Abraham was Judaism’s big bang. But even the biggest bang is just a beginning
For most of us Sefer Bereishit (Genesis) is a trove of “Bible stories” which we absorb unquestioningly as young children – and which we remember as such with barely a second thought.
We are by and large guilty of uncritical Torah reading – if we read at all. And I would suggest that Parshat Vayera is perhaps our greatest transgression in this regard. Most of us only remember Abraham’s unsuccessful plea to spare Sodom and its subsequent destruction; followed by the miraculous birth of Isaac; and culminating in Abraham passing G-d’s test with flying colors as he hastens to comply with the request to offer up Isaac as a whole burnt offering.
But we are no longer six and seven years old, and there is a lot more to Vayera than these simplistic sketches, and, indeed, much more within these narratives themselves.
Parshat Vayera is riddled with nuances, problems, conflicts and questionable actions that should have us clamoring for clarification.
As for me, I have only questions that I hope to deal with, one by one in the years ahead. Let me share some of these with you. As always, I am receptive to intelligent answers (And by these I do not meant belief-defying legends that only further remove us from any sense of reality):
- G-d had already told Abraham in Parshat Lekh Lekha that he would have a son with Sarah. So,
a)Why was there a need for the messengers to repeat what G-d had already told him? Is an angel’s word better than G-d’s promise? (Speaking of which, it is an angel which stays Abraham’s hand at the moment of Isaac’s imminent slaughter, while it was G-d Himself who had requested the offering.)
b)Why did the annunciation by the three messengers come as a surprise to Sarah? Didn’t Abraham communicate with his wife? Surely he had shared the good news before the arrival of these strangers?
c)Why was Sarah rebuked for laughing (Genesis 18:!3), when Abraham had reacted the very same way, just a few verses earlier?
- Why do G-d, and his emissaries, have to keep telling Abraham that he will become a great and powerful nation (18:18). Surely he knows this by now. After all he heard this from G-d Himself — over and over and over again. And this promise had twice been sealed by covenant. Why the constant need for repetition?
- Abraham is forever lauded for his readiness to bargain with the A-mighty for the sparing of Sodom. Yet, when he runs out of statistical justification, and the verdict is no longer subject to appeal, it never occurs to Abraham to plead for the safety of his nephew Lot. Indeed Lot is rescued on his own merit (See Rashi on Genesis 19:29). Why is it that Abraham seems to care more for the world at large than for a blood relative – who certainly appears worthy of being spared?
- When trying to protect his ‘guests’ from being raped by the Sodomites, Lot offers his daughters instead (Genesis 19:8), claiming they are virgins. And yet these daughters were married as we see in verse 12. And, indeed why did Lot offer his daughters when he could have offered his sons-in-law who were Sodomites themselves and present under his roof? After all the mob was clamoring for male victims, not female ones.
- Having escaped by the skin of their teeth to a remote and unpopulated spot, Lot and his daughters believe the entire world has been destroyed and they are the only survivors. Hence the daughters’ decision to become pregnant by their father. However, for this they need wine in order to intoxicate Lot as he would likely spurn their seductions if he were sober – further proof of his core decency. But where did the wine come from? The angels grabbed Lot and his wife and daughters – there was no time to pack any luggage, let alone wine. So what was the source of this alcohol?
- We tend to make short shrift of Lot, and yet Abraham’s nephew is very similar to Noah — a righteous man relative to the universe of utter degeneracy in which he lived. Like Noah, Lot and his family are the sole survivors following a punitive cataclysm. Like Noah, Lot experiences a debacle with his offspring involving inebriation and conduct unbecoming. Surely these similarities are not coincidental. Perhaps Lot deserves a bit more recognition than we give him?
- Abraham departs from Elonei Mamrei for Grar following the annihilation of Sodom. Rashi tells us it was because the traffic stopped as no one was traveling to Sodom. The implication is that he no longer had the opportunity to host wayfarers. But then, when he had been able to host wayfarers why did he not use his persuasive powers to prevent them from continuing their journeys to this city of sin? Indeed why did he not prevent Lot from settling there? INDEED when Abraham separated from Lot(Genesis 13:9) he gave his nephew the choice to go either right or left, while he, Abraham, would take the remaining choice. Had Lot selected option ‘B’ it could easily have been Abraham who settled in Sodom!
