November 19, 2018

Weekly Parsha: Vayera

One verse, five voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist

And [Isaac] said, “Here are the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the
burnt offering?” – 
Genesis 22:7


Kylie Ora Lobell
Writer

This Torah portion used to disturb me. Avraham and Sarah waited years to have a child, and when they are blessed with Isaac, HaShem commands Avraham to sacrifice his son. Avraham agrees without hesitation. 

Over the years, I’ve read this parsha again and again. And I finally understand why Avraham agreed. 

I converted to Judaism and willingly took on the mitzvot, no matter how nonsensical they were. Give up bacon, my favorite food, because the Torah says to? Yup. Carry during Shabbat only in a place where there are strings surrounding me? Sure. Shake a branch and spend $50 on a fruit for Sukkot? OK! 

I do these seemingly absurd things with enthusiasm because I believe that HaShem wrote the Torah, and I want to follow his word. I am a normal(ish) Jewess, while Avraham was one of the holiest Jews. He had an incredibly close relationship with God. If I am willing to take on laws I don’t understand at my level, you can bet that I would do whatever God said if I had that kind of relationship with him. 

Avraham knew that God does good and only wanted the best for him. I’ve realized how all these mitzvot I took on have improved my life. I feel the holiness when I practice them, even if they don’t logically make sense at the time. Avraham has taught me to have emunah, faith, and follow HaShem, even if I don’t yet know the beautiful journey he’s taking me on. 


Rabbi Adam Kligfeld
Senior Rabbi of Temple Beth Am

Some verses are so raw, so stark, that applying layers of commentary is nearly a disservice. Isaac’s plaintive, almost outrageously innocent question to his father seems to be in that category. We view Isaac as passive and naïve. Not yet picking up on what even we, the reader, know is transpiring. “Dad, I am confused! What do you have in mind for a sacrifice today?” The utter pitifulness of Isaac in the scene perhaps ought to be preserved as is. 

But our tradition never stands still on meaning. The 18th- to 19th-century Apter Rebbe, Rabbi Avraham Yeshoshua Heschel, reads Isaac not as dull or dimwitted, but sharper even than the knife itself. Imagining Avraham anachronistically concerned about halachic, legal details, Isaac reminds his father that if he were to sacrifice him, he would be an onen, mourner, instantly invalidated from continuing to serve God via sacrificial offering. And, Avraham apparently has no other animal to sacrifice. “Have you thought this through, Father? This apparent act of piety will ineluctably distance you from the God you are intending to obey. You will have neither me, nor a substitute offering. Then what?” 

The stakes are rarely as high. But we need to listen to the voices of others, and within our conscience, warning us of the hidden dangers of complete obeisance. And of piety devoid of ethics. Isaac’s brutal and brutally honest cry reverberates before every one of our utterances and acts of devotion. “Then what?” 


Rabbi Reuven Wolf
Director of Maayon Yisroel Chassidic Center

As Abraham and Isaac are en route to Mount Moriah, Isaac is under the assumption that they will be slaughtering an animal as a sacrifice. But then Isaac notices that his father has not brought a sheep to slaughter and realizes that he is actually the intended object of his father’s sacrifice. 

When Isaac realizes this fact, he calls to his father, “avi,” “my father.” Avi is a reference to Abraham’s natural proclivity toward chesed, kindness. Isaac questions his father, saying, “How can you possibly be ready to act in a manner that is so contrary to your nature? As a naturally benevolent person, how can you be prepared to sacrifice your son?”

Abraham responds, “Hineni beni,” “Here I am, my son.” What Abraham means to say is that in order to fulfill God’s will, he has temporarily discarded his own nature and donned a new nature, that of his son, Isaac, who is characterized by an inner strictness, strength and intensity, quite the opposite of Abraham’s natural gentleness.

We all have our natures. We all have boundaries and parameters that make up our unique personality. Most of the time, we can live within those definitions. But sometimes it is necessary to adopt a nature that is foreign to us, to act in ways inconsistent with our personality, to bend and stretch our own self-definition, for the sake of something larger than ourselves.


Cantor Michelle Bider Stone
Director, Los Angeles Shalom Hartman Institute of North America

In the Akedah, the binding of Isaac story, Abraham is celebrated as the man of faith, but who is Abraham the father? 

Abraham makes his way through the narrative almost completely in silence; only Isaac shatters the quiet with this question. Abraham responds that God will provide “the burnt offering, my son.” It is in this moment, Rashi explains, that Isaac realizes that he would be the sacrifice. And then, silence again as they continue on to what appears to be a horrendous, yet inevitable, fate. 

Kierkegaard comments on the Akedah, “Silence is the snare of the demon and the more one keeps silent, the more terrifying the demon becomes.” After the Akedah, Isaac never speaks to Abraham again. Silence begot more silence. 

To me, Abraham’s silence is heartbreaking. How could he not question God when he commands Abraham to kill his son, his only son, the one whom he loves? Is this not the same Abraham who fought for 10 righteous strangers in Sodom? How could he ignore his helpless son in this moment, instead of making him feel loved and cared for? 

Everyone handles emotional pain differently. Abraham’s defense mechanism is detachment. But his pain doesn’t absolve him of his responsibility to his son. In the end, Abraham doesn’t sacrifice Isaac, but, by his silence, he sacrifices their relationship. It is a lesson in the limits of blind faith, how silence exacerbates trauma, and how giving voice to the silenced can repair a rupture.


David Sacks
Happy Minyan of Los Angeles

The first thing we need to know is that Issac was 37 years old at the time of this event. The next thing we need to know is that he already knew the answer to his question. He knew that he was the burnt offering. 

We know this because a little bit later in the Torah, it says that Abraham and Isaac “went together.” This means, that Abraham and Isaac were united in their awesome desire to do the will of God no matter what it took. 

Our rabbis teach that every person must ask themselves the question, “When will my deeds reach the level of my forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? (Tanna D’vei Eliyahu) Or put another way, how can I offer myself up to God today? 

The Jewish people are living, thank God, during wonderful times. We aren’t hunted, and we don’t confront death on a daily basis. So how do we offer ourselves up to God during our present good times? The answer is not by dying to sanctify God’s name. But by living to sanctify his name. To do that, we must first understand what life is. 

Simply put, life is the canvas we’ve been given to turn our deeds into art. And the greatest art is made when we unify our hearts and minds in the quest of finding God in everything. This is what it means to choose life. And when we do that we sanctify God’s name with every breath.