November 5, 2020
20 Cheshvan 5781
Parashat vaYeirah recounts five seminal episodes in the spiritual development of Avraham Avinu. Each is an encounter, containing a conflict. They are, the encounter with the three guests, the encounter with God at Sdom and Amorrah, the encounter with Hagar and Yishmael, the encounter with Avimelekh and Phichol, and finally, the encounter of the ‘Akedah. Key words and phrases repeat continuously forming the tapestry of Avraham’s life. In the opening scene of the three guests, the text calls them ‘anashim, “people,” who are transformed into guests by Avraham’s hospitality, and then again into God as the divine voice addresses Avraham and promises him a son. That episode contains the following words: Yitzchak, ‘achar (“after”), zera (“seed,” meaning, “children”), vayikach (“he took”), and na’ar (“youth,” “young male servant.”) Strikingly, all of these words re-appear in the ‘akedah. The same intuitive goodness that compels Avraham to feed and house his guests will play a role in that final episode. The most seemingly innocuous word, ‘achar, plays a significant role in that final event.
Avraham grows as a visionary, seeing the world more and more broadly. Words of vision prefigure throughout these events. Avraham raises his eyes and sees the visitors approaching his tent. He also looks up and sees the ram caught in the thicket during the ‘akedah. When Lot and his family were in Sdom, they took in two wayfarers (malachim, “angels” from the previous episode, but also, “men”), just as Avraham did earlier with his guests. In Sdom, however, Lot’s family was attacked by a mob of townsfolk who wanted to brutalize those guests sexually. When Lot’s offering his daughters instead does not appease the mob, God sends a “blinding light,” (sanverim), so that the attackers could not find the doorway to the house. (19:8-11) God warns Lot’s family not to look at the destruction of Sdom and Ammorah, and when his wife turns to see, she becomes petrified as a pillar of salt. (19:17-26). Sarah “sees” Hagar’s son Me-(yi)tzachek-ing with Yitzchak. (21:9) God tells Hagar in the wilderness not to fear, ‘al tiri, a pun on, “Why are you not looking?” God then opens Hagar’s eyes and she notices a well of water. This language echoes Hagar’s first exile in chapter 16, (‘inui) when she was abused by Sarai. At that time, alone and bereft in the wilderness, Hagar is saved by an emissary of God. Marking the moment, Hagar named that well as a place of vision:
And she called the LORD who spoke to her, “You Are El-roi,” by which she meant, “Have I not continued to see after God saw me!” Therefore the well was called Beer-lahai-roi, [the “well of my living vision”]. It is between Kadesh and Bered. (Bereshit 16”13-14)
Avraham’s life is also filled with moments of abuse. Hagar suffered ‘inui, abuse, at the hands of Sarah. This word resonates from the Covenant of the split pieces in chapter 15. There, God told Avram that his family would suffer in a foregin land as abused immigrants. (15:13) The motif of ‘inui keeps returning. Lot designed to save his guests by endangering his daughters, just like Avram did when he endangered Sarai in Egypt during the famine, and then again later in this portion with Avimelech in Gerar. Even though the word ‘inui itself does not always appear, all of these episodes describe abuse, and often, sexual abuse or the abuse of power. Humanity’s predilection to abuse power over others is ubiquitous in Avraham’s life. Commentators even explain the word, metzachek, what Sarah “saw” Yishmael doing to Yitzchak, as a form of bullying and abuse. Forms of abuse herald all the way back from the generation of the flood, captured by the phrase, hashchatat haderech. Noah is abused by his son, Ham. Avram endangered Sarai who was almost raped in Egypt. Lot and his guests, as immigrants and strangers, are attacked and almost sodomized. Lot is seduced by his daughters. Avraham again compromised Sarah’s safety in Gerar with Avimelech.
Noting all of these behaviors, God’s optimism about people is extraordinary. The generations of humanity since creation filled the world with murder, idolatry and abuse. People behaved as cruelly, arrogantly and abusively. Nevertheless, God fell in love with Avraham, and believed that Avraham and Sarah would navigate these inevitable experiences, and instead of becoming cynical, Avraham and Sarah would elevate humanity. Avraham and Sarah, God saw, would learn to comport themselves with a sense of faith, trust, compassion, justice, and honesty. They would learn from their mistakes, and preserve their humanity, paving the way for others.
