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Cantor's Comment - Parshat Vayera                            October 23, 2021 - 17 Cheshvan 5782

10/22/2021 09:36:50 AM


The Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, is the biblical story in which God tests Abraham’s loyalty by commanding him to ritually sacrifice his son.  And even though Abraham is stopped at the last moment, this story is arguably the most disturbing story in the entire Torah, both for its narrative and what it appears to imply about traditional Jewish theology.

Are we really meant to glorify Abraham for his faith in God while ignoring something really dark?  Who is this God who we’re supposed to believe is infinite, mighty and fundamentally good that would ask such a terrible thing, even without intending to follow through?  Tough questions usually mean tough answers…

Parshat Vayera begins by demonstrating one of Abraham’s greatest strengths that the Jewish people continue to value greatly to this day: hospitality.  We’re only six chapters into learning about Abraham as the most recent main character in the Torah, and we’re paying particularly close attention to him because only since introducing Abraham is the Torah really talking about the Jewish people.  Before Abraham, the Torah is telling us the story of humanity as a whole with Adam and Eve, Noah and the flood, and the tower of Babel.  Abraham is the first character we meet in the bible in whom we really want to see something of ourselves as Jews.  And so the parsha opens with Abraham welcoming three strangers into his home who turn out to be angles, and prophesize that even though Sarah has been barren her whole life and getting on in years, she will conceive and bear a son.  And as miraculous as that is, it’s hard for us to be too surprised, because God has a promise to keep with Abraham to turn him into a great and mighty nation, which would be pretty hard to do otherwise.  And yet, as we begin the final chapter of Vayera, the situation turns deadly serious. The entire story of the Binding of Isaac takes place over one single chapter of the Torah, just 24 verses long, but each word has a lot to say.

God calls out, “Abraham”, and Abraham answers, “hineini”, “Here I am”, a word that reminds us of Moses answering God’s call from the burning bush.  God says, “kach na et bincha, et yechidcha, asher havta, et Yitzchak, v’lech l’cha el eretz haMoriah, v’ha’aleyhu sham l’olah al echad heharim asher omar eilecha”.  “Take now, your son, your special one, the one you love, Isaac…”

In an only 24 sentence story, this is a lengthy way of getting around to Isaac.  Sure, there’s a dramatic effect doing it this way, but our sages imagine Abraham trying to pretend to God that he doesn’t understand.  God says take your son, Abraham says, “what do you mean, I have two sons?”… you forgot about Ishamel!  God says, “your special one”, Abraham says I know one of my sons was born rather miraculously but both are special to me.  “The one you love” says God.  “I have only one son of my beloved wife Sarah, but I love both of my sons”, replies Abraham.  “Isaac” says God.  “Yeah, well what about him?” we imagine Abraham saying.  “V’lech lecha el eretz HaMoriah”, “And go to the land of Moriah, and sacrifice him to me as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will show you.  The Hebrew eerily echoes the very beginning of the story of Abraham where he is told to leave the land of his fathers and settle in Canaan, “a land that I will show you”.

Early the next morning Abraham gets ready to go.  The Torah specifically makes us understand that this was EARLY the next morning without further explanation.  We are left to wonder, where was Sarah?  Perhaps still sleeping?  Or perhaps Abraham felt so conflicted that he knew if he didn’t set off as soon as possible, he might never have the courage to go through with it?  The Torah also tells us Abraham brought with him two servants, and yet the next words are about him splitting wood.  Wouldn’t it be more appropriate for the servants to do it?  Our imagination paints a picture of Abraham insisting that he split the wood personally while quietly processing what he was being asked to do with it.

The next verse begins with the words “Bayom Hashlishi”, “on the third day they reached their destination.  What happened on the first two days, we don’t know.  What did they talk about?  Clearly Isaac is old enough to notice something’s wrong.  As Abraham and Isaac go up the mountain alone, Isaac asks, “hinei ha’esh, v’haeitzim, v’ayey haseh l’olah?”, “Here’s the flintstone, here’s the wood, but where is the sheep to sacrifice?”.

Abraham answers, “Elohim yir’eh lo haseh l’olah, b’ni” – “God will see to the sheep sacrifice, my son”.  This is how most translations read the text, but when we see the words in the Torah and remember that the original Hebrew has no vowels or grammar, a chill goes down our spine when we realize that that comma in the English translation is doing a lot of heavy lifting, and could just as easily be moved over one word.  The verse concludes, “vayelchu sh’neihem b’yachad”, and the two walk on together, which is an interesting phrase that will mean more in a moment…

They reach the summit, Abraham builds the altar and the Torah proceeds to describe each step as Isaac is bound and placed on the wood.  Abraham raises his knife over Isaac and at the last possible moment, an angel calls out to him to tell him that the test is over, and that the future generations that would come from Abraham’s line are assured.  When the Torah described Abraham and Isaac going up the mountain together, now upon their return, Isaac isn’t mentioned at all, leaving us only to wonder, how a son now regards his father.  More curiously, the Torah tells us that Abraham and his servants stayed in Beer-Sheva, again the Torah gives us no explicit reason, but they didn’t go home to see Sarah.  As this week’s parsha ends, Abraham receives reports of the goings on of his family from Beer-Sheva, and the Torah is not clear as to whether he ever sees Sarah again before her death, which begins next week’s reading.

In the sanitized Hebrew school version of this story, we glorify Abraham as a hero, the man whose faith was so strong he was even willing to give up his son.  But it is probably more appropriate to view Abraham as a tragic hero, one who lost his way in the end… and even though it will be some time before Abraham dies, this really is the end of his story.  It’s even bookended with the phrase “lech lecha”, a literary technique that we often find in ancient Hebrew, so that Abraham’s story both begins and ends with the theme of the journey.  

But how is any of this even possible?  Abraham was following God’s instruction… humans, even Biblical heroes, we can accept as fallible, but God?  How can we justify God’s actions?

It’s curious that it isn’t actually God who stops Abraham in the end, but rather an angel.  In fact, after commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, God never speaks to Abraham directly again.  It is almost as if Abraham, in fact, failed the test.  And I think it’s ok to be at peace with that.  I imagine God waiting, generation after generation, for the right person to come along to begin elevating the human race to a greater purpose, to begin a civilization where people live ethically and in harmony with the universe, where they care for others as a matter of principle and not as means of leverage, a civilization that champions mercy.  And along comes Abraham with all of the best qualities that humanity has to offer, who believes in the sanctity of human life, who treats others with respect and dignity, who wants to embrace spirituality and living conscientiously .  Abraham has all of the right building blocks, but he doesn’t yet have the experience to understand God.  The people who would come to know God would have to be a stiff-necked people, not a compliant people.  They would need to champion knowledge and study, to learn to think and reason for themselves.  They would need to be people with chutzpah written into their DNA so that they could become, as the Torah would later call the Israelites, a nation of priests, each individual person born with the audacity to cultivate their own personal relationship with the Divine.

Abraham may have proven his faith and loyalty, but he also proved that his progeny would have to be carefully molded for generations to come, which is why even though Abraham’s story is over, the story of the Jewish people continues on.

Shabbat Shalom,

Mon, July 4 2022 5 Tammuz 5782