Three strangers/messengers/angels journey past Abraham’s tent. He rushes out to offer them hospitality. They foretell that Sarah will have a son. Sarah laughs and is rebuked by God for her reaction.
God tells Abraham that He is about to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah because of the evilness of these cities. Abraham argues with God, begging him to save the cities even if only 10 righteous people can be found. Only Lot and his family are considered righteous. God agrees to save them but plans to destroy everyone else.
Two of God’s messengers arrive in Sodom and Lot offers them hospitality. The townspeople demand to have the strangers to use them for sexual purposes (hence the name Sodom) Lot offers his 2 virgin daughters instead, but the townspeople refuse – they want the men. Lot and his family leave. His wife turns back and is turned into a pillar of salt.
Lot’s daughters, thinking that the world has been destroyed, get Lot drunk and seduce him in order to have children. Miraculously they both conceive and their offspring become the leaders of the Ammonites and Moabites.
Abraham and Sarah journey to Gerar and Sarah is again introduced as Abraham’s sister. She is given to the King Abimelech. God threatens him with death in a dream and he releases her.
Sarah at age 90 gives birth to Isaac. At 8 days of age Abraham circumcises him.
Sarah feels threatened by the presence of Hagar and Ishmael – she tells Abraham she wants them banned from the household – God tells Abraham to listen to his wife - Hagar and Ishmael are banned.
Some years later, God asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac to him. Abraham does so willingly and is stopped before he kills Isaac and a ram is substituted.
Big Ideas (most essential points, themes, etc)
Tonight we’ll concentrate on two essential themes of Parsha Vayera –
Arguing with God – Why does Abraham argue with G-d over saving Sodom and Gomorrah yet he doesn’t argue about sacrificing his son Isaac?
The Binding of Isaac – a deeper look into The Akaeida
Abraham argues with God over destroying Sodom and Gemora. The first time we see a “mortal” arguing with God on behalf of innocents.
Abraham's argument with God raises one of the most troubling and recurring issues of theology. Can God's justice be judged by human beings according to standards of human justice? The alternative is to assume that whatever God does, regardless of how unjust it may seem to us, is by definition just. Whatever God commands must be done without question or challenge… Such an approach is the first step towards fundamentalism. According to Alan Dershowitz in The Genesis of Justice – “The Sodom narrative appears to reject the fundamentalist approach and to suggest that God has submitted Himself to at least some human judgment through the covenant."
From The Genesis of Justice – Chapter 4 (Alan Dershowitz)
Abraham Defends the Guilty – and Loses
The chapter opens with Abraham arguing with God about His threat to destroy Sodom and Gemmorah. Dershowitz writes “What gives Abraham the ‘right’ to argue with God and question his intentions?”
“The answer lies”, says Dershowtiz, “In the unique relationship between God and His people.” He then goes on to describe this relationship as covenantal – that is in the nature of a legally binding document. God makes a covenant first with Noah, then with Abraham and then with Jacob.
What’s interesting here is the increasing participation in the covenant with God – Noah doesn’t invoke it at all, Abraham does, reminding God of his promise to do justly and Abraham’s grandson Jacob goes so far as to make a deal with God – “If God be with me and protects me on my journey and gives me bread to eat and clothes to wear, and if I return safely to my father’s house, then God shall be my God”.
Dershowitz writes “Abraham’s argument with God raises one of the most troubling and recurring issues of theology: Can God’s justice be judged by human beings according to standards of human justice? The alternative is to accept that whatever God does – regardless of how unjust it may seem to us, is just. But how can we reconcile this in terms of the flood, the binding of Isaac, the Job story and the Holocaust.
Dershowitz says “We cannot abdicate our own human responsibility to define justice in human terms. Such an approach is the first step on the road to fundamentalism.”
The chapter goes on to contrast the story of Job with the story of Abraham – Job is rebuked by God for questioning the killing of his innocent children- Abraham argues with God over the fate of Sodom and Gemorah and God actually reasons together with him. Dershowitz writes, “The God who rebukes Job for trying to understand an obvious injustice is a God who promotes unthinking fundamentalism. One of the beauties of the Bible is that even its God speaks in different voices over time.”
What’s interesting here is also the fact that Abraham argues with G-d over destroying Sodom and Gomorrah but accepts his command to sacrifice his son Isaac with no argument.
