Ari Shishler
Ari Shishler
Working to bring Moshiach
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Would Avraham have been vaccinated?

If you understand the patriarch at all, you know you can't second-guess him according to your own biases; he aligned his beliefs with G-d's demands (Vayera)
'Abraham Buys the Field of Ephron the Hittite,' by William Hogarth, c. 1725. (Wikipedia)
'Abraham Buys the Field of Ephron the Hittite,' by William Hogarth, c. 1725. (Wikipedia)

By the time you finished reading this post’s headline, you had already decided your answer.

I tested this question on social media this week. People suggested that I’d stirred a hornet’s nest by invoking the “v” word. Responses — most of them predictable — poured in, within minutes. If not for the handful of witticisms, it would have been yawn-worthy.

The rush to reply, and to use Avraham to confirm preconceptions, was stunning. Our Google generation so craves quick answers that we seem to be losing the art of nuance and the capacity to consider complexity.

Ironically, the society that will consider a range of genders anticipates only two possible answers to a question like this one (and only one of them can be correct). Anyone who has studied Talmud will appreciate that Jewish thinking would quicker explore a question than rush to solve it.

I don’t know what Avraham would have done because I’m not Avraham. The eminent patriarch wasn’t available for comment at the time of publication. Many of the people who engaged with my online question seemed confident that they did just what Avraham would have thought. Psychologists might call this projection.

We study the Torah’s stories and characters to learn how to apply ancient wisdom to modern dilemmas. A rapid join-the-dots confirmation bias analysis is hardly useful to translate Torah into contemporary life.

It reminds me of George Bush’s post 9/11 announcement that nations had to decide if they were “with us or against us.” Two decades later, societies are defined by with/against us lines. You’re either a vaxxer or an anti-vaxxer, a liberal or a conservative, pro-choice or pro-life.

Only, real life isn’t binary; it’s nuanced.

One group responded to my question emphatically with “of course he would have.” Avraham cared about others even more than about himself, so he would “obviously” have wanted to keep them safe. Avraham moved to Egypt when famine struck Canaan because he knew that G-d expected him to protect himself. He waited until dawn to saddle up to fulfill G-d’s mission because he wouldn’t risk nighttime travel. Avraham understood that G-d helps those who help themselves.

The opposing group argued that Avraham was a man of faith. He had faced off with four powerful armies to rescue his wayward nephew who had been abducted. He had left everything to travel to an undisclosed location because G-d had said: “Go!” This was a man who would wait for G-d to heal him before he would head to the doctor. Besides, Avraham was called “Hebrew” because he defied convention and refused to follow popular opinion.

Truth be told, neither answer is correct. Each is an attempt to lock Avraham into our own worldview. Confirmation bias is endemic. We learn nothing when we respond to a question with a prefab answer that resonates with our comfort zone.

We’ll never have the chance to interview Avraham, but we can glean one nugget of insight from this week’s Torah portion. Over close to 140 years, Avraham dedicated himself to G-d and to building a legacy that would bring humanity to similar dedication. Along the way, G-d tested him multiple times. G-d dispatched him to a brand new country, only to force him out, through famine, soon after his arrival. G-d promised him progeny, but made his wife infertile.

When he eventually sired a son from his second wife, he had to expel him. All along, Avraham remained steadfast in his commitment to his faith. Then G-d dropped the bombshell: “Take your son, your heir, the one you love and sacrifice him to me.” Avraham was game until G-d retracted at the last minute.

Our sages detect an interesting nuance in that last story. G-d says “please”: “Please take your son.” Now, G-d usually just says, “Do as I say.” His softer tone leads our sages to conclude that G-d was saying, “Please get this one right. If you don’t, people will doubt your commitment throughout the preceding nine challenges.”

It hardly seems fair. A man who will leap into fire for his G-d is fully committed. If he can’t bring a blade to his son’s neck, that shouldn’t undermine a century-and-a-half of his passion.
G-d wanted to show Avraham and teach us that people die for their beliefs all the time. The real test of devotion to the Divine is if you can kill your beliefs for your faith. Avraham believed that Yitzchak was his rightful heir and that the path to G-d was through kindness.
G-d challenged him to upend his preconceptions by asking him to perform a cruel act that would destroy his legacy. Avraham was ready because he had long before learned that to do what is right, what is Divine, has nothing to do with what you believe.

Would Avraham have been vaccinated? We know he would have ignored the compelling arguments for and against and would have soul-searched to understand what G-d would have expected him to do. Our partisan society with its polarized views would have upset Avraham. Life isn’t Premier League soccer, where you pledge allegiance to a team you’ll blindly support forever. Life is an organic interaction between ourselves and others who are different to us. It is a journey of connection, despite disparity. Life is about wrestling our preconceptions to arrive at integrity and Divine connection. Avraham’s greatness is not what he believed. It was his openness to shifting his beliefs to align with what G-d would want.

These are interesting times. COVID has forced us to “pivot” our businesses, schools and social lives. Our most challenging, and potentially most meaningful “pivot” is to realign how we choose to think.

About the Author
Rabbi Shishler together with his wife, Naomi and their eight children, runs Chabad of Strathavon in Sandton, South Africa. Rabbi Shishler is a popular teacher who regularly lectures around the globe. he hosts a weekly radio show in South Africa and is the rabbi of Facebook's largest Ask the Rabbi group.
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