Great Non-Expectations (parashat Vayera)

In this week’s parashat Vayera we read about the birth and the younger years of Yitzschak (Isaac). Yitzschak’s birth is cause for laughter, since in the beginning of the parasha we can read that Sarah laughs when she overhears the three angels telling her husband Avraham that she will conceive within a year.

Considering her old age (Sarah is almost 90!), it isn’t strange that she laughs. In an interview with a Dutch comedian that I recently read, the comedian suggested that humor is often the outcome of an unexpected situation. As for example, in the case of the famous Jewish joke of a man called Rothschild who is invited by an anti-Semite to his home. When both are seated at the table, the anti-Semite slams his fist on the table and shouts: “Schwein!” (meaning ‘swine’). Mr. Rothschild calmly replies: “Rothschild”.

Maybe you are pausing right at this moment to think about the punchline. If so, don’t worry, I did too. Jokes aren’t supposed to be explained, but I will do so anyway: While the anti-semite’s ‘swine’ is an attempt to assault Rothschild, Rothschild assumes the anti-semite is introducing himself. Being ‘polite’, Rothschild introduces himself too. The joke doesn’t tell us whether Rothschild knows he is being assaulted or that he is just naive, but that’s not important for the punchline.

One of the reasons why this situation is funny -at least I think it is- is because we wouldn’t expect someone who is being assaulted to reply in such a way. Similarly, Sarah is not expecting to have a baby at her age. “After I have been worn out, will my skin be smooth again? And my man is old”, she cries out.

But there are more unexpected things happening in Vayera, one of them being the Akedat Yitschak (the binding of Isaac). G-d asks Avraham to take his son, the only one, that he loves, to the land of Moriah and to bind him as a burnt offering. Avraham obeys G-d’s request and sets out to the land of Moriah with his son. Once he arrives (after three days!), he takes the wood, the fire and the knife.

Just as Avraham is preparing to sacrifice his son, an angel of G-d appears to him, telling him that it isn’t necessary to sacrifice his son and that it was a test. “Do not lay your hand upon the boy and do not do the smallest thing to him, because now I know that you fear G-d, and that you did not withhold your son, your only one, from Me”, the angel says.

In his book Fear and Trembling (1843), the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard took this episode of the binding of Isaac to show what it means to live a genuinely religious life. He states that Avraham was probably full of fear and trembling (this explains the title of the book) during the whole event. However, Avraham did not compromise with his fear and went ahead with G-d’s assignment.

According to Kierkegaard, human life is characterized by its finitude. The most obvious example of this is that we do not live eternally -at some point in life, we will die. But finitude is also present in more subtle forms, like marital problems, financial troubles, unreciprocated love, illness, work-related issues or you name it. Also, troubles in different areas often have an influence on each other. Stress at work can negatively effect relationships for example, which actually makes it never possible to be hundred percent successful in all areas of our lives at once. We all try to do our best, but in the end we win some here and we lose some there. Perfection is just an illusion.

For Kierkegaard, this finitude is not a weakness but a strength. The vulnerability that characterizes human life, enables us to relate to G-d: we are not, neither do we have to be, self-sufficient. Instead of forcefully trying to attain perfection, we can try to open ourselves up for G-d and put that which we couldn’t handle well on our own and with which we needed G-d’s help, on the mizbeach (altar). Just as Avraham did with Isaac. It is probably needless to say that this is a very scary thing to do. It means exchanging our urge to control our lives, for faith in G-d.  But when we do, when we give G-d the chance to help us, we may find ourselves with new solutions, new perspectives and new inspirations. The expected transforms into the unexpected and we smile, giggle or (like Sarah) even laugh!

About the Author
Anne Ornstein was born and raised in Amsterdam in 1989. She studied philosophy at the University of Amsterdam, where she wrote her thesis on Martin Buber's perception of Judaism. She works at the Municipality of Amsterdam.
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