Vayera: Where Vision Meets Values

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. But the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.[1]

As remote from the Torah as they may be, these words—which were written as part of the Think Different marketing campaign that helped revive Apple Computer in the nineties—elegantly capture the tension between creativity and morality that is introduced in Parshat Vayera.

As the ad’s voiceover suggests, often the most innovative people are also considered “crazy” by mainstream society. In calling into question the most fundamental assumptions of the established consensus, they may challenge our basic sense of what is true and right. In their call to disrupt the status quo and push the limits of human potential, these courageously creative people channel muses that can alienate them from others, and even make their actions seem downright immoral. Sometimes a vision that goes beyond the norm cannot help but threaten normative values.

There is perhaps no greater or more extreme example in the Torah of this potential disconnect between vision and values than the episode of the akedah, or binding of Isaac, in our parsha. Indeed, while Apple makes it easy for most of us to identify with the countercultural spirit of the mavericks in its ads, Parshat Vayera presents us with a much more difficult image of what it means to break from the norm.

The story is quite simple on its face. In what the text tells us is a test for Abraham, God orders him to sacrifice his son Isaac as a burnt offering. Abraham rises early to climb Mount Moriah with Isaac. He builds an altar to God there, binds Isaac to it, and raises his knife to kill his son. At the last moment an angel intervenes to stop Abraham. He has apparently passed a test of faith. And no matter how faithful we may be, most of us are hard-pressed to see him as anything but completely crazy, if not cruel. The reader is made to feel that even without actually sacrificing his son, Abraham has sacrificed something fundamental of his moral values on the altar of his radical prophetic vision.

What are we supposed to make of this story, and what can it teach us about the relationship between creativity and morality? What can we possibly learn from the example of a man who appears ready to kill his own son? Should we even be interested in learning such lessons? How can we approach the akedah charitably enough to learn from it, without getting lost in sugarcoating and euphemisms, distorting our own sense of morality in the process? For many of us, the fact that Abraham goes so far to prove his faith in God presents too great a test of our own. We feel guilty by association with the tradition, so we settle for alienation from it. This reaction—this sense of anger at and estrangement from Abraham—is at the core of what the binding of Isaac can teach us about the relationship between creativity and morality.

In the Torah’s presentation of the relationship between creativity and morality, vision and values are ultimately meant to reinforce rather than oppose each other. Thus, we will explore how the rift that Abraham introduces between vision and values represents a false choice—an error that tragically alienates him from others. But we will also see how the Torah, in ruling against that rift between vision and values, challenges us to be humble in approaching the rift that Abraham’s example drives between us and him. We are urged not to be too quick to dismiss what we do not understand, especially with respect to higher forms of creativity that shake our normative assumptions about how the world should be. The Torah suggests that while Abraham’s transgression duly justifies our alienation from him, judging him justly also requires us not to lose sight of his distinction as a prophet. While vision should not crowd out values, values need not obscure vision either. In order to access both sides of the lesson, we must first reckon fully with the alienation surrounding Abraham in our parsha.

After the akedah the Torah overflows with suggestion of such alienation. While Abraham and Isaac climb Mount Moriah together, the text indicates that Abraham returns alone. Although an angel blesses Abraham on behalf of God for demonstrating such steadfast faith, the last words God speaks to Abraham in the Torah have already been spoken. In fact, after the akedah Abraham never again exchanges words in the biblical narrative with Isaac or Sarah either. Virtually all of his key relationships appear to be strained if not broken. At Abraham’s peak exhibition of will to translate prophetic vision into reality, the text does not necessarily contradict what the reader feels: in passing God’s test of faith, Abraham has done something irreversibly wrong.