- When going to Grar, Abraham does a repeat of his actions vis a vis Sarah when they went to Egypt. For him it is a given that she would be taken and compromised by the local monarch. This doesn’t appear to faze him. All he asks is that she dissemble regarding her status as his wife, claiming they are siblings, so that he should not be murdered. Was the absence of wayfarers in Elonei Mamre sufficient justification for Abraham to uproot himself and subject his wife to the indignity and moral outrage of droit de seigneur? Yes, the practice ofhahnasat orhimis highly commendable, but surely not at the cost of having one’s beloved wife raped by a pagan king.
- Abraham is never reticent about challenging or second-guessing G-d’s preferences. Despite the
A-mighty having brought him to Canaan, Abraham decamps to Egypt. Upon returning from Egypt, G-d asks Abraham to wander the length and breadth of Canaan, yet Abraham has other plans. When G-d decides to destroy Sodom, Abraham attempts to dissuade Him.
And yet, when it comes to the Akedah (G-d’s apparent request that Abraham sacrifice Isaac) Abraham hastens to do G-d’s bidding without so much as a request for clarification. All along he had been a lone voice preaching against human sacrifice and other abominations, yet, when asked to engage in such an abomination himself, he refrains from even the most modest protest? At the very least he could remind G-d of his repeated promises and covenants to make him into a great nation from his only child with Sarah. Surely he can question G-d’s credibility when it comes to ironclad covenants?
As well, this is the second time we know of that Abraham abstains from sharing vital information with Sarah – the first when G-d tells him they will have a child, and now when G-d asks him to sacrifice that child.
How can we accept the Akedah as the consummate story of Abrahamic heroism and submission to G-d? Were such an event to occur today we would consider it the ultimate abomination – and yet our tradition considers this the most glorious act of faith ever.
Rather than grapple with these questions individually at this time, I suggest, for the moment at least, that we recalibrate the viewfinder through which we tend to see Abraham.
Indeed, most of these questions can be mooted if we abandon our need to see Abraham through a lens of human perfection.
Unfortunately, more recent Jewish tradition seeks a degree of perfection in our heroes that the Torah seems to deliberately deflect. The “warts and all” narratives that we find in the Torah are re-construed through midrashic legend and medieval commentary to have, if anything, an opposite meaning. We are conditioned to believe that the literal text is meaningless as such. And that the human failings of our heroes – be they the patriarchs, prophets, kings, scribes, or even contemporary rabbinic leadership – have to be airbrushed into an absurd perfection and infallibility rather than accepted at face value.
Clearly Abraham was a man of his times. To have been born into the pagan wasteland of ancient Mesopotamia, surrounded by idolatry, murder, child sacrifice, sodomy and internecine savagery, and be able to unilaterally come to the realization of one supreme, invisible G-d is an astonishing breakthrough. To have arrived at an understanding of the beauty and life-enhancing value of lovingkindness toward strangers in a climate in which the norm was one of suspicion and ruthless exploitation of the transient and sojourner is a breathtaking achievement in its own right..
How dare we expect more of Abraham? Why should he be expected to finish the job that he had only begun? Why do we need to place him on a pedestal so high that subsequent generations can only retreat from his greatness rather than augment it?
Abraham was our progenitor. He made a discovery that dwarfs those of Pythagoras, Galileo and Einstein. He set in motion the ability of humankind to civilize itself and develop a moral and ethical value system that is rooted in the awareness of, and belief in, a single Creator.
He gave us the reason and the impetus to then go beyond where he left things off – to sit on the shoulders of this giant so that we could see things he could not yet see, and do things he could not yet do.
To say this is not to diminish Abraham’s greatness. He was the spiritual big bang. But a lot had to happen after that, and did.
This is why redemption did not occur in Abraham’s day. Perfection for our world is not instantly achieved. There is an evolutionary process that must build on such a breakthrough, and this is our job in every generation.
After Abraham, there ensued large periods of expansion and contraction, and smaller instances of ebb and flow that saw his descendants ascending to new heights and plummeting to new lows. At our best, we surely made Abraham proud as any father would be seeing his children going beyond him by building on his legacy. At our worst, he surely mourned as his descendants became victims of historical snags or their own ineptitude and collective amnesia.
But ultimately we – all the generations past, present and future – hope to make it from point A to point Z, by building on Abraham’s breakthroughs, which are absolutely necessary but hardly sufficient. By seeing our ancestor for what he was, and for what he was not, we can be inspired to do our best. However, to view him as the personification of perfection leaves us with no place to go.