Three times in this week’s parashah, we see the phrase “Vayashkem Avraham baboker (And Avraham rose early in the morning).” It appears once as he goes out to see the destruction of Sodom and Amorah (19:27), once as he sends Hagar out of his home (21:14), and once more as he takes Yitzchak out to Mt Moriah to sacrifice him (22:3). There is one other place in the Torah besides the stories about Avraham where the phrase appears: when Bil’am goes with Balak’s ministers to curse Israel (Bamidbar 22:21). In all four instances, the phrase precedes something ominous. In all four instances, someone is going out to either bear witness to a terribly destructive act of God, to carry out a terrible and destructive act at God’s instruction, or to ask God to do something destructive.  

The two best-known rabbinic commentaries on the phrase are Rashi on 22:3, that Avraham rose early to fulfill a mitzvah; to carry out God’s command without hesitation, and the Talmud in Berachot 26b. There, the Talmud discusses the question as to whether the three daily prayer services were established to mirror the daily sacrifices in the Temple, or whether the three patriarchs, Avraham Yitzchak, and Yaakov, established them. It is taught there, in support of the idea that the patriarchs established the prayers, that Avraham established Shacharit, the morning service. The scriptural justification for that idea is Bereishit 19:27, which reads: And Avraham rose early in the morning to the place where he stood before the face of God.  

How are we to understand this? If the phrase “Vayashkem Avraham baboker signals something negative about to happen in the Torah’s narrative, what does that say about prayer? To answer that, we need to look at those instances more closely. It is an oversimplification to dwell upon the destructive aspect of each of these incidents. What is more important is that as Avraham watched the destruction of Sodom and Amorah, as he reluctantly sent Hagar and Ishmael out of his home, and as he took Yitzchak to be sacrificed, he was standing as witness to and facilitator of moments of the Divine plan unfolding in the world. Fate was being written at each turn, and Avraham was privileged to know it. What is a brachah, a blessing in Jewish liturgy, if not just such an acknowledgment? We have blessings over phenomena of nature ranging from seeing rainbows, hearing thunder, to seeing the ocean, and at each turn, we acknowledge the Divine presence, the sacredness, the momentousness of every phenomenon.  

The Mishnah (Brachot 9, 5) teaches that we must bless God over the bad just as we must over the good in life. This is reflected in the blessing Yotzer Or, which is said in the morning before saying Shma. Blessed are You… Who forms light and creates darkness, makes peace, and creates all.” This blessing is a re-wording of the verse in Yeshayahu (Isaiah 45:7) “makes peace and creates evil. Whatever comes about in the world, it is part of the world. It is therefore part of Creation. Creation and that which speaks the world into being are to be viewed with love and reverence. This is why we begin our mornings in the spirit of Vayashkem Avraham baboker.” Avraham rose early in the morning to stand in full acknowledgment of what is greater not only than himself, but of what underlies all that exists. This is how we greet the sunrise. 

Shabbat shalom! 

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