My Weekly D’var Torah 07 November: Parasha Va-yera וירא : Vision (Insight), Promise (Covenant), Commitment (Circumcision)
As Nahum Sarna points out in his opening comments to this, yet another, monumental chapter : “Even as the opening notes of a symphony often sound a theme that will be developed in various ways throughout the piece, the opening word of this chapter proclaims the theme, Va-yera וירא “The Lord appeared/was seen”” (Etz Hayim, page 99).
This chapter is, as Sarna notes, in good part, about seeing, being seen, appearances (and deception), looking forward and looking back. The climax of the parasha comes at the end, sub-chapter 22, in the chilling, mesmerizing story of the binding of Isaac. This is a foundational story of promise and commitment for the people (all) embodied by the circumcision of every Jewish male. Let’s dive in:
1. The LORD appeared to him by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot. Looking up, he saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and, bowing to the ground. (GEN: 18: 1-2)
Gd appears and Abraham sees: the “three men” are not men at all but a sign from Gd to Abraham that a major change is soon to arrive. Call it a dream, call it intuition, call it insight!
2. Then one said, “I will return to you next year, and your wife Sarah shall have a son!” Sarah was listening at the entrance of the tent, which was behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years; Sarah had stopped having the periods of women. And Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment—with my husband so old?” Then the LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?’ Is anything too wondrous for the LORD? I will return to you at the same season next year, and Sarah shall have a son.” Sarah lied, saying, “I did not laugh,” for she was frightened. But He replied, “You did laugh.” (GEN 18: 10-15)
I love this passage and I love Sarah for laughing at Gd. Although she is frightened in the end. Her natural and first response in the right and healthy one. Gd’s rebuke, on the other hand, seems unkind and unnecessary. (Sometimes “children” know better and behave better than their “parents”).
3. Now the LORD had said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do,….
Then the LORD said, “The outrage of Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave! I will go down to see whether they have acted altogether according to the outcry that has reached Me; if not, I will take note.” The men went on from there to Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the LORD. Abraham came forward and said, “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? ****(GEN 18:17-32)
Sarah laughed at Gd, Abraham argues with Gd. The relationship between Gd and man is always dynamic. It is not hierarchical, not top down in one direction Gd to man, heaven to earth, but rather a dialog.
Gd asks himself : “Will Abraham see what I am going to do”. Will Abraham understand? He, Abraham, does see, he does understand and he argues with one of the greatest arguments in history, “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?” Gd then sees that Abraham’s call is just and he relents, he backs down. Were he alive today, Abraham would be a great attorney!
4. the LORD rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah sulfurous fire from the LORD out of heaven. He annihilated those cities and the entire Plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities and the vegetation of the ground. Lot’s wife looked back, and she thereupon turned into a pillar of salt. (GEN 19:24-26)
Regret is corrosive. When we look back, we freeze. We turn into pillars of salt. Only when we look forward can we move forward past injury and trauma.
5. Now Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. Sarah said, “God has brought me laughter; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” And she added, “Who would have said to Abraham That Sarah would suckle children! Yet I have borne a son in his old age.” (GEN 21:5-7)
Sarah has the last, and best, laugh. The name Isaac, in Hebrew, יצחק, has the same root as the verb, “to laugh”, לצוחק.
6. She said to Abraham, “Cast out that slave-woman and her son, for the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.” The matter distressed Abraham greatly, for it concerned a son of his. But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed over the boy or your slave; whatever Sarah tells you, do as she says, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be continued for you. As for the son of the slave-woman, I will make a nation of him, too, for he is your seed.”** Early next morning Abraham took some bread and a skin of water, and gave them to Hagar. He placed them over her shoulder, together with the child, and sent her away. And she wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba. When the water was gone from the skin, she left the child under one of the bushes, and went and sat down at a distance, a bowshot away; for she thought, “Let me not look on as the child dies.” And sitting thus afar, she burst into tears. God heard the cry of the boy, and an angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heeded the cry of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him by the hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” ** Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went and filled the skin with water, and let the boy drink. (GEN 21: 10-19)
This is among the most heartbreaking stories in the Torah : Hagar, Ishmael’s mother, cannot bear to see her son die and move away from the boy. But, again, she does not see that help is close by, a well of water. Gd opens her eyes and she sees. Sometimes solutions are right in front of us but, until we see them, they are of no use to us.
7. The binding of Isaac, the covenant and circumcision.
There are, to me, three foundational stories in the Torah – all bedrocks of Judaism (not in order for emphasis) : First, the separation of Gd from nature in Genesis; Second, the delivery of the moral code, the Ten Commandments and, Third, the binding of Isaac, the promise embedded in the covenant and the physical manifestation of the covenant (and psychological imperative) in the circumcision of the male child.
Here is the story (abridged):
Some time afterward, God put Abraham to the test. He said to him, “Abraham,” and he answered, “Here I am.” And He said, “Take your son*, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.” (GEN 22:1-2)
They arrived at the place of which God had told him. Abraham built an altar there; he laid out the wood; he bound his son Isaac; he laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. And Abraham picked up the knife to slay his son. Then an angel of the LORD called to him from heaven: “Abraham! Abraham!” And he answered, “Here I am.” And he said, “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from Me.” When Abraham looked up, his eye fell upon a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son. (GEN 22: 9:13)
After issuing the horrifying and horrible command to Abraham, Gd helps Abraham see, as he helped Hagar see, that a solution is at hand, a ram in the forest, and Abraham substitutes the ram for his son.