The language of promise reflects this divine optimism. This parasha is filled with promises. God promised that in a year’s time Sarah would give birth to a son. God promised Hagar that her son, Yishmael, will become a great nation. Avraham and Avimelekh entered into a treaty promising the cessation of hostilities and endangerment. (21:22-32). The root sh-b-’a, “promise,” repeats seven times in these verses, meaning, “swear an oath.” The word is reinforced through the homonyms meaning “seven” (counting the animals being offered) or the name of the site, Be’er Sheva. God promised Avraham that Sarah will have a son who will grow into a great nation. Hagar’s son, Yishmael, will also lead a great nation. Even Lot fathers the progenitors of Amon and Moav with his own daughters. The constant emergence of nations anticipates the future growth from zera, the children of humanity for the future to fill the world.
God has finally discovered two human beings who have the potential to become humane, to develop the quality traits that God had hoped would characterize humanity. Avraham trusts, feeds and protects strangers. Despite the repeating cycles of cruelty, sexual abuse, drukeness and destruction that started with Noach and continued in Sdom with Lot, Avraham argues for mercy and justice. Not only did Avraham insist that compassion mollify that judgment, he argued with God that “collateral damage” would not be unmerciful; it would be unjust.
When the frenzied mob tried to drag Lot’s guests out from the safety of his house, they perversely used the same phrase Avraham used to argue for compassion. The men of Sdom attacked Lot’s home and said, וַיֹּאמְר֣וּ ׀ גֶּשׁ־הָ֗לְאָה וַיֹּֽאמְרוּ֙ הָאֶחָ֤ד בָּֽא־לָגוּר֙ וַיִּשְׁפֹּ֣ט שָׁפ֔וֹט עַתָּ֕ה נָרַ֥ע לְךָ֖ מֵהֶ֑ם וַיִּפְצְר֨וּ בָאִ֤ישׁ בְּלוֹט֙ מְאֹ֔ד וַֽיִּגְּשׁ֖וּ לִשְׁבֹּ֥ר הַדָּֽלֶת׃ “Stand back! The fellow, came here as an immigrant, and already he acts the ruler (va-yishpote she-phote)!…And they pressed hard against the person of Lot, and moved forward to break the door. (19:9)
The encounter with Hagar, and then with Avimelech, reveal the tension between compassion and vision. Avraham loved Hagar and Yishmael, but the future of humanity required more vision that she was able to demonstrate. The well of water was right in front of her, but she had distanced herself from her son as so not to see. God knew that; Avraham had to see that for himself.
Avraham and Sarah’s goodness were powerful enough to counter the corruption and cruelty at every encounter. Their knowledge of God, their humility, their honesty, their integrity despite Avraham’s misguided attempts to survive at Sarah’s expense, gave God hope for the world. Where people abused their power, Avraham argued for mercy. Where people were unjust, Avraham argued for justice. Where people oppressed immigrants and strangers, Avraham washed their feet, fed and clothed them. Where the future depended upon incest and seduction, Avraham and Sarah were willing to wait for for the fulfillment of a promise. Preferring to live by trust rather than fear, Avraham enters into a treaty with his enemies. Avimelech and Phichol reigned in Gerar, the southern coastal area of Gaza. Avraham preferred to make peace with his enemies over the theft of his wells, than to live in a state of constant warfare. He and Avimelech defined borders for their respective lands, and then sat down to a meal together.
Finally, the parasha culminates in the ‘akedah, the “binding of Isaac.” The foundation of Avraham and Sarah’s relationship with God rests on their ability to trust God’s word, for it was that word that resulted in the creation of humanity itself. “Things work out. All we have to do is the right thing, including repent of our mistakes and not repeat them.” This is true for all relationships; they rest on trust. Rabban Gamaliel taught this when he said: רַבָּן שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן גַּמְלִיאֵל אוֹמֵר, עַל שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד, עַל הַדִּין וְעַל הָאֱמֶת וְעַל הַשָּׁלוֹם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (זכריה ח) אֱמֶת וּמִשְׁפַּט שָׁלוֹם שִׁפְטוּ בְּשַׁעֲרֵיכֶם: “…on three things does the world stand: On justice, on truth and on peace, as it is said: “execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates” (Zechariah 8:16). (Pirke Avot 1:18) “Trust,” Rabban Gamaliel is saying, “that justice, truth and peace are possible. We can build the world from these basic commitments. Trust that people have it within them to live lives of justice, truth and peace.”
