Three times in this week’s parsha, Abraham is challenged with a moral dilemma, escalating in intensity, demanding a response. Three times, he awakens to a morning where he must face his decision and part from a loved one. Three times, there is a rescue, a last-minute respite from a close encounter with death.
Abraham, who is to carry the banner of ethical monotheism into the ages, is faced three times with a situation where ethics and monotheism come into direct conflict. Each time he reacts differently, and the intensity of his responses seem inversely proportional to the depth of the conflict.
First, he is informed of God’s intent to destroy the city of Sodom and the surrounding cities. He is not asked to take an action, but simply to stand by while God exacts punishment for the evil of their ways. He refuses to stand silently, demanding from God that justice must be done by the Judge of all the Earth. He refuses to invoke the personal card – a plea for his nephew’s life, the same nephew he went to great lengths to save from capture years before. Rather, he invokes abstract notions of justice, demanding that even a few (though not one) righteous people should be enough to save the cities.
Abraham awakens (וישכם אברהם בבקר) to face his failure to change God’s plan. He watches from above on the mountain as the valley goes up in flames. He knows not the fate of his nephew, nor that God has saved Lot from the fires on Abraham’s behalf. The rescue by an angel occurs away from his view, and it is not clear when, if ever, he learns of it.
As promised, great joy comes to Abraham as he finally has a child by his wife, Sarah. Soon, however, the joy is marred as Sarah’s wish becomes God’s command – Abraham must banish his beloved Ishmael, his first-born, on whom all his hopes had ridden during the years before Sarah was promised a child. The text records his deep discomfort, but this time, he does not protest. Again, he awakens in the morning (וישכם אברהם בבקר), to part from his son and second wife, and sends them on their way, not knowing their fate, or if they will meet again. Indeed, soon Ishmael is at death’s door, dying of thirst in the desert wilderness. Saved by an angel, Ishmael grows up under God’s protection, but we are never told if he sees his father again, and he returns to the story only at Abraham’s funeral.
The third story brings the pattern to a new level. Abraham is told to sacrifice his only remaining son, Isaac, the one promised to fulfill his destiny of progeny and land. This time the text records no hesitation, no protest. Abraham awakens (וישכם אברהם בבקר) to load his donkey for the journey and sets out to fulfill God’s command. The altar is built, the wood is placed, Isaac is bound. This time, the angel comes to the rescue in Abraham’s presence, staying his hand from murder. Isaac is saved, and Abraham is aware of it this time, but the separation is nonetheless complete. Abraham returns alone from the mountain, and there is no further scene recorded by Scripture of their meeting, even at Sarah’s funeral or Isaac’s wedding.
The clear pattern in the sequence of stories raises more questions than answers. What is God’s plan in confronting Abraham with these conflicts of ethics and obedience? Why is Abraham so vocal when told of God’s plan for Sodom, but silent when told to banish or kill his sons? Why must Abraham be separated, one by one, from the children he raised as his spiritual heirs?
Abraham is faced in each case with the ultimate religious dilemma. How do we reconcile our faith in God’s justice with the injustice we see in God’s world? For Abraham, the issue is brought into focus by his direct line of communication with God, but in essence it is the same dilemma we are faced with when confronted by the lack of apparent justice in human life, from illness in our personal lives to tragedies on the scale of the Holocaust.
Abraham’s response does not give any clear answers. We can protest and rail, we can remain silent, we can pray. What we cannot do is run away from the reality. Abraham wakes up each morning to face the dilemma, to live with it, to move on despite it. He is ultimately left alone, despite all the promises of future nationhood and greatness, to be a pillar of faith despite the challenges. He passes on his spiritual legacy to Isaac, but cannot be comforted by a close relationship with his son.
Abraham’s uniqueness is in his ability to stand alone, with no answers, firm in his faith despite the dilemmas, the conflicts and the suffering. He is Abraham the Ivri – the one who is across, with the entire world on one side and himself on the other.