And Abraham named that site Adonai-yireh, whence the present saying, “On the mount of the LORD there is vision.” (GEN 22:
Again : vision, sight, insight and inner transformation.
The angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time from heaven and said, “By Myself I swear, the LORD declares: Because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your favored one, I will bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore; and your descendants shall seize the gates of their foes. (GEN 22:15-17)
Gd renews his promise, his covenant, with Abraham and his descendents.
This story is a story of fathers and sons. Women are absent, not because they do not receive the covenant – they do – but because they, like Sarah, do not have the same conflict with their sons.
Gd the father, Abraham the father. Ishmael and Isaac, the sons, and we, the children of Israel, the descendents of Isaac. As we have seen earlier Gd destroyed the world many times before realizing it was time to leave well enough alone (see Parasha Noach). His first (primitive) covenant or promise to stop his destructive behavior is with Noah. The reason for Gd’s (and a father’s) wish to destroy his progeny is deeply rooted in our (male) psychology. One of our great “rabbis”, Sigmund Freud, taught us that sons compete with their fathers for the love of their mothers. Thus the son is born to hate his father in some fundamental way. This is the Oedipal Complex. But greater and more frightening and less explicit is the hatred of the father for his son. The son is, first, the father’s rival for the affection of his wife. And, more profoundly, the father “hates” his son because his son will inevitably outgrow him and surpass him, will bury him. The father’s death is written in the life of the son. To see one’s son is to see one’s passing. And, this is called the Laius Complex*** Thank you Leon Hoffman (see below)
Of course this plays out unconsciously, mythically. And, as we see, it plays out in the relationship of God, the father, with his sons, Abraham (and Moses and Noah and the Jewish people and perhaps all people).
The “covenant”, the Brit/Bris, is God’s promise to his children, to us, to let us survive his anger, let us survive his disappointment; let us act on our own. It is a promise for the future; it is a promise for freedom.
Abraham mirrors the behavior and threatens to kill his son only to find a substitute in the blood of the ram. Isaac is spared for this substitution.
And, for us, in our ritual lives, the substitute of the lamb’s blood is the circumcision. In circumcising his son, a father makes a small sacrifice in substitution of a larger, inconceivable, murder. The substitution of the foreskin for the genital (which is the male self, in effect, the person himself) guarantees the life of the son. It is the covenant, the Bris, or promise, of the father to his son that he, the son, will not be destroyed but allowed to live.
Written in the flesh of the son is the recognition that his father willed his death but prevented it too. Circumcision is the replay of Abraham’s understanding and act. It is the replay in our lives of the Akedah. And this is why this ritual, this commandment, this act is so psychologically and emotionally vital, personally for each boy and each family and for the entire community.
The genius of our Jewish tradition is its ability to create ritual that allows us to face our worst fears. In many cases and in this one, we literally incorporate our fears and aggressions in order to transcend them. It is a tradition that calls on us to make explicit the implicit, conscious the unconscious, by acting with our hands and writing that survival in our bodies. It is a transformative process and ours, a transformative tradition! As Abraham was transformed, we are too each time we face our inner fears, recognize them and manage them.
The Akedah, the binding of Isaac, is the emotional, psychological, physical and religious foundation of the covenant. It is the story of how an older generation, recognizing its demise, transcends its fear, transcends its anxiety and aggression and reaffirms the promise for the future.
* The rabbis imagined Abraham arguing with Gd at this point and the argument underscores, once again, the love Abraham has for Ishmael. The argument is heartbreaking too. Thank you Nahum Sarna.
Gd: “Take your son”.
Abraham: “I have two sons. Which one?”
Gd: “Your favored one”.
Abraham: “Each is the favored of his mother”.
Gd: “the one whom you love”.
Abraham: “Is there a limit to a father’s affection?
Gd: “Stop arguing with me : Isaac” !
**On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I assign this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates: the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, וthe Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites. (GEN 15: 18-21)
Gd’s covenant is with both Isaac and Ishmael. The idea that Israel (Isaac’s progeny) is destined to inherit all the land is a myth. Both sons are heirs. Thank you Rabbi Ariel Pollak.
***The full text of the negotiation between Abraham and God:
What if there should be fifty innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” And the LORD answered, “If I find within the city of Sodom fifty innocent ones, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” Abraham spoke up, saying, “Here I venture to speak to m<a Lord, I who am but dust and ashes: What if the fifty innocent should lack five? Will You destroy the whole city for want of the five?” And He answered, “I will not destroy if I find forty-five there.” But he spoke to Him again, and said, “What if forty should be found there?” And He answered, “I will not do it, for the sake of the forty.” And he said, “Let not my Lord be angry if I go on: What if thirty should be found there?” And He answered, “I will not do it if I find thirty there.” And he said, “I venture again to speak to my Lord: What if twenty should be found there?” And He answered, “I will not destroy, for the sake of the twenty.” And he said, “Let not my Lord be angry if I speak but this last time: What if ten should be found there?” And He answered, “I will not destroy, for the sake of the ten.” (GEN 18:17-32)
**** Thank you to psychoanalyst Dr. Leon Hoffman for bringing the definition of the Laius Complex to my attention.
The Laius Complex features prominently in the Greek myth of Cronos who devoured his sons once he learned they would overcome him. The paintings by Peter Paul Rubens and Francisco Goya tell the tale better than words can.
All images are in the public domain and free of copyright restrictions.