Parashat Vayera features the most difficult story in the Torah, the binding and near-sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. I have for years read this story as the last in a series of tests that God sets for Abraham and understood this to be the one that he fails. The Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard famously referred to Abraham’s decision to proceed with the sacrifice as a “teleological suspension of the ethical,” an abandonment of typical ethical judgment for some higher spiritual end. Judaism rejects this out of hand; there is no such thing as suspending the ethical, something Abraham himself teaches us earlier in the parsha, when he challenges God about Sodom and Gomorrah, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justice?”
My assumption that Abraham had failed was based on this very line. If Abraham is willing to challenge God on behalf of the Sodomites, with whom he previously had a military alliance and who were neighbors (not good ones) to his nephew Lot, why is he not willing to do so for his own son, one who is far more innocent than the Sodomites? He is not suspending the ethical, he is just failing to recognize it, or perhaps is exhausted from the experience of Sodom and no longer has the strength to protest. Either way, he fails.
I believe I have misunderstood until now. And now I think I get it.
God presented Abraham with this task because it creates a seemingly impossible choice: destroy an innocent life or disobey a command from the Almighty Ruler of Creation. Two generations later, Abraham’s grandson Jacob will wrestle with “a man” through the night until dawn and thus earn the name Israel, meaning one who struggles with God. Already prefiguring that event, God is teaching Abraham that partnering with God sometimes requires excruciating decisions where a “right answer” seems not to exist, or at least to be hidden from view.
Isaac recognizes this, meekly, as they ascend the mountain. Sensing that something is amiss, seeing the wood for the fire and the knife for the slaughter, he asks, “Where is the sheep for the offering?” Ayeh ha-seh l’olah? This is often framed as an innocent question asked by an obedient child who does not know what is to come, but Isaac is not a child at that point, and the question is not innocent. He is looking for a way out. The faithful Abraham replies, “God will provide the sheep.”
Kierkegaard might say that this is Abraham serenely accepting that God has, in fact, already provided the “sheep,” the dutiful Isaac. But again, we cannot accept this. As I now understand this, Abraham agrees with Isaac’s basic question: Ayeh ha-seh l’olah? Where is the sheep? But to keep his faith, he must believe that God will provide him one. He, too, is looking for a way out. He must believe, to avoid destroying everything he has built in this lifetime, that God will show him one. As he builds the fire, as he places Isaac on the altar, as he ties the rope, he must simultaneously believe that he will bring down the knife with all his strength, and that God will provide him a sheep before he must do so. He is looking for a way out. Ayeh ha-seh l’olah?
Far in the future, another Jew will face a similar dilemma. Actor William Shatner, in his best-known role as Captain James T. Kirk, confronts a notorious in-training test called the Kobayashi Maru, a simulation exercise in which the captain receives a distress call from a disabled vessel stranded in Klingon space. If he crosses the line to the Klingon side, he will start a war; if he remains where he is he will violate the directive to rescue fellow Federation vessels at all costs. Starfleet Academy lore recounts tales of officer candidates leaving the simulator a smoking mess because of the inevitability that they will fail this challenge. Kirk alone refuses to accept the premise that he must choose. Ayeh ha-seh l’olah? Kirk doesn’t ask. He simply decides to find one himself.
Somewhere between Abraham’s dilemma and Kirk’s is where Israel, and by extension all of today’s Jews, finds itself. Hamas has, by design, presented an impossible choice. They have committed atrocities so unbelievable that Israel is obligated, by any reasonable measure of protecting its citizens, to strike back. They have created living conditions in Gaza, through neglect, hoarding of resources, and actively terrorizing their own citizens, that are too miserable to bear. They have hidden their rockets, their operatives, and indeed their entire command and control center in the basements and parking lots of schools, mosques, and hospitals, placing tens of thousands of people directly in the line of fire that Israel must take to meet its stated goal of destroying Hamas. They have waged a propaganda war on the internet for 15 years, and especially since early in the pandemic, to get well-meaning progressives the world over to join in lockstep with a violently repressive, patriarchal, homophobic and genocidal regime in the name of social justice. And they have twisted the knife in the heart of Israel’s citizens by taking 240 (or more, the number keeps rising) hostages, dangling false promises of release in exchange for cease fire, release of other murderers from prison, or cash and supplies to keep their campaign of terror going.
The result is an impossible decision as fundamental as Abraham’s in the past or Kirk’s in the imagined future. Shall we rescue the hostages at the cost of more lives on both sides, abandon them to their fate to avoid a war (and the misplaced reproach of the global community), or rescue them with a deal that involves releasing even more murderers back into circulation? Shall we eliminate at last the existential threat of Hamas, again at the cost of more lives on both sides, or admit that world opinion and our own moral compass have tied our hands to the point that we are unable to protect ourselves?
To be a Jew, an Israeli, a descendant of Abraham, even one as distant into the future as William Shatner, is to believe that there must be a way out. Ayeh ha-seh l’olah? We are constantly asking along with Isaac. We are constantly looking, as Abraham looks up to finally see the ram caught in the thicket, while still holding that knife he fully intended to use in the next instant if he saw nothing. Abraham did not fail; his real test was Isaac’s question, and his real success was his answer: God will provide the sheep, if only I am attentive enough to look up for it. So, too, we must be looking for that sheep: for ways to reach the Hamas leadership and smoke them out while the hospital above them sits undisturbed, for ways to bring our captives home without releasing the next generation of bloodthirsty leaders from prison, and ultimately to allow Gazans and West Bank Palestinians to rule themselves peacefully alongside Israel without reconstituting the terror state that massacred so many of our family members. Ayeh ha-seh l’olah?
Abraham, we must remember, had two sons. Ishmael also faces a near-death experience from thirst in the desert, until his mother Hagar sees that, just like the sheep in the thicket, there was water in the well all along. Hamas leadership recently had the audacity to suggest that the civilians in Gaza are not even their responsibility, and that Israel (yes, they will refer to Israel by its name if they need us to do something they are not willing to do) and the UN should take care of them. But this is not the behavior of a great nation, the one Ishmael is destined to become. Ishmael’s true descendants know better. Ishmael’s true descendants can make peace and settle grievances. Ishmael’s true descendants can be looking for a sheep as much as Isaac’s must. As Ishmael and Isaac reunite to bury their father together, in a cave that remains sacred to both peoples to this day, their descendants must find a way out of their father’s impossible dilemma that recognizes that not only that cave, but the whole land in which it sits, is sacred to both peoples to this day – is home to both peoples to this day. Ayeh ha-seh l’olah? I don’t know, but it must be here somewhere.
May the Merciful One, as both peoples call God, cause peace to dwell between the children of Sarah our mother, the seed of Isaac, and the descendants of Hagar, the sons of Ishmael.