I think a lot about Abraham. Really. Abraham has such a prominent role in our collective story, the story of the Jews, the Christians and Muslims. The story of the "West." The story of a small group of people trying to overcome hurdles and naysayers and achieve something bigger even though it may seem at times to be intangible and unreachable.
In this week's reading, Va'yera, we see Abraham reaching his quintessential self - defender of all, challenged parent and religious explorer.
A quick summary:
God announces to Abraham (99) and Sarah (89) that they will finally have a son. God then tells Abraham of the coming destruction of Sodom and Gommorah. Abraham pleads on behalf of the towns but they are nonetheless destroyed, not having enough 'righteous people' to merit sparing. Lot, Abraham's nephew, is spared with his two daughters who get him drunk and then rape him to impregnate themselves! Sarah is kidnapped and released. Now, at age 90, she gives birth to Isaac and then asks Abraham to evict his older son, Ishmael, and his mother Hagar. Abraham complies. God then tests Abraham commanding him to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Isaac is spared yet, ambiguously, does not return with his father.
The timeframe is not clear. It may be 10 years, 13 or 40+, what is clear is the amount of tragedy and depth of the moral crises that were parts of the Patriarch's life. Who could imagine emerging from these challenges with any shred of belief or desire to continue on with holy work in this world?
We are, to some degree, living in a perpetual Abraham moment. Time frames have been condensed, birth, growth, tragedy and redemption come in more frequent cycles than ever before and at every moment humanity seems poised to turn to the Creator and say, "this was not part of the original bargain, you are asking too much."
Of course here is the catch. Abraham, shockingly, never turns to God and declares "Dayeinu" (enough already!). Who can understand the tests as true or fair tests of a human being no matter how special and attuned to the Divine will when the tester is unequally powerful and awesome?
There is a very profound dichotomy in Abraham's existence: when it comes to justice for the world, the people of Sodom for example, Abraham is an exemplar of 'speaking truth to power,' but when it comes to his personal life he, in my humble opinion, seems to fail. When Sarah has conflict with Hagar he lets the latter run away, when this conflict is renewed after the birth of Isaac he himself acts as Sarah's agent and sends Hagar and the teenaged Ishmael off into the wilds. When God asks that Isaac be sacrificed he doesn't argue at all.
To summarize: Abraham is an exemplar of the radical pursuit of justice in the world, he witnesses and copes with tragedy and nonetheless challenges the Divinity to make the world better. Abraham is also a victim of family conflict and morally ambiguous relationships with his wife and children and does not seem to have the same moral thermostat for internal affairs as he does for external.
I would, as is the way in spiritual work, like to convert this into a lesson that can be used for some proactive personal work.
Those of us who are members of the Hillel community are actively involved in bringing justice and greater sanctity to the world. Yet we may at times forget to be active in the same way at bringing sanctity and justice to our homes, offices and, most importantly, our own inner worlds.
The true test of the Binding of Isaac is not whether or not Isaac survives the attempt but rather, in my humble opinion, it is whether the relationship of the father and son survives the awesome experience of Divine Command and Sacred Closeness. When you examine the text this week notice that they travel 'together' on their way to the sacrifice but at the end only Abraham returns. I read this as a failed test.
The narrative in my head goes like this, "Abba, I understand how important it is for you to bring this knowledge to the world but today instead of having me as a partner I became a tool."
We can each have that conversation with our own souls, friends, lovers and children - how much are we arguing with God and ourselves when it comes to saving our own souls and those of the ones closest to us?
Written by Rabbi Mordechai Rackover of Brown/RISD Hillel.
Additional commentaries and text studies on Va'yera at MyJewishLearning.com.