Imagine the leaders of a country dedicated to these values of justice, truth and peace, enough to inspire their citizens to trust each other to live accordingly. To say this is almost unimaginable would be to deny Avraham Avinu’s life as an exemplar. Avraham is the role model for humanity’s ability to trust, to live with faith, to demand justice, and to learn to make peace with enemies.
Hence, the ‘akedah is God’s most demanding trial of Avraham: Can Avraham find a way to preserve his trust and faith in God’s word, while fulfilling a command that would break that very trust? How must a person’s neshama develop to remain nourished by the belief that the world is good and that human life is a blessing, in the face of an impossible situation? Belief in God is abstract; brief in the humanity of God’s most complex creatures is a lived experience. More than anything else, God promised Avraham and Sarah a child for their future, and now God was commanding Avraham to offer Yitzchak as a sacrifice on an altar!
But magnificently, Avraham surpasses all expectations for this trial. On his own, and of his own accord, Avraham looks up, sees a ram in a thicket, takes it and offers it vicariously in lieu of his son. God did not command Avraham to do that. Avraham’s leap of faith enabled him to transpose God’s command into a new form, and fulfill Hashem’s will in his own way. This simple act represents perhaps the greatest revolution in the history of faith: that humanity can fulfill God’s will through creative leaps of the imagination, without assuming that God wants us to perform an action only in its most literal, concrete sense. Avraham taught us that doing mitzvot requires both the letter and the spirit of the law, and always, under all circumstances, to promote, protect and enhance the quality of life with compassion, kindness, righteousness, and honesty.
Avraham made this “leap of trust” intuitively sensing that his relationship with God and his relationship with humanity and the world were all aspects of a holistic existence. The text captures this intuition, a spiritual, inner “third eye,” with the simple word ‘achar describing the ram. Virtually all traditions of commentary translate this word to mean either that Avraham looked behind him and saw the animal, or the animal was caught behind Avraham in the thicket. However, I would like to suggest that this word, ‘achar, at least alludes to another meaning. The letters, alef-chet-resh is found in another source describing animals: If a camel, that was in heat, “‘’ocher,” is found amongst the other camels, and there is a dead camel among them, we may assume that the one in heat killed it. (Tosefta Babba Kamma 3:6; Talmud Babba Batra 93a; Talmud Sanhedrin 37b) Alliteratively, the root, chet-resh-yod means red-hot anger. Desert rams do not get caught in thickets. A male ram would only find himself caught in a thicket if, maddened and overwhelmed by passion, he charged another animal in a frenzy and literally rammed himself into a foliage so forcefully that he could not escape. (That ram behaved like the menfolk of Sdom.) The ram is trapped by his own yetzer, the passion unbridled passion that yields abuse, murder, and idolatry. The ram was blinded by its own passion. (Indeed, spiritual blindness is associated with this event. Rashi notes that Yitzchak’s future blindness was caused both by the smoke of Esav’s idolatrous offerings, and by the tears of the angels who were crying during the ‘akedah, and they fell into Yitzchak’s eyes. Bereshit 27:1) Avraham’s ability to remain trusting of the future, optimistic, and faithful was not based on “blind faith.” Quite the contrary. Avraham’s ability to remain trusting of the future and of his own ability to continue on his Godly journey was possible precisely because he did not act on his passions like that ram. He acted on his deeply felt intuition. His religious knowledge was intuitive, he sensed it was right and true, and that intuition allowed him to use his imagination and search for a solution to an impossible situation. Faith is not blind. It is discerning, intuitive, creative, bold, rational, and revolutionary. Avraham’s faith is a faith that requires thinking out of the box. The same applies today. Our ability to trust God by trusting that the humanity that God created is capable of being just, compassionate, honest, humble and good, requires the faith of Avraham.