Vayera — 5771 — Shalom, Shalom

24/10/2010 at 10:40 Leave a comment

“Shalom, Shalom”

Shabbat Vayera

23 October 2010

Neil F. Blumofe

Of all of the incredible events that are part of this week’s Torah portion – I would like us to learn the beginning of Bereshit 21 which is the described birth of Isaac.  Hazal, the traditional commentaries, proclaim this birth to be a fulfillment of the divine prophecies to Avraham and Sarah – now, after long last, their world could go on, as they strive to lead and build for the future.

And for our ancient sages, the fact that Sarah conceived at 90 is not to be taken as anything other than a miracle – that God’s promise to establish the Jewish people is not one that flows naturally through the course of history – rather, the success of the Jewish people requires a miracle, a premeditated intervention by God.

And yet, there is something curious about how this story flows – we have studied earlier that as Sarai, Avram’s wife, she did not bear any children to him and upon her suggestion, Avram lay with Hagar and she became pregnant with a son, who was named Ishmael.  Here, before Isaac is born there is the perplexing scene of Avraham and Sarah moving south to Gerar after the destruction of Sodom and Gemora – this is almost a repeated experience from when they sojourned into Egypt and met with the passions of the Pharaoh – here, the Philistine king Avimelech takes Sarah and only after God comes to him in a dream to reveal who Sarah really is past Avraham’s dissembling does Avimelech, now contrite, return Sarah to Avraham with offerings of wealth and unlimited opportunity for Avraham and his family to reside in this new land.

Our sages notice that it is only after this weird encounter with Avimelech that Isaac is conceived.  What does one experience have to do with another?  Why does this episode of attempted intimacy by Avimelech only to be blocked directly by God occur just before the continuation of the birth of Isaac and the establishment of the Jewish people?  And this is the crux of the matter – why do we see that soon after, God recommends to Avraham to take his son Isaac to Mount Moriah to be brought as an offering?  Why do we see God intervening so dramatically in these two events – once for Avimelech and here for Avraham, however to stay Avraham’s hand, it is not God who yells stop, rather it is an angel – why would God not get involved here, at such a critical moment, as well?

We read that Avraham’s aborted effort to sacrifice his son demonstrates evidence of his goodness and moral strength – the fact that he is willing to obey God above anything else brings him reward of establishing a new religion that forbids idolatry and all forms of human sacrifice.  We have seen that this is a pattern in Avraham’s life that is already set – for when he cast Hagar and Ishmael into the desert and their water ran out and Hagar had abandoned her son and her hope, an angel of God notices her cry and water appears before both of them, saving their life.  In the end, an angel appears to save both Isaac and Ishmael – swerving around events that seem inevitable,  bringing death – in the first case by the father’s hand and in the second case, by thirst, both events called into motion by God.

In separating from his children, they are both saved when all appears lost.  And after Avraham returns from the mountain after the binding of Isaac, it is striking that God never speaks directly to him again.

And yet, while still with Avimelech in Gerar, we see that Avraham prays to God on Avimelech’s behalf and in turn, God heals Avimelech and all of the men and women – for they seemingly were made distressed and barren because of the sticky situation involving Sarah.  Why such a troubling punishment to all in Avimelech’s household?

And in the tangled web of Avraham and his family, we have one more explosive issue that our tradition determinedly tries to defuse – the great commentator Rashi, in commenting on Isaac’s lineage, makes this provocative comment —  he says, the verse writes Isaac, son of Avraham and then also says Avraham holid et Yitzchak – Abraham begot Isaac.  “Why does the text have to say this?  It is because that the scoffers and the mockers of the generation were saying that Sarah became pregnant not from Abraham, rather that Sarah became pregnant from Avimelech.  To refute this, what did the Holy One, Blessed is God, do?  God fashioned the form of Isaac’s face to resemble Abraham’s and then everyone attested that Abraham begot Isaac.”

Is this convincing?  If Isaac looked like Abraham already, why would anyone doubt his paternity?  Why does Rashi feel compelled to add this comment?  What if Abraham harbored doubts that he was the father of Isaac?  What would be the implications of this in the already difficult story of the Akeidah?

Going even a bit further, perhaps after seeing the licentiousness present in Sodom and Gemorah and wanting to distance himself from the reputation that Lot had involving his daughters, despite moving away from these places, Abraham too, is caught up in the complex weave of family dynamics and sexual intrigue.  Even though he relocates, Abraham does not get past his own characteristics and tendencies – this is proven by the repeated episode of passing his wife Sarah off as his sister.

I think Abraham is chosen to be the father of many nations and too, the first patriarch of the Jewish people, not despite, rather because of all of these complexities – he is everyman, turned inside out.  We should recognize ourselves in these winding stories of origin – not the selves that we demonstrate in public, rather the selves that prick us more sharply – the internal struggles that we have, the traumas and abuse that we have endured – all the while, keeping ourselves together and our heads above water.  This is the incredible power of the Torah – it serves not to tantalize us in some entertaining effervescent way – rather it opens us up by exposing us to the composite and honest truths and insecurities that we mostly keep under wraps and away from the light of day.  It guides us to access our unfathomable complexities and leads us towards our profound and multiple truths.

Today’s Haftarah also reflects this quest for wholeness – Elisha instructs his disciple, Gehazi, to speak to the distraught woman and ask her: hashalom lach, hashalom lishteich, hashalom layeled – and she answers, shalom. Perhaps Gehazi did not hear the woman’s true cry, revealing all parts of her – not only what she projected outside, too the sadness that she was keeping within – all of her was present and it took the great prophet Elisha to recognize this and ultimately to revive her lifeless son.

Hillel teaches us, al ta’amein b’atsmach ad yom motach – do not be sure of yourself until the day of your death and too,  al tadin et chaveirach ad she’tagia limkomo – do not judge another until you stand in their situation.  The Torah shows us Abraham in his highest moments of glory and also in his desperate moments of doubt.  It is this range and all of these uncertainties that effect us and inspire us not to lose hope about our own situation.  Abraham is guide – not as an exemplar, rather one of hard won experience, that brings our own pains and uncertainties to bear.

We are from the stock of such a hero and antihero —  both outward accomplished and one whose inner life is comprised as Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik describes, as a lonely man of faith.   As we grapple with the life of Abraham, may we find guidance and comfort regarding the questions that we ask and that we have in our lives – may we not feel so alone and may we recognize that our tradition is asking us to ask to go deep and to not take anything for granted and to not make snap judgments that as we live with them injure us or others as we try to get along, living our lives that are filled with twists and turns.  Abraham was filled with both faith and doubt – he was impulsive and incredibly reflective – sacrificing for love, courageous and cowardly – a complete ancestor, comprised of sheleimut, by whom we can continue to learn across space and time.

Shabbat Shalom.

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