By putting this motif of isolation and alienation in context, we may begin to see its deeper implications for the evolving relationship between creativity and morality in the Torah. We have previously seen how the Torah’s emphasis on sacred covenant does not negate the sanctity of individuality any more than self-creation contradicts the need for creative covenant with others. If Parshat Noach transformed the independent Divine creative process of Parshat Bereishit by introducing the concept of covenant, and Parshat Lech Lecha moderated that shift to interdependence by refocusing us on the sanctity of self-creation and individuality, Parshat Vayera further refines these swings between selfhood and relationship by warning us against becoming creatively and morally isolated. Abraham’s example shows us how the creative courage that it takes to stand out from the crowd and introduce a new morality to the world can also disconnect us from our natural and necessary partners in creation. We learn from the alienating effects of Abraham’s binding of Isaac that the success of any creative venture depends as much on values as it does on vision, and that those values are ultimately sustained as much or more so in the fabric of our sacred relationships as in the sanctuaries of our own souls.

The issue of alienation from Abraham in our parsha is not, however, rooted solely in the independence of mind and spirit that makes him “crazy” enough to be a prophet and change the world. Indeed, it is perhaps even more fundamentally based on a completely opposite observation about his behavior: part of what makes the akedah so horrifyingly shocking is that Abraham does not appear to be thinking for himself at all. His faith in God is completely blind; he does not argue when told to sacrifice his son. Furthermore, as if the akedah needed to be made any more difficult to understand, the beginning of our parsha actually showcases Abraham as a model of virtuous protest against divine decree. Just a few chapters before the binding of Isaac, when God tells Abraham of the divine plan to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah for the iniquities of the people, Abraham enters into a bold negotiation with God, arguing on behalf of the righteous and innocent.

This juxtaposition stops us in our tracks. How can the binding of Isaac follow such an appeal to divine justice? How can Abraham—described by Rabbi Shai Held as having “so much confidence in his moral intuitions that he insists God live up to them”—be so passively obedient when told by God to do the unthinkable?[2] These questions point us to a deeper cause of the alienation we feel from Abraham: on top of fundamentally disagreeing with his actions, on a basic level we simply cannot relate to them. While we can know that Abraham acted immorally, we must also concede that part of what makes us see him as “crazy” is what we do not know—the fact that his behavior is so difficult to understand.

In the midst of our outrage at the binding of Isaac, remembering Abraham’s outcry for the sake of Sodom and Gomorrah is a call to humility. We may not be particularly interested in understanding Abraham, but as far as the relationship between creativity and morality is concerned, it is important for us to confront the possibility that perhaps Abraham acts as he does because he knows something that we do not. Perhaps the Torah is asking us for restraint in our judgment of Abraham, a check on our alienation from him.

Soren Kierkegaard famously argues in Fear and Trembling, his philosophical treatment of the binding of Isaac, that it is impossible for us to understand Abraham’s faith from a perspective of universal ethics because of his unique relationship with God. We are challenged to assume that by sheer virtue of Abraham’s status as a prophet, we cannot justly assess his morality using popular ethical standards. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes importantly that Kierkegaard’s formulation “gives carte blanche to a religious fanatic to commit crimes in the name of God.”[3] We certainly must not let Abraham off the hook for actions that could be used to promote a spirit of religious fundamentalism, martyrdom, and murder in the name of the God of life. Still, for the purposes of our discussion it is worth considering how we might be able to apply a universal principal for judging Abraham’s moral failure without dismissing what might be important about his unique experience.

Barack Obama of all people—and not just because he had a tough week and needs a good Shabbat—gives us a useful formulation for approaching this issue. In a speech on religion and politics delivered in 2006, then-Senator Obama said:

It’s fair to say that if any of us…saw Abraham on a roof of a building raising his knife, we would, at the very least, call the police and expect the Department of Children and Family Services to take Isaac away from Abraham. We would do so because we do not hear what Abraham hears, do not see what Abraham sees, true as those experiences may be. So the best we can do is act in accordance with those things that we all see, and that we all hear, be it common laws or basic reason.[4]

Perhaps, as the text of the Torah itself suggests, we may judge Abraham without rejecting him altogether, and humbly revere him without losing sight of his flaws. It may feel like a morally slippery slope to admit that part of our aversion to Abraham’s behavior in the akedah stems from how impossible it is for us to relate to it. But why go from repudiating his crisis of morality to ignoring altogether the utterly unsurpassable significance of the idea that Abraham actually interacted with the Creator of the Universe? If we are prepared to judge Abraham’s morality in the binding of Isaac just as he appeals to God’s in respect to Sodom and Gomorrah, then we must leave space for one of the most difficult and important dimensions of the relationship between creativity and morality: as rare as creative genius is to achieve, we ought to approach it with humility because it may be even harder to fully comprehend.