There are a couple of ideas on that from our commentators.
The Ralbag (Levi ben Gershon (1288–1344), known by the abbreviation of first letters of his name as RaLBaG, was a medieval French Jewish philosopher, Talmudist, mathematician, physician and astronomer/astrologer. The Ralbag has an interesting explanation of the challenge of the Binding of Isaac, which could answer this question.
He explains that the challenge was specifically to see how easy it would be for Abraham to sacrifice his son (i.e. not to see if he would sacrifice his son at all). God's command to Abraham was sufficiently vague that Abraham could have sought an interpretation other than "slaughter your son". The greatness of Abraham, according to Ralbag, was that he loved God so much that he did not seek to find an alternate understanding of the command. This is because when contrasted with his love of God, anything else — including his love for his son — is essentially non-existent. Thus, the test was to see whether Abraham's love of God was great enough that it totally overrode all other concerns, such that he did not even care to try to find an interpretation that would allow him to keep his son alive.
That is, despite his love for Isaac his love for God was so great that killing his own son didn't even register as something he would want to avoid. There was thus no reason for him to beg God to spare Isaac.
When it came to Sodom, however, God had not commanded Abraham to do anything. Whereas trying to spare Isaac would necessarily have reflected an imperfection in Abraham's love of God, trying to spare Sodom would not have because regardless of Sodom being destroyed or spared Abraham would not be taking any actions for the sake of God. Therefore, Abraham could perfectly well request Sodom to be spared.
To illustrate the point, we can say that if God had commanded Abraham to destroy Sodom, Abraham might well have done it without any arguing. Conversely, if God had informed Abraham that Isaac would be killed, Abraham might well have argued in his defense.
That’s one way of looking at it. Others are equally unsatisfying. This explanation comes from two Rabbis arguing the question on Judaism Stack Exchange – a web site I often go to for answers to difficult questions.
Rabbi One: “Child sacrifice was considered the norm during that era. So, when G-d asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, he didn't think this was so unusual.
This is the explanation of Breishit 26:12 when G-d says, "Now I know that you are G-d fearing".
Rabbi Two: You mean G-d didn't know this all along? (G-d knows everything!)
Rabbi One: What is taught is that now everyone in the world will know that because you feared G-d and didn't sacrifice your son because I told you not to and you followed directions because you fear G-d, you are proof that child sacrifice is not "the Jewish way", unlike what the other nations do. And, the reason Jews in the future won't do it is because they will follow your example because you feared G-d.”
OK. Wait. There’s more. Rabbi Sachs has a somewhat more satisfying answer. In refuting the traditional answer that the Akeida was a test of Abraham’s fate, Rabbi Sachs says,
There are four problems with the conventional reading:
We know from Tanakh and independent evidence that the willingness to offer up your child as a sacrifice was not rare in the ancient world. It was commonplace. Tanakh mentions that Mesha king of Moab did so. So did Jepthah, the least admirable leader in the book of Judges. Two of Tanakh’s most wicked kings, Ahaz and Manasseh, introduced the practice into Judah, for which they were condemned. There is archeological evidence – the bones of thousands of young children –– that child sacrifice was widespread in Carthage and other Phoenician sites. It was a pagan practice.
Child sacrifice is regarded with horror throughout Tanakh. Micah asks rhetorically, “Shall I give my firstborn for my sin, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” and replies, “He has shown you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” How could Abraham serve as a role model if what he was prepared to do is what his descendants were commanded not to do?
Specifically, Abraham was chosen to be a role model as a father. God says of him, “For I have chosen him so that he will instruct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just.” How could he serve as a model father if he was willing to sacrifice his child? To the contrary, he should have said to God: “If you want me to prove to You how much I love You, then take me as a sacrifice, not my child.”
As Jews – indeed as humans – we must reject Kierkegaard’s principle of the “teleological suspension of the ethical.” This is an idea that gives carte blanche to a religious fanatic to commit crimes in the name of God. It is the logic of the Inquisition and the suicide bomber. It is not the logic of Judaism rightly understood. God does not ask us to be unethical. We may not always understand ethics from God’s perspective but we believe that “He is the Rock, His works are perfect; all His ways are just” (Deut. 32: 4).
To understand the binding of Isaac we have to realise that much of the Torah, Genesis in particular, is a polemic against world views the Torah considers pagan, inhuman and wrong.
Rabbi Sachs concludes that the principle to which the entire story of Isaac, from birth to binding, is opposed is the idea that a child is the property of the father. First, Isaac’s birth is miraculous. Sarah is already post-menopausal when she conceives. In this respect the Isaac story is parallel to that of the birth of Samuel to Hannah, like Sarah also unable naturally to conceive. That is why, when he is born Hannah says, “I prayed for this child, and the Lord has granted me what I asked of him. So now I give him to the Lord. For his whole life he will be given over to the Lord.” This passage is the key to understanding the message from heaven telling Abraham to stop: “Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from Me your son, your only son” (the statement appears twice, in Gen. 22: 12 and 16). The test was not whether Abraham would sacrifice his son but whether he would give him over to God.
What God was doing when he asked Abraham to offer up his son was not requesting a child sacrifice but something quite different. He wanted Abraham to renounce ownership of his son. He wanted to establish as a non-negotiable principle of Jewish law that children are not the property of their parents.
Why then did God say to Abraham about Isaac: “Offer him up as a burnt offering”? So as to make clear to all future generations that the reason Jews condemn child sacrifice is not because they lack the courage to do so. Abraham is the proof that they do not lack the courage. The reason they do not do so is because God is the God of life, not death
The Akeidah – the binding of Isaac –– God Tests Abraham
The Akedah (a-kay-dah)
“Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and put it on his son Isaac. He himself took the firestone and the knife, and the two walked off together. Then Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he answered, “Yes, my son.” And he said, “Here is the firestone and the wood; but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” And Abraham said, “God will see to the sheep for the burnt offering, my son,” And the two of them walked on together.”
The Binding of Isaac, called the Akedah in Hebrew, is one of the truly human stories found in the Torah: full of drama, fear, faith, suspense, and despair.
As we read, we identify with the horrifying quest that Abraham is sent upon – a father who has waited until old age to have a child with his wife, Sarah. A father who must now sacrifice his precious son due to his unquestioning faith in God. At the same time, we also identify with young Isaac, an outwardly quiet participant, or even a pawn, in a test between his father and God.
Elie Weisel writes, “I have always been intrigued by, and have wanted to learn more about, silent Isaac. He sometimes seems to have been forgotten by commentators and rabbis studying the text. The sages rarely discuss the emotional or psychological effect of the binding upon Isaac and his wellbeing. In Isaac’s questioning of his father, which I shared with you a few moments ago, do we hear a hint of his growing suspicion? “Where’s the sheep for the burnt offering?” Did Isaac know what was about to take place on Mount Moriah? Did he have full faith in his father, as much faith as Abraham had in God? “
One Midrash tells us that Isaac was in fact 37 years old at the time of the binding. This age is found by looking at the next story in the Torah. The portion immediately following the Akedah includes Sarah’s death at the age of 127, and some Rabbis took this to mean that she died as a result of the near-sacrifice. Since she was 90 years old when she had Isaac, this would place Isaac’s age theoretically at 37. Keeping this theory in mind has very different implications for how we view Isaac. "At a certain point," the Midrash maintains, "he had to understand, had to realize that the man walking next to him was acting out a role other than that of father. By becoming afraid, he became human and a child once more." One commentary also insinuates that father and son walked hand in hand because Abraham wished to prevent Isaac from taking flight, for Isaac was visibly afraid.
If Isaac was 37 years old, we must also entertain the notion that he was a willing participant in the proposed sacrifice. Along these lines, Elie Wiesel writes, in his book Messengers of God, "Isaac re-entered reality and grasped the magnitude and horror of what was to come:
‘Father, what will you do, Mother and you, afterward?’
‘The One who has consoled us until now,’ answered Abraham,
‘will continue to console us.’
‘Father,’ Isaac went on after a silence,
‘I am afraid, afraid of being afraid. You must bind me securely.’"
Here, Elie Wiesel posits that Isaac was aware of his coming fate, and he wanted to ensure that his death would be an acceptable, kosher sacrifice to God. One interpretation of the text, in an attempt to explain Isaac’s later blindness, suggests that the angels wept when they saw Abraham, the father, about to kill his son. The angels’ tears fell into Isaac’s eyes, blinding him, so that he would not see the horrific image of his father wielding a knife above his head.
Well, fortunately, the story ends much more favorably. We know that Isaac is not sacrificed due to a last minute intervention by one of God’s messengers. Yet, after the ram is sacrificed in Isaac's place, the narrative continues, "Vayashav Avraham el nearav." And Abraham returned to his servants. Where was Isaac? Why was he not also mentioned? Did he not come down off the mountain? Did this experience, in the end, divide father and son in a lasting way? Or, as Elie Wiesel suggests, was Isaac, unlike Abraham, never again to be the same? That the real Isaac would forever remain up there, on the altar?
The Torah tells us very little about Isaac as an adult. Nearly everything we read about him concerns him as the son of Abraham or as the father of Jacob. His whole story can be broken into six pieces: the binding of Isaac, the marriage of Isaac, the re-digging of his father's wells, the encounter with King Abimelech, and the blessing of his two sons, Jacob and Esau.
Isaac is obviously important to Judaism merely because he was Abraham's son. He has the distinction of being the first Jewish child. Yet, putting that aside, we want to know more about him. What was his identity? What was his role? Why is he one of our significant historical figures? Everything he did seemed to be an echo of something already accomplished by his father. He was passive; things only seem to happen TO him. History is full of overbearing fathers who leave no room for their children to prove themselves. Thus, Isaac did the only thing left for him to do: he carried on. Isaac had the role often left to the second generation: he merely had to perpetuate the innovations.
Thus, as Adin Steinsaltz, a modern text scholar, puts it, "The capacity to persist is no less important than the power to begin."
Isaac therefore had a unique and equally important role to that of Abraham and Jacob.
He had to maintain that which has been newly created. He was the generation who had to fix and stabilize the revolution of his father's time. In this way, Isaac helped to establish Abraham forever in our tradition. Isaac's conservative nature was a necessary complement to Abraham's
pioneering of the faith. Isaac is not just making a mere contribution, but through his actions alone is Abraham's legacy able to live on.
A few chapters later, during Isaac’s adulthood, we learn that Isaac took it upon himself to dig again the wells that were dug in the days of his father. Rashi points out that these were, in fact, the exact same wells that Abraham had dug in his day. The wells are very symbolic of the juxtaposition between Abraham and Isaac. Abraham, the very first Jew, was charged with creating everything from scratch. Abraham dug new wells and busied himself with creating a brand new religion. Slowly, over time, the wells began to fill with dirt. It then became Isaac's task to go back and dig the wells again, to release the waters within and let them flow as they will. Additionally, just as Abraham created geopolitical relations with the Philistines, Isaac renewed these compromises in his time. Thus, Isaac is the symbol not of revolution nor breaking of habits, but of the power and strength involved in conserving and maintaining. He constantly demonstrated this tendency towards stability and consistency.
Connections to our lives
So what we can we learn from Parsah Vayera?
The importance of hospitality and generosity: Kindness to strangers and opening our homes is a fundamental value of Judaism, one that we get directly from Abraham.
The relationship between God and the Jewish people is covenantal – allowing us to question God, to argue with him. We are not robots. We were created in God’s image. We are hard-wired to question, to judge, to challenge.
By stopping Abraham from sacrificing Isaac, some commentators believe that it proves that God does not demand blind obedience to immoral superior orders. (according to this interpretation, God used Abraham as an object lesson for future generations - This is Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sack’s view – come on Shabbat – my d’var is all about this). Ellie Wiesel argues that Abraham failed the test and so did God. No God should ever ask a father to kill his child and no father should ever agree to do so. The big lesson here could be that we must never engage in “daat torah” – where we sacrifice our intellect on the alter of blind obedience - to the words of the sages or a charismatic rabbi – eg. the murder of Yitzak Rabin by a Jewish fundamentalist who believed he was following God’s command.
A modern interpretation is that by commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, God was telling Abraham that in accepting the covenant, he was not receiving any assurances that life would be perfect. Far from it. Through that terrible test, God was demonstrating – in a manner more powerful than words could ever convey – that being a Jew often requires sacrificing that which is most precious to you – even children. (eg. the Crusades, the Holocaust)
What a terrible lesson.