm of physical gestures. Lighting candles tonight, governing our diet and calendar by mitzvot, and allowing Judaism to mark our sexuality through rituals like brit milah and niddah/mikveh means that we, too, have the ability to make our bodies vessels of the divine flow. This type of awareness is foreign to many Jews—body-centered rituals are often unknown or even reviled. The surrounding culture does not support an embodied spiritual practice that regulates such intimate aspects of daily life. Yet, by cultivating this type of consciousness through physical gestures we open ourselves to deeper experiences of the divine.
I wish all of you a Shabbat of physical rest and enjoyment and of the gift of God’s presence in your respective tents.
Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham
[i] The most prevalent “tent” we encounter today is the Huppah. The essence of being open on all four sides is to signify that the marital “tent” is open for guests.