While Parshat Vayera hardly suggests that we should be particularly liberal in giving Abraham or anyone else the moral benefit of the doubt, Abraham’s enduring legacy also seems to imply that we must be conservative in judging exceptional cases. After all, while Abraham is not an altogether majestic hero, he is not exactly average either. He is a prophet. While we certainly do better not to glorify Abraham for the binding of Isaac, it is fair to grant that he is justly not an altogether vilified character in world history. We must remember that we are not talking about a recklessly and destructively innovative villain. We are talking about a man who rejected the unvirtuous customs and conventions of his entire society, and subscribed to a worldview that was radically at odds with the corruption and brokenness of the world as he knew it. We are, after all, talking about a man who, on behalf of justice and compassion, stood up even to God.

Similarly, Apple’s “crazy ones” are not people whom society ultimately dismisses as completely beyond the pale of appreciating. The ad features figures such as Bob Dylan, Amelia Earhart, Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi, and Pablo Picasso. At one time they may all have been marginalized for their unconventional thinking, but now they are all icons of creative genius. What was once considered eccentric or even wrong in each of them came to be seen as exceptional if not extraordinary.

And while Abraham’s example is particularly extreme and therefore worthy of particularly careful and conscientious treatment, the Torah teaches us through both his strengths and his flaws that a healthy relationship between creativity and morality calls for both vision that does not eclipse values, and for values that do not smother authentic vision. He may have done wrong by his values, but in order for us to do right, we must find ways to honor his vision. We cannot forget his moral deficiencies, but we must denounce the binding of Isaac humbly and conscientiously, without forgetting that the moral principles by which we may judge Abraham are at least in part an inheritance from him too.

In the end Abraham did not kill his son, and thus the tradition of his faith falls now to the rising generation, as it once did to Isaac. With billions of heirs, Abraham’s legacy is and will continue to be of great consequence no matter what. But whether its impact on the world is ultimately positive or negative depends to a large extent on our ability to resist the false choice between vision and values. In this way the drama of Abraham nearly sacrificing his son, and the test of faith that underpins it, continues to this day. If Jews, Muslims and Christians alike choose—because we cannot relate to Abraham’s experience—to opt out of the tradition, and thereby sacrifice untold future children of Abraham, we may find not only the prophetic tradition but also creativity and morality consumed by the murderous cynicism of religious fundamentalism that alienates us in the first place.

As the Torah continues with the life of Isaac after the akedah, we will see that Parshat Vayerah is a call to identify in the face of alienation, and to choose life in the face of death. Indeed, whatever heartbreaking alienation from the forefather Abraham we may feel in reading this story can only be a fraction of what his actual son must have felt in the aftermath. And yet the Abrahamic tradition continues, so we must press on as well. We must always consider that Abraham may not have protested in the case of the binding of Isaac because he knew something that we do not. But more importantly we must remember that it takes a leap of faith in the tradition of Abraham to embrace that uncertainty, and to continue striving to integrate creativity and morality responsibly in the name of God.

Shabbat Shalom.


[1] “Crazy Ones,” Think Different, Apple Computer, television advertisement, 1997.

[2] Shai Held, “In Praise of Protest: Or: Who’s Teaching Whom?” (Nov. 4, 2014).

[3] Jonathan Sacks, “The Binding of Isaac,” Covenant and Conversation 5775 on Ethics (Nov. 8, 2014).

[4] Barack Obama, “Keynote Address to the Call to Renewal’s Building a New Covenant with America Conference,” Washington (Jun. 28, 2006).

About the Author
Benjamin Perlstein is a political and strategic communications consultant living in Tel Aviv. He is an alumnus of the Yeshiva Summer Fellowship at Mechon Hadar in New York City, and holds a BA in Political Science from Tufts University.