This week in our Torah reading cycle we come to parashat Vayera. While in the first couple of portions we have discrete stories being told each week-first about creation, then about Noah-and later in Genesis we will tell the Joseph saga over several weeks, this week’s portion is packed with several very dense and powerful stories about our ancient ancestors.
This week’s Torah portion also takes us back a few weeks to the High Holidays, for these are the stories we read as part of our Rosh Hashanah services. These stories of Abraham, Hagar and Ishmael, Sarah and Isaac are told and retold, and are some of the most familiar in the Torah. We recently wrestled with them, and we will wrestle with them again.
One of those stories is the Akedah, Hebrew for “binding,” which is chapter 22 of Genesis. It is in this story that God tells Abraham to take his son Isaac to Mount Moriah where he is to be offered up as a sacrifice to God. Abraham takes his son and the wood necessary to build an altar and sets off on the three day journey to the location. Upon climbing the mountain, Isaac asks his father about the animal for sacrifice, and Abraham replies that “God will provide.” Once they get to the summit, Abraham builds the altar and binds Isaac to it. Raising his knife to kill his son, an angel calls out and tells Abraham to stop, that he is not to do it. Abraham sees a ram in the thicket and sacrifices it instead, and the angel blesses Abraham for heeding God.
[In a happy interfaith coincidence, we are reading this story this week soon after our Muslim brothers and sisters celebrated Eid al-Adha, the holiday which marks the story in the Koran of Ibrahim’s near sacrifice of his son Ismail. The sharing of these stories, albeit in different forms, is a powerful spiritual link between our two faiths.]
This is a troubling story, and a puzzling story. A conventional understanding is that God is “testing” Abraham’s loyalty, and that Abraham, in going through the steps to sacrifice his son, passes the test. God doesn’t want human blood, but God wants obedience.
But as we know, being Jews who wrestle with text and create oceans of commentary, the conventional understanding is only one understanding. When we confront the story year after year, both on the High Holidays and as part of the weekly Torah reading cycle, we do so with fresh eyes, with a new perspective, with another year of life and experience under our belts.
Indeed, one of the blessings of our community is the fact that Howard Schwartz, a TBH member, wrestles with this story year after year on our behalf, presenting new insight and understandings of the story on Rosh Hashanah. Whether speaking from the bimah or leading a discussion on the second day, Howard always has probing questions and challenges for thought.
This year during the discussion I could not shake the idea that Abraham was not as passive as we portray him to be. The person who challenged God over the destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah, arguing with God to save the cities if 10 righteous people could be found within (Genesis 18); and the person who brought his distress to God in response to Sarah’s request to banish Hagar (Genesis 21); now silently and obediently goes to do what many would consider a terrible act?
But maybe, Abraham is not being passive and obedient. Maybe Abraham is being just as rebellious as ever, demonstrating some of the “holy chutzpah” which has defined his being up until this point. For Abraham is a party to this covenant with God, and knows a few things about the terms of the agreement. Abraham knows that covenant is meant to continue through his descendants, and that his descendants are meant to be numerous. So by allowing Abraham to kill his son, God is either planning to provide a new heir at a later date (probably not likely), or else God will be violating the terms of this sacred agreement. Abraham is betting that God won’t go back on God’s word.
So the story is about God testing Abraham. But Abraham then tests God. What is the nature of the tests?
The story starts out:
“Some time afterward, God put Abraham to the test. God said to him, “Abraham,” and he answered, “Here I am.” And He said, “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.” So early next morning, Abraham saddled his ass and took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. He split the wood for the burnt offering, and he set out for the place of which God had told him.”
God tests Abraham, as the text says, by asking him to take his son to Moriah to be sacrificed. But what if, in order to pass the test, Abraham is not supposed to say, “OK,” but he is supposed to say, “no way!” That refusing was not disobedience, but rather in order to pass the test, Abraham was supposed to refuse. God wanted to see if Abraham would abide by the covenant, understanding the need for an heir, especially after Ishmael was banished. Would Abraham uphold the covenant?, God is testing. But by carrying out the request, Abraham is actually calling God’s bluff and thus testing God, to see if God will let Abraham carry out what it is God requested.
In other words, God’s test is verses 1-2. At verse 3 the tables are turned and Abraham is testing God.
The story plays out, and God blinks. Though God told Abraham to do it, God didn’t really mean it, and had to come clean and stop him from doing it. God then has to cover God’s tracks by claiming that is what was meant to happen all along. Or, on a deeper level, by not “withholding his son” Abraham validated and redefined the covenant by proving that the ability to challenge God is a hallmark of what it means to be in relationship with God.
Thus the implications for us reading this story is that the Torah teaches we are not meant to comply with an unquestioning obedience to God. On the other hand we are meant to challenge and to question. We are meant to challenge and question God, tradition, authority and convention.
For isn’t this what has defined us as a people?
From ancient times to now we question and challenge. A recent Pew study of the American Jewish landscape portrays an ever changing people willing to confront the conventions of what it means to be Jewish. It demonstrates that the definition of Jewishness is dynamic. What is static is the connection to Judaism itself. Similarly our own personal relationships with God may change over time. What doesn’t change is the idea of God itself.
Our ancients understood this in terms of covenant. We are in covenant with the divine and we are in covenant with each other. That does not change. But as Abraham demonstrated, what does change is how we understand and define that